In the first place, caveats:
Whatever hope, or positive message regarding the defense of women and children from the destructive forces of patriarchal society that might be wrought fro this film are substantively undercut by the casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Gadot is an ardent Zionist and supporter of the oppression and brutalization of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. And, as we know, the sorts of conditions imposed upon the Palestinian people are typically worse for Women and Children, as they are usually among the most vulnerable in any society. Beyond this, the justification for the existence and implementation of Israel is almost entirely justified by the mythology of one of the most patriarchal religions ever established on Earth. (Which is about as tenuously based in history as a Mythology could be.)
The moral core of Wonder Woman’s character cannot be taken to matter to the filmmakers in any serious or consistent way.
This movie did what I think most super hero movies need to do: hire a person not typically involved in the production of blockbuster/adventure films to direct a blockbuster/adventure film. Warner Bros hired Patty Jenkins to make the film, and she is best known for the crime film/character study Monster. It’s the one Furiosa won an Oscar for because she put on a bunch of weight and sat in make-up long enough every day to make her ugly—basically setting the precedent for Leonardo DiCaprio’s win last year.
This sort of directorial choice has a tendency to work out well both artistically—Think Irvin Kirshner in the case of The Empire Strikes Back, Tim Burton with Batman (1989)—and commercially—think Christopher Nolan and his Batman trilogy.
And this choice has worked out here critically—the Rotten Tomatoes score sits at 94%, and its Metacritic score is 77% and it’s IMDB score is 8.5. The film has also grossed around 444 million dollars worldwide in its first week and a bit of release. Those are good numbers.
However, I think that artistically, aesthetically, narratively, and thematically the film is kind of a mess. Because I think this movie is confused about what it is supposed to be/wants to be.
[Warning: There will be spoilers hereafter – this is not your typical review, but is in addition an examination of several of the themes that are raised in the film, meaning plot points will be discussed – you’ve been warned!]
This is a film about Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a great heroic character. She is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazon’s—the society of warrior women from the realm of Greek and Roman myth, who have thrown off the literal chains of male oppression—they were at one time enslaved by Hercules and his men—and were then granted their own magically hidden and protected island by Zeus in aftermath. Diana was, depending on the version you’ve chosen to read, sculpted from clay by Hippolyta and given life and super-powers by Zeus, or, simply the child of Zeus and Hippolyta (and so is a demi-god). She is raised by her mother and community with a strong, firm moral code that prioritizes defending women and children from men (because dudes are awful), seeks love, understanding, and peace before violence, but does not shrink from violence should it prove necessary to protect the most vulnerable.
Diana is chosen, or, while disguised, wins the right in a trial by combat, to be the ambassador of Themyscira to the patriarchal world beyond its magical boundaries in order to fix the damned mess men have made. This turns out to be difficult because dudes are terrible. And hence why Diana is still at it despite her wisdom and power.
The amazons are typically forced into sending an ambassador to the world of men because a pilot/or otherwise military man named Steve Trevor lands on their island (typically during World War II), and they need to return him, and enter diplomatic relations with other nations to prevent more damned men from bothering them.
Early on, and for much of Wonder Woman’s publication history, Steve Trevor was a love interest for Diana. Though, more recently, in the various reboots of Wonder Woman this gets dumped in favor of some kind of more friendly, or practical alliance. This is a good change. Steve Trevor, whatever his character, is a man from the world of men, and so part of the problem she is there to (help) solve. So, shoving her into a very standard patriarchal romantic relationship with Steve Trevor weakens her character.
And for what it is worth, the relegating of Steve to the Friend Zone, or the tolerated, practically useful ally, is more consistent with the intentions of her creator. William Moulton Marston saw Wonder Woman as a piece of propaganda promoting female supremacy and providing an example of the kind of woman that should lead humanity. (Though, he himself could not resist certain pretty sexist tropes).
However, despite this intention, and the recent presentation of Wonder Woman as free from a standard romance with an unworthy human dude, Wonder Woman is a character often caught between the female supremacy inherent to the character and the desire to make her appealing to male consumers of media. Wonder Woman is always very conventionally attractive and sexy. Often verging on waif-like, or more recently, a bit built—but not too built. And, especially earlier in her life on the printed page, often too ready to defer to the men around her. Despite her obvious power and ability, is made by less impressive male super-heroes the secretary of the Justice Society in the 40s.
