***Heads up Spoilers!***
I like super heroes, you may have noticed this, (here, and here). So, of course I ran out this weekend to see Wonder Woman. As you probably already know, it’s a damn good film, it’s not perfect though. And I’m still wrestling with how groundbreaking it was or wasn’t for the super hero genre. But it was a solid origin story. It was fun and funny and did way more right than the few missteps it took. And it was the first super hero movie in a long time that I found inspiring, though the reason I found it inspiring is a mix bag.
Like women in modern society, ‘Wonder Woman’ the film had insane, unfair, and nigh impossible expectations thrusted upon it. It was directed by a woman and had a female star which was pressure enough for an action movie without it also being the first female led super hero film in this new super hero Renaissance. Studio execs have long used poorly done female super hero movies, like Halle Barry’s infamous ‘Catwoman’, as an excuse not to bring more female characters to the screen. And yet, like women do every day, Wonder Woman donned her armor, grabbed her lasso and not only met those expectations, but rose above them.
The undeniable way in which ‘Wonder Woman’ was groundbreaking was that it starred Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is not just a ‘female super hero’, she is THE female super hero. She is considered the first, and is by far, the most iconic. Even people who don’t know anything about comics, know and love her, and that’s despite the fact she’s never had a big studio movie before and her TV show ended in 1979.
By design Wonder Woman is feminist. She lives on Themyscrira, a mythical island home to the Amazons, an enlightened race of female warriors, designed by the gods to make mankind better. This narrative is kept in full for the movie. Director Patty Jenkins nails the Amazonians. They feel powerful and competent. During their brief battle scene they leap from cliffs firing arrows, sweep spears across the battlefield from horseback and bash heads in. They’re not invincible, they die, but that just makes them feel more remarkable.
The Amazons are special without feeling special. They’re played straight, another mythical race like the Asgardians of Thor. They have a purpose, social order and disputes as well as being proud warriors. They just all happen to be women. No Amazonian comments on this, even when Steve Trevor shows up, he’s not treated with suspicion because he’s a man but because he’s an outsider and the island is hidden for a reason.
I loved all that, it was so placidly, perfectly normal. It made complete sense for the Amazonians from story perspective. And yet it is so rare to see a single female warrior treated like an everyday fighter in mainstream pop culture, let alone a whole race of them. Usually female fighters are sexy fem fettles, or characters that act so ‘strong and bad ass’ that they feel self-conscious, like they’re making up for something or some male character will point out that they’re a girl, saying something like ‘you fight well for a woman’. None of that happen to the Amazonians.
This sense of female empowerment through just treating characters like normal people continued with Wonder Woman. Diana is naïve without being dumb. She’s been raised all her life to believe in a noble mission and simplistic truth. Mankind is inherently good. Ares clouds mankind’s thoughts and makes them fight and it’s up to the Amazonians to stop Ares and guide people back to that goodness.
When Diana sees people suffering she wants to help and it feels earnest. She’s not doing this to redeem herself or because of dead parents, but because she truly feels what these soldiers are doing is wrong and she should stop it. When she steps out into no man’s land in complete battle regala it feels earned and awesome. As she slides, strifes and bashes her with through German soldiers, her war-drum pounding theme song plays and it’s impossible not feel something.
Diana is assisted in her journey by Steve Trevor, who in the comics is her token love interest. Trevor is from the same ilk as Thor’s Jane Foster and Iron Man’s Pepper Pots, an automatic girlfriend/boyfriend that the hero just sort of has. Few in this crowd rise to the level of independent character like Louis Lane or Mary Jane Watson. And before this movie I would have never guessed that Steve Trevor would be one of them.
The few times I bumped into Trevor before this movie he was a total cad, like in the 2009 ‘Wonder Woman’ animated film. He was constantly ogling Diana and there was a lot of unnecessary ‘Man are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ crap going on. If you were to have told me that Chris Pine, who played a pretty cad like Captain Kirk, was going to pull off a nuanced Steve Trevor I wouldn’t have believed it, but he does.
Pine gives perhaps his best performance in this movie. His Steve Trevor treats Diana as a bit of an eccentric, but also as an equal and someone deserving his respect. Yes, he comments on the fact that she’s attractive, because she is, but so are most super heroes. Marvel makes sure to work in a shirtless beefcake scene in every film and DC took note. Trevor shows the most skin in ‘Wonder Woman’. But beyond that Steve Trevor’s story is perfectly blended with Diana. Trevor doesn’t feel like an added love interest that the writers don’t know what to do with so they give him some random job in the plot.
Trevor and Diana profit from each other both in the story and from a storytelling point of view. Trevor’s arc isn’t treated as subservient to Diana’s and when he decides to sacrifice himself it isn’t for her. He flies off with the deadly gas because it’s the right thing to do and that has a bigger impact on Wonder Woman and then any ‘fridging’ (killing off the love interest, often girlfriend, to give the hero added motivation) would have had.
‘Wonder Woman’ succeeds were most super hero films do and it also flatters where most do too. It’s third act is a mess. It has some good ideas, but everything happens too quickly, while at the same time dragging the final fight on way too long. The three villains in the film are its hammiest aspects. Ares is a decent foil, but he’s not given enough time to develop. Dr. Poison has a great look like most villains, but outside of being a plot device, doesn’t get to do much. And the less said about the proto-nazi Ludendorff the better.
Wonder Woman also faces some problems going forward. Her biggest weakness is that she’s part of DC’s grim dark cinematic universe. Since she popped up in ‘Batman V Superman’ Diana has been the best thing about this universe. But she might be forced to pull a lot of dead weight in her upcoming sequels, especially if ‘Justice League’ doesn’t work out.
I also have mix feelings about Diana sticking around in man’s world post ‘Wonder Woman’. I loved her working at the Louvre, but she’s pretty anti-war, and yet has been around since World War I and decided not to stop the Nazis, Pol Pot or any number of atrocities? If that’s an unfairly serious question to ask of super hero, then how about why didn’t she do anything about the near destruction the planet during ‘Man of Steel‘?
Marvel plans all its films out way in advance and has a defined timeline which lets them avoid problems like this. Thor and Hulk didn’t get involved in Civil War because they were off planet, Iron Man didn’t call the avengers for help against the Mandarin because he was self conscious (not all the reasons given are solid, but at least they have them). It’s true a line or two of dialogue could try to tie this up, but it still means that Wonder Woman is a century old god rather than a peer of Batman and Superman like she’s usually portrayed.
My final concern has less to do with the DC movies and more with Wonder Woman in general. Her rogues gallery isn’t particularly strong and her main villain is a character called ‘Cheetah’. Cheetah is a cat-lady, like a were-cheetah? Given the power level that Wonder Woman displayed at the end of her film, I doubt any cat lady could take her. This is a uniquely DC problem as their character’s powers tend to be far more unchained then Marvel’s. Thor might be a god too, but remove him from his hammer and he’s much more manageable.
But after seeing ‘Wonder Woman’ Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have my full confidence. I’m excited to see what they have in store for the iconic character. And I hope that ‘Wonder Woman’ lifts up not only DC’s movies, but Marvel’s too. There are many amazing female super heroes that deserve the level of care and respect Wonder Woman was given on the big screen. Let see who’s next!