By Travis Trombley
Relying on the tried and true origin story format, this film - penned by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and DCEU staple Zack Snyder - astutely blends familiar ingredients like self-discovery, humor, over-the-top action, and philosophical inquiry, but Jenkins presents and balances these genre standards in a way that’s refreshingly coherent and entertaining. While an unnecessarily gaudy third-act-throwdown drags the film back to an unfortunate familiar, most of it’s two-hour-and-change runtime effectively weaves some exploration of human nature between inspection of the superhero genre itself, stunning moments of spectacle, and the development of a strong, lovable central character.
As always, our reviews contain more analysis than blunt judgement, so know that reading on means leaving the insular safety of Themyscira for the spoiler-filled world of mankind.
Narrative / Theme
Naturally, when the British-borrowed American spy Steve Trevor crash lands on the secluded island of Themyscira and relays the news of World War I, the innocent Diana attributes the horrors to Ares’ influence and resolves to accompany the pilot back to the front so she can defeat the god of war and thereby save mankind.
The premise works on a number of planes, but perhaps most interestingly in the sense that it establishes a parallel between Diana’s character arc and our own relationship with the superhero genre. It’s telling that Jenkins relays these myths to us in motion-comic form, an artful homage to both Renaissance and Neoclassical style paintings of Greek myths and the sequential artform in which superheroes originated. Beyond the pomp, there resounds a similarity between this story, literally read to a young Diana from a picture book, and the stories that can define our early worldviews, like Old Testament tales and, you know, Saturday morning episodes of Batman, Superman, and - perhaps my personal favorite - Static Shock.
In other words, the movie uses the Greek myth as a stand-in for the superhero genre to comment on its role in the contemporary culture. As the myth shaped Diana, so too did these adventure tales provide for many of us a simple moral framework as children. And as we matured, we either outgrew or demanded more from these stories, just as Diana’s understanding of her story changes when she’s forced to ‘grow up’ and confront a more complex reality. The prevalence of superheros in the culture now makes it a poignant parallel. Ultimately, there’s a recognition of simplicity, yes, but instead of a rejection upon maturity, Wonder Woman opts for a sort of humanistic embracing of the superhero ideology - maintaining the desire to “do something,” while acknowledging that the world’s ills will never be easily solved.
Jenkins uses setting as a convenient illustration of this divide between youthful idealism and reality. The island of Themyscira is a an island paradise, complete with clear skies, bright blue water, and architecture that blends into a lush environment. But on the other side of the barrier hiding the island from the rest of the world, German soldiers sail through a dense fog in murky waters. The contrast is later emphasized again when Diana first sees London, complete with dirty streets, smoggy skies, and a muddy Thames: “It's hideous,” she says. “Yeah, it’s not for everyone,” Steve replies. She grew up in a convenient paradise, but the real world isn’t as clean, something we all learn, eventually.
This dynamic becomes clear not just through a series of adorable fish-out-of-water moments as Diana confronts the staples of industrial London, such as male chauvinism and the corset, but also through a brilliant use of supporting cast members. The companions Steve recruits from a local bar to assist them on their covert mission could have easily been phoned in as the cliched multicultural gang of misfits good for little more than banter, but Jenkins actually employs them as a vehicle for Diana’s character development.
The Scottish drunk and remorseless sniper, Middle Eastern con-man, and Native American smuggler are just the type of folk Diana would categorize as under Ares’ influence, but over the course of the film we see that these are flawed people capable of love. Chief denies payment from a recently liberated people. Charlie suffers from PTSD and can’t bring himself to pull the trigger (much like the character Goodnight from Magnificent Seven), but he also serenades the gang in gruff but cheery tones. Sameer convinces Steve to loosen up and enjoy his evening, and he laments having to fight rather than celebrate his real passion, acting. Exposure to these nuances serves to guide Diana’s understanding of human nature. They fight on with Steve even after their paid service term ends, and when faced with death, they huddle to one another, crystallizing for Diana at a key moment the human capacity for camaraderie and love.
But the effect isn’t one sided: as these misfits influences Diana, so too does she change those around her. Her determination and moral resolve, accompanied by the fact that she’s practically bulletproof, allow these broken men a chance to find hope and purpose in a war that’s seemingly destroyed both. As a result, they choose to fight with her even without pay.
