by Benjamín Harguindey
“The Wonder Woman movie” has been doing its rounds in development hell since 1996, so it’s already a kind of victory that it’s finally here: the first superhero movie made by a woman, about arguably the most iconic superheroine in the history of comics. That it comes at a time when the market is oversaturated with comic book flicks may be a necessary evil.
Wonder Woman is indeed another step towards the crafting of DC’s so-called ‘expanded universe’, essentially providing the backstory of the amazon princess Diana (Gal Gadot), AKA Wonder Woman, first introduced to the big screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). The movie’s helmed by Patty Jenkins, her second feature since Monster (2003), and written by Allan Heinberg.
Diana grows up in the magical island of Themyscira, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and niece to General Anthiope (Robin Wright). Theirs is an exclusive race of warrior women, though they’ve lived in peace since time immemorial and have only to fear the return of the mythical Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war. When American soldier and man of mystery Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into their island with ze Germans in tow, Diana gathers from his abhorred doomsday stories that Ares must be behind this “Great War” of his, so she elopes with him on a quest to find and defeat the fabled god, hoping to oust evil from mankind once and for all.
History recalls the Great War as World War One, so of course Diana is fated to fail on her quest to uproot evil from its single source. Maybe that’s what makes her character so endearing: there’s a genuine naivete to her beliefs that distinguishes her from your average cynical, world-weary hero. Even Marvel’s Captain America, with his Boy Scout righteousness, feels a little disingenuous next to Wonder Woman.
It’s an obvious comparison – Steve Rogers did for World War Two in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) what Wonder Woman accomplishes for World War One here – but Diana’s path takes a few more interesting turns. The average superhero takes that identity in an attempt to uphold an ideal whose absence etched a crucial trauma in their lives, and to that effect they’re tested time and again. But here you have Diana, already a superhero by nature, who by the story’s end must reconsider her values rather than reassertain them.
How quaint is it that Wonder Woman would have for a central theme the ambiguity of good and evil rather than feminism, with which the character has been widely associated since her comic-book inception in the 40s and later on the Lynda Carter TV show from the 70s? The movie doesn’t address the issue of sexism bar the occasional historically-sensitive joke, nor does it delve much in Diana’s gender as a source of her power (bar a throwaway line about women bridging communication between men, something Diana attempts once and to little avail). This may seem like a wasted opportunity and a point of contention to some people. I’d argue Wonder Woman isn’t really about women so much as, well, Wonder Woman – the title character herself, and the way her simplistic perception of the world is challenged by the horrors of war.
This may be technically an origin story by but for the most part we’re spared the laundry list of mandatory scenes, such as the hero discovering her powers and learning to harness them or the angst of self-doubt at the time of need (alas, somebody has to die at the beginning to seal a vow of selfless altruism). In fact there’s very little of “the superhero film” in the movie, more of a sci-fi/adventure tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs even gets a name-drop) with war for a backdrop, which comes with its own tropes, such as the ragtag gang of misfits Trevor and Diana round up for their sojourn behind enemy lines in Belgium.
Diana is off to defeat Ares, the kind of delusion Trevor is ready to tolerate because her vim is infectious like that, and also because he’s on his own mission to halt the development of a poison gas, freshly minted by B-movie mad scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) at the behest of the rogue General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who wishes to disrupt the upcoming Armistice. This Dr. Poison wears half a mask like the Phantom of the Opera and is easily the most enthralling character in the movie, both scared and fascinated by her own abominations.
Then there is of course Wonder Woman herself (never actually called that in the movie, but whatever). Gal Gadot doesn’t quite give the character the hallmark performance you’d expect in a hallmark movie. She comes across as earnest and likable, playing off a charming screwball routine with Pine and behaving in an alien, ethereal way that suggests both regal upbringing and genuine curiosity. And not that she can’t sell the acrobatics, but when she’s acting fierce… well, she’s acting fierce, putting on an impenetrable visage you’d find in the cover of a fashion magazine and touring the battlefield in breezy slow-mo like it’s a runway.
I’m thinking of that scene where she walks across No Man’s Land, in which we finally see her don the iconic armor and fully engages in action. That the movie would choose this spot to hype the character seems a bit ludicrous, a bit in bad taste.
This is more of a personal nitpick than solid criticism and you can pile it up with other such grievances, such as a totally irrelevant reveal about Diana’s identity that you’d figure out in the first 5 minutes anyway, or the fact that she’d invoke the power of love during the climactic boss fight (though coming from Diana you buy it). And not to spoil anything, but I’m less enthusiastic about the movie’s belated decision to validate (however obtusely) Diana’s superstitions about good and evil.
Even if it’s not the big hallmark of a movie the cultural icon deserves, Wonder Woman is an entertaining action-adventure flick, aptly balancing the light notes with the more somber ones, delivered in a manner that feels both candid, refreshing and exciting – easily the best film to yet grace DC’s expanding constellation of Summer blockbusters.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).