Is It Any Wonder?
I wanted to like Wonder Woman. I really, really did.
I’ve always enjoyed the character, for any number of reasons: the intriguing backstory of her creator and his motivations; her origin story, steeped in some of the stranger aspects of Greek mythology; her debut during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II, deliberately blending elements of classical antiquity with wartime patriotism; the way she completes DC’s trinity of iconic superheroes, fitting in naturally with Batman and Superman while being utterly distinct from both of them; and the way she has been an entry point to the too-often sexist world of comics for female fans, with girls wanting to be her and women wanting to tell her stories.
The problem with the blockbuster movie bearing her name, despite a perplexing amount of critical praise and staggering box-office receipts, is that it does almost nothing with any of those elements. The fascinating psychosexual threads of Wonder Woman’s character built into her very nature by William Moulton Marston are almost entirely absent; the movie makes the inexplicable decision to place her origin story during the First World War, which contributes to its overall moral witlessness; the most intriguing aspects of her character are jettisoned in favor of weak fish-out-of-water gags and dick jokes; and, despite the presence of female director Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman scans almost entirely as a movie made by people in full possession of the male gaze (it was written by three men).
Let’s start with that script, which ranges from the merely predictable — for all the talk of the film’s disruption of the formula, it hits nearly every beat of the glut of superhero movies, from the origin story to the shedding of naïvety to the big dumb boss battle at the end — to the criminally dumb. (At one point, the film’s secondary villain, an even more cartoonish version of the already cartoonish Prussian military man Erich Ludendorff, murders the entire German general staff, cackling as his colleagues choke on poison gas. Instead of being hanged for treason, the next time we see him, he is throwing a fancy dinner party for what’s left of the high command.) Tonally, it’s way off; it tries to find a sweet spot between grim anti-war fable and comedy built around Diana’s lack of knowledge of the world of men. This doesn’t just make for a jarring overall mood; it’s incompetently executed: our heroine is as naïve or worldly as the script requires her to be form moment to moment.
The characters are also generally pretty bad. For all the talk about female empowerment, Steve Trevor a.k.a. A Penis Named Steve™) is the real hero of the movie, getting moral shading and the big noble sacrifice of the story while Diana’s job is mostly just to kill people. Etta Candy is a disaster; recent attempts at her rehabilitation have led to this flibbertigibbet of a character, a huge waste of Lucy Davis’ talents. The painstakingly multicultural team of mercenaries Steve Trevor assembles are meant to avoid stereotypes, but instead are just a collection of incoherent characteristics. Ludendorff is a scenery-chewing monster, and the German master chemist, Dr. Poison, should have gotten his role instead, as she’s underused but at least has some potential. Naturally, it’s wasted, but giving her more backstory would have just made Wonder Woman even longer, and it’s already hugely padded at two and a half hours. Diana herself has some interesting qualities as a character, but they’re few and far between, and on those rare occasions when she’s required to do some heavy emotional lifting, we get a painful reminder of why Gal Gadot was a deeply compromised choice for the role.
Physically, Gadot is close to perfect: the right age, the right build, the right look, and the right combination of powerful and graceful that you want for the character. She never doesn’t look right. But as an actress…well, as an actress, she definitely shows up on film and reads her lines. Beyond that, though, it’s a struggle. Wonder Woman can lift a tank, but Gal Gadot can’t summon believable reactions when Germans massacre half her friends. She was apparently unable to shed her accent, and the decision to have all the other Amazons talk like they just returned from the kibbutz just makes the whole proceedings sound goofy. Gadot simply isn’t much of an actress, and the fact that she has to carry the whole movie only deepens the sensation that Wonder Woman isn’t really Wonder Woman’s movie. Elsewhere in the performance, Chris Pine is passable, though he greatly benefits from the fact that he’s acting opposite Gal Gadot; Danny Huston gobbles his lines like a fat ham sandwich; and — well, look. I love David Thewlis, and if this movie got him a new boat, God bless him. But do we really need the talents of a David Thewlis for a role that culminates in him hiding behind a spiked helmet, tossing around corny CGI lightning bolts, and exhaling tired speeches about how “it is futile to resist”? They could have gotten literally anyone — or, in the era of computers, literally no one — to do that. Why waste David Thewlis?
Visually, the film has its moments; some of the locations are spectacular (though it’s increasingly hard to tell how much of them are real in the digital age), and the WWI period dress and gear are inventively done. But so much of it is drawn from the worn playbook of quondam “visionary director” Zack Snyder, whose work has become the signature of DC movies and which gets more tired every time we see it. Why hire Patty Jenkins if she’s only going to produce a near-clone of Snyder’s style, complete with washed-out color palette, overuse of bullet time, excessive slow motion, muddled-looking fight scenes awash in CGI explosions and crumbling buildings, ‘motion painting’, and stretched compositions that leave you unsure of where anything is on the screen?
There’s so much more I could say about why Wonder Woman didn’t work: how the WWI setting made it morally incoherent at best and malignant at worst; how Steve’s ragtag team was clearly meant to dispel stereotypes and only ended up enforcing them; how it failed to use some of the most interesting potential elements of the story; how it left its feminism largely unexamined and ended up with not much to say outside of ‘women can do all the same stupid, pointless shit that men do’; how it dropped the ball on both historicity and on being a comic book story; and how there were these repeated shots of Wonder Woman looking up at the sky and making a JBF face for no apparent reason. But let’s end with this: we absolutely need more women directors. (We also, to put a sharp point on it, need a lot more women screenwriters.) We need more female-focused action movies. And we need a great superhero story for girls. Wonder Woman proved all those things are viable because it made a shit-ton of money; now what we desperately need is someone do do it better.