I used to want to save the world, Diana Prince(ss of Themyscira) utters as her film begins. She hails from the land of the Amazons, an secluded, all-female society with ties to Greek mythology itself; much of her early life consists of training to one day defend that society, even as her people neither celebrate nor rush toward battle.
Diana’s own story hits a number of typical beats, often precisely when expected and occasionally rote, but this in large part feels like the sort of film the DC Comics live-action canon needed–a basic, uplifting yet down-to-earth origin story that proves it understands its own foundations (even if its connections to the heroine’s own beginnings have been scrutinized) and can appeal to a wide apolitical audience without compromising its lead’s identity.
A rough beginning doesn’t stop the film from becoming noteworthy.
The film’s opening is its rockiest part, an extended sequence that showcases Diana’s growth from adorable child to courageous if self-questioning adult as the story explains her magical origins. It works, as far as making the future Wonder Woman (rarely if ever named as such in the film, so there’s no cheesy “I-dub-thee” crescendo) a compelling character who’s easy to root for, but too much of the early story feels like it’s being told around her and not by her. Her mother Hippolyta and aunt Antiope disagree on how the young girl’s training should work and when it should take place, and young Diana’s irrepressible spirit of adventure mutates into self-doubt as she ages, prompting rebuke once her training actually begins to matter; there’s room to interpret the older women’s divide as signifying a rift in Themysciran culture and beliefs, but this isn’t examined in detail and is quickly forgotten about. Likewise, Diana also experiences a training accident where, when using her gauntlets to block a projectile, she knocks her instructor backward, which neither addresses where she obtained the gauntlets or what she was “expected” to do.
The Amazon society’s first contact with outsiders is disastrous, as Diana rescues a crashed World War I pilot (Steve Trevor, portrayed by Chris Pine from the recent Star Trek films) but must then fend off the German pursuers he’s been spying on. The fight itself is a bit strange, as while Diana’s mother has tried to raise the girl to avoid the pursuit of violence, the movie itself glamorizes it with plenty of slow-motion effects while lingering on the deaths of heroes we ultimately don’t know very much about. After numerous warriors lie dead on both sides, there’s an implication that the well-meaning girl will be held responsible for her own people’s losses (as well as a question of what to do about the remaining outsider), which is also largely dropped, and the story is not off to a strong start. One of the final scenes in the prologue, however, offers a subtle and touching sign of Zeus’s divine favor, and it’s an example of where the film’s quality starts going up.
The story’s opening feels more like obligatory setup than something the film is interested in exploring in detail, and sure enough, once Diana leaves Themyscira behind, she and the film leave for good as she concerns herself with the fate of a much larger world tearing itself apart through conflict. Ares, the god of war, is said to have betrayed Zeus, killed off many other gods, and brought ruinous temptation to mankind in a black-and-white simplification of Greek mythology that feels more like the Judeo-Christian origin story but works well enough as establishing background for a blockbuster. Diana’s and Steve’s first real “introduction” consists of her walking in on him bathing, in a sort of female-gaze scene, which leads to awkward humor about his anatomy (she’s never seen a man before), mirrored later in a bizarre but fairly PG-13-limited discussion of sexual pleasure. Apparently Diana’s done her own extensive scholarly research.
The story keeps itself relevant despite lacking, and needing, a consistent theme.
The narrative slightly experiments with feminism, where Diana ends up in a meeting of Steve’s superiors and instantly causes chaos over what to do with and about her, and there are also a few jokes about the inherent dignity, or lack thereof, in a secretarial position. (There’s also a quick indication that Steve has no issues with two men in an implied homosexual relationship–something Diana notices and finds unusual–which seems a bit odd in 1910s England.) By and large, however, the story’s lead character is more suited for a battlefield than a boardroom and is anxious to be where the fighting is thickest, so she can save as many lives as possible. Furthermore, her comrades–generally men who happen to be other friends of Steve’s–usually don’t bother questioning her formidable strength and talent once they can really see her in action, and the story serves as a showcase for its lead’s talents without stopping to remind the viewer how great it is that a woman is its most capable individual or vice versa. Wonder Woman is often at its strongest as a bona fide war film, with a shining beacon of justice rising above the horror of the trenches, deflecting bullets and other projectiles left and right, and serving as a one-woman rallying banner for her brothers in arms before rushing to tend to mothers and other civilians in need. The action is staged well and thankfully doesn’t overuse slow motion in most of its scenes; the main character’s glowing “lasso of truth” is utilized with just enough ‘grit’ to not come across as silly, but it’s much more exciting to see her bring down a bell tower by herself.
