Postmortem: Wonder Woman (spoilers)

In our latest installment of Brian Finally Gets Around to Watching Stuff that Everyone Else Watched Ages Ago, we look at: Wonder Woman!

WW is a very good movie that is fun to watch, but also frustrating, because it could’ve been a great movie with some fairly minor changes.

We’ll start with the good stuff.

The strength of WW is its characters. Wonder Woman herself (who in the movie is thankfully just called by her name, Diana) has spent her whole life among the all-female Amazon warriors on a remote island, cut off from the rest of civilization, and has no idea that the whole planet is caught in the throes of the Great War (i.e., World War I). She is strong and brave and virtuous, but heartbreakingly naive, which puts her in constant tension with the modern world. All this is executed brilliantly.

Steve Trevor (who I mentally called “Captain Kirk” throughout the movie) is her opposite in many ways. Weary of fighting, of watching those around him suffer and die year after year, he is a cog in the great war machine, and he knows it. He has no super powers. He doesn’t feel very righteous. But, like Diana, he is strong and brave, and he still wants to make a difference.

Whether in the streets of London or on the front lines, they’re perfect together. Each of them would be lost without the other. Their dialogue has energy and conviction, and it’s genuinely funny when it’s trying to be. (WW has more humor overall than you might expect.) Their romantic chemistry is both believable and understated, which is a breath of fresh air compared to, say, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man (not that I blame the actors; they did the best they could with the lines they were given).

Kirk’s Trevor’s ragtag band of misfits are surprisingly human and likable too. Each has a backstory that is touched on briefly, rather than hammered in; each is broken in his own way; each, in his own way, has turned his brokenness into strength. In many films, sidekick characters like these would be written, dully, as stock tropes: Crazy Guy, Ethnic Guy, and Ammunition Guy (or whatever). It’s a measure of WW‘s quality that the writers went deeper.

At the heart of the story is a philosophical question: Do humans fight wars because their pure hearts have been corrupted (as Diana believes) by Ares, the god of war? Or do we fight because (as Trevor believes) we were never pure to begin with? The film revisits this question, quietly but persistently, throughout. When Ares is finally revealed at the end, his true nature is more interesting and subtle than either of those two worldviews might suggest.

One more thing: There are some movies and shows whose approach to feminism is roughly, “Look! It’s a woman! She’s a hero! She’s doing hero things that are traditionally male! Did you see that she’s a woman? A woman hero! Did you catch that? Girl Power! Instead of a plot!” Thankfully, WW avoids this trap. Like Buffy before it, WW makes feminism a central theme of an excellent story, rather than putting a veneer of story over a Feminist Message™. So that was a good thing.

But, as I said, WW does have some problems.

For starters, the beginning … is … really … really … REALLY … slow. We spend 20-30 minutes just among the Amazons, and it’s pretty much all backstory. There’s no significant conflict, just some tired tropes that are very predictable and very boring. (Will the young girl end up with kickass hero superpowers, or not?! I’m on the edge of my seat.)  A story without conflict isn’t much of a story. Things don’t actually get going until Trevor shows up, and the movie should’ve started there, or else given the Amazons something more interesting to do.

The ending is kinda tiresome too. When Ares is first revealed, it’s awesome, because he’s this quiet, unassuming little man, somebody you’d never expect to be the god of war, but who — in retrospect — is perfect for the role. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the movie then throws away all that subtlety, puts Ares in a massive suit of armor, and makes him fly around shouting idiotic cliches. Incidentally, the key to defeating the living incarnation of conflict turns out to be, um, battling him to the death. So there’s that.

The other villains are a bit on the dull side too. There’s this sadistic lady who invents a new, super-deadly poison gas, and there’s a general who likes killing and poison gas and gets some minor super powers that don’t really accomplish much. They’re both Germans (of course), and they’re both pretty flat comic-book villains. I mean, I know it’s a comic-book story, but still.

