I saw this film in the cinema when it came out but I haven’t written about it (I didn’t even tweet about it), because of the various and complicated reactions I had to the movie. I should point out at the start that I love that this film exists, that it was the most successful superhero movie at the US box office in 2017, that Wonder Woman is indelibly stamped on the modern pop culture scene, and that we have a female superhero film that is good (for too long, Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra have been used by film executives as excuses for not making female superhero films).
The reason for my delay in writing about Wonder Woman is that I don’t know how to describe my issues with the film that don’t come across as overly negative. I’m so happy that Wonder Woman was presented so well on screen, and I thought that Gal Gadot was fantastic as Diana, completely inhabiting the character and imbuing her with all the right traits. However, I also thought that there with issues with a feminist icon being constantly mansplained and the arcs of the female and male protagonists. To discuss this, I will probably go into spoiler territory, something I generally try to avoid but which is necessary to encapsulate all my thoughts.
Final warning: spoilers ahead.
The film is a flashback, as current-day Diana recalls her origin story: how she grew up the daughter of the queen of the Amazons (Hippolyta, played by Connie Nielsen) on Themyscira, an island of Amazonian warrior women (created by Zeus to protect humanity, with a weapon to prepare against the return of his son, Ares, who killed all the gods) hidden from the world of men, and how the world of men intrudes during World War I initially through American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and then the German navy, which leads to Diana deciding to venture into the rest of the world with Steve in order to stop Ares, the God of War, who she believes is responsible for man’s fighting urge. It’s the basic Wonder Woman origin story but with some added twists: the stuff about Ares and the superweapon that will stop him; not having a contest to determine which Amazon will be the champion to visit the world of men; and the World War I setting. Having Diana decide to leave with Steve shows more agency on her part, which is a good thing, and the World War I setting is good for various reasons: a war that saw many nations fighting with machines that could kill from distance and in great number, changing the world for ever, is an extremely apposite contrast with the world of the Amazons; also, Captain America did World War II, so it would have been far too much of a copy to do the same (and there is some crossover in the two films), but I think the former reason is a genuinely good choice for doing so.
The beginning of the film on Themyscira is good, with Diana being trained in secret by her aunt, Antiope (wonderfully portrayed by Robin Wright), even if everyone is doing a vaguely Mediterranean accent so that they sound a bit like Gadot.
[An aside: the island may be in the Mediterranean but they’ve been isolated for thousands of years so there’s no reason for the accent to be similar; also, supposedly Amazons can speak many languages but it’s never made clear how if they don’t leave the island, because new languages were created since their isolation and even the ones they knew would have changed almost beyond recognition since then.]
The fight on the beach when the Germans invade and the Amazons defend their home is a great action scene, and it was great to see the Amazons in action and leaves you wanting more. It’s only some of the slower exposition scenes with Steve that drag a little, although the filmmakers try their best with some humour to keep things interesting.
It’s when the film moves into the outside world that things get occasionally frustrating for me. Diana is an intelligent, capable, strong, independent character yet she is constantly being told what to do or not do by Steve. This can be interpreted as a sign of the times or as a plot development: Diana is constantly stymied and belittled and frustrated so that when her moment comes and she chooses to be herself and accept the consequences, it’s a pivotal point for her.
This moment arrives in perhaps the best scene in the film. Steve has taken her to Western Front in Belgium, and they reach No Man’s Land (so they can get to location of the bad guy) and he specifically tells her that ‘No man can get across it’. Diana decides that this is not the way it should be and she should do something and she walks into No Man’s Land, deflecting bullets and then attacking the Germans and capturing the enemy trench – it’s a great scene, it looks spectacular, it has point to make with a feminist icon, and it states clearly that this is Wonder Woman and this is what she does, stopping fighting and trying to make the world a better place (NB: she is never called Wonder Woman in the film, which is a good thing).
There are not enough scenes like this – there isn’t enough of Wonder Woman in action (the exception being the CGI-heavy big-boss fight with Ares at the end, which was a nod to convention but feels out of place in this film), which is a shame in her first film. Yes, there is some humour from a good cast (Lucy Davis does a good job as Etta Candy), but it detracts from the point.
The film also suffers from similarities to other films, particularly two MCU movies: Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. Wonder Woman and Thor both have powerful otherworldly characters coming to the human world and interacting with mortals; Wonder Woman and Captain America both have superheroes in factual war settings.
Unfortunately, there are other comparisons that detract – Thor develops a relationship with Jane Foster in a similar way to that Diana develops a relationship with Steve Trevor, but Thor becomes the hero he should be by getting past his limitations through an understanding of humanity, whereas Diana becomes the hero because of love and hooking up with Steve Trevor. This diminishes her character, which is based on empathy for all, a strong moral compass and a genuine urge to do the right thing.
The other comparison is that Captain America and Wonder Woman have a man played by an actor call Chris pilot a plane away from people to stop them getting hurt. This takes away from Diana’s agency in her own film – Pine gets to play the hero by sacrificing himself to stop the poisonous gas from killing people, instead of Diana being the person who is main protagonist in her own film.
All of these things left me feeling less elated than general critical consensus about the film, which is a shame. Wonder Woman is still the best DCEU film by a long distance, Gal Gadot is the best thing in all of the DCEU films so far, and the fact that Patty Jenkins captured the essence of Diana of Themyscira so perfectly on film is fantastic. I guess I just wanted it to be a little better.