Unshackled by the Snyder malaise – and ignoring the slow motion he made a fad with 300, which Jenkins curiously revisits with consistency verging on the fetishistic – Gadot roars. Her ability to love strongly, to defy without vanity, to care without condescension, make her more a psychological ideal of womanhood (is Wonder Woman anything else?) than the superheroine typical. Even her fighting style is no sub-macho brawling, but a ballet of lassoes and hamstrings and hair. It’s mesmeric without being merely sexy, smartly feminine and tough in its own self-supportive way while never “hating men,” or coyly refusing them the visual goods.
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Here is a superhero with grace and charm. With such a buoyant spirit you’d think she starred in a Marvel movie. Without the third act, Wonder Woman walks the tonal tightrope with clever tact between threadbare fisticuffs and gallant humor. With it, the sum must be qualified good “for a comic book movie.” Chris Pine dazzles – he could convince that kissing you is for your own good. Gal Gadot dazzles as an emotional dancer of internal toughness and emergent empathy playing out on the battlefield of her eyebrows. Of all DC’s cinematic heroes, Gadot is the first to deserve her red and blue hieroglyphs, and the first to stand for something. But there’s an essential dimension missing here, hazed over, repressed even. I mentioned Pine first on purpose – he’s a real character, with a wit ready-made to please and a payoff predestined since the first Star Trek. He’s a hero in the real narrative sense. Wonder Woman can only be a superhero.
Director Patty Jenkins assembles her diplomatically. In a market full of Zack Snyder’s hyper-styled splats, that has the illusion of a refreshment. But the chink in her armored bra strap broadens as Pine’s character develops and Diana (that marvelous other moniker remains unused) just doesn’t. Jenkins admirably mitigates the fact that Diana is a superhero in the DC universe. But that fact is a greater enemy to her than sexism, World War I, or Ares.
Looking up to any superhero is an inadvisable thing. All this press about girls finally having a role model is a kind of haphazard way to advertise another part of a violent, self-congratulatory franchise (or perhaps just an echo of the relief that we’ve outgrown Catwoman and Elektra). In the same way that Superman is not essentially role model material for boys, for punching tanks in his underwear, strength is not admirable in Wonder Woman, and not essentially heroic. Fearlessness is not a virtue in those who are invincible (looking up to Jenkins might be a safer bet?). Diana stands for much and grandstands too, but still solves WWI by punching its face.
But take her as she says, not as she does, and Jenkins’/Gadot’s Diana succeeds in presenting an archetypally female superhero and not simply a gal who can take one with the boys. By turning empathy into a practicable rebellion against masculine genre conventions, Gadot goes beyond her underwear model physique and perfect lashes. She even exceeds herself a bit.
Unshackled by the Snyder malaise – and ignoring the slow motion he made a fad with 300, which Jenkins curiously revisits with consistency verging on the fetishistic – Gadot roars. Her ability to love strongly, to defy without vanity, to care without condescension, make her more a psychological ideal of womanhood (is Wonder Woman anything else?) than the superheroine typical. Even her fighting style is no sub-macho brawling, but a ballet of lassoes and hamstrings and hair. It’s mesmeric without being merely sexy, smartly feminine and tough in its own self-supportive way while never “hating men,” or coyly refusing them the visual goods. The outfit actually suppresses convention by appearing to conform to it, by making sexiness attractively self-serving. The fact that she still looks like a comic book heroine enunciates the smart, essential difference between defying convention so much that people miss it, and gift-wrapping her body for easy consumption at the newsstand. Wonder Woman through sheer emotional sensitivity manages to avoid the primal comic book heroine dichotomy, between Barbarella and Lysistrata.
Marvel’s Black Widow, for instance, is a mess of the other kind of toughness, the sub-male overcompensating for trauma, doubts, estrogen, whatever. We knew this Wonder Woman would be strong. I didn’t expect the veiled damsel that half of comic book women end up being. But the best thing about her, Gadot as her, is that she wouldn’t tell Widow to suck it up like the other half of them, like a zealous gym rat arm-wrestling men to prove a point, competing on their own terms. This Wonder Woman would, with the sincerest mother-caregiver kindness, reassure her that she’s strong enough for both of them. This is the first DC cinematic hero yet who saves people (their spirits too). And she does so with the feminine as integral, not accidental.
Emotional intelligence, not truth or justice, sets her apart as an icon of a kind ofnew heroism. She saves people because she cares. But we must rein it into Snyder’s scheme eventually – around the mid-point, Diana discovers that she cares more than we deserve. Empathy is her founding virtue. Its use as a device for social condescension puts her right back into DC’s big leagues.
This DC has a vein of social nihilism popping out of its punching arm, a view of humanity that seems foregone. Wonder Woman addresses it with the same detachment – both her and Superman’s mothers tell their children that the world doesn’t deserve them. Jenkins makes it quainter (in Man of Steel it had the metallic taste of genetic superiority). Here it’s more like the world is bad-mannered, like the Amazons are losing their best debutante to a world of truck drivers.
This works best when taken lightly, such as the moonlit boat ride with Pine that becomes awkward because of propriety. Diana’s worldly ignorance allows her to see romantic conventions for their lopsided virtue. (He hesitates to sleep next to her out of courtesy. She wonders conspicuously if he’s implying that she can’t fend for herself.) The best aspect of this is not its progressiveness but its innocence. Even in an unusually blatant line of questioning between female masturbation, literature, and male expectations, the result is less like docu-drama on sexism than a couple of golden actors larking around on the African Queen. That sincerity elevates the parts of Wonder Woman that make it a great theater experience.
