I waited about thirty-seven years for the film Wonder Woman (I'm assuming I was not necessarily a fan for the first couple years of my life). I have been a lifelong fan of the character Wonder Woman and in the last decade, I have actually become much more educated about the character of Princess Diana Of Themyscira. This weekend, I have found myself in an incredibly odd position, though. I rushed right out to see Wonder Woman (and reviewed it here!) on opening day on the biggest screen I could reasonably get to and in the days since, I have read the chatter and tried to interact with people about the film, but I've discovered that the hype machine for the film is still alive and well.
I have been feeling out-of-sorts about the film Wonder Woman because the more I think about the film, the less I liked it. This is a confession I anticipate more people will articulate in the days and weeks ahead and I am pleased, for once, to be well ahead of the curve. When I saw Alien Covenant (reviewed here!), for example, it seemed like people in the audience knew they had just watched a terrible film. When the screening was over, the fans who had rushed out to the earliest possible screening on the 70 ft. tall screen were silent; there was no chatter in the audience and people filed out of the screening like they were leaving a funeral. By contrast, when Wonder Woman ended, people were enthusiastically talking and I left in kind of a daze and felt compelled to ask one viewer, "Did you like that?" Rather than argue, I simply listened to her answer; she was impressed that Patty Jenkins managed to get a movie of that scope made and she was excited about going to see it again.
So, when I came home, I began looking at other people's responses to Wonder Woman and the more conversations I saw about the film, the more I came to believe that people were seeing what they wanted to in the movie, as opposed to what was on the screen. I also came to recognize that there was a strong divide between the people who were fans of the source material - Wonder Woman comic books - and the generic idea of Wonder Woman. But, on every major front - Themyscira as a matriarchal society, Patty Jenkins's direction, Ares as an adversary, and the heroic nature of Wonder Woman - Wonder Woman is not only a disappointment, but a betrayal of the ideas for which the character stands.
It is worth noting, before I delve into each of these aspects, that this article is intended to speak frankly about aspects of the film Wonder Woman and it is intended for people who have seen the film. If one enjoys the way a film unfolds and surprises within it, this is not the article for you who have not seen Wonder Woman. That said . . .
Themyscira is the island of the Amazon warriors and to be fair to writer Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins, the island is fairly well-characterized in Wonder Woman. The Amazons are a mostly warrior culture, though Wonder Woman takes time to pull out a book and have Hippolyta reading to a young Diana. Viewers see the effects of a Themysciran education later in the film when Diana flawlessly speaks many languages with Sameer. So, Themyscira is a place of military training and education (though, seriously, my next viewing I'm going to be scouring the background for a single Amazon sitting somewhere actually reading a book!), set aside from the world by Zeus to keep it safe from the Ares-corrupted world of mankind.
The problem with Themyscira in Wonder Woman is that the hook is a cheap one and the environment quickly becomes indistinct from the world it is supposed to be separate from.
Themyscira is a matriarchal society that is supposed to be different from the World Of Man. Great. It is populated by women entirely and people there seem generally happy. But, outside of the lack of a Y chromosome on the island, what makes Themyscira different from the rest of the world? The citizens are immortal, there is that. But beyond that . . .
Themyscira is governed by corrupt liars. Themyscira is populated by people motivated by fear who lie to one another to advance their own agendas.
Allow me to clarify those assertions. Themyscira is governed by a corrupt liar. Hippolyta is a liar. She spends decades or centuries lying to Diana both directly and through omission. Hippolyta shares information with Diana about the nature of Themyscira, including the fact that it is the repository of the God Killer. The child Diana assumes that the God Killer is the name of the sword kept in the Amazon's vault of precious things, when Hippolyta and every other Amazon knows that the God Killer is Diana herself. Hippoltya is an authoritarian leader in Wonder Woman; she orders Antiope not to train Diana and viewers are forced to assume that at some point Hippolyta ordered her people not to tell Diana her true nature. None of the women of Themyscira contradict Hippolyta's lie of omission when others know the truth about Diana's true nature. The Amazons lie to Diana.
The other well-developed Amazon in Wonder Woman is Robin Wright's Antiope. Wright does an amazing job of portraying Antiope, but the character only helps to reinforce that Themyscira is fundamentally no different than the world it has been isolated from. Hippolyta orders Antiope not to train Diana in the defensive arts. Antiope does it anyway, under the cover of night and behind Hippolyta's back for (presumably) decades, if not centuries (how immortals age is not clearly chronicled in the film). Antiope wants to be prepared because she wants the Amazons to be able to defend Themsycira for the time when Ares inevitably finds the hidden island. Antiope is afraid of the world and wants to be prepared, so she lies to her government and prepares the God Killer.
