First of the new DC-verse movies I’ve seen! Largely, I went because of the argument that is now defunct, given Wonder Woman‘s box office performance: I’m sick of conversations about how successful female-directed, female-led superhero movies need to be to be considered a ‘success’. Plenty of people went to see all the other new DC movies because they liked Batman, or Superman. I went to see Wonder Woman because it’s a female-led, female-directed superhero movie. So, obviously I don’t want to write anything incorrect from a point of clear ignorance, but nor do I feel I should need to look things up in order to make sense of what should work fine as a stand-alone movie.
The lack of enthusiasm in the above paragraph may have warned you that what follows might not be a popular opinion, given the internet’s adoration of the movie (well, the section of the internet I frequent, anyway). That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I loved probably two-thirds of it. But it all kind of went to shit somewhere between Diana and Steve’s slow-dance and The Obligatory Bit Where Everything Explodes.
I’ll admit to shivers and glossy eyes in the opening scenes set in Themiscyra: no doubt, had I seen this film at age ten or so, I’d have been shadow-boxing along with young Diana, and on my weekend horse-rides, I’d have been imagining that no BSA-approved inches-thick riding helmet came between my flowing hair and the winds of freedom. Genuinely, even as a thirty-year-old, I’d be very tempted to chuck everything else in for a life on Themiscyra anyway. With Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen in charge, who wouldn’t? I liked Hippolyta’s unyielding flexibility: say no repeatedly, then agree when it’s obvious it’s going to happen anyway. Why force Diana to leave home with a sour taste in her mouth? It was a refreshing moment, at least.
Though I could have done without the Amazons’ insistence on trying to copy Gal Gadot’s accent. If they all speak all the languages, couldn’t the actresses have just spoken with their usual voices? Ah well, it’s Hollywood multiculturalism; despite Ze German Accents making frequent appearances (I hope Steve Trevor’s German is better than Chris Pine’s German accent), we did get to enjoy Diana and Sameer’s whip-smart ripostes in any number of global languages. Though after that scene, Sameer’s linguistic abilities did seem to collapse into repeated exclamations of ‘voilá!’ that’s still pretty French I guess.
I’ll admit that I had to look up Sameer’s name, though he was the most fleshed-out of the side-characters (arguably including Steve Trevor). Throughout the movie, I found myself wondering: what’s up with the characterisation? Why can’t I get into these peoples’ story the way I could — and so many others seemingly couldn’t — in the case of Rogue One? Again we have a rag-tag ensemble of people from different backgrounds who haven’t been able to live the lives they wanted to live because of oppression and war. Many of the meetings occur for the first time; you can perfectly well tell, rather than show their backgrounds in this instance. But it was only Sameer’s comments on how he’d hoped to be an actor that really offered a peg for me to hook my imagination on to; Chief’s peoples’ oppression in the States gives him a backdrop, but not an individual story. Spud from Trainspotting (…Charlie?) had a story that was more trope than character, and his miraculous recovery from shell shock felt a little trite in hindsight, though I enjoyed it on the initial viewing.
Steve Trevor. Steve, Steve, Steve. Maybe I’m missing something, Steve. But with the promise that he ‘tried doing nothing, and that didn’t work’, I thought we’d learn more about his background, yet we never did. He was a solid sort of guy, the usual spy with a conscience, and I was finally won round at the moment he grabbed the lasso and wrapped it round his own wrist to admit that the mission was happening anyway and it was a terrible idea and they were probably going to die. But I wasn’t really feeling the romance between him and Diana. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to be invested, and the movie didn’t explain — for me, at least — what Diana saw there in particular. Maybe it was just because Chris Pine is ‘above average.’ SPOILERS Of course, plenty of male action heroes and superheroes have their angsty yell of motivation when the benign love-interest dies, but I find those moments just as implausible as Diana’s own cry of pain. /SPOILERS
Gal Gadot’s Diana was certainly one of the best things in the movie. Despite her lack of knowledge of the world of men, and her still growing powers, she’s not quite any of the tropes you can apply to The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo — though maybe comes close to Phlebotinum Girl? — because, as applauded by plenty before me, she’s the hero of her own movie, and isn’t ever framed by the male gaze.Her naïveté is toyed with, but never undermines herastuteness. In the first two-thirds I hope she’ll be the hero on which plenty of young girls pin their ambitions; she’s blunt and passionate and incredibly powerful. When she crosses No Man’s Land it’s an effective bit of fantasy: this space could not be crossed without someone strong enough to draw all the fire. She’s there to do that, and it’s all the opportunity the other Allies need.
