‘Wonder Woman:’ the Good, the Bad and the Contextual

Another complaint about DC is its bleak, grey color palette. Wonder Woman addresses this criticism in its posters, but sadly, not the movie itself. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

7/10 Wonder Woman is an uneven experience. At its worst, it’s frustrating and cliched and laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but at its best it’s majestic.

In ancient times, after Ares awakened mankind’s warlike tendencies, Zeus created the amazons to appease them. The gods fought, and with his dying breath, Zeus hid his female warriors on the Isle of Themyscira and gave them a weapon powerful enough to kill the god of war, should he ever return.

In the late stages of World War I, American spy pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the uncharted island, bringing the fight to Amazonian shores. Upon learning about his mission and “the war to end all wars,” the mighty but naive Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) is sure it must be Ares’ work. She leaves the island to slay the god and put an end to all human conflict.

Yeah, you read that right. According to the backstory of this long-overdue instant icon of women in pop culture, man was combative and warlike until God created DAT ASS, which he did specifically to calm them down. There’s a bit to unpack here. Let’s get started.

The Good

Wonder Woman’s greatest strength, by far, is its themeing. Previous DCEU movies like Man of Steel try so hard to be the thinking man’s superhero movie about Big Ideas like the relationship between God and man, and they just aren’t, but Wonder Woman is. The movie engages war as a concept, and becomes as thought-provoking an action movie as anyone could expect.

Yes, the plot of Wonder Woman is Thor meets Captain America with Tony Stark’s central motivation to end armed conflict thrown in there. Let’s just acknowledge that here and not speak of it again.

The strongest scenes are, universally, the ones between Trevor and Diana. The movie’s entire dynamic rests inside their relationship — mysticism and idealism clashing with harsh, war-weary reality. Writer Allan Heinberg laces their dialogue brilliantly with double meanings that apply to everything from gender politics to modern social commentary to third-grade sex jokes.

Where Wonder Woman’s love scenes set up its themes, its war scenes are what realize them. Structurally, once they leave Themyscira, it’s a descent into madness story as Diana and Trevor wade into the heart of the Great War. The most meaningful scenes are when Diana first sees the evils that men do — injured soldiers returning from the front, the aftermath of a civilian mustard gas attack. If the much more popular World War II is the perfect backdrop to illustrate American military indomitability, World War I is the perfect backdrop to illustrate both the utter pointlessness of war — soldiers living in hellish conditions along a 440-mile front gaining mere inches per year of constant fighting — as well as the pointlessness of Diana’s quest to stop it.

When she rises out of the trench to blindly charge through No Man’s Land, I lost my damn mind…

The Bad

…and then quickly collected myself as Wonder Woman transitioned into one of its hokey, hyper-stylized action scenes.

This transition, from fantastic thematic and physical build-up to utter nonsense of a payoff, defines Wonder Woman for me. There are so, so many ways in which this movie doesn’t live up to itself, and the obnoxious, poorly choreographed action scenes are one of the biggest.

I am so tired of ramping — speed-up, slow-down editing — in action movies. It worked in 300 when the entire movie was built around it, but you can’t just splash it into a movie and hope it works. It’s an entire production design philosophy, not a snow cone flavor.

This and other Zack Snyder-ish production details — terrible special effects, a very confused overall moral — conspire to drag parts of Wonder Woman down into the mud of the late 2010’s dime-a-dozen superhero flicks.

God bless Chris Pine. Gal Gadot is simply not a good actress, but he comes to the rescue with a gutsy, frantic performance that does much more to carry the movie.

But the biggest way the movie lets itself down is by taking some of the darkest subject matter in human history and handling it with kid gloves. Warner Bros. has clearly heard the complaint that its comic book movies are too gritty, and they’ve fixed it just in time for their first movie that could really put that grittiness to use. Wonder Woman is a war story, just as much as Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, and it needs desperately to be harsher on that point than it is. It needs to linger on the senseless violence and human loss to really harvest its great big themes. Instead, the movie glosses over these key elements of its own subject matter, leaving itself severely lacking in humanity and horror.

The Contextual

It’s impossible for me to really understand how much this movie means for American women. Representation is an unbelievably powerful thing, and given Wonder Woman’s popularity and uniqueness as a pacifist superhero, it makes absolutely no sense that this is her first live-action feature.

But in a dizzyingly ironic twist, Trevor actually does much more to drive the plot here, relegating Wonder Woman to more of a support role. She’s an icon of female empowerment across all media, but this version of her doesn’t hold a candle to existing female action heroes like Ellen Ripley or the bride. Really, she doesn’t even hold up to Netflix’ Jessica Jones.

This is the second time in as many years that feminism has been packaged and sold as a movie, though it isn’t nearly the naked cashgrab — or the soulless train wreck of a film — that the 2016 Ghostbusters was. Neoliberalism has a way of reducing social movements into something that can be bought off the shelf, which almost always takes the teeth out of them. It’s something to look out for.

For some more genuine film feminism, Sofia Coppola became just the second woman ever to win the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival last week. The film she did it with, The Beguiled, hits theaters June 23.

I guess it’s time to uncork some champagne for the DCEU and its first halfway decent movie, one that’s even transcendent at some points. I’m sure we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled bleak mess in November.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘Wonder Woman:’ the Good, the Bad and the Contextual

  1. Shirlett Warren says:

    So, I finally saw Wonder Woman today. Chris Pine was not the best choice for lead. He and Gardot lacked screen chemistry, and I just didn’t find his performance/character to be believable.You said Gardot is “not a good actress,” but I was convinced she was Wonder Woman. Pine seemed like an actor in a war uniform. I cringed when they kissed.

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