Again, I am doing a movie out of order, though that may just be the new order. But this one is big, so I felt the need to do a write-up for it. I write, of course, of Wonder Woman, the new DC movie featuring Gal Gadot as the titular character.
Wonder Woman is the first successful modern (I’m not counting Helen Slater’s portrayal of Supergirl, which I will eventually get to, someday) movie in the superhero genre to have a female character as the lead. There was the Jennifer Garner vehicle, Elektra, in 2005,followup to Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Daredevil, but it was neither particularly good or successful. So this is a big deal; as of the writing, Wonder Woman has grossed $254 million dollars worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Marvel won’t get around to making a female-lead superhero movie until 2019, with Captain Marvel. Wonder Woman is also probably DC’s most high-profile female hero (and probably the only one most people can name), so it was only fitting that she get a movie; she’s part of DC’s trinity of big heroes, alongside such worthies as Batman and Superman. And, because she’s at least partially based in Greek mythology, this review gives me a chance to wear both my comic and mythology geek hats. Be prepared.
So, some background. Wonder Woman is one of the earliest female superheroes, but not THE earliest; that honor goes to Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, who debuted in Jungle Comics #2 in February of 1940. There are several others who come close; you can check them out here. Wonder Woman first appeared over a year later, in the 8th issues of All-Star Comics published in October 1941. Her creation is a bit unusual; her creator, William Moulton Marston, is also the creator of the polygraph machine (maybe where the idea for Wonder Woman’s lasso comes from), and he wanted to create a hero who triumphed not through firepower or superior brawn, but love. His wife said that the character should be a woman, and so Wonder Woman was born. Marston’s history alone is worthy of reading, since he and his wife were also in a polyamorous relationship with another woman, Olive Byrne, who may have been the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s looks, and was certainly the inspiration for her famous bracers. He also had some interesting views on the role of bondage and submission in life; originally, Wonder Woman’s greatest weakness was that she lost her amazing strength if her bracers were chained together (comics, everyone!).
Wonder Woman is an Amazon, or at least lives on the mythical island of Themiscyra with them, an island which has been hidden away by the magic of the (Greek) gods. The Amazons, in real-world mythology, were a tribe of female warriors mentioned several times,with characters such as Penthesilea or her sister, Hippolyta, showing up as unique figures. Hippolyta, who in mythology is a daughter of Ares and has a girdle that is the subject of one of Hercules’ mythical labors, is, in the DC Comic, Wonder Woman’s – or Diana’s – mother. If you’re confused, join the club; if not, then I haven’t been sufficiently descriptive. In any case, Hipployta, in DC’s version, wants a child, and the Amazons do not really associate with men, or really mankind at all; so the head god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, helps her to mold a child out of magical clay, and that child turns out to be Diana (this is all pre-New 52 reboot, since I haven’t read a DC comic since then). For those of you who know much about Zeus, that’s actually one of the least freaky ways he had a child with a woman.
Wonder Woman grows into an adult on the magically hidden Themiscyra (which, in reality, is not an island, but rather a plain and/or a river, but I digress), but finds an opportunity to go out into the world of man when a pilot, Steve Trevor, crash-lands somehow on the island while fleeing the Nazis (hey, the comic came out during WWII, of course it was originally Nazis). With power gifted to her by various Greek gods – including her strength, superhuman speed, flight, and the ability to communicate with animals (a gift from the goddess Artemis), he joined the war effort, and eventually joined the big superhero team of the era, the Justice Society of America – though, in a way that seems wildly misogynistic today, because she’s their secretary. Yes, really.
