Directed by Patty Jenkins
Wonder Woman is a very good super hero movie and an okay movie. I came to the realization (or theory) that almost every superhero movie has the same act 1 and act 3, and that act 2 is where it gets to set itself apart.
In this case, act 1 deals entirely with the home of the Amazon warriors, an island called Themyscira. This whole act might’ve worked for some people, but I couldn’t care less about it. It’s like the too much time we spent in the beginning of Man of Steel on Krypton. All these made up locations feel bogus when the rest of the movie aims for some sort of Christopher Nolan-esque gritty realism. In this beginning of Wonder Woman, we learn about the Amazon warriors and the conflict between Zeus and Ares which made men want to kill each other, and basically there is just a lot of exposition.
We also watch Wonder Woman herself, Diana (Gal Gadot) grow up from a restless child to the greatest warrior on the island. I don’t get what it is about showing these characters as children. We’re interested in Wonder Woman the woman, not the child. Again, maybe some other people care, but I don’t. A lot of this stuff, whether it’s the exposition or the childhood scenes or Robin Wright telling young Diana about the importance of being an Amazon warrior, they all feel formulaic and empty.
None of this gives us any reason to care about Diana or her mission. The rest of the story takes place during World War I, in and around the front lines near England. It’s a gritty, desaturated, bombed-out environment that contrasts heavily with the lust greens and blues of the Amalfi coast where Wonder Woman’s home island was filmed. I will say that the one thing that worked in act 1 was the set up of Wonder Woman as someone who is mostly clueless about the way the human world works. There are plenty of jokes in regards to how she doesn’t understand the way women are treated (social commentary!), and the way she can’t comprehend the madness behind war. This is what the movie does best, and it all pays off in the second act.
The importance of the first act, then, is to establish Diana’s idealism and the perfection of the world she comes from, to make more clear the problems with the real world, the one we humans are familiar with. When we see World War I, for example, maybe we don’t immediately think of the ways it could have been avoided. Instead we see it as something that happened, and the death tolls, being that they happened so long ago, are hard to comprehend as something real and not just statistics to which we have been desensitized. So Diana’s role as an outsider whose perspective sheds a light on the absurdity and problems of our society then (and now) is important and impactful.
But act 1 is just way too long, and the important set ups are taken care of within a few minutes. It’s not hard to see why Diana is idealistic. The problems I have are that the movie tries to be a little too cute. That’s why young Diana was in there at the beginning, because she’s cute, and watching her mimic the warriors’ actions is cute as well.
The inciting incident occurs when a shot down plane comes spiraling into the ocean, entering the orb inside which the island hides from the real world. Diana saves the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an English spy who, we later see in flashback, had infiltrated the German army and stolen a recipe for dangerous poisons from a German doctor named Dr. Poison but who might as well be called Pre-Hitler.
A battle soon breaks out when the German army that has been following Trevor finds their way into the orb and into the island’s atmosphere. It’s an entertaining sequence, first seeing the soldiers confusion as they go from a dark, misty ocean into a suddenly perfectly bright and sunny world near the island. Soon they find themselves in a battle with the Amazon warriors who are absolutely slaughtered despite their victory.
There is so much gore in the scene, between the guns and swords and arrows, yet since this is a summer superhero movie meant for a wide audience, we don’t really see any blood. I mean, this scene on the beach is an absolute blood bath, and the beach should look like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, but again, this is a movie aimed at a big audience, so there’s no carnage.
This leads me into my critique of the movie which I realize is more of a critique of the superhero genre and not of Wonder Woman itself. Superheroes, in these recent movies, are capable of incredible destruction. Man of Steel and Batman V Superman are two big offenders in this regard. Characters fly through buildings and obliterate the enemy (as we will see in act 3 of Wonder Woman), but we never see the consequences of such violence. More recent superhero movies like Deadpool and Logan, in contrast, strive to show what such violence actually looks like, and boy those movies are violent.
I’m not saying every movie should be horribly violent, but there is something silly about watching people get shot and stabbed dozens of times and then see absolutely no blood whatsoever. It’s one way in which these movies are watered down.
Act 2 of Wonder Woman works very well. It’s an entertaining few sequences, and there is plenty of humor to go with it. The jokes about Diana’s lack of comprehension of this patriarchal world are fun to watch (they feel like similar jokes in the first Thor movie), and the movie thrives as its own story. In other words, this movie felt like it had a very clear message. It was going to be entertaining but also say something about the world we live in, and as a man, I found myself squirming a little in my seat, not because I disagreed with any of the points, but because it was uncomfortable to see so clearly all the ways in which my gender can be… destructive. Even if it is a bit simplistic to say men are this and women are that, I have never felt so clearly and strongly just how patriarchal our world is and especially was. And considering the current political climate, mostly I just mean Donald Trump, this movie feels all that more important.