The film’s ethos toward violence is more permissive than some other superheroes get, without necessarily coming across as hypocritical: Diana lacks an inherent refusal to kill or a legal restriction against doing so, and indeed killing Ares and several cartoonishly depicted high-value Germans motivates her through much of the film, without her coming across as a psychopath or a vigilante. The story’s explanation of war feels uneven and shifts throughout, however: is Ares singlehandedly responsible for starting and perpetuating all of this killing, as Diana believes? Or does all of mankind make its own tragedies through its own choices? World War I Germany and the war as a whole didn’t really have a ‘Hitler,’ much as the film tries its best to contrive one (the Ottoman Empire barely gets a mention), and Diana’s simplistic understanding of the nature of human conflict eventually forces her to take additional possibilities into consideration.
The story takes time outside of battles to keep Diana and others relatable as normal humans: there’s a touching and fun scene of Steve teaching her to dance even as she knows well her own culture’s presumably energetic traditions and finds British dances to be boring. Other than that, most of the other characters don’t really get a whole lot of personal development (Steve primarily tends to his military duties), as much of the film is spent searching for prominent German individuals looking to sabotage the upcoming armistice and prolong or reverse the war by deploying a powerful gas weapon. There’s a brief but intriguing scene where one of the weapon’s makers tosses a sample of it and one single gas mask into a room of other Germans, sealing the door and prompting them all to fight over the lone mask as human nature and altruism break down; it’s worth noting that the film never really showcases the full effects of the weapon on an actual person, which given its immense strength would most definitely preclude a PG-13 rating anyway. On another note, this is one of those films where disobeying authority is the expected course of action, and amusingly, that applies as much to the villainous Germans as it does for the British and the Amazons.
(Minor spoilers for the ending follow.)
The film’s world-building is one of its few major issues–it wants to be a magical story rooted in myth, but where it also flirts with, and doesn’t follow through with, the idea of becoming a complex political narrative, the two story bases don’t combine well, leading to an ending that feels emotionally satisfying but intellectually lacking. The conclusion does deserve credit, though, for more or less accomplishing what it came to do instead of ending on a needless cliffhanger. Perhaps most importantly, Diana openly acknowledges that it’s neither possible nor necessary for one super-powered individual to help every single person, putting the weight of responsibility onto mankind as a whole.
(Spoilers end here.)
The technical aspects and production values generally succeed.
Beyond that, the film is presented well; war scenes generally look convincingly intense enough to take seriously instead of being reduced to “popcorn entertainment,” and Themyscira is lovely without looking ridiculous or blatantly fictional (contrast the realm of Asgard in Thor). The cinematography does its job well enough, even as there’s little to really focus on or be surprise-impressed by, outside of the prologue and the battle scenes. Wonder Woman’s electric-guitar theme from Batman v. Superman is thankfully used sparingly, only for a few fights and part of the credits, especially since it really feels like it doesn’t belong in a World War I movie. The slow-motion effects are distracting, mostly because they take away from the opening’s intended anti-war message, but they don’t feel overused. I thought the special effects were fine; some viewers did not.
Some of the Amazons’ acting during the prologue isn’t particularly great, but star Gal Gadot really tries to be convincing throughout the entire film–particularly notable during scenes where she cries even for characters the audience may not have known for very long. She’s not a very complex or flawed character, but she’s entertaining enough to watch anyway. Chris Pine is hard not to just see as Captain Kirk, but he adapts well toward a variety of moods, including hostility, as he did in Unstoppable. Of special note is a supporting character reeling from the horrors of war, but his own surprising performance is adept enough to feel believable and to give the film more emotional weight.
Conclusion: The optimistic, crowd-pleasing hero and story the DC film universe needed.
Despite some issues with its writing, Wonder Woman treats an iconic character with respect, even giving special thanks to Lynda Carter, without feeling thematically relevant only to a certain political or historical era. One could, and does, argue that the film sidesteps its lead’s previous controversies–there’s not even a hint of lesbianism, and no one really manages to stop Diana from doing something she’s made up her mind to do. Given the ridiculous number of real and imagined obstacles for people to potentially be apprehensive about, however (a big-budget, woman-led, woman-directed film whose genre ilk include the panned Catwoman and Elektra, both of which were actually directed by men), it’s no wonder the film’s plot sticks to simple themes that usually don’t invoke current real-world religious or political divides. And from that perspective, it’s a lot easier to excuse the film’s gaps in logic.
What works well is that Diana Prince is a genuinely likable individual whose goals and motivations are always clear at some level, and her lack of complete understanding of how the world works, works so well because the story at least tries to acknowledge and remedy that. There’s room for improvement, but the reality is that there was quite a lot of potential for failure, which could have had disastrous consequences for similar genre entries because of this film’s relatively uncommon design and leadership decisions. But I don’t see that happening–Wonder Woman is a film that believes in itself and in its heroine, and some minor caveats aside, it readily deserves to do both.
Image sources (property of DC Entertainment and other studios)
This post was originally written and published for my review blog, Projected Realities.