And that brings us to the film’s conclusion, which - for the most part - satisfies in regards to the questions it’s asked. When confronted with the truth of human nature, Diana is initially grief stricken, her will to fight crushed as humanity confirms Ares’ slander. But she ultimately rejects Ares’ cynical hatred of humanity and chooses to fight on their behalf because of their capacity for love, a capacity made clear to her by Steve, Charlie, Sameer, and Chief. In other words, yeah, humans are kinda horrible, but they can also be cool sometimes, and that’s a beautiful thing worth preserving. It reminds me of the discussion between Ultron and Vision at the end of Age of Ultron in which Vision essentially recognizes that humans are doomed, but they aren’t evil. The whole movie led up to that decision in a way that gives the film a much appreciated cohesion not common in most blockbusters.
However, Jenkins really lays into the throttle as Diana starts coming into her powers. The combat retains that brutal, finessed Amazonian flavor, but those movements get exaggerated in speed and range as Wonder Woman flings herself through rooms, across streets, and up walls. She’s a fun combination of Achilles from the film Troy and the Hulk, switching between expert swordsmanship and throwing tanks at dudes with ease. And she also blocks bullets with her wrist gauntlets, which never gets old, by the way.
What might get old for some, though, is the considerable amount of slow motion Jenkins employs to keep the movement in some of the bigger set pieces manageable. Slowing down allows the viewer to really visit with some of the more outlandish movements, whether that’s kicking a dude out of a window or blocking debris with her lasso.
And speaking of tiresome, sadly Wonder Woman subjects viewers to yet another cartoonish, darkly lit final showdown that privileges CGI bombast over story driven choreography. Diana’s fight with Ares - a CGI muscled Remus Lupin - is big and flashy and complete with unexplained lightning bending powers, and I didn’t care. We’re never given an account of Ares’ powers or weaknesses, so there’s no tension to follow, and that makes it difficult for me to care about what’s on the screen any more than I can care about a July 4th fireworks show.
On a final note about the violence, I also found the film’s general portrayal of violence unnervingly safe. While the movements and choreography are great, the action can feel consequenceless. More than with most films, the PG-13 rating feels especially restrictive here because Diana, as a warrior-hero, needs to witness and partake in the brutality of war, but it all seems very sanitary here. Guns are fired without seeing the destructive result. Swords are swung, but no limbs severed or blood splashed. This means the camera has to cut away often, which does make some scenes feel over-edited. It’s not a huge detraction, and the rating is certainly understood due to the intended demographic, but it was noticed, and it does detract from the film’s ability to make us feel the weight of WWI.
This can be scene in the treatment of the Germans. The only thing separating Ludendorff and his German soldiers from Red Skull’s one-dimensional Nazi cronies in Captain America: The First Avenger is the lack of a swastika. They aren’t given motivation or depth beyond primary antagonist General Ludendorff’s tired ethos that war gives men purpose, thereby justifying the propagation of war as a noble, humanistic enterprise.
And on that note, most of the villains’ scenes, and therefore the villains themselves, fall terribly flat here. Ludendorff is almost laughable as an antagonist. Our first scene with him he is a cliche “kill disappointing/back-talking henchmen to intimidate other henchman and establish badassery” sequence. Beyond that, his moments of screen time are limited to urging the creepy Dr. Poison to create a gas that will allow Germany to win the war rather than surrender, which she does with monstrous fascination. Outside of a few red herrings about Ludendorff being Ares in disguise by way of quoting Thucydides, that’s about it for him, which is too bad. Given that this is a film about human complexity, the one-dimensional nature of General Ludendorff and Dr. Poison seems a thematic disservice.The good guys can be morally complex, possessing in various measures noble and despicable qualities, but the bad guys aren’t permitted the same respect.
Also, Dr. Poison makes Ludendorff a silly pill that permits him a glowing complexion and super strength, because plot. Narratively, I see why it was included - so Diana can kill him thinking she killed Ares, then see that humans don’t change - but the whole gimmick is out of place to the degree of being distracting.
Ultimately, the film wants the antagonist here to be human nature, or - more specifically - a cynical outlook on human nature. As such, it would have been better off to not distill the worst human qualities into cheap characters, but rather allow the circumstances of WWI to provide that antagonistic momentum, caught in the comments made by soldiers and civilians rather than cliches spewn from flat ‘super villains.’
What did you think of Wonder Woman? Does it give you hope for Justice League?