Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017 film)

Once upon a time, superhero movies came along less than once per year. Nowadays, the annual output approaches ten, and the superhero genre has gotten into somewhat of a groove – for better or for worse. The skilled creators who make these movies have learned various formulas that have been proven to succeed. One may particularly note that Marvel has a good track record over a decade of producing mainly good, and occasionally very good movies. DC has been more erratic in its offerings, and perhaps it is the resistance to mere formula that allowed DC to score an original win with 2017's headliner, Wonder Woman.

The first thing that distinguishes Wonder Woman from the vast majority of other superhero movies is apparent in the title's second word, and this word and identity also distinguished the 1941 comic hero from almost all of her dozen-and-some predecessors. The star is a woman – clearly a break from the norm for superhero movies with a single, central star – but is that all there is to it, one chromosome of difference, or does it mean something? If so, is it because she is typical in some way of real women, or because of how the character is developed?

As I recently commented, Wonder Woman has been subjected to many new origins and reboots in recent years – more than one quite good one – which makes it an immediate challenge for any added version, cinematic or otherwise, to do something new. But director Patty Jenkins and the rest of her team succeeded. Or, if they didn't do anything completely new, they did something that breaks the pattern of lots of pretty-good but increasingly formulaic superhero movies.

The need for this is apparent. Deadpool lashed out against the conventions in one way: Its (anti)hero disposes with traditional superhero virtues in exchange for cynicism, humor, self-deprecation, and selective verisimilitude. He could easily, without superpowers, star in a remake of Animal House (in fact, he did; it was called Van Wilder). Deadpool laughs at the superhero conventions of virtue while dealing up a lot of action. When he is injured – even when a limb is severed from his body – he barely flinches and plays the moment with deadpan comedy.

Wonder Woman does something almost completely opposite. She believes in her heroic destiny, completely without reservation. She is noble and idealistic and stubborn and absolutely nothing throws her off her game.

If there is one scene that stays in the viewer's memory, it is probably her initial display of power in man's world, and the script picked a hell of a place for her to show it – on a World War One battlefield. As the less popular of the world wars, its savagery is probably less in the collective mind than is that of its sequel, but the trench warfare of the First World War put human fragility on display in a definitive sense. We can picture World War Two soldiers swaggering through the European countryside during a break in hostilities, ambling through some fields on the war to the next battle, but the No Man's Land on the Western Front of the earlier war allowed no human dignity. And so, there was no better place than No Man's Land to introduce Wonder Woman. Holding her shield against a rain of hot metal, Diana was everything the rest of the moment was not. Color where there was no color, strength where there was no strength, life where there was no life, a woman where all others were men. Her steady movement forward into the firepower of the enemy is likely the film's central image.

But a series of non-action, staid, talky scenes may do more to cement the film's uniqueness. In London and in Belgium, she's in completely unfamiliar territory surrounded by Steve Trevor's team of flawed and gray-moraled men. Both as witness to and object of their moral failings, she is completely unaltered by their weakness, their avarice, and their clumsy advances on her. She is completely inflexible in her morality, but she does not use her powers to win the argument. Before the film is over, she has made each of them, in some way, a better man than he was when she met them. She easily could have picked them up and spun them over her head until they bellowed for mercy, but that was not her way. Her primary contribution to Man's World was not to serve as a human tank on a battlefield but as a messenger of purer virtues.

And the credit there goes to Gal Gadot. She gave life to those values with the power sincerity. We've heard lesser actors read similar lines off a card in a bland
and perfunctory way, but she means them, or does an impeccable job of seeming to. Gadot is a former beauty pageant winner who also served two years as a soldier. Remarkably, she seems to have brought the best of each of those identities to her performance.

Wonder Woman's – and Gadot's – unbridled idealism is not new in superhero movies. It occurs in flashes here and there in all the better movies of the genre. To make the characters more subtle, more nuanced, they are more complex than noble. In many respects, that makes them better movie characters. It makes them worse heroes.

