Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a significant achievement for the currently hobbling DC Universe franchise. Jenkins’ development of lead Gal Gadot’s untapped potential after her debut in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the successful factors in this focused, coherent and entertaining standalone film. It marks a needed diversion away from Snyder and David Ayer’s appalling precedents (with Ayer’s Suicide Squad being a poorly-executed, adult version of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy: fit with pop-rock soundtrack but utterly lacking in charm, wit and sense). Wonder Woman has a refreshing clarity and confidence in its storytelling and its exploration of our superheroes’ sense of duty, responsibility and morality, which has been the key thematic thread in the DCU’s films so far (though merely distinct from the MCU’s treading of these themes in a ‘mature’, ‘darker’ aesthetic- a shallow choice of design that has not helped their haphazard execution). Yet, Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg appear to temper the film’s gender politics so that it is needlessly accommodating for its male audience. While Jenkins avoids easy objectification when portraying this famous comic book icon, she does little to challenge the gender and racial status quo. Instead, she often acquiesces to it.
Diana (Gadot), young headstrong princess of the Amazons, lives a life of training with her fellow womenfolk on the lush, mystically-secluded island of Themyscira. Growing up on the stories of her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) and her people’s heroism, she pines for an opportunity to use her considerable skills and powers elsewhere. That longing comes to the end with the appearance of British-American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pines), who crash lands out of the ‘war to end all wars’. The year is 1918 and after Diane saves Stevens from the pursuing German Army at the cost of her family and friends, she joins his efforts on the Allied side. Believing this global conflict to be the work of Ares, the Greek God of War, Diana is convinced by destroying him she will bring peace and harmony to a fractured world. What Diane is set to discover at the Eastern Front is more than celestial machinations, however, but mortal frailty and man’s dual capacity to save and destroy. With her fundamental assumptions questioned, will she continue to defend humanity or return to her island idyll?
Initially, Jenkins’ decision to set this swords-and-sandals-esque adventure romp in war-torn fields of the First World War appears incongruous. There is something quite crass about the gauntlet-clad Diana striding up against the barrage of German machine-guns in cinematographer Matthew Jenson’s photorealistic No-Man’s Land and artillery-ravaged France, drawing from Mann’s 1979 All Quiet on the Western Front, Spielberg’s War Horse and Sim’s recent WW1 drama Beneath Hill 60. Yet, while liberties are taken with historical accuracy, it is an effectively evocative backdrop to Diana’s compelling moral journey that forms her major arc here. The widespread understanding of the First World War as an unnecessary, military disaster which butchered a generation of young men on all sides, plays off effectively against the mythological heroic ideal that Diana’s childhood imagination has conjured up, with the exposition delivered in beautiful Michelangelo-inspired frescos. These are neat, smart touches that deepen Diana’s change from naive idealism to an understanding of murky human nature- from paradisal white cliffs under epic sweeping blue skies to the grey fog and mud in obliterated front-lines and Belgian towns.
Unlike Snyder’s Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman, Jenkins only tentatively acknowledges the wider DC Universe and focuses purely on creating an engaging hero that lacks irony or ambiguity. Heinberg’s screenplay provides a relatively simple journey for Diana, but this level of coherency is needed in a franchise that is currently trying and failing to compete with Marvel’s weighty, multi-strand film universe. Gadot is excellent in the starring role, bringing a principled staunchness alongside her impressively athletic physical performance. While she does wear an updated version of the classic, skimpy costume, Jenkins avoids objectifying the character through the sensitive, complimentary camerawork of Gadot as she delivers blows, lassos her enemies and crashes through buildings and bullets alike. She is treated seriously; there are no exploitative, demeaning shots up-skirt or sexualised lingering. The chemistry between Gadot and Pine starts a bit unevenly with awkward genital jokes and innuendo, but this develops nicely into pithy humour- though the perfunctory romance in the film’s third act is less welcome for its lack of depth. Gadot has shown the she is a strong lead for the DC Franchise, suitably developed and kitted for Justice League later this year, and Tina Guo’s electrified-string cello theme has the potential to be iconic.
Yet, despite the bold, demigod power of her ‘wonder woman’ who appears inspirational by attempting to smash that glass-ceiling of the genre so thoroughly, Jenkins accommodates to the gender status quo in order to make the film’s appeal more universal, never threatening to upend its male audience. Rarely does Diana directly challenge the gender hierarchy in the film. She is understandably confounded by the male-female power dynamics due to her matriarchal upbringing and even when she does comprehend, does little to address it. ‘What I do is not up to you’ she tells Steve in one pronounced, dramatic moment, Jenkins clearly underlining the point, but this is undermined by the fact that Steve has pushed and pulled her around for most of the film. Her only other female in the world outside Themyscira, the bumbling Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), is treated more as comic-relief than genuine ally and their sisterhood never develops meaningfully. The first act, which establishes that matriarchal world of Themyscira, is entirely man-free with no deference to male gaze or authority while also showing problematically that white women, like Nielsen and warrior-aunt Robin Wright, should be in charge. Unwittingly, Jenkins exposes the narrowness in typically mainstream white feminism, which doesn’t embrace intersectionality with other struggles, especially those of women of color. While Jenkins has presented a protagonist that is morally assertive and physically powerful, she also allows Diana to sit passively by others oppression and to not overtly challenge the male order. Wonder Woman is, rightly, aspirational but it also lacks a critical counter-narrative to understand and subvert the stability of patriarchal power. As such, Pines’ hero is given disproportionate time and emotional significance that exceeds far beyond the development of their depicted relationship.
The ethnic, national and racial depictions fare no better in London and Belgium either as Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock’s characters are only slightly developed beyond offensive ethnic and racial stereotypes. As for the Germans, Danny Huston’s Erich Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison are so regressively, maniacally villainous in their performance, they are more akin to Dick Dastardly and Mutley from Wacky Races (cackling to themselves with evil glee after gassing a group of German commanders). It is utterly at odds with Jenkins’ and Heinberg’s foray into presenting Diana with the human world’s moral ambiguity and more aligned to the simplistic moral absolutism its trying to critique. The vague, universal message of ‘love and belief’, while cute, self-affirming and feel-good enough for everyone to get behind, prevents a more committed critique of gender oppression and an emboldening of female self-determination. It is a contentious point, made by a white male admittedly, but I do not believe after viewing the film that Wonder Woman is entirely the feminist redressing of the predominantly masculine superhero genre, and its ideological values, that it is being lauded as.
Unfortunately, Wonder Woman’s climactic moments also suffer from the overwrought, fatiguing fireworks and brawling that made Snyder and Ayer’s films so tedious. Its secondary twist undermines the impact of the first, revealing the truth about Ares, but this is where its superhero genre-formula confine more interesting digressions. Yet, by this point we have been beguiled enough by Gadot and the likeable cast that its a passing issue of convention. Jenkins has demonstrated that by focusing on and developing a compelling enough character, as opposed to universe-building, that the DCU films can be genuinely entertaining. In the meantime, Wonder Woman is a more definite, confident step forward, rather than the mile-high leap its being applauded for.