Directed by Patty Jenkins Produced by Charles Roven Deborah Snyder Zack Snyder Richard Suckle Screenplay by Allan Heinberg Story by Zack Snyder Allan Heinberg Jason Fuchs Cinematography Matthew Jensen Edited by Martin Walsh
The first half of 2017 has been an overall excellent year for superhero films. Logan kicked things off with the genres first proper revisionist film. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. for all of its rainbow space opera aestheticism bared its soul, revealing a familial melodrama more interested in showing the emotive range of its motley crew than the blockbuster spectacle one would expect from this kind of movie. Now comes Wonder Woman, which is by appearances the most traditional superhero feature of the lot. Appearances are deceiving, while still playing with certain conventions that have dominated this genre in the last decade, which make it feel in many ways similar to a Marvel Phase 1 film. It is the manner in which director Patty Jenkins and her crew go about portraying them is often novel and worth just as much examination as the films that have already come out this year. Calling Wonder Woman “fine” is true, and exactly what WB and the DCEU needed after a divisive and bruising 2016, but that undersells it. Sure, it has some rough edges but this movie is pretty great where it counts.
After all that, this is going to sound like fainter praise, but the fact that Wonder Woman isn’t a fundamentally broken piece of filmmaking like the theatrical cuts of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad is a huge relief. This is a base level of competency that should be a given for a major studio like Warner Bros. but those prior releases had such catastrophic failures (in particular the editing) that I was legitimately worried Wonder Woman would be similarly broken. It isn’t! It just has the normal issue most of these types of movies have: third act transition isn’t as smooth as you’d like, that climatic act overall is a bit soggy compared to previous ones, but at this point, I’d consider those generic features not bugs.
In a lot of ways, understandably, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins with cinematography by Matthew Jensen, is formally akin to Zack Snyder’s prior DCEU films, Man of Steel in particular. There is the consistent use of speed ramping to hold iconographic or powerful moments. We see the hero’s early childhood, in mostly linear order. There is a surrealistic meeting of the mind between antag and protagonist. Thematically it continues to grapple with the nature of, and acts of, heroism by these outside actors. On humanity, their shortcomings, and if we are even worth Wonder Woman, or any heroes time. Wonder Woman’s end product is the kind of movie we thought, Man of Steel was going to be. All of these touchstones are focused through a different prism than Snyder’s prior features: the character of Diana Prince. Snyder’s movies are in many aspects exercises in stretching icons (and assumed levels of empathy) in a weary, doubting, world. In Wonder Woman, Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg, play with those morally grey motifs, but because that grey is contrasted with the education of Diana the movie is able to have its morally grey icing and still be if not “upbeat,” emotionally sound and thoughtful in ways Man of Steel wasn’t. It’s in this regard that Jenkins talk of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie rings through, along with a brief action piece that echoes the film.
While a recent rewatch of Man of Steel has lessened my read of Clark as aloof and uncaring, it’s still apparent the character doesn’t fully think through what “helping” or his mission, defined in idealistically vague terms by his ghostly fathers, really entails. This isn’t the case for Diana, who is raised alongside her fellow Amazons with cleanly defined moralities. Watching Diana grow up lets Jenkins make clear what Diana and the Amazons mission is and create a reference point once the film leaves the island.
Going into this film it was odd to see the consistent question of lead Gal Gadot’s acting ability. As if near unanimous praise from Batman v Superman, or a series of solid turns as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise and other action movies of the kind didn’t exist. Unsurprisingly she is spectacular in this movie. It feels restrictive to her as actress to compare turn as Wonder Woman with Christopher Reeve and Superman (or Hugh Jackman as Logan for that matter), it is however the simplest way to express the sheer level of “rightness” for all involved. Her Diana is fierce and independent, but not without empathy she is always looking to help. While her character is naïve to the outside world, the film don’t look down on her for that. It becomes a point of inspiration for those around her.
It is her clearly defined morality and mission, and how it conflicts with the parameters of Man’s World that forms the core drama, all beautifully encapsulated in the relationship between Diana and American-British spy Steve Trevor(Chris Pine). Trevor crashes to earth and literally bursts Paradise Islands bubble, bringing with it the horrors of Man and the revelation that it is 1918 and World War I has been waging for four years with millions dead. This makes Diana believe it can only be the work of Ares and even if her Mother forbids it, she must journey forth and defeat the Greek God. Pine is an excellent co-lead in this movie, Steve Trevor isn’t portrayed as a man looking for something to believe or a gender flipped damsel, he’s a fully formed character with a world-weary pragmatism. The pragmatism and weariness in Pines performance is neither overwrought or dourer. Amazingly this film manages to deal with the horrors of war and WWI in general while still being upbeat. It acts as a foil for Gadot’s earnesty, with one another pushing and pulling to realize new things.
Once they reach London, a grey, polluted, industrialized city – it’s not for everyone Trevor dryly remarks – Wonder Woman gets to be its most outwardly feminist, beyond the idea of Strong Female Character. Diana’s presence reveals the constructed nature of gender and social norms, as Steve, and an enraptured Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), try to make her look less divine. At one point giving her Clark Kent-esque glasses that only seem to make her look better.
