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Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is an impressive piece of work, one worthy of its central character.

Wonder Woman is an impressive blockbuster from director Patty Jenkins. In many ways, it is an archetypal superhero origin story. It hits many of the Joseph Campbell beats expected of it. Superficially, the film looks to be a hybrid of Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Superman, which is quite the pulpy cocktail. Jenkins plays into that, delivering her action set pieces with great skill and hitting all the requisite beats.

To the wonder.

However, the most interesting aspects of Wonder Woman are happening under the hood. It is too much to describe the film as a superheroic deconstruction in the style of Logan or The Dark Knight, but it is a film that has put a lot of thought into what it is doing and why it is doing it. The movie’s best beats are cheekily subversive, in an unobtrusive way. Wonder Woman is aware of the weight pressing down upon it, as the first female-led superhero film of the post-Iron Man era, but it never breaks its stride.

More than that, Wonder Woman is pure and unadulterated fun. It is a movie that is very clever and astute, but which never lets those attributes crowd out its sense of adventure and momentum. Wonder Woman is a sprawling period piece superhero fantasia, executed with deft skill and an engaging attitude.

Waiting for Gadot.

Wonder Woman is in many ways a fascinating character. She is one of three major comic book superheroes to have been published nearly continuously since the Second World War. As such, she forms one of the “Trinity” at DC Comics. She is the rare female superhero with brand recognition that stands completely apart from any male counterpart. Audiences recognise the iconography of Wonder Woman: the red, the blue and the gold; the lasso; the bracelets; the tiara.

However, Wonder Woman is also notable for the differences that exist between her and the other two members of the Trinity. In some respects, these differences reveal a lot about attitudes within popular culture. Most notably, Wonder Woman has never really had a singular iconic interpretation. The seventies live action series starring Linda Carter comes close, but it does not have the same level of pop culture penetration as various interpretations of Batman or of Richard Donner’s take on Superman.

Shield yourself.

This is arguably true of the comics as well. There are any number of hugely influential Batman and Superman runs that shape the characters to this day; the work of Frank Miller comes to mind. In contrast, the best Wonder Woman runs seem to exist almost in isolation, disconnected from the strands of comic book continuity. George Perez’s reboot of Wonder Woman after Crisis on Infinite Earths comes to mind, as does the collaboration between Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang on Wonder Woman after Flashpoint.

These takes on the character tend to hew a lot closer to the style and tone of DC’s Vertigo line than to any of the superhero books, to the point that Vertigo editor Karen Berger directly oversaw Perez’s take on the character. These interpretations seem to occupy a space between contemporary superhero narratives and the ancient myths of gods and monsters. Much like Thor at Marvel, Wonder Woman exists as a connection between the superhero pantheon and its mythological antecedents. She stands apart from the other DC characters.

No woman is an island.

Patty Jenkins very cleverly exploits this sense of difference between Wonder Woman and her male colleagues, building it into the script. Wonder Woman noticeably features an extended prologue on Themyscira, following Diana as she comes of age. The sequence underscores the most obvious differences between Wonder Woman and heroes like Batman or Superman. Most obviously, Wonder Woman is not a hero born of tragedy or loss.

It is traditional for movie adaptations of Batman and Superman to open with extended prologues exploring the formative tragedies that defined these heroes. Man of Steel featured an over-stuffed introductory sequence that featured both a military coup and an environmental catastrophe on Krypton. The Waynes have died countless times on film, to the point that it was surprising when Tim Burton used a proxy family in Batman and oddly reassuring when Zack Snyder cut their deaths into the credits of Batman vs. Superman.

“Somebody called for a British character actor?”

Wonder Woman is not defined by such a loss. In fact, Wonder Woman takes a great deal of pleasure in exploring the happy and well-adjusted aspects of Diana’s upbringing. She skips school, like any other kid. She stays up in bed while her mother reads her stories, like any other kid. She dreams of adventure, like any other kid. There is no harrowing trauma that spurs her to action. Although the outside world eventually intrudes on Themyscira, it is not too hard to imagine Diana embarking on her own adventure even if it hadn’t.

Similarly, Wonder Woman is a character defined by her lack of offensive weaponry. Whereas Superman has his heat vision, and Batman throws his Batarangs, Wonder Woman is typically defined by her more defensive accessories. Her bracelets deflect bullets. Her lasso restrains her opponents, but also forces them to be honest. Early on in Wonder Woman, Diana demonstrates her strength by adopting a defensive posture.

Landing the role.

Indeed, Wonder Woman even seems to subvert the stock superhero expectations in this regard. Diana leaves Themyscira after a bunch of soldiers land on the beach, leading to a tragic loss of life. However, the film never dwells on that loss or that death. Diana is not motivated by revenge or by guilt. That seems to be the point that Jenkins is making with the sequence, setting up a standard superhero character beat, only to downplay its significance.