This goes on through several decades,with multiple changes to Wonder Woman’s background occurring – sometimes she has a secret identity as Diana Prince, sometimes she is the official ambassador of Themiscyra to the world, sometimes DC decides that Diana is older than she looks, and sometimes it is explained that Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, was the actual WWII Wonder Woman. Yes, it’s confusing, and that’s before you get into the even-more-bizarre-than-mythology goings-on of the DC Comics Greek gods, the multiple tribes of Amazons, or some of Wonder Woman’s more colorful exclamations in the comics, like “Suffering Sappho!” Still, though, throughout it all, Wonder Woman is a powerhouse – lots of power, described by Batman as perhaps the best melee fighter on Earth, and yet she serves as an ambassador of peace to the world.
It’s probably no secret that I’m not much of a fan of the DC cinematic universe so far; I found Man of Steel depressing and gloomy, Batman v. Superman almost too painful to watch, and Suicide Squad the best of the three even with the blatant misogyny and racism. I had low hopes for this movie when I first heard about it, even though Gal Gadot was probably the best part of Batman v. Superman. After the performance of DC thus far, I had little reason to think they would put together a decent movie. Even the first trailer didn’t do much for my hopes for the movie:
Yes, it looked like there were some good action scenes, but that’s never been the problem for DC – their problem is making everything as dark and gritty as Batman, and then making Batman darker and grittier. That, and generally poor scripts, tend to contribute to DC’s movies having been subpar. But wait, I said, as information began to come out – Patty Jenkins (who was originally slated to direct Thor 2) was enlisted as director! Her only previous film was Monster, with Charlize Theron, but they got a female director, and an award-winning one, at that! As bits and pieces of information began to come out about the movie, I let myself actually start to think that this movie could be DC’s big break, the one that gives them a little credit. And by the time the final trailer rolled around, I was pretty hyped up:
Looks pretty good, right? So I was actually starting to feel good about this. Then I went to go see the movie this past Saturday (June 3rd, for those of you paying attention)…. and I Was not disappointed.
First, the movie has a pretty great cast. It’s not full of A-list actors (well, yet), but there is a very solid group of people working on film here. First, of course, is Gal Gadot, as Diana/Wonder Woman. She’s an Israeli actress and model, and actually served timed in the Israeli military, so I think she had some real-life experience with at least combat training before she started. Also, she’s got presence. Yes, she’s beautiful, but when she acts as Wonder Woman, you actually believe that she could be this mythical Amazon princess walking into the hell of No Man’s Land. Then comes Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, her nominal love interest; Pine really puts in a good performance here, I felt, and while he is the ‘merely’ mortal man alongside Diana, the movie doesn’t just gender-flip the traditional hero/damsel in distress roles; Pine is clearly capable on his own, just not super-powered-capable. The Amazons bring some acting talent to the table, with Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta, and Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup herself!) as the battle-scarred Amazon general Antiope. Also in the mix, though she doesn’t get named on-screen, is professional female boxer Ann Wolfe, who has held multiple boxing titles, as the badass Artemis.
On the side of the bad guys, we have Danny Huston, whose name many people probably don’t remember but whose face many will recognize from many (often villainous) roles as the German General Ludendorff (a real-life person, one who was not, in fact, beaten by Wonder Woman), David Thewlis (who puts in an excellent performance, but telling more would give it away), and Spanish actress Elena Anaya as the chemist, ‘Dr. Poison’, creating a more destructive form of mustard gas. There are some other actors who pop up in smaller roles, like Lucy Davis as Steve’s secretary Etta Candy, or Ewen Bremner (whom I recognized from his role way back in Trainspotting) as PTSD-saddled sniper Charlie, or even Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, the actor turned secret agent because, as he notes in the film, he’s the wrong color to become famous in acting.
The movie opens on Themiscyra, with a young Diana seemingly very interested in the military training of many of the Amazons. She seems very interested in it, to the point of distressing her mother, Hippolyta, who explains that she never wants Diana to have to fight, and tells the story of how the gods created man, then the Amazons to give mankind an example to live up to, and then Ares, god of war, gets mankind to war on each other while he tries to kill off the other gods. Ares kills all but Zeus, who strikes Ares down; dying, Zeus entrusts the last of his power to hide the Amazons and give Hippolyta the clay with which she will make Diana. They train for the day that they fear Ares will return.
