Sunday, June 11, 2017

Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average


Wonder Woman, and all sorts of women, deserved better.

Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder
With Gal Gadot (Princess Diana of Themyscira), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), Robin Wright (Princess Antiope), David Thewliss (Sir Patrick Morgan), Danny Huston (Gen. d. Inf. Erich von Ludendorff), and Elena Anaya (Dr. "Poison" Maru)

Spoiler alert: high

Damn it, I wanted to like Wonder Woman.  Odds were that I would: I go into any superhero movie with a pretty blatant positive bias; indeed, it's possible that I'm biased even more in favor of the DC movies; and, yes, I suppose I'm a Zack Snyder apologist, too.

Well, WW clears Suicide Squad's low bar, at least; it only gets grindingly mediocre at the very tail end.  Still, I can't commit to calling it good, and that's a shame.  It'd have been nice to join the chorus for once—after all, WW's already been praised to the high heavens by just about everybody else, no doubt partly out of our culture's desperate, pent-up desire to have, at long last, just one female-led superhero flick that doesn't outright suck.  And, hey, if it were directed by a woman, that'd be pretty cool too.

I did frontload Snyder for a reason, though, and that's because actual-director Patty Jenkins, returning after a decade in the wilderness, abides carefully by Snyder's established house style.  (She does so with such diligence, in fact, that you have to wonder how she got fired from Thor 2.)  But I also mentioned Snyder because Snyder produced the film and helped conceive the story, alongside Jason Fuchs, which was then translated into a screenplay by Allan Heinberg.  Sometimes it's hard to see the truth inside a swarm of screen credits, but this one does represent a clear red flag: besides the hollow resumes boasted by Fuchs and Heinberg, not even this Snyder apologist necessarily wants to see what he was capable of thinking up himself.  That goes double when the character is somebody like Diana of Themyscira, who, despite being all kinds of iconic, never really received a truly canon-level comic book story of her own, from which Snyder (or Jenkins) could cinematically plagiarize.

The result is a very dubious freedom: to somewhat radically resposition the character in time, while entertaining not just one but both of Diana's mutually incompatible origin stories—purportedly to dramatic effect, though perhaps the single worst thing about WW is how predictable it is, even for a superhero debut.

So we begin long ago—having been cast back, along with Diana's memories, by Batman's gift of a Meaningful Old Photograph—and we find the young princess with her people, the immortal Amazons, who have survived in isolation thanks to an enchantment that shrouds their island from view.  Diana is the only daughter of the queen, Hippolyta; indeed, she's the only child upon the island at all, said to be the product of a miraculous immaculate conception, brought about when Hippolyta crafted a baby out of clay.  She prayed that it be given life, and it was—the woman not born of man.  (This is the old, or "good," Wonder Woman origin, as written by that noted noble pervert, William Moulton Marston.  One supposes, in light of the film's reception, that we've collectively decided to shove the various feminist objections to Diana's other, more-recent origin story into the memory hole.)

One day, presumably around three thousand years later—though you'd scarcely guess this from the way Diana's aunt and mentor Antiope still treats her millennia-old pupils in the art of war like a bunch of plebes, or the way that Diana is written as a naif with one profoundly savage brand of naievete—the closed utopia of Themyscira is rocked by the arrival of Man's World upon its shores, in the form of British spy Steve Trevor, and his pursuers, naval infantry from the Kaiserliche Marine.  Diana rescues Steve, for such is her nature, but the mass of Germans upon the beach are met with force by the Amazons.  In the aftermath, Steve is taken prisoner by the warrior women, but doesn't remain their prisoner for long, for his stories of World War have moved Diana to pity.  Soon, the princess steals a panoply of magical weapons—a pair of unbreakable bracers, the Lasso of Truth, a shield, and a "godkiller" sword—and undertakes her holy crusade: escort Steve home, in exchange for his aid in helping her find the last of the Greek gods, Ares, the enemy of the Amazons and the slayer of the Olympians, whom she has identified as the true zeitgeist behind the unprecedented slaughter that now threatens to swallow Man's World whole.