Similarly, these early scenes place a lot of emphasis on a sword, a more offensive weapon than is typically associated with Diana. Her mother describes it as “the Godkiller”, a description that quite pointedly sets up the blade as a plot device in the style of the World Engine from Man of Steel or the Kryptonite from Batman vs. Superman. The obvious expectation is that the weapon will be of use at the climax, but Jenkins instead offers a very clever twist on this.

War? Huh? Good Gadot, y’all.

The same is arguably true of the movie’s primary setting. Wonder Woman is very much a superhero period piece, in a way that recalls The First Avenger. However, the film eschews the pulpy thrills of the Second World War for the relatively under-explored surroundings of the First World War. There are any number of reasons to favour the Second World War as a setting; it is more popular, it is more iconic, it is more recent, it is more firmly anchored in the character’s chronology. The choice of the First World War is striking of itself.

Of course, there a number of reasons why Wonder Woman feels so especially in tune with this era. Most subtly, it makes a lot of thematic sense to send Diana out into the world at a point when women’s rights were much less advanced than they are today. Etta Candy explicitly references the fact that women cannot vote, and men are repeatedly uncomfortable with Diana’s intrusion into exclusively male spaces. Of course, women’s rights remain important issues today, but the historical setting only emphasises it further.

Shore thing.

More than that, the First World War has its own iconic power quite distinct from that of the Second World War. Early in the film, hotshot spy Steve Trevor is asked to explain his actions on Themyscira. He explains that he arrived as a refugee from “the war.” When the Amazons are confused, Trevor repeats his statement; he stresses the definite article. Although the Second World War would eclipse the horrors of its predecessor, it could never claim to be the definitive article in such a way.

However, there are other reasons why Wonder Woman would choose a First World War setting. The Second World War is burdened with expectations of heroism and valour. In many respects, the narrative of the Second World War is that of democracy triumphing over genocidal fascism. The Second World War is arguably “a good war” in the public memory, such as the concept can be said to exist. The popular consciousness has created a black-and-white representation of the conflict.

Bracelet yourself.

Because it is less well known, the First World War is spared that burden. Wonder Woman can point out the horror on all sides of the First World War. It can react with shock at the callous brutality that even the supposed good guys demonstrate towards their own soldiers. Told that the men on the front will keep dying, one senior official wryly notes, “They’re soldiers. That’s what they do.” The film can take a step back and gaze upon the destruction in terror.

Indeed, Jenkins is afforded the freedom to make Wonder Woman a far more political film than The First Avenger. Indeed, The First Avenger is captive to the romantic narrative of the Second World War, to the point that it never even engages with the question of what the Nazis are doing, and casually insists that its villain is somehow even more evil than the Third Reich. Wonder Woman never gets too engaged with the particulars of the conflict that it depicts, but it never glosses over the horror of industrialised warfare.

An island unto itself.

(This might be another reason why Wonder Woman avoids the Second World War. The First World War setting allows the blockbuster to avoid focusing too heavily on the United States’ involvement in the conflict. Had the film been set during the Second World War, it seems quite likely that Ares would have been developing the atomic bomb for the Allies and Diana would have been trying to stop him. It seems unlikely that the world would be ready for that blockbuster.)

In fact, the use of the First World War as “the war to end all wars” might be the film’s most effective subversion of superheroic standards. Diana spends the entire film convinced that she can end the First World War by killing Ares, that she can defeat the literal god of war and free mankind from his corrupting influence. It is a very simplistic and idealistic philosophy, the suggestion that the anthropomorphic personification of war can be impaled on a sword and defeated. In many ways, it is the embodiment of a certain type of superhero narrative.

Cave of knowledge.

Wonder Woman explores this dynamic in a compelling and clever manner. The film accepts that Diana’s beliefs may not literally apply to the real world, in that it is not physically possible to give evil a bloody nose and save the world. However, far from embracing a cynical or deconstructive perspective, Wonder Woman explicitly ponders whether this makes the belief any less valid. Is it wrong to believe that evil can be defeated, even if it is not as simple as stabbing it with a very pointy sword.

This plays very much on the idea that Wonder Woman is something of a textual bridge between ancient mythology and modern superheroes, that she occupies a space in which these abstract larger-than-life concepts can be rendered literal. More than Marvel, the DC universe has always had a mythic quality to it. Batman vs. Superman certainly played with its own religious iconography and ideas. Wonder Woman finds a way to make that theme fit with the story that it wants to tell.

Face/off.

Indeed, Wonder Woman is an overtly feminist film. The movie’s prologue on Themyscira is effectively a celebration of the fact that little girls can dream of being action heroes, and how important (and how joyful) that sort of freedom is. The movie is never quite as confrontational in its feminism as Ghostbusters, eschewing castration imagery for the occasional zippy one-liner. Instead, the movie celebrates more feminine design choices; Themyscira is populated with spirals and lacunas, glowing pools and caves of wisdom.