The film is very badly mired in this set of conflicting elements, and resolves them in the favor of making Wonder Woman palatable to men, neuter her feminist/female supremacist motives, and make her dependent upon a dude who knows better than she does—because he’s a man. This makes the character of Wonder Woman, and the film, weaker. And it is the prime operating logic behind the film, and Diana’s character arc (insofar as she has one).
Diana begins the actual story of the film (and not just the world building that precedes the story of the film) still uncertain of herself, and her abilities as an Amazonian warrior, despite being better, and harder trained than any Amazon ever, and her seeming to have magic powers the other Amazonians do not have. She has to stop doubting herself. Okay. The question set up, then, is: when will she start becoming sure of herself?
Answer: When a dude shows up, helps her break free of the Amazons and her Mother, and gives her the OK to go about the very job the Amazons were given by the Gods at their creation: make the world better. (Heck, even in this movie, the sole function of the Amazons is to make men better—this is established in the opening pre-main story world building).
his is the underlying logic of the film: Diana needs a dude to tell her what to do (so she can go and be the male fantasy version of her character (which to be fair, unfortunately has often been her character)).
This can be illustrated by examining just a few key events.
The story begins when Steve Trevor crashes his plane in the water near the shore of Themyscira during World War I (rather than WW2), he is pursued by some Germans in landing boats through the Zeus-installed magical barrier (that for some reason) has weakened to let Steve and these Germans through (but not all of the boats). Diana pulls him from the wreckage after seeing him hit the water, and once she gets him to shore the Germans are quickly upon them, and they come shooting. But a contingent of Amazonian warriors lead by Hippolyta arrives to defend their home from the invaders. During this fight, the Amazonians encounter guns for the first time, and this is somewhat devastating to their forces, but the Amazonians ultimately triumph because they are good at warfare, and the Germans have single shot rifles (as soldiers did in WWI), and little back up. (There’s a battle ship on the horizon and it launches a few shells, but then disappears behind the magic barrier, I guess, because more shells and more soldiers do not follow once all those on the beach have been dispatched).
During this fight, Diana and Steve are hiding behind some rocks on the beach, and during the fray, Diana is keen to get out and help defend her home. But Steve tells her to ‘stay’ and she does. Only heading into it after he has found a rifle and begun shooting Germans. What reason could she possibly have for listening to Steve, or obeying any command he has to offer? She has been raised in an all woman society, the founding of which was their liberation from male oppression. She has been taught that they are warlike, and kinda terrible, and corrupted by desires for power and wealth. And she obeys Steve while she is watching her fellow Amazonians, including her mother and her aunt, fighting like hell.
The reason is one of world logic. (It makes no sense plot, or character wise). He’s a dude, and he knows better, and he wants to keep her safe (for some reason—potential property). So she should do what he tells her. And she does.
Wonder Woman gets a reverse make over. Kind of like in those teen movies from the 1990s—remember She’s all That, et al.? When Steve and Diana leave Themyscira, Diana is wearing her breastplate, skirt, tiara/crown, unbreakable gauntlets, and armored, thigh high boots, carrying her shield, sword, and lasso of truth. But over all of this, she is wearing a long fur coat. And this is sensible. They are travelling to London via an open sailing boat. It is going to get cold.
But, when they get to London, Diana can’t go walking around in what she is wearing, because Steve wants to keep her identity a secret, and stop other dudes from staring at, or otherwise noticing her—or something. And he wants this despite the fact that she is wearing a floor length fur coat over her battle gear. So, she kind of just looks like a tall rich lady. But, for some reason, this won’t do. She needs to blend in or something—the idea that the princess of an isolated island nation wishing to make diplomatic contact after a war has spilled onto its shore is not an appropriate cover story.