And, if we are being fair, Wonder Woman works rather well up until this point, and even for a good long while thereafter, as Diana finds herself thrown into an early 20th century fish-out-of-water action-comedy alongside her increasingly-discomfited consort.  (But then, if you'd told me last year that WW would actually peak with its naked pandering to modern sensibilities, by making easy jokes out of century-old sexism, I frankly would've been sad.)

Even so, it's surprisingly good pandering

It is not without its meaner flaws, of course; nobody in the art department was trying especially hard to visualize Themyscira, which winds up one surprisingly boring place to look at; the screenplay's mutilation of Greek mythology seems awfully short-sighted in the context of any ongoing franchise; this movie made in 2017 is just shockingly unconcerned with what relationships look like, or even what society looks like, on an all-female island of immortals; and there was never going to be enough time spent amongst the Amazons to completely get over the cacophony of accents that attempts, and mostly fails, to match headliner Gal Gadot's Israeli inflections.  Despite its issues, though, the first hour or so of WW offers a perfectly solid period-piece superhero origin—full of grand posturing, charismatic characters, and enjoyable demonstrations of various superpowers.  We even get a rather visually-inspired flashback sequence.  The film's fundamental flaw has yet to show its hand.

And that fundamental flaw?  Well, that's the transposition of the quintessential WWII superheroine from the period of her creation to a period twenty-five years earlier.  It seems harmless enough at first, albeit rather transparent in its intention—and I'd certainly like to believe that the reason that Snyder et al decided to restituate Diana into a slightly-more-distant past was because the so-called War to End All Wars provides a more palatable setting for the theme of universal human weakness that begins to permeate WW's narrative, starting around the time Diana arrives in 1918 London (appropriately declaring it "hideous").  I have little doubt that Jenkins, Snyder, and their compatriots convinced themselves that this was the case.  But I think the cynical amongst us nailed it, back when we suggested that it was always just a facially desperate move to differentiate WW from Captain America—that is, the other superhero movie that started strong, only to grind to a halt once it blundered into the path of some belligerent Germans, then went on to end, most unsatisfactorily, aboard a plane carrying some dull-ass superweapon.

It was an unnecessary move, that reorientation in time; and it's one that harms the movie much more than it elevates it.  (Hell, just setting it in 1914, with four more years of war left to go, would have done a great deal to push its basic themes across.)  WW can be neatly divided into two parts, separated by the film's centerpiece sequence, the now-famous entry of Wonder Woman into No Man's Land, a shallowly metaphorical moment that totally discards anything insightful (or even meaningful) that could've been done with it, in favor of images that are largely indistinguishable from an Entente propaganda film featuring a symbolic feminine figure slaughtering the shit out of the vile Hun.  From here until the climax, WW presents itself as the kind of movie the British Foreign Office might've made in 1918, if only robust CGI and the kind of healthful nutrition that produces very tall women had been available to them.  As such, it's virtually impossible to know what Jenkins even expects us to make of the insert shots of Gadot's troubled face, as her comrades join her killing spree with rather less grim determination, and rather more elan.  Yes, little emotions like this could save it—but probably not in the absence of any script that capitalizes upon the idea that Diana already ought to have known better than to favor one nation of men over another.  (Especially if those nations are the UK and Imperial Germany.)

Rather than, I don't know, let's say America and Nazi Germany.

The tension between Wonder Woman's excellence at violence and her espoused mission of peace has only occasionally been successfully resolved in the comics, but I don't know if I've ever seen that tension collapse as completely in upon itself as it winds up doing in Wonder Woman's movie.  Diana, by this point, has become convinced beyond reason that Ares has taken on the guise of Erich von Ludendorff, the Kaiserreich's de facto military dictator.  And WW is absolutely willing to play along, in what must be one of the most misguided moves toward comic book wackiness in recent memory, turning the historical figure into a ranting cartoon madman who huffs sci-fi poppers prepared for him by his chief scientist, "Dr. Poison."  (Meanwhile, Poison's whole existence winds up little more than an empty gesture toward WWI chemical warfare—and an even emptier gesture toward Diana's propensity for fighting female supervillains, rather than male ones.)  It's not as if Ludendorff was an especially noble soldier; he was a literal proto-Nazi, a "bad guy" by anyone's estimation but his own.  But if anything's gained for the side of good here, it's certainly not to be found in Danny Huston's enervating rendition of the general as a giggling jackass with drug-induced superstrength.

