Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) is reaping critical praise, and opened with an astounding one hundred million dollar weekend box office. It’s being hailed as the best movie in the DCEU—i.e., D.C. comics extended universe—although I’m not sure how exactly that’s different than the DC movies that preexisted that label.
Regardless, this is the first big screen standalone treatment of the character, which originally debuted during the Second World War, created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Wonder Woman was always a kind of female variation on Superman. Paradoxically, she was both a symbol of female empowerment and a pinup bondage fantasy. Initially, under the original artists, she was more feminist than titillating. Predictably, it was the pinup quality that drove the bulk of her fan base and informed most of her subsequent incarnations, the notable exception being the series helmed by George Perez’ silvery pencils. Even then, “Wonder Woman” comics never equaled the sales of her male counterparts. When it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was being cast as the big screen Wonder Woman, a lot of fanboys harped, comparing her unfavorably to 1970s TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter—because, frankly, Carter has more robust cleavage. In 2011, an updated TV movie was planned, but once publicity stills were released of actress Adrianne Palicki wearing a long pants version of the red, yellow, and blue suit, the DC fundamentalists were up in arms. They wanted legs, dammit, and went the politically correct route of whining about political correctness. The movie, which apparently was a pilot for a series, was purportedly wretched anyway, and seems to have vanished from memory. Five years later, when Gadot’s cameo proved the only bright spot in the execrable Batman vs. Superman, the fanatics were finally appeased, and thankfully silenced.
Wonder Woman is well-crafted, entertaining, and has a charismatic lead, which says a hell of a lot more than the recent crap fests Man of Steel, the aforementioned BvS, and Suicide Squad. It gets right what all those films missed—it remembers that simplicity, primary colors, and ethical nostalgia, all wrapped up in a lasso of fun, are the attraction of the DC characters, who are really more appealing than their angst-ridden Marvel competitors. With a few exceptions, the multiple DC based TV series (live action and animated) get that right (i.e., “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and the recent “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders,” which could as easily have been dubbed “The Return of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar”).
One of the main positives here is the direction of Jenkins, who is far better suited to the material than the dullard boys have proven to be. Predictably, right-wing fan boys, while giving faint praise and feeling emboldened in the current misogynistic climate, are taking to social media and screaming, yet again in hypocritical PC fashion, about the “dangers of political correctness,” and adding “how about just saying it’s a good superhero movie, instead of pointing out that it’s the first good movie of a superhero woman?” (This, despite the fact that it is). Yet, what the snowflake sexists are whining about are the film’s strengths, and what they’re praising are the film’s flaws.
Jenkins’ Wonder Woman thankfully bypasses the Victoria’s Secrets God Bless America line of costuming, and is more akin to Perez’ Amazon warrior conception. It opens on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. The island origin didn’t work in the TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby and, with the notable exception of lush visuals and the superb Robin Wright (who inexplicably gets slaughtered), it doesn’t work here; it’s unimaginatively obligatory. Once they’re off the island, the movie finds its strongest points. The campy 70s TV series was best in the season set in the past. Ditto here. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes in the ocean near Themyscira, Diana, AKA Wonder Woman, and the rest of the inhabitants see their first man. No, they don’t rape him, much to disappointment of the boys spinning their tires in the parking lot. Once Steve informs Diana of German chemical warfare plans, she ventures out into the world to combat the evils of war. Steve’s at-home secretary (AKA slave) takes Diana to a clothing store and attempts to put the Amazon in a dress. Cue the kind of jokiness we saw when humans tried to civilize Zera in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
The introductory villains here are Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and his aptly named poisoner, Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya). Ludendorff is, of course, the radical right-wing kook General Erich Ludendorff of WWI history. They’re a campy, albeit underdeveloped pair, wasted as bafflingly as Red Skull was in the first Captain America movie. Usually, the lack of notable villain amounts to a kiss of death, yet here it’s merely a disappointment.
After assisting Steve in fighting the Germans, the closing act is pure Zack Snyder (who co-wrote), meaning: it’s intrusive, overblown, and awful. Ares ( David Thewlis) comes to do battle with the princess, catapulting the film into CGI overload and casting the continuity branch into Snyder’s upcoming Justice League movie (which only zealots are holding their breath for). Snyder’s contributions also unnecessarily lengthen the film. His few strengths are visual and, as he has proven time and again, he needs to be kept the hell away from pens and the director’s chairs. I’m sure there are plenty of openings for cinematographers that he could fill quite well.
Wonder Woman is akin to 1978’s Superman: The Movie, in that it’s a tad too literal in regards to the character’s pulp mythology. There are no real plot surprises, but at least its familiarity is lively, embracing various genres in a refreshingly old school Hollywood style. Where the film succeeds most is Gadot’s complex characterization. She inhabits the role sublimely, fleshing out internal and external maternal qualities, earning Wonder Woman its praises. Given the current, heinous American climate, Wonder Woman is essential escapism, with a heroine at its heart who authentically embodies the ethics of a protector, educator, and friend. No narcissist, this woman; her maternal instincts and strength stem from the intelligence of one who seeks to help and who is genuinely horrified by the cruelty and stupidity of a world that resists her spirit of truth and justice. The film isn’t afraid to symbolically tackle the current political scene; when Diana faces the disrespect of cowardly entitled trash posing as leaders, we feel her rage.
Her relationship with Trevor is indeed romantic and the magnetic chemistry between Gadot and Pine is a rarity in that it is emotionally intelligent. With a sense of humor, pragmatism, pathos, adventure, and tragedy, he’s almost as good as she is. Despite its excessive length, lack of risk-taking, and uneven writing, it succeeds as a bona fide star vehicle. Forget the current Batman and Superman—they’re old bores compared to a woman with a genuinely respectful male.