Wonder Woman

As everyone whose paying attention knows, there are a lots of superhero films out there now, with at least several mainstream ones each year.  As a comic reader since my youth and a movie fan, I consider this to be generally a good thing.  Still, most of the time I find that I’m not strongly drawn to watch these movies more than once.  Mostly, it’s just been because of my children that I’ve gone back to most of these movies for a second watch through…although most of the time I have enjoyed that process.

So with that in mind, tonight I’m rewatching Wonder Woman!

Wonder Woman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that this was sort of a big deal movie that came out earlier this year.  It was the first DC Extended Universe movie to be both critically acclaimed and financially successful.  And it got lots of press for being a female led superhero action film which was also directed by a woman.  Indeed, some people argued that it completely revolutionized the very core of action cinema.

That’s a bit overstated.  Women have starred in movies before.  Women have directed movies before.  But there was something high profile about this movie that made the difference in the public consciousness. And that’s a good thing–if Wonder Woman can help set DC’s movie agenda on a better course, if it can help broaden movie-studios’ willingness to invest in a broader range of movie heroes, all the better!

But what about Wonder Woman itself?  Well, judging by my kids reactions (three daughters, all young teens or preteens), it’s pretty awesome.  Or at least Diana herself is, and I have to agree.  Gal Gadot is an actress I’ve never seen before in anything (aside from Batman v. Superman) but she is a keeper:  her Diana is powerful, heroic, humble, naive, awkward, earnest, courageous and more…plenty to keep us engaged with the character.  And her fight scenes are amazing.

In the comics, Batman once described Wonder Woman as the best melee fighter in the world.  This is basically the approach they take with this film, and that’s a good thing.  Like Superman, Wonder Woman is really strong, fast and durable, but her real power comes in her combat prowess.

The standout scene is in the middle of the film, where she defies all entreaties to the contrary and saves a small village from enslavement.  This is both the best depiction of her fighting abilities, and the quintessential representation of her ethics.  If we weren’t already convinced, this scene totally sold Diana as a hero that we could cheer for, even be inspired by.

Thankfully though, Diana is also immensely flawed.  She foolishly believes that the world and all its problems can be reduced to the influence of one otherwordly being.  It creates a weakness in the character that doesn’t undermine her strengths, and it gives her someplace to grow to as a character, creating a journey that is genuinely interesting to watch.

Steve Trevor is also great.  In a movie with so much pressure upon it to deliver a strong, independent female lead, it’s notable that the film does so without sacrificing her male “love interest’s” development as a character.  Steve is more pragmatic than Diana, but no less heroic.  And both Chris Pine and Gal Gadot gives nicely detailed performances that turn their characters into real people before us, in spite of the largely fantastical set pieces and story.

Sadly, as has been largely documented and criticized, the movie loses a lot of this strength in the third act.  After a great scene with Steve Trevor where Diana is forced to confront the reality that there isn’t just one bad guy who is behind everything…a fascinating place for a superhero movie to go to…we immediately find that actually there is a bad guy behind everything, but just sort of.  The movie wants to have its cake and eat it too:  it wants to talk about interesting issues in a fresh way, but also have a giant CGI-driven explosive cosmic battle with generic bad guy with confusing motivations, because (it seems) that’s how we do these things.

Most of the battle isn’t bad, per se, but the thematic and character development gets really confused.  Turns out Ares doesn’t want to actually destroy humanity himself, he just wants to give them the tools to do so, and then manipulate them to do it themselves.  Because that would prove that he was right, to…whoever, I guess.  All the other gods that he already killed.  And part of his plan is to take the identity of an ineffective British stateman, and then to help Steve Trevor along the way on his mission to stop the other villains, for…reasons.

I guess Ares’ whole thing was to get Diana, the last of the “gods”, to validate him for all of his deeds, including killing his relatives.  But you really have to dig into what’s going on to get that, and once you do you realize that the execution of this stuff is really clunky and awkward, and buried under overblown special effects and cheap dialogue delivered by a villain who might not have actually twirled his mustache, but certainly had the facial hair to do so.

It doesn’t make Wonder Woman a bad movie:  the effectiveness of the sequences on Diana’s home island of Themyscira, navigating the London city scape, or fighting through the front lines of the war are all strong enough to overshadow the movie’s weaknesses.  And even the ending isn’t a complete washout:  the stuff with Steve Trevor’s sacrifice is still pretty effecting, and the device of saving their last conversation until after he’s died (thanks to Diana being temporarily deafened) is a good one.

Overall, for all it’s clunky conclusions, Patty Jenkins has delivered the goods, creating a film we can thoroughly enjoy, and which is near-perfect for about 3/4 of its running time, aside from what was completely unnecessary nudity (essentially) and sexually-overtoned conversation in the movie’s first third, which I had to bypass when showing to my young daughters.

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