Perhaps more interesting is the film’s handling of Steve Trevor, with Chris Pine playing a truly charming love interest. The movie quite consciously and quite pointedly casts Trevor in the sort of role traditionally reserved for female supporting characters, right down to a very charming sequence in which he attempts to use his masculine wiles to seduce a key henchwoman. Pine is very game in the role, and is always cognisant of the fact that his presence is to support Gal Gadot.

Staying sharp.

However, for all the clever touches and shrewd choices, Wonder Woman is also just fun. Jenkins is very clearly thrilled to be playing with these toys in this blockbuster sandbox. Wonder Woman is a little smarter than most superhero films, but it never places itself above any of them. In particular, the production design of Themyscira channels the high fantasy of Thor while the handling of the superheroic war action movie captures The First Avenger.

Most strikingly, Jenkins repeatedly homages the style and tone of Richard Donner’s Superman. Diana is presented as awkward and innocent in the same way as Christopher Reeve’s take on Clark Kent. At one point, Steve half-heartedly attempts to disguise Diana by putting a pair of glasses on her. There is a mugging sequence that very clearly evokes the confrontation with the muggers in Superman, right down to giving Diana a Clark-Kent-style bullet-catch and casting Steve as the gung-ho Lois Lane figure.

Downward spiral.

Still, Jenkins looks beyond the conventional superhero framework when it comes to her action beats and set pieces. Wonder Woman does a much better job of capturing the cheeky pulpy joy of Indiana Jones than The First Avenger did, to the point that there’s an extended sequence in which Steve tries to bluff his way into a German castle using nothing more than his funny accent. There is something very endearing about this, right down to the fact that Steve’s top tier espionage work seems to involve speaking English with a German accent. It’s fun.

And, for all that Jenkins is homaging and referencing other films, Wonder Woman is unashamedly her film. It never feels like the edges have been sanded off. It is customary to make comparisons to the other DC films, and Wonder Woman is very much a triumph of the approach that Warner Brothers have adopted. The studio tends to attract directors with distinctive visions, like Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, and allow them to fulfil those visions. The results are always interesting, and sometimes even great.

“No, that other Steve is played by that other Chris, in that other World War.”

The internet’s overreaction to Batman vs. Superman led to the creative compromises of Suicide Squad, a film in which the studio (allegedly) wrested control away from the credited director and assigned it to a company responsible for a viral marketting campaign. The result was a disjointed tone-deaf mess. Marvel Studios maintain very tight control over what their directors can and cannot do. However, Wonder Woman feels like the work of a singular creative voice, and is all the stronger for that.

Wonder Woman is clever and well-constructed, well-observed and very aware of what it is doing. However, it is also very fun.

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10 Responses

  1. Wow no negative remarks huh? But can please say even one thing you dont like about the film just to temper my expectations…..

  2. ‘Had the film been set during the Second World ‘War, it seems quite likely that Ares would have been developing the atomic bomb for the Allies and Diana would have been trying to stop him. It seems unlikely that the world would be ready for that blockbuster.’

    Why do you think it’s unlikely the world would not be ready for such a blockbuster?..

    • Well, because the suggestion that the United States was not justified in dropping the atomic bomb on Japan is still hugely controversial. (The Smithsonian became a front in the culture wars during the nineties for even daring to gently broach the debate.) Similarly, the Allies have never really acknowledged the civilian casualties of things like Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  3. An interesting review. I can’t say I liked Gal Gadot much in Baman vs. Superman but the trailers look fun.

    That said I’m not sure I’d agree that the First World War is less romanticised than the Second, just that the type of romanticism is completely different. I’ve mentioned before how tired I am of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative which every bit as simplistic as the grand battle against fascism narrative we see on treatments of the second (and arguably far less challenged in popular culture.)

    • Okay, having seen the film I have to say I did like Gal Gadot MUCH more this time around. She’s allowed to have fun here (to be fair I had a similar reaction to Scarlett Johansson, who underwhelmed in ‘Iron Man 2’ but greatly impressed me in the Avenger films.) Pine was also very good.

      That said the historian in me couldn’t help but bothered they were using Fokker E.III’s in late 1918. Strange to go to the trouble of recreating an aircraft and then getting the year wrong, but I suppose given their version of myseriously clean shaven supervillain Ludendorff, this isn’t quite ‘our’ history…

      • Ha. Yeah, I was impressed that Ludendorff was actually a person, although I do like the idea of Wonder Woman effectively killing the man responsible for the “stabbed in the back” myth. This superhero fights fascists.

    • That’s probably reasonably fair. But I still think it’s a lot easier to build an anti-war message into a First World War story than into a Second World War narrative.

  4. “cheekily subversive, in an unobtrusive way” is not going to get on any trailers, but that’s a great movie review line. This applies to both comic book tropes and gender tropes.
    I really liked this movie.

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