Walter is in Winnipeg so it was time to go watch a film together. With little of interest to choose from, we decided to go to the opening night screening of this weekend’s big blockbuster: Wonder Woman. The critics seem to think this is a super superhero film, but we still went in with low expectations, which is always wise.
I have rarely felt such on overwhelming sense of disappointment with a film I enjoyed watching as much as Wonder Woman, so it may feel like I’m reviewing two different films. I debated at length whether to start with the positive or the negative; in the end, I’ve gone with the former so that readers who don’t want to hear my complaints about the film’s moral compass can stop reading halfway through.
In the superhero film genre, Wonder Woman is unique in two vital ways. First, the sole superhero in the film is a woman who is superior to the men around her in almost every way (in her emotional intelligence, she is also superior to most male superheroes). Second, Wonder Woman is the first Hollywood superhero film to be directed by a woman. Both of these are positive developments, all the more so when you consider the results (see below).
Gal Gadot stars as Diana, an Amazon who has grown up on an isolated island without ever seeing a man. As the only child on the island, she is given a lifetime of special treatment along with her thorough training as a warrior (though she despises war). When a World War I plane breaks through the invisible barrier protecting the island and crashes into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine), who turns out to be an American spy who has just uncovered a German plot to extend the war by using a new deadly gas. Germans are hot on Trevor’s tail and follow him to the island, where, to their short-lived surprise, they encounter an Amazon army.
The Amazons don’t want to get involved in the war, but Diana insists on helping Trevor get his vital information back to London, though her primary motive is to find Ares, the Greek god of war, and kill him, thus putting an end to the war to end all wars (Diana believes Ares is responsible for the war). So Diana and Trevor get in a boat and head to London, where they will meet most of the film’s other key characters: Trevor’s assistant, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who provides a fair amount of comic relief; Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a speaker for peace in the Imperial War Cabinet; and a small band of companions who will accompany Diana and Trevor to the front, where they hope to prevent the use of the deadly gas. The band, which will also supply some comic relief (Wonder Woman, like most superhero films, contains a fair amount of witty dialogue) includes Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).
The boat trip and subsequent visit to London are by far my favourite parts of Wonder Woman, and they are also central to the film’s chief positive attributes. One of these attributes is the surprisingly polished performance by newcomer Gadot as Diana (Gadot turns out to be very well cast) and another is the character Gadot and screenwriter Alan Heinberg have created. The role of Diana is challenging because she is both an intelligent, strong, confident, courageous and independent woman as well as an innocent, compassionate naive woman capable of childlike wonder. The fact that Diana is also supposed to be capable of horrific violence while being driven throughout by her love of humanity is a matter that I will return to later.
The early parts of the film also highlight the excellent performances of Pine and Davis. The rest of the acting is solid, with Thewlis standing out (it’s good to see him in a major role). The cinematography is also particularly strong in the first half of the film, though it suffers from the desaturated bluish hues typical of made-for-3D films (as always, we watched it in 2D). And I’ll mention here that the score, while occasionally overbearing, is quite enjoyable.
Throughout the first half of Wonder Woman, I could see how the presence of a female director (Patty Jenkins) might have influenced my favourite scenes, because they all involved Diana’s unique perspectives on life and humanity (the conversations between Diana and Trevor are a particular highlight).
One of the major differences between the first and second half of the film is the use of accents. Walter noted that the accents of the Amazons on the island were remarkably even, regardless of the language they were meant to represent. But Walter and I agreed that the use of German accents in the last half of the film (in place of Germans speaking German to each other) was a huge mistake. Wonder Woman is too serious a superhero film to make the cartoonish use of accents acceptable (as opposed to using subtitles, which are employed elsewhere in the film).
The accents are a minor flaw, however, when compared to my biggest complaint about Wonder Woman, which I alluded to earlier. The film’s primary message seems to be that war is bad and love is good. This is no great revelation, but it would draw no argument from me, if it were consistent. Unfortunately, the message is represented by a woman who is both full of compassion for humanity while displaying no remorse at her killing of countless enemy soldiers. That doesn’t compute for me, though Walter points out that soldiers on all sides are frequently treated as less than human (how can you try to humanize while dehumanizing?).
One scene exemplifies this complaint. When Diana arrives at the front (the trenches), she is immediately distracted by the suffering of the civilians she encounters, something that would be unusual in a male superhero. This scene reveals the horrors and stupidity of trench warfare only to have the message completely undone moments later when Diana shows how trench warfare can be effective and glorious if Wonder Woman is on your side. In this scene, Diana is complicit in the deaths of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of German soldiers, to whom she gives not the slightest thought. How is it possible that no one involved in the making of the film identified the huge inconsistency here?
Wonder Woman has been hailed as a victory for feminism. Much of the film might be viewed that way. However, as I have written before, showing that a woman can fight as well as any man is not, in my opinion, a victory for feminism and is at odds with all of the other strengths depicted in someone like Diana (intelligence, compassion, courage, etc.).
And how do you reconcile an anti-war message with the use of endless violence to show that war is wrong (killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong)? Where is Diana’s reflection on, or even awareness of, the fact that she is trying to achieve her noble ends through horrific evil means? Redemptive violence is an almost inevitable feature of superhero films, so I rarely comment on it anymore, but when it is used in a film that tries to challenge redemptive violence (in this case, war), it must be named. Outside of the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, superhero films seem to be almost completely unaware of this problem. The fact that Wonder Woman has scenes which display some awareness (e.g. Diana’s confrontation with one of her enemies near the end of he film) only makes the inconsistency harder to understand.
Wonder Woman repeatedly asks the question of whether people are innately evil. Diana refuses to believe it. Good for her. But this theme is explored all too briefly and resolved in a very simplistic manner, highlighting my disappointment with a film that is often hugely entertaining and tries to say good things but is full of confusing mixed messages and has no convincing overarching story, at least from a moral point of view.
So the well-made Wonder Woman gets only a solid ***, perhaps verging on ***+. My mug is up. If only the blend inside had been tastier.