So act 2 is where Wonder Woman really happens. There is interesting, even if somewhat predictable, character developments, and all the actors feel like they have a lot to work with. There is impressive action, striking visuals, character-based humor, and most importantly there is character growth.
And then we get to act 3 where Wonder Woman stops being itself and starts being a superhero movie. There is a large, final action set piece and battle which is just like the final set pieces in the past DC movies and every damn Marvel movie. Seriously, every Marvel movie, even the good ones, seems to end up with a building or a spaceship burning and crashing to the ground. They all try to one-up each other, working their VFX artists into the ground and simply making everything louder. It’s like every Marvel director gets to this part of the script and says to their actors, “we’ve got it from here.”
*The one Marvel movie which I think avoided this was Captain America: Civil War, though it still had a familiar plot construction.
So with Wonder Woman, Diana’s goal this entire story has been to find and kill Ares, the god of war. In her mind, Ares is responsible for EVERYTHING, and once he’s dead, the world war will end. Now, this belief has been played for a joke several times in the movie. Trevor tries to tell her, more than once, that the war isn’t this simple, and killing Ares, even if he exists, doesn’t mean it’ll be over. So act 2 ends with Diana killing a senior German officer who works alongside Dr. Poison, and she expects the war to suddenly end. But then she sees the other Germans continuing to load bombs into a plane, and suddenly everything she believed comes crumbling down. She killed who she thinks is Ares, and the war continues.
It’s a very well-done moment and character struggle. There is a real message here, because the people who start the war, I suppose, can’t always finish it. Earlier in this act we had a scene inside a boardroom as high-ranking generals discussed the terms of an armistice, and Diana pointed out that as generals they shouldn’t be in a cushy room, they should instead be on the field of battle. Otherwise they are cowards.
And seeing a general killed yet watching the pawns of war continue to carry out his orders is a striking image. It’s a moment that acknowledges the complexities and frustrations of war. So when Diana is frustrated, it makes perfect sense, and it’s a point of extreme growth for her character. She finally sees that this war isn’t so simple, and all she can really do is anything to make it less awful. That’s what Steve Trevor is trying to do, and that’s what she has been doing up until now.
But then you know what happens? Fucking Ares shows up, and he was the British general (David Thewlis) the entire time. It’s bullshit, I hate it.
Ares isn’t real, and yeah I know this is a movie that can make it’s own rules (after all they did establish the Zeus/Ares conflict in act 1 as part of the Amazon warrior lore), but it was important for Diana to realize that Ares wasn’t real. And when he is, then all her character growth goes out the window, or most of it at least.
Suddenly act 3 is just another 1 on 1 physical fight to the death, and we watch Diana and Ares blow things up and punch each other through walls, and we’ve seen it all before. Diana wins, because of course she wins, she’s the hero, and the movie ends (Steve Trevor dies too, but it’s not hard to see that coming because this is a period piece, and there’s no logical explanation for how Chris Pine could be in the upcoming Justice League movie so he was expendable).
I don’t hold act 3 against Wonder Woman because it’s not this movie’s problem, it’s a superhero movie problem as a whole. I can picture director Patty Jenkins telling her version of the story, and it’s all there in act 2, but then the studio heads come in and completely take over the third act and parts of the first one.
Wait, you know what bugs me the most about Ares being an actual character? Diana kills him, and, assuming this takes place in a world closely resembling ours, there is still a second world war. So how does she explain that? With Ares dead, doesn’t that mean war is over? There should at least be a sequel in which, as Hitler rises to power, Diana just gets very existential, wondering if everything is a lie. I’d see that movie.
So yeah, Wonder Woman can be a lot of fun, and it is, but then you have to put up with some pretty stale exposition and a finale that is meant to be explosive, but considering you may have seen Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America, Captain America 2, Thor (I haven’t seen Thor 2), Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 1-3 (especially 3, holy shit it’s ridiculous), The Avengers, The Avengers 2, and probably some others I’m forgetting, then this finale is more mundane than explosive. There’s some weird unwritten rule that every superhero movie has to boil down to the hero and the villain trying to out-punch each other. And I get it, it’s poetic, particularly in the Joseph Campbell sense of the hero’s journey, but it’s also incredibly simple and repetitive. Not only have we seen this before, but battle is very drawn out, and the more someone is thrown through a building, the less impactful it is, particularly as we see them get up each time after it happens.
Superhero moves make an explosion feel like a gust of air, and I’m not sure what the point is. You can make a gunshot, even just a punch feel incredibly impactful by contrasting it with a much quieter, restrained, tense scene. But a movie like this wants to start with something big and then only get bigger from there. I’d say there are diminishing returns between even just explosion 1 and 2, so when you get to explosion 99, it feels like absolutely nothing is happening.
But I like Diana, and the Wonder Woman character is a welcome addition to the DC universe. This is by far the best DC movie within this new, albeit brief, wave of movies, and Diana is the most interesting character among the ones we’ve met so far (including Batman and Superman).