So, a big monster guy crashes down onto Times Square, plucking a young maiden from the crowd. With a booming voice he proclaims, “Fuck you, citizens of New York! Bow and tremble to the might of Zorblon the Terrible!” Then Gal Gadot (our Amazonian heroine) comes out of nowhere and knocks Zorblon to the moon in one hit, rescuing the maiden. In a corner of the crowd one paparazzo nudges the other, saying, “Did ya see that? She must be some kinda… Wonder Woman…” They start snapping pictures. Queue to the next day with presses rolling out a front page picture of the newly baptized Wonder Woman.
Luckily, this didn’t happen in Wonder Woman (2017). In my experience, a scene such as this wouldn’t be too far-fetched for a movie trailer, and it would also have been a major red flag. Superhero movies have a hard time to refrain from using clichés such as these—something director Patty Jenkins and her team had obviously worked on. But when it comes to red flags, Wonder Woman (2017) had quite a few before I went into it. There’s a lot of history to go over when trying to address these red flags. If you just want the short spoiler-free review, feel free to skip the background stuff.
Wonder Woman’s history of red flags:
The DC film universe has been trying (and arguably failing) to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas DC’s comics have been performing very well over the last couple of years and Marvel’s comic sales have been plummeting, the companies show a big power switch when it comes to the movies. The three earlier entries into the DCU (Man of Steel (2010), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016)) were all met with mixed reviews. A thing these movies all had in common was that the trailers looked great, the marketing was hardcore, and they gathered a lot of hype, but the end results were disappointing. In addition, they all had stilted development cycles of extensive script rewrites and reshoots. They were box-office hits, but not much else. Wonder Woman (2017) showed all the same symptoms, and was next in line. Moreover, the crew wasn’t shaping up to be an all-star formation. The previous entries into the DCU had bigwig Hollywood personalities working in front of as well as behind the camera. The film had been in the works since 1996 (going through what is generally known as development hell), with Patty Jenkins being the umpteenth director to pick up the project. Jenkins, a director with relatively little experience or exposure, would then have to work with a cast of similar imagoes. Gal Gadot, the lead actress, used to be a supermodel before making a switch to acting. And lord knows that models don’t have the best track record in their big screen appearances (traditional “eye-candy” roles and the likes). With only minor roles to her name (most notably in the The Fast and the Furious-franchise) there have been serious doubts regarding her ability to star in a major blockbuster. Even our own Doutzen Kroes had a part in the movie, and anyone who has seen her commercials on TV or her role in Nova Zembla (2011) could tell you not to expect too much of her part. Personally, I was hoping that Gadot wouldn’t end up falling into the same category as Doutzen.
Needless to say, I was a bit worried when I sat myself down in the movie theatre. Not because of the above, but largely because I knew what I was in for: just another superhero flick. They always tend to be entertaining, visual spectacles—but also deeply formulaic. You can often imagine the checklist of what events need to unfurl at which moments. It’s often just a matter of how “seamless” the creators are in putting all the elements in place, and even then the experience remains linear at best (that is not to say that linearity can’t be done well). So my mentality going into the film wasn’t a “I wonder if it’s good,” but rather a “I wonder if they fucked it up.”
But still, my expectations weren’t all negative. I asked myself what I wanted out of this movie, and it boiled down to two things:
- I wanted a decent DC superhero movie. A good way to promote the quality of a product is solid competition. As dislikeable as company wars can get, having two factions provide superhero entertainment is still better than one. Also, I felt bad for DC fans after Batman v Superman (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016). If Miss Jenkins could make Wonder Woman (2017) work, then I would have renewed hope for a turnaround in quality on the DC side, and maybe (just maybe) an overall increase of quality in the genre.
- I wanted a decent Wonder Woman. Not often am I eager to talk politics in pop culture, but wasn’t it about time for a female superhero to get her own movie? The only other ones I could think of were Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005), which both featured eye-candy heroines in godawful movies. While I deem those two characters somewhat disposable, I didn’t want Hollywood to mess up the single most iconic female hero—an icon of feminism since 1941, and still going strong. Even better: the movie was directed by a woman, who also happens to be the first female entry in the gallery of superhero directors.
I was looking forward to a change in direction for the superhero genre, adding a female touch. However, it did up the pressure quite a bit. If the movie sucked, or would turn out to be overly preachy on feminism and such, it wouldn’t do much good for feminists in pop culture. Even worse, overly preachy movies trying to tackle social subjects like feminism often tend to do their respective movements more harm than good. And that’s what worried me most.