So, he calls his secretary (Etta Candy—wonderfully, and too briefly, played by Lucy Davis) to help them go shopping and get her some appropriate lady clothes that she can’t really move in or fight in—so that she fits in, doesn’t have status, etc. They eventually, after many outfits, find a serviceable, grey suit for her, which is more form fitting than her fur coat, and so will make her stand out less, I guess? The final touch for the ensemble is a pair of black-rimmed glasses to, I gather, further de-emphasize her threateningness. The secretary remarks, with a wink to the audience, that a pair of glasses is not going to disguise Diana’s hotness.
During the set up of the make over, a very telling thing happens—when Etta is introduced to Diana, she describes her job—what a secretary is/does. Diana remarks that they call that slavery where she is from. Etta kind of laughs it off. And the movie moves on to the trying-on-outfits montage.
Later, when Steve and Diana are trying to turn over the plans for a devastating chemical weapon Steve stole from the Germans before crashing on Themyscira, Steve attempts to hush Diana at every moment, and downplay her immense frustration and anger with his superior’s shittiness, and general disregard for human life. And further, introduces her as his secretary—i.e., his slave, from Diana’s point of view. This is also breezed over quickly in the film. And doesn’t incense Diana, which is weird, since her mother and other Amazonians were literally enslaved and had to free themselves from male rule. Steve is a man, and therefore knows best, and must be listened to, or something–Or she needs him to find the front of the war? But I’m pretty sure if she just asked around London, she could get directions to The Western Front. (It’s in France—over there—across the large body of water—the Channel—You can’t miss it!)
After finally making it to the front and doing some fighting, Steve and Diana share a close romantic dance, because he needs to teach her to dance–for some reason–in the streets of a village they just liberated, and then bone that evening. And for some reason, Diana has some serious feels for this dude. Because he constantly tells her what she can and can’t do, I guess. She was, deep down, looking for a father figure, or strong male to rule her. Or something.
And the Fourth:
And then, there are two crucial things that happen toward the end of the film. The first is that Diana gets very briefly tired of Steve telling her what to do. He’s a bit too much of a company man for her and won’t let her solve the problem she, and the Amazonians kind of exist to solve. And she goes off on her own to kill Ares, the god of war, who is, from the Amazonian point of view, behind the war (which he kind of is).
This doesn’t quite work out the way she wants. The men making weapons and readying to kill lots of people won’t stop, even though Ares probably dead.
It then has to be explained to her that it is not Ares that is the problem—people are kind of awful at times. They are fighting not because a god is making them, but because they want to.
This leaves Diana kind of heartbroken. How can men be so awful? She realizes they don’t deserve her help. They won’t stop.
And then Steve is like—I still got to try stop this horrible chemical weapon from being used. There are many lives on the line—innocent and not. Got to do what I can, etc. Because “It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe!” Which is incoherent nonsense, but sure.
And then, after some more plot I should not spoil, she reaches her full potential, or something, because he loves her, or at least says he does, and then tells her what she needs to do. And his love and commands are what she needs to finally become the hero nobody deserves, but maybe she wants to be? Because she believes something? That innocent people are worth saving? Because that’s part of what motivates her to leave Themyscira in the first place? Well, that and following Steve around and getting told what to do.
Sigh. This movie wants you to believe that Diana is a Hero possessed of her own moral sensibilities and will that is independent from the will of men, but it continuously gives you a woman that does what a man tells her, and only reaches her full potential because a man tells her she should. The Wonder Woman of this film is a co-opted one, like the many early versions of her that appeared in the comic books of the 20th century.
In the end, Wonder Woman is not a bad film. I’d even call it a decent, film. You don’t feel like you’ve spent the run time in the theatre, and you aren’t bored for long stretches*. It just presents an impoverished version of Wonder Woman.
*At least until the end. It, like Batman Begins, lacks any and all tension in the final 20-30 minute resolution of the primary conflict of the narrative. You know what is going to happen the whole time, there is no suspense, or uncertainty about what the outcomes for the central characters will be—there is nothing at stake to really care about. It’s just a good old CGI fight-fest. Though, the interactions between the characters in the smaller moments of the film before all the computer assisted combat is where the film is most charming.
Simon’s Rating: (7.5 / 10)