The trade, I suppose, is that WW, allegedly an action movie, finally does develop a somewhat more action-oriented momentum.  (But I'd just like to briefly mention that it takes one invidious double standard to revile Snyder but reward Jenkins, when she plies the exact same speed-ramp/orbiting camera/living comic book tricks.)  The exchange isn't a very profitable one, anyway: the No Man's Land sequence is at least invigorating, but whatever drive it lends the film peters out almost instantly as it blithely rambles its way into a consequence-free video game landscape that only an historical illiterate would confuse with an apt representation of WWI.

Congratulations, superhuman!  You brutally killed some starving 15 year old conscripts!

This is what I mean when I say that switching time periods harms WW significantly more than it helps: there is a fine, fine comic book tradition of superheroes sidling right up to a caricature of Hitler and punching him in the nose; but there is no such tradition at all of doing the same thing to obscurish Great War-era Germans, and, frankly, it just doesn't work.  You could argue that this is part of the lesson—evil Ludendorff, shock, is naught but a gray-clad red herring in the end—but nothing about the tone suggests that we aren't supposed to be taking joy in it.

Technically, that's a spoiler; but then, to state the film's premise is to see it coming from miles away.  WW settles on yet another bland recapitulation of Return of the Jedi that doesn't remotely understand why Jedi played—inevitably made worse, naturally, by turning it into yet another roaring superhero lightshow in the sky.  (In this case, I'm afraid, it's an exceptionally bad one—one that barely seems to know or care what the powers of its participants are, while dutifully cross-cutting to the human-scale action going on around it, turning the sequence into a pair of simultaneous scenes that occur in the same location at the same time, yet nonetheless appear to be happening in completely different movies.)  It's a stale, safe ending, and—besides its general ugliness—an unremarkable one.  (It's a kind of a stupid one that wastes its metaphors, too, though at least this is in keeping with its aforementioned similarity to actual militarist propaganda: this is a movie, you might be interested to know, where the heroine beats war to death.  Seriously, nobody has ever really tried to understand Jedi, no matter how often they rip it off.)  Surely, though, it would've been stronger had there been the willingness to take a little bit of a risk here: Wonder Woman, ironically enough, is the mythological fantasy that would be better if it didn't believe in gods.

Yet there's something here anyway—and that something's name is Gal Gadot.  To take it a bit further, that something's name is "Wonder Woman."  Outside of maybe Ben Affleck, whose Batmaniac in BvS is still my favorite performance in any DCEU movie, Gadot is easily the best-cast of the Snyderverse's various players.  Besides, Affleck takes such an orthogonal, even derogatory approach to Batman that there's no easy comparison between the two—because what Gadot's doing here is very possibly the most finely iconic superhero performance for any DC role since Christopher Reeve himself.  Gadot embodies everything a Wonder Woman ought to be, even when the script tries to tell her otherwise, and Jenkins is there to help with an eye that often proves itself excellent at pinning down the Big Moments.  Thus does Diana have all the curiosity, generosity, and determination she needs to have, and that's what almost makes this film good: it sets up a character you can be genuinely awed by.  And it's for this reason that I'm glad everyone else loves Wonder Woman, for even if I do not like this particular movie much at all, I do still want more like it.

Score:  5.01/10


  1. Help a comics novice out here: What is Wonder Woman's other, more recent, origin story?

    1. Why, the one they actually go with at the end of this film--that Diana is the biological daughter of Zeus.

      For all I know, though, the comics might've walked it back by this point. They change shit all the time at DC, and it's infuriating.