Please, I thought, don’t make Wonder Woman comment on manspreading.
It was pretty good. For superhero standards, the movie was pretty damn good, even. But I’ll stick to pretty good, since I’m trying not to move goalposts here.
The movie followed a fairly generic storyline in an original setting, starting on the mythical island of the Amazons, Themyscira. It showed Diana’s (our heroine, portrayed by Gal Gadot) coming of age, and the big event that would urge her to take on the mantle of Wonder Woman. This first act mostly shone through a badass depiction of the Amazons and their martial prowess. Sadly, the first act also included the necessary amount of exposition and all the unrealistic dialogue that comes with it. On the acting side, Gal Gadot and her opposing star Chris Pine showed surprising chemistry, something which carried on through the rest of the movie. I could rest easy knowing that I probably wouldn’t be cringing my way through the rest of the movie.
Then the second act came around, and I would like to assure you that this act alone makes the movie worth seeing. The setting switched to the harsh frontlines of WWI, and the scenes ranged from heartfelt to really damn awesome, having a decent blend of various genres: action, romcom, drama, even showing competence as a period piece. It showcased all the qualities that make Wonder Woman an inspiring character, and Patty Jenkins did a magnificent job on the cinematography and direction of the action sequences. The film shows great heart by not only focusing on its central heroine, but by also picturing the grimness of war, which I appreciated very much. This dark tone is something the movies of the DCU have tried to embrace, but only Wonder Woman has been able to make it work so far. Having Wonder Woman running around as a beacon of hope in that grimness wasn’t just awesome, but even believable. There are but a few formula-checks, one of which of course being the villain of the film, which I found bearable but not earth-shaking. There was not a lot of depth to the antagonists as characters—but then again, what Wonder Woman was fighting could be argued to have more to do with the violent nature of mankind itself rather than just an evil professor or Zorblon the Terrible. The only real annoyance on my part came from the code switching that happened every now and again. Instead of having the Germans speak German, they all spoke English with a stereotypical kraut-accent. Even when the English speakers switched to German, all that happened was a change in accent, which felt rather silly. Could it have been that hard to have a few German actors, or have your actors learn a few German lines? Wonder Woman is shown to speak pretty much every language, so why did they choose to do this? Perhaps it was an attempt to make the film more accessible for all ages—which might have succeeded, however jarring it was.
When the third act rolled around, I was already plenty satisfied. The final plot was still generic, though it did a decent job at tying up the loose ends. I cared enough about the characters up to this point to be curious about what was going to happen, even though the clichés were kind of piling up. Still, the movie didn’t miss beats in terms of acting or action. Of course, there is a big final fight, and there are some points which made me wonder if the CGI budget had all been spent by the second act, but I took it in just the same. It felt good to see Wonder Woman mature as a person from beginning to end, and I believe Gal Gadot is to praise for this. Her character showcased the basic hero-characteristics since her first scene of the movie: bravery, compassion, and an almost naïve trust in the good of the world. As the film progressed, all of these ideals were tested in realistic ways. The dilemma posed to Wonder Woman could come down to the following question: how can your belief in the good of mankind weather one of the most cruel wars in modern history? This dilemma reaches its peak in the last act in a spectacular, satisfying fashion. Her character development is a pleasure to watch, especially when compared to other superhero movies.
A lot of which I was sceptical about turned out better than I expected, and a bit of surprise is always a good thing, if you ask me. In this case, the surprise came from how the film diverted from several formulaic patterns, and how human and likeable the character of Wonder Woman was. Though the first and third act have a lot in common with standard superhero flicks, the film is at its most powerful in the second act. Here, we finally get to see a female hero with substance, one that has been long overdue. Wonder Woman wasn’t a flawless character, but at the same time larger-than-life. She hits all the marks as both a hero and a character; her womanhood being an essential part to both. Simply put, if the film had been “Wonder Man”, nothing about the film would have worked. Seeing a narrative supporting its titular character with such understanding is refreshing.
My biggest gripe would be that the film sometimes seems to be torn between what the superhero genre (and so the producers) needed it to be, and what the movie itself wanted to be. I suppose the film is undoubtedly led by a company that feels the need to steer the story toward big set pieces and landscape-shattering explosions. Regardless, enough of the film’s heart shone through in the loveable characters and solid directing. Despite its flaws, Wonder Woman (2017) far exceeded my expectations.