It’s official: Wonder Woman is the best-reviewed film of the young DC Extended Universe. With a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing, it well outstrips the reaction to Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. To be fair, that’s a pretty low bar to clear – none of those films were particularly well-reviewed.
So is Wonder Woman the saviour of DC? Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. This is an entertaining, fast-paced bit of popcorn entertainment. As (arguably) the first big budget female superhero-helmed film, it’s significant purely as a step forward, representation-wise. Despite the feminist momentum Wonder Woman’s earned – particularly in the wake of Alamo Drafthouse’s inexplicably-controversial women-only screenings of the film – this is very safe commercial cinema. It succeeds by marrying the proven Marvel superhero formula with a very dialled-down take on the awkward ambition that has defined Zack Snyder’s approach to the DCEU, but this ain’t no revolution.
Wonder Woman’s storyline is pure Phase 1 Marvel Studios, mashing up Captain America: The First Avenger’s historical revisionism and unadulterated heroism with Thor’s fish-out-of-water humour (with a dash of Crocodile Dundee and The Fifth Element for spice). While the darkness of the DC universe remains – at least, outside of the paradisiac shores of Diana’s island home – it’s enlivened with splashes of humour and light.
This isn’t just a MCU rip off, though. DC’s been chasing (with some success) that cinematic superhero universe money since at least their second film, but Wonder Woman is smart enough to emphasise the difference between the two brands. Marvel’s superheroes are teenagers in tights, coming to terms with their identities and personal responsibilities through the lens of global justice; DC’s superheroes are modern gods etched into Western pop culture.
Director Patty Jenkins and her sausage party of screenwriters recognise that by incorporating iconic moments into the jokey origin story formula. One moment there’s a dick joke; the next, an Amazon princess is frozen in mid-air, plucking three deadly arrows from her quiver with regal grace. One moment there’s a trying-on-clothes-montage straight of a John Hughes film; the next, a shining superhero charges through the grey morass of the Western front. While none of three prior DC films were particularly good, they’re each memorable by virtue of their grand gesturing to the deific heft these heroes carried.
Wonder Woman adapts that approach. I suspect the lightness – the banter between Diana (Gal Gadot) and love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and such – is a studio-mandated course correction away from all-encompassing darkness. Thankfully, it rarely feels contrived; the jokes are often funny, and not too indebted to sub-Whedon mimicry. The grand gestures are different, though. While Superman and Batman represent America – at its idealistic best and its militaristic worst – Wonder Woman is not quite as evocative. So Jenkins finds a simple shorthand: she represents palatable, marketable feminism – strength, independence, ambition – and the hoariest cliché of clichés: the power of love. (The messier things Wonder Woman represents – coded queerness, even bondage – are carefully avoided.)
This probably shouldn’t work. But by and large it does because the film satiates a hunger for a female role model like this: someone true and powerful and perfect. She’s not recognisably human – compared to, say, Katniss Everdeen, she’s utterly alien – but that’s the point. She’s an icon, a god, a symbol of something greater. You can see the desire for a character like this in the success of Frozen with young girls. That film succeeded not just because of its catchy tunes, but because Elsa represented the rare female superhero: stylishly-costumed, utterly independent and (of course) possessed of stupendous magical powers. Wonder Woman will be that icon for so many young people, and that’s something that can’t be underestimated.
But it’s not like Wonder Woman is without its problems. Most of the criticism I’ve seen is directed at its climax, which admittedly plays an awful lot like Rocky IV (“If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”) but in the context of superhero iconography plays on just the right side of ridiculous. For me, anyway. I think the reason that the climax is regarded as one of the weaker elements of the film is less because of the sequence itself than the path taken to get there.
If we’re going to reduce the character of Wonder Woman down to a simplistic symbol of female exceptionalism, then surely she should be front and centre in her own story? Her name is right there in the title, so she’s the protagonist. Right?
Not exactly. Yes, the film is framed as a recollection of Diana’s in the present day (allowing for the necessary tie-in to the upcoming Justice League film). Yes, it begins with her childhood, her training, her Amazon family. But for the most part, her role in the story is subsumed into serving the objectives of Steve Trevor. Steve arrives on Diana’s home of Themyscira in the final years of World War I, and demands her assistance in transporting information on a German biological weapon (basically high-powered mustard gas) to British intelligence. Diana sees this an opportunity to defeat Aries – yes, the God of War, that one – based on a myth/bedtime story she was told as a child. So she accompanies Steve to England and, eventually, the Western front, with that goal in mind.
All well and good. The problem is that we’re never really given reason within the diegesis to see her quest as anything other than folly. Steve goes along with her fanciful stories about Aries because he wants to bring her superpowers to bear on defeating the Germans. That’s fine, but without reason to believe Diana’s quest has merit, she ends up playing second fiddle in her own story. Granted, she’s the one winning all the battles, but she’s acting (unbeknownst to her) in service of a man. It’s not hard to see that this plays somewhat uncomfortably with the film’s themes of female empowerment.
To some extent, this is likely a reflection of Gadot’s casting. In many ways, she’s perfect for the role: beautiful, statuesque, athletic, possessed of a regal bearing befitting a demigod. But she’s no Robert Downey Jr, or even a Chris Hemsworth; she’s best suited to playing the straight woman, and thus that’s the role the screenplay gives us. But it feels like a misstep to not give the audience reason to believe her motivations. The reveal that Aries does, in fact, walk amongst humans sprinkling seeds of enmity is revealed far too late in the piece to give Wonder Woman the agency she deserves within the narrative. One wonders if the studio bigwigs were simply reluctant to rely on Gadot as lead when Pine – a proven quantity in such blockbusters – was available to shoulder the load.
The late Aries reveal also undercuts any attempt to address themes of warfare with any kind of complexity. That’s understandable, I suppose; Marvel’s attempts to tackle serious geopolitical themes with any seriousness have been pretty hamfisted thus far. But to have a scene where your hero kills the ‘bad guy’ only to realise that war is more than one person, that complex international struggles can’t be so easily solved, that no one man or woman can save the world… only to immediately undercut that with a CGI-swathed finale feels kinda cheap.
There are other missteps throughout the film – mainly plot holes and average action papered over with quickfire editing. At the end of the day, though, Wonder Woman still makes for an entertaining trip to the theatre. There are enough laughs and pyrotechnics, and the sheer fact that this is Wonder Woman makes it more memorable than the last middling superhero movie. Don’t expect a gamechanger and you’ll have a good time – but I can’t help but hoping that Diana’s next outing is somewhat less conventional.