But the setting does not work so well in the rest of the movie. The ensuing scene in the village is more Saving Private Ryan than Wilfred Owen, right down to the snipers and sticky bombs (I’m trying to think of towns in WW1 settings; the French girls in All Quiet on the Western Front are an escape, like Paris for characters in Birdsong and Journey’s End [if I recall my A level synoptics correctly], and The Wipers Times has the necessary capture and defence of the press, but I don’t remember the town having a fully fledged cutsey Belgian society just waiting to pop out and dance once the fighting stops). The Germans are nasty proto-Nazis who don’t even pause to blink in astonishment at the sight of leather-clad women abseiling from shining white cliffs, wielding fiery arrows, where before there had been only grey fog and dark seas. That horrific gas developed by Dr Poison, crueller than any of the chemical weapons actually used indiscriminately in WW1, doesn’t even tickle our heroine’s lungs, and even Steve suffers no more than a delicate cough so long as he doesn’t enter the cloud for long. He Judges, who had a relative killed by gas in WW1, felt that a lot of this was actively disrespectful; I wouldn’t go so far, but WW1 is such a large part of the UK education system still that it meant I nitpicked at elements of the setting that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
SPOILERS And of course, when we come to the big finale, the ‘alternate’ part of this ‘alternate history’ setting really came to the fore. The battle with Ludendorff was satisfying, and justified the super-steroid he’d been snorting, in that it allowed Diana to believe she was really fighting Ares. Then Ares turned out to be David Thewlis. Sorry, I mean Ares turned out to be an actual plot point. Disappointing. But I went ‘ok, I guess, if we’re doing this we know she can’t kill him, because WW2 is right around the corner, right?’ Uh, wrong?
But how does Diana explain the Holocaust? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? All the other genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century? Her closing monologue speaks of the good and the bad in all humanity, but it’s already been completely undercut by the fact that she’d placed all hope of ending war in the destruction of the God of War, who she duly turned into a giant, smoking crater. German boys look up in astonishment and hug the Chief; everyone is happy, either because David Thewlis is dead, or because Ludendorff is dead, or because Steve blew up all the nasty gas (won’t it still be in the atmosphere? What if it bonds with water molecules?), or maybe because Diana didn’t kill Maru, she just casually dropped a tank on her… (an accident of editing, I’m sure)
The potential for something more interesting lay abandoned beneath the CGI: as Diana and Ares fought their pointless, divine battle, the humans scurried around getting stuff done. Not, perhaps, the best way to boost your superheroine’s connection with mankind at the climax of the action… /SPOILERS
Look – I’ll make the same kind of complaints when I watch Captain America: The First Avenger. The vast majority of that movie is three montages stitched together (Steve training, Steve on tour, Steve fighting Nazis), and HISHE mocked the ending far better than I could. That doesn’t mean that Wonder Woman shouldn’t be held to account for its own problems. Though personally, I blame the men: story by Zac Snyder, script by Allan Heinberg. You can shoot it however you want, you can act it as well as you like, but the plot holes will still be there.
Ah, but it did look gorgeous. Best use of bullet time since The Matrix itself. And Diana is the doe-eyed warrior of my heart. Dr Poison was underused, and I didn’t even get round to talking about it here, and I’d have loved more of Sameer and Etta and the others. There was a lot that the movie wanted to cram in, and depth was always going to be lost to breadth. It’s not the balance I’d have plumped for, and not the ending I’d have chosen, but I’m glad so many people are getting so much joy from it, and I’m looking forward to the other superheroine movies it will hopefully inspire.