But what about its literature, its working parts? This origin story extends the original 1941 super suffragette with the cluttered canon of her later pseudo-mythologized versions, not all to the benefit of either. That sparky line, for instance – “men are essential for procreation, but when it comes to pleasure, unnecessary” – doesn’t quite match the notion of mothers sculpting children from clay, into which Zeus breathes his precious life. Nor does it quite conform to bedding with the leading hunk, right on the old Hollywood cue. The post-mod flippant gender culture should expectedly clash with old-world anatomy sermons, but by including both, Wonder Woman loses a little clarity.
Gods and goddesses, for instance, aren’t admirable and never were. The pantheon of Wonder Woman’s ancestors are petty, genocidal bigots empowered with enchanted weapons and booming voices. Its men are brutish, overpowered, its women snide and vicious. I’d take the Germans, frankly. Neither are much of a standard for a warm fresco retelling of the origin of things (as opposed to Superman’s: a fairytale of sparkling scientists and patriots). I have to question if the Amazons really have the right to channel Caravaggio for a diorama of their illustrious history when they descend from so much ill-gotten warmongering, and now use emotional intelligence in the service of philosophical castration and genetic isolationism. Diana has to leave them, and what I assume she perceives as their hypocrisy, to fight WWI (which she solves in minutes). But she takes with her certain standards the Homeric hymns never likely intended to be combined with care-giving and righteous might.
Unlimited strength and beauty – presented in Snyder’s verse as Superman’s practicable foibles, if not his flaws – Jenkins takes much more for granted, making a film more blithely comic book-like, which acts like it must work up to Snyder’s standard of moroseness. So we have a bouncy war comedy, one great red and blue runway show across a No Man’s Land (cleverly made literal), but it all leads inexorably to a phony firestorm of a finale that calls back Batman v Superman for inspiration. There is some blissful false start in a film proclaiming progressiveness, but about a girl whose birthright, granted by the prettiest and the worst, makes her perfect against a world of people who don’t deserve her because they work for a living. Or who has that line of glib independence but also makes love to the hunky war hero. The ultimate wonder is where the film truly lies, in a genre culture that is all about beefcakes arm-wrestling in their underwear, but in a gender culture that hopes she’ll be the symbol of an anatomical rebellion.
We see the island paradise as a sum of desperately pretty waterfalls, courtyards, staircases, and think it must be virtuous too. So Gadot’s tough thighs and debonair gaze are enough to make any action scene swoon, but her over-marketed idealism creates a deficit in all the talk. You can feel the conflicting motives of ten Warner Bros. producers (eight male), a slew of writers, and continuity checkers scrambling to make a spicy war comedy conform to the soup already in the pot.
Supporting Pine are Ewen Bremner (one of the guys from Trainspotting, which should tell you how manically Scottish to expect him, like Simon Pegg on Ritalin); Eugene Brave Rock, an opportunistic Native American (who might as well be billed as such, for all he does in the film); and Said Taghmaoui as a con artist of some kind who in his funnier moments looks a bit like Sammy Davis Jr. turning to the dramatic. Not deserving Her, a point made very clear, gives Wonder Woman a spin away from the old romances, which tie even superheroines down to certain expectations (there’s a famous comic about Wonder Woman housecleaning the Justice League tower). She is the statuesque ideal that Snyder’s Superman refuses to be (with a snarl). But then why bother with the hunky guy’s sacrifice arc?
You get the sense that she’s uninformed in a less endearing way, when insisting that global politics have no sway over her quest to kill a man she believes with whimsical imprecision must be the god Ares. Without guilt or rage complexes, Diana’s left hanging in her own arc (this is a testament to the medium more than to the film). Meanwhile, Pine is somewhere discovering his humanity and making decisions a protagonist would make. Men may be unnecessary for pleasure, but they sure seem to be needed for heroic plot resolutions.
If I massaged its muscles for the knots, they would be here: sooner or later, no matter how curiously smart or devilishly sexy, Wonder Woman has to be part of a universe of dour, terrible movies. The best I can say of it is that being super powerful doesn’t hurt her too much when mitigated by this much classy intelligence and attractive strength. When it romps, it romps (the best part may be the Amazon out of water in a London dress store, looking fabulously frumpy in everything she tries on, trying to roundhouse kick in corsets). She waltzes around grinning, a bit like Chris Reeves did once, and I’d welcome an Adventures of Wonder Woman, full of cute disguises, hammy Chris Pine, and weekly derring-do. Maybe she’d even collate a stance on something as convincing as she makes it seem with her eyebrows.
But as is the case with the DC canon, Snyder’s baroque reading of it particularly, it asks too many questions it hopes it can answer with a big battle. Or convincingly forget to answer in a haze of flying armored super-baddies and self-assurances. They strived so hard to create a new icon they created little else – she is more an image of a progressive feeling than a full character, retro-propaganda for the millennial age. But perfection puts her beneath the heroes who overcome something, especially when dressed in ignorance so glib you sometimes take Pine’s side. It’s like they were nervous to have her bed down with any adversity – if she could survive Snyder, I’m sure she could have survived being interesting.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the trailer.