The movie doesn’t really dig into the more kink oriented aspects of Wonder Woman’s mythos or queer ones. Though, the latter is gestured towards more in so much as it recognizes Diana’s own sexual agency and leaves unsaid the obvious conclusions drawn from an island filled with only women.
When things reach the Front, it becomes clear that this may not be so much a quest for peace, but nuance and understanding as Diana’s ideals are put into action. It’s here where the spectacle driven third act rears its ugly head, eating up time that could’ve been redistributed here for further examination. As it is the search for nuance, that people contain multitudes, is expressed in a series of small character moments from Steve’s motley crew of mercenaries: Sameer, Charlie and Chief. Who along with Steve show they are more than a Thief, Murderer, Smuggler, and Con Man based on Diana’s initial impressions. Everyone in this crew brings these largely stock characters to life with good enough performances that you want more from these not-Howling Commandos.
On its face placing this version of Wonder Woman’s first trip into Man’s World in WWI instead of WW2 (which birthed all these superheroes) seems like a choice meant to distance itself from comparisons to the WW2 set Captain America: The First Avengers. A film whose strengths and weaknesses are really mirrored in Wonder Woman. WWI is the perfect setting for this education of Diana, and that’s what this movie is an education. In a search for nuance, it’s kind of hard for the audience to buy into when the other side are Nazis. With history’s greatest monster’s decades away, the film is able to assert a universal humanity and make her question some of her high contrast beliefs.
The front brings out a tension in how Diana and Steve want to carry out their mission. Steve wants to stop Dr. Maru’s latest chemical weapon to save future lives and help force an armistice. Diana wants to save the people now and stab a God. That tension leads to a legitimately great set piece that echoes the “Angels of Mons” myth as Diana decides to save people now, help be damned. During that sequence, something even more extraordinary happens: a different kind of action is shown. Diana is there to destroy the corrupting Ares and his means of corruption, weapons, not men. As Diana charges through the trenches she takes out machine gun emplacements, at one point the film speed ramps her breaking a rifle across her back. Wonder Woman plays by normal action movie or Arkham rules: if they aren’t explicitly coded as dead (or buried under a church), they are just “knocked out” … and with many broken bones. The ones who kill in this sequence are all the men, with guns.
In an interview with IGN, Patty Jenkins noted “She is actually one of the superheroes, interestingly, who is not adverse to killing when necessary, which is fascinating. But she also is the least likely to do it, I think, because she will always try anything else before she will resort to killing anyone. That's an incredible balance of Wonder Woman.”
While on the front, it becomes clear that this may not be so much a quest for peace, but nuance and understanding as Diana’s ideals are put into action. It’s here where the spectacle driven third act rears its ugly head, eating up time that could’ve been redistributed here for further examination. As it is the search for nuance, that people contain multitudes, is expressed in a series of small character moments from Steve’s motley crew of mercenaries: Sameer, Charlie and Chief. Who along with Steve show they are more than a Thief, Murderer, Smuggler, and Con Man based on Diana’s initial impressions. Everyone in this crew brings these largely stock characters to life with good enough performances that you want more from these not-Howling Commandos.
On its face placing this version of Wonder Woman’s first trip into Man’s World in WWI instead of WW2 (which birthed all these superheroes) seems like a choice meant to distance itself from comparisons to the WW2 set Captain America: The First Avengers. A film whose strengths and weaknesses are really mirrored in Wonder Woman. WWI is the perfect setting for this education of Diana, and that’s what this movie is an education. In a search for nuance, it’s kind of hard for the audience to buy into when the other side are Nazis. With history’s greatest monsters decades away, the film is able to assert a universal humanity and make her question some of her high contrast beliefs.
The spectacle driven third act is a familiar one. It’s a familiar template that offers up a big CGI driven set piece between divine figures, of course set at night. This one is however perhaps a bit better than the run of the mill CGI smackdown. The choreography doesn’t offer anything too interesting, it’s rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, but provides for thematically consistent symbolism. Most importantly how Wonder Woman executes this familiar beat, by transitioning into a Fifth Element and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix register of melodrama, with the blockbuster equivalent of Douglas Sirk style lighting. That may not be for everyone, but the overall structure of the set piece allowed for one last externalization of Diana and Steve’s methodology, with the resulting emotionally satisfying, sincere, synthesis.
This movie is more than fine. The first female directed superhero film since Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander) feels like a damn revelation. Yes, it packs in some tried and true beats, but the rhythms are different. How Jenkins and Matthew Jensen shoot the mostly athlete extras that make up the Amazons, as they jump off their horses in mindboggling and awesome ways, is not how Zack Snyder and Larry Fong or other men would’ve done it. These little tweaks to familiar beats both to the motifs of the DCEU and genre as a whole add up for something different: a DC Comics kind of movie. I’m a dude, I’m not going to get the kind emotional experiences female critics and movie goers have shared. But I do get that this is a damn good movie, and one the world could honestly use more of at the moment.
Bits at The End
- If there is one annoyance it’s the lack of screen time for Danny Houston and Elena Anaya. The former is given a spiffy officers uniform and a german accent and dosen’t get to chew as much scenery as you’d hope. Elena is just fantastic in general, her eyes do a lot with a little. But the film wasn’t about them, and they are there to support Gal.