The last time we saw an actor bring a superhero to life with such unflagging idealism was Christopher Reeve's Superman. That series, to add some complexity, spent some time in the third film showing him as a red-kryptonite-forged Bad Superman. But even the Reeve Superman (though not his Clark Kent) had a mean streak, a whisper of sadistic pleasure, directed solely at wrongdoers, as when he made a building-scaling cat burglar fear a deadly fall, when he beat up the jerk trucker who beat up Clark Kent, and when he pretended to be powerless and crushed Zod's hand in a theatrical taunt. Henry Cavill's Superman is more consistently noble than Reeve's, probably at his ugliest when he tells Jonathan Kent that he isn't his father. His decision to kill Zod is the screenwriter's decision – a decision that the 1978 Superman never had to face, though the end of Superman II ­seemed to show him allowing the deaths of the three Kryptonian villains (a shot showing their survival was cut from the theatre version). Gadot's Wonder Woman also kills, in battle, because she has to. But we never see her use her powers with glee, with pride, except when she is a small child. When she begins her career, if it were, as Wonder Woman, she's already the person she needs to be. Man's World is the place where she accepts that role, but there is, fundamentally, no "Clark Kent," no "Bruce Wayne" to muddle her identity. Whatever life she adopts as Diana Prince (currently unseen by us except in a minute or two of dialogue-free scenes), it is as the person she has always been, perhaps playing a role to hide her identity, but Wonder Woman is who she has always been, if by another name.

Like many of the better Wonder Woman stories, the 2017 film is a Greek tragedy. The brilliant choice of history as the setting for her story is that the audience already has the big ending spoiled for us, and perhaps this is why her origin was moved, relative to the comic book origin, to the earlier of the world wars. World War One will end, yes; London, of course, will not be destroyed. And what Diana considers to be her single greatest purpose will elude her. We already know that World War Two is coming, so we know that beating Ares didn't stop war as she'd hoped it would. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, taking a break from his work as James T. Kirk) gives his life preventing a tragedy that didn't occur in the real world, and we have to presume that whatever Diana did after 1918, it failed to prevent the DC Extended Universe's version of World War Two.

One of the great challenges for the Superman film franchise was that its 1978 landmark captured the hero – and minted the genre – so perfectly that it was a hard act to follow. So seductive were its merits that Superman Returns flopped by attempting to copy Donner's 1978 work on a structural and thematic basis so closely that it lacked a life of its own. And so, Wonder Woman's greatest challenge will be to keep the character engaging in a team movie next year and a second solo feature later. It also remains to be seen how the broader superhero genre will respond to this alteration in its pattern, a hero who is completely, unblinkingly, noble – and a woman. Are you up to it, boys?


  1. This was honestly one of the best superhero movies I have ever seen. I was so incredibly moved while watching this film that I went back and saw it three times. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman stepped right off the page. Amazing movie.

  2. Jonny, so glad you enjoyed it. Travel plans prompted me to wait a long time after the debut date to get around to seeing it, much less blogging about it, but it was worth the wait. I feel like Gal Gadot was a scene stealer in Batman v Superman, and her solo movie lived up to that admirably. I look forward, also, to seeing it again.

  3. Hi Rikdad! I have been a silent reader of yours for years now, going back to the DC website message boards. I've never felt the need to comment before, but with your Twin Peaks commentary and now reading this review... I feel confident that many of our sensibilities align. Reading this review of Wonder Woman, I quickly skimmed your archive and read your Batman v Superman review. I am delighted that you enjoyed it. For my part, my brother and I have spent the majority of the year since its release discussing and extolling the virtues of BvS as a fantastic movie. To me, it may be the best comic book movie ever made -- a statement that I can back up, but is often met with eye rolling and exasperation by the world at large.

    What is your read on the almost universal and, now over a year out, unceasing hatred for this film?

    Thanks as always for the writing. Always enjoyable!

  4. Danny,

    Glad to see you here!

    I think BVS had one central flaw, and it doesn't pertain much to the plot, but it gave fairly little in the way of joy, which is something that almost all superhero movies, good or bad, include at times. The montage of Superman using his powers showed people who were creepily awed by him, but nothing like the cheering crowd who watched the 1978 Superman catch Lois and the helicopter. And when you subtract the joy from superheroes, that's going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. But it was still excellent in many other ways.