Reviewer’s Note: In the interest of fairness it is necessary that I begin this review by explaining that I only managed to watch about two-thirds of Wonder Woman. For those uninterested in my experience please feel free to skip the following paragraph, however, for those interested in why this happened and why I choose to write this review anyway, please continue reading.
On Friday, June 2nd, I left the country where I’d been living for the past two years for a three-week stop over before moving to my next destination. Having a very serious (and personal) appointment the following morning, I arranged to spend my one free night seeing Wonder Woman with my brother and his girlfriend. They purchased tickets for a showing three hours after my flight in anticipation of my arrival. Even with forty minutes to get across the city, my taxi driver managed to go in the wrong direction on four separate occasions getting me to the theater very late. Typically I would refuse to enter a film any more than ten minutes after its start time (a period usually filled with commercials and previews and junk), yet because my ticket was paid for and it was the only free night I had to see my brother, I entered roughly 40 minutes into the screening. Despite this, I have chosen to write this review through previous knowledge of the Wonder Woman mythology, several descriptions of the opening half, and because I promised I would get this review in. But perhaps most importantly, I have been exceedingly critical of the DCEU movies so far, thus it would be unfair for me neglect my duty as a reviewer when the studio finally puts out what, even when only half witnessed, is a very good movie.
[Review starts here.]
Let’s get right to chase here, The DC Extended Universe would be in a much better place if Wonder Woman had been the first franchise film released following the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Many of DC’s problems are based upon making the troublesome and bombastic Man of Steel [review] its standard bearer (after the complete disaster of Green Lantern a few years before that), with Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice [review] then being forced to address the criticism of its predecessor and cram several movies worth of material into its already bloated runtime by attempting to jumpstart an entire universe of characters in one film. Rather than course correct after the first film’s problems, Dawn of Justice drove even further into self-important grandiosity, overstuffed and underdeveloped story, an exceedingly poor villain, and very little fun or actual heroism. One of the few highlights, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, was herself an unneeded addition to the story. Then, despite its promises to undo some of these problems, Suicide Squad [review] didn’t fare much better as it adhered far too closely to Zack Snyder’s dreary, callous formula. Finally, four films in, DC does what it should have done from the beginning: make a movie that doesn’t demand it be taken with the seriousness of a war crimes documentary, features a compelling, likeable lead who actually gives a damn about the people she’s meant to be guarding – mostly – and includes a character who is true to her comic book origins rather than being needlessly brooding or brutal.
While I’d rather like to focus my review on Wonder Woman‘s quality as art and/or entertain than on its importance as a female-lead blockbuster in a genre dominated by male heroes (that’s a topic for a different piece), one the film’s greatest strength actually comes in how it cleverly weaves this meta-textual issue into its narrative. Using the backdrop of World War I-era Britain allows director Patty Jenkins to comment on the idea of male power structures without ham-fistedly forcing any sort of message into its narrative. Instead, Diana’s status as outsider to the norms and practices of society allows the audience ourselves to be just as bewildered as she is by its various machinations and ambiguities. While from a behind-the-scenes perspective it isn’t hard to imagine the warrior princess’s presence among military brass as an allegory to a pitch meeting of the film itself (particularly after the utter failure of Catwoman, Elektra, and Wonder Woman’s own late 2000’s television show), looking at Wonder Woman strictly as a female-lead superhero movie actually does a great disservice to everyone involved. The film doesn’t just work because it is a well-made female superhero movie. It works because it is a well made superhero movie. In fact, judging Wonder Woman by the standards set by its franchise predecessors only makes the film that much better.
Rather than constantly berating the audience with heavy-handed foreshadowing, pseudo-philosophical exposition, or nausea-inducing extended action scenes, Wonder Woman makes some time for levity. Much of enjoyment of Wonder Woman‘s second half comes from seeing this stranger, as alien to our world as Superman, interact within a society that doesn’t operate on the same logic as her own. Where Diana is idealistic and straight-forward, believing that conquering the root of man’s corruption will end that corruption, the world she enters is one of complication and ambiguity. In this way Wonder Woman demonstrates the superhero quandary better than any previous DCEU movie; how does one remain committed to good in a world where the very concept of good appears to have been taken out and shot? Further, instead of simply embracing this moral gray area, Wonder Woman actually includes her doubt in the plot. Whereas the current Superman, Batman, and all of the Suicide Squad spend their films resolute in their ideologies, we witness Wonder Woman struggle with hers, short as it may be. In the entirety of the DCEU so far, this is perhaps the first time we have an actual character rather than an action figure set on a predetermined path. Of course, the outcome still isn’t in question, but seeing that moment of doubt, of actual defeat, goes a long way in humanizing a figure that is meant in every way to be greater than human. While it could be argued that setting the film in a “simpler time” may explain this, the people of WWI would hardly accept that conflict as more innocent than modern ones.
However, none of this is to say that Wonder Woman isn’t without its faults, some which seem to be constant to the DCEU and others which unfortunately undercut the film’s strengths. As with its forebears, themes go unexamined, supporting characters are underdeveloped, the film runs a bit too long and convoluted and numerous logical holes pop-up all over the place (her costume may be explained in the beginning, but she still wears the cliche boob-plate armor that exposes much of her body. It looks good but where’s the armor for her limbs and head?), particularly in the film’s final act when the now familiar DC escalation kicks in. Although the action throughout is handled far better than in either Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, particularly in its use of slow motion effects, some CGI is questionable and the finale lacks any sense of place with the surroundings only glimpsed in detached cutaways. As well, confident as Gal Gadot is in her role, particularly in the adorable naivety displayed navigating the modern world, she never demonstrates even the least amount of strain during life-and-death struggles, effectively removing herself from the action and diminishing the threat before her. Similarly, the film can’t help being a bit cheesy in its hero poses and pining about the power of love. As demonstrated in the frame which begins and ends the film, this icon of feminine empowerment ultimately needs a man to find her power. Together it’s a lot of little things that keep the film from being as great as it could have been.
I’ve been audience to numerous debates about how different society, particularly American society, would be if it had been founded by a group of women instead of men. While such a topic can be debated forever without reaching a definitive conclusion, to me at least there is no doubt that the DCEU would have benefited greatly by being founded by the Princess of Themyscira rather than the Man of Steel. A cinematic universe built on wit, fun, and seriousness balanced of self-realization, is preferable to one built on gloom, pretension, and bursts of violence. If we as an audience could be given a choice, we’d rather go live with mom.