By: Daniel Reynolds
For all the scorn heaped on DC Comics’ recent films, the pair of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad still made a ton of money. (Combined they pulled in just shy of $1.3 billion worldwide.) While there’s no doubt DC remains a step behind in quality and cinematic universe building to rival Marvel Comics, the returns on these two films still put the venerable company in the black. It means, like it or not, there will be more movies like them — sequels, spin-offs, collections — on into the future. Justice League, set for release later this year, will assemble DC’s characters into one film; then Aquaman will allow Jason Momoa to swim solo. Despite what the Rock says, a few bad scores on Rotten Tomatoes will not stop a corporation like DC Comics from dipping into the franchise well again and again. In fact, to borrow another famous motto of the Rock, as long as the money is coming in: it doesn’t matter.
Framing a discussion around DC’s new film Wonder Woman by invoking a couple of its toxic testosterone-fuelled predecessors and the musings of a pro wrestler speaks to a different, largely unavoidable, problem. Since their rise in popularity, the comic book film has been the exclusive domain of men. They’re the predominant stars, the sole directors, and the presumed target audience for these movies. Viewed through this lens, Wonder Woman is a refreshing step forward, for both DC and Hollywood as a whole. It’s a massive summer tent-pole film fronted by a woman, Gal Gadot, and even more importantly, directed by another, Patty Jenkins. As a mark of progress, the movie is unassailable. That it happens to be competently made — no mean feat for blockbusters, to say nothing of DC’s other mostly pathetic attempts — is another mark in its favour.
And so we have it now: Wonder Woman, the film built around the third of DC’s classic trio of characters (along with Batman and Superman). It’s the first of its kind, and already marked as a success (after a $100 million opening weekend), which of course suggests a bright future for more. But, as with its male-led predecessors: is this necessarily a good thing?
As the first of its type, Wonder Woman begins with an origin story. (Well, OK, first it offers up the sliver of a prologue to connect the black-and-white photo we see in Batman v. Superman to this film, but I digress.) The action opens on the mythic island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, on which young princess Diana (who eventually grows into Gadot) longs to train as a warrior. She is granted her wish by General Antiope (Robin Wright, at home), despite her mother Hippolyta’s (Connie Nielsen, ditto) reservations. We see many women with swords, bows-and-arrows, and the like; sometimes they move in slow-motion. The fantasy setting here recalls Marvel’s Thor, and, much like that film, the pastiche of mythology feels a bit tired; the expository sequences used to visualize the soap opera of the gods, doubly so. The Amazons, we learn, stand ready to defend the world from Ares, but (again, as with Thor) the excitement comes less from the gods and more from the intrusion of the real world. In this case, it’s American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who crashes in, with a trailing army of Germans in his wake, to disrupt the Amazon’s Eden. The Great War is raging beyond the women’s island bubble, and so it’s up to Diana to go forth with Steve to confront the evil warmongers responsible, and then, you guessed it, take on the God of War himself. Huzzah.
If this is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because it is. (Ditto for the tone of this review.) Wonder Woman is divided into three discrete sections; the first recalls the aforementioned Thor, the second turns into a hokey war movie in the style of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (with shades of Thor’s entertaining fish-out-of-water moments), and the third, sadly, blows up much like DC’s other recent offerings. Still, it’s not all dispiriting. In fact, it’s a minor miracle Wonder Woman is able to jump between these discordant thirds at all. Unlike her compatriots Superman and Batman, the Wonder Woman mythos requires more legwork to set up, her story and character less simple in their construction. Once we get past the usually kicking and punching, there’s a lot going on here.
Working with a script by Allan Heinberg, Jenkins ably moves us through this inevitable action — which is well-staged throughout, baring only the slightest touches of Zack Snyder‘s overall ethos — to the wartime intrigue, to the final boss battle. Jenkins is aided by her cast, populated with pros like Nielsen and Wright, along with Danny Huston (who is, as always, enjoying himself), David Thewlis, and Said Taghmaoui (an underrated That Guy). It helps to have sharp actors on hand when trying to sell this new material quickly. Central to this idea are the two leads, Gadot and Pine. The former carries herself well, bringing the right mix of physical presence, innocence, and warrior fury to the role. While the latter, the first male love interest we’ve seen in a film of this size and type, plays off the film’s grandiosity with well-honed skill. While it’s no coincidence that the male lead in Wonder Woman gets a fully-fleshed out character (most female leads in the same position are left to be damsels in distress), we can’t fault Pine for making the part sing. The film benefits from his levity, and in turn, Pine benefits from having Jenkins to guide him through the film’s more sensitive moments.
It’s unfortunate however that the energy of Wonder Woman is undone by a certain slackness. The film’s comedic and romantic elements work in the micro, sure, but in total the editing feels less than sharp, and the run-time, at over two hours, wholly unnecessary. The resultant off-kilter pacing mucks with some of the film’s finer subplots, while the stacking happenstances of the narrative start to feel a touch lazy. It’s never even quite clear what Wonder Woman’s powers and abilities are (besides being an Amazon warrior). Meanwhile, the film’s hero shots, designed to induce chills and cheers, are often undone by a dutifully bland score. (This is a problem with every comic book movie.) Wonder Woman’s theme music, first introduced in Batman v. Superman, gets some airtime here, but it does not — or cannot — underscore enough of the film’s weightier moments. And then of course there’s that conclusion. While the narrative does manage to fold in a surprise or two (if you’re determined not to pay attention), it still finds a way to end up in what I like to call the Burning Parking Lot Special. That is, somehow Wonder Woman and Ares find themselves battering away at each other in a flat, non-descript ring of fire, much like the ugly conclusions of other disappointing comic fare. How does this keep happening?
To its credit though, Wonder Woman does prove a few things. First, despite the multilayered and somewhat complicated backstory of its title character, a Wonder Woman film can work. We’ve known this for some time. Second, while it feels dumb to say this now, it’s obvious a women-led summer blockbuster can come together successfully. This is also a no-brainer. Third, we can maybe hope the people behind DC Comics’ film enterprises are getting better at understanding how to shepherd their films towards the screen. While Marvel has become something of a factory in this regard, pumping out one slickly made film after the next, DC’s braintrust has spent the greater part of the past two decades (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies aside) cynically tripping over themselves. In that sense, the worst one could say of Wonder Woman is that it’s uninspiring in its execution, dutifully doing all the things it’s supposed to do. Despite all of the firsts mentioned, it still feels like we’ve seen it all before. But then again, it is also a rallying cry, and in the fact of its existence (and success), a significant achievement. The wonder may not always play out on screen, but the love behind the film is real. And for those inspired in turn: it does matter.