Also, there are a whole lot of things in WW that don’t make any sense. This is true of pretty much all superhero movies, so I’m not picking on WW in particular, but they’re still annoying. Stuff like: Why do all the Amazons speak such good modern English, when they all learned it ages ago? (Why does Diana know the English word hydrogen when she’s translating from Sumerian? For that matter, why is there a Sumerian word for hydrogen?) If Diana’s mother is so obsessed with Diana’s safety, why does she let her go to the Great War without even considering giving her any Amazon backup? Why does Ares forget how to teleport as soon as he starts fighting her? How come nobody at the party notices that Diana has a sword lodged in her dress? Why does Diana, a trained warrior, walk around carrying her sword with the blade up by her face? And so on. Again, these are all relatively minor, but they don’t help the suspension of disbelief.

One scene in particular sticks out. Diana comes to the trenches for the first time, along with Kirk Trevor and the others. Trevor is explaining that nobody can cross the “no-man’s land” between the trenches because both sides have machine guns. Diana, brave and hopeful, ignores his warning, leaps out of the trench, and charges the German side, deflecting bullets with her bracelets (wrist armor?) and then repelling sustained machine-gun fire with her shield. This “distraction” gives Trevor and his men the chance to charge the enemy as well, and together they lead an attack that is ultimately successful.

The scene is memorable because it’s (1) incredibly cool, both on a visual level and a story/character level, and (2) completely ridiculous. Diana, who is just as vulnerable to gunfire as any human, has no covering at all over her arms or legs, and her shield is only big enough to protect her torso, yet somehow, a dozen or more soldiers with all manner of weapons firing from multiple angles can’t seem to land a single shot to her limbs. I know, I know, it’s just a movie, but the over-the-top absurdity does kinda undercut Diana’s whole you-can-succeed-if-you’re-brave-enough mentality.

On a more philosophical level: Diana seems to have no problem with killing humans, which is a bit jarring after seeing so many heroes from all different universes who so viscerally oppose it (e.g., Superman, Batman, Buffy, Aang). That’s not a criticism in itself. However, neither Diana nor the filmmakers seem to notice the hypocrisy in her position: That poor, weak-hearted humans fight wars because Ares corrupted them, whereas noble, strong-hearted Amazons fight wars because it’s the right thing to do. By the end of the movie, she’s decided to embrace a philosophy of love, but seemingly doesn’t even reflect on the many German soldiers she’s killed (most of whom would’ve given anything to escape the misery of the trenches). This values dissonance, like my other criticisms, is hardly unique to WW, but in an otherwise excellent movie, it stands out all the more.

Oh yeah, and one other thing. There are a lot of slow-mo action shots. I mean a lot. And that’s coming from someone who liked the Matrix sequels.

So, wow, I’ve rambled a lot.

In summary: If you’re at all interested in Wonder Woman, you should go check it out. It’s probably the best DC movie I’ve seen, apart from The Dark Knight. And if you do see it, let me know what you think!

2 responses to “Postmortem: Wonder Woman (spoilers)

  1. I had sort of planned to see it (“intended” might be more accurate), but I really feel like I’ve hit a wall with superhero movies this year. Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the last Spider-Man movie… (and there was another one, which has apparently slipped my mind).

    With each one, I thought it sounded good and then somehow never actually saw it. It may be related to what you point out about this one – that they tend to get loud and obvious in the last act, no matter what’s come before. I always imagine that some corporate guy shows up towards the end and reminds the director that every single penny of the CGI budget has to be used, or else. And explosions.

    Or, as I talked about on my blog recently, it may just be that superhero movies are so calculated and predictable compared to the best superhero comics. There’s certainly no feeling of fatigue when I go to my local comic book shop every Wednesday. 🙂

    • For what it’s worth, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is pretty wonderful, IMO. Yeah, it has that same climactic, somewhat tiresome CGI boomfest, but it’s also really funny from start to finish, even in the midst of the CGI. And, for me, the opening-credits sequence alone justified the price of the ticket. 😀

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