Diana, of course, ignores this, because she’s a kid and the fighting looks like fun, so she trains in secret (at first with her ‘aunt’ Antiope, then when she grows up, she is pushed hard to become the best by her mother (when she realizes Diana won’t be dissuaded from her pursuit of the ways of war). Steve Trevor crashes nearby, and while Diana goes to rescue him, Germans hunting Steve find the Amazon island, and attack – and while the Germans are defeated, many Amazons die. Learning of the Great War (World War I, for those paying attention) from Steve, Diana decides that this – this is Ares at work, and she must face him and defeat him once and for all. So she steals away to London with Steve.. and the rest you’ll have to see the movie to find out. Well, except for the No Man’s Land scene, which is possibly THE action scene of the movie, where we see what Wonder Woman is capable of, holding off the entire German line on her own. Funnily enough, it seems that scene almost didn’t make it into the movie, and I’m shocked, because it’s the core of the film.
As for what I think of the movie… well, first, it gives us an amazing female superhero. Diana on-screen is amazing, both in her ability to fight, and in her compassion and love that she shows often. She is capable of taking on No Man’s Land by herself, true, but so of her best scenes come not in combat, but outside of it. She is from a place the modern world has forgotten, but she isn’t naive, and the wonder she shows at things (like ice cream) really sells her nature. And while she has a love interest, I think her most emotional scene, for me, is when she speaks to Charlie, the sniper of their little band who is crippled with PTSD to the point of being unable to shoot. When he makes intimations that he’ll stay behind because he’s of no use, Diana smiles at him and asks “But who will sing for us?” He’s not just a soldier to her, but a human being, even a friend, and she sees value in him beyond his skills.
I’ve mentioned the acting talent above, so I won’t reiterate that. What I will say is that, while large chunks of this movie are dull and dark, like the Man of Steel movie, that’s because they take place on a World War I battlefront; there are parts that are full of color and life, and those scenes really bring something that was lacking in the DC movie universe. The story, too, is solid; while it paints Diana as somewhat naive in thinking that simply defeating Ares will stop the war – in fact, all wars – it also shows her dealing with what it means for mankind to be fighting wars of their own volition. I’ve noted to friends that while I don’t feel this measures up to the Tier 1 Marvel movies, it is solidly Tier 2, and I think it fits in best alongside its closest relative, Captain America: The First Avenger. This isn’t a knock on Wonder Woman; Captain America is my absolute favorite superhero, but while I like his first movie, it is his second and third (as well as his appearances in the Avengers movies) where he really shines. I think Wonder Woman is DC’s best movie to date, but I think that while this movie shows Wonder Woman can be good, I think that with this initial success, they can make the next one even better.
There are parts of the movie I wasn’t thrilled with. The soundtrack was nothing to write home about, though that’s hardly a crime; not everybody can score a movie like John Williams for the Star Wars movies, after all, and Marvel movie soundtrack are largely forgettable, as well. And while the first two acts of the movie are solid, nearing great, the third act is a bit of a letdown, sending some mixed messages that made the ending a bit confusing to me. Also, Ares, when he appears, is certainly not what I expected – though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it was kind of a shock. I’m curious to see where they go with a second Wonder Woman movie; Wonder Woman’s villain roster is kind of bizarre, and has often been weighted heavily with figures from, or inspired by, Greek mythology, but this movie killed off the Greek gods.
In any case, while I am obviously a man, and so I can’t speak to the experience of seeing a truly good female-fronted superhero movie as a woman, I think this movie is well worth seeing. I’ve only seen it once, but I want to go again… and maybe again after that. It will definitely find a place of distinction on my shelf when it comes out in stores (unless Batman v. Superman, which I only own for the sake of completeness). So if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. And if you have seen it, I encourage you to hit me up for discussion, because, well, why not?