So, Themyscira is not actually different from Man's World in Wonder Woman and while there is the valid feminist argument to be made of "here we illustrate that women are no different from men," there is something incredibly unsatisfying about that view being applied to Wonder Woman. First, as a place segregated by the gods, it stands to reason that there ought to be something fundamentally different about Themyscira. Second, embodying Themyscira as "just the same as Man's World" robs the film of the ability to laud the benefits that could be created by a matriarchal society - a lack of prudishness, marriage that does not need a government to enforce it, honest dialogue between the citizens, etc. (all of which are lacking in the film). Finally, from a storytelling perspective, Themyscira being just the same as Man's World undermines the potential to tell Princess Diana's story in a more compelling way. Instead of setting up a reversal where Diana is the last person to get to the realization that she is the God Killer, if she had been raised knowing she was the God Killer, it would give her a strong sense of destiny and purpose in leaving Themyscira. That is the difference between the character being self-motivated and plot-motivated (Diana leaves the island as a reaction to Steve Trevor, regardless, but she would have had greater moral authority in leaving to slay Ares had she been armed with the information of her true nature in advance).
Patty Jenkins's Direction
As I write this, news is breaking that Wonder Woman is now the film that has the highest-grossing box office debut for a film by a female director and, despite my issues with the film, I could not be more thrilled about that. I was especially happy because that meant that Fifty Shades Of Grey no longer has that honor. But, in reading people's thoughts on Wonder Woman, it got me thinking about directors who happen to be female, whose work I enjoyed. Last night, I asked myself "What female directors do you like?" and I was very happy that I instantly was able to name Roxann Dawson and I've been very aware of Robin Wright's episodes of House Of Cards when she directs. But, when I went through my video library, for films - despite having many in my collection that have strong female characters or tell vital stories about women - I discovered I only had The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love (reviewed here!) and Waitress (reviewed here!) that were directed by women. Both of those films are much smaller films than Wonder Woman in terms of scope.
But . . .
. . . visually, they aren't truly twenty years behind Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman. Obviously, the special effects in Wonder Woman are better than films from the late-90s and early 00s, but the direction of Patty Jenkins was one of the ways I felt most isolated in discussing Wonder Woman. Many people seem to be generically lauding the scope of Wonder Woman and praising Patty Jenkins for that. I saw something very different in Wonder Woman: Patty Jenkins seemed very cautious in using the scale, seemed outright terrified in dwelling on key moments and created an entirely derivative battle sequence.
I saw Wonder Woman on big screen and I was very excited about that. It did not take long into Wonder Woman, though, before I started to become troubled by how scale was being misused. How places within the environments of Wonder Woman fit together is very problematic and are not very well presented. Take, for example, the first big encounter in Wonder Woman. Many, if not most, Amazons are watching Diana show off her military training for Hippolyta. Diana inadvertently wounds Antiope and runs away to the cliff where she sees Steve Trevor's plane fall into the sea. That leads the Germans into the waters of Themyscira and the beachfront battle. How those locations fit together is not made clear by Patty Jenkins; we do not get wide shots and clear trails and that leads to a problematic suspension of disbelief.
Are we supposed to believe that no one followed Diana? Is she truly so friendless that none of the Amazons saw her go over the cliff into the water and saw the Germans piercing the veil around Themyscira? If so, why did it take the Amazons so long to get to the beachfront when they were pretty much all in the same place to begin with?! The failure to show the scale and how pieces of the whole fit together is problematic for the storytelling and is not great filmmaking. The best battle sequences hold up because the relation of places for the battle are established and make sense and the Themyscira beach battle is one that crumbles under the most basic scrutiny. Sure, it looks good to have the horses thundering across a beach, but why didn't the Amazons stay on top of the cliff and shoot down the Germans from high above? And, based on the way the battle was filmed, if the Germans had tried to infiltrate the city from the beach, any survivors who tried would have been easily cut down by the attempt as Patty Jenkins showed viewers only one clear way from the beach to the city! In other words, the direction undermines the themes as the Amazons, who have been training for centuries to protect their homeland and have multiple home field advantages, utilize a military strategy that is reckless and invites casualties.
But that problem carries on throughout the film. Jenkins frames rooms so their size, shape, and the relationship between people within the environment is not clear until Diana enters that room or setting. One of the key scenes that has magnitude that is undermined by having such a myopic view of scale is when Diana enters No Man's Land at the front. Diana takes a stand and it is not clear until she starts her stride just how much terrain she must cross or how much weaponry might come to bear upon her. The magnitude of her act is undermined because the potential consequence of it is not made clear in advance. Furthermore, the moment Diana starts taking serious fire, Jenkins is forced to continue cutting back to Steve Trevor and Sameer following and trying to cross No Man's Land as well. This, sadly, becomes almost worthy of parody in that - because the scale of the trenches, No Man's Land and the Front are not made clear - the men who follow Wonder Woman are not cut down by what should be a slew of other guns that could not possibly have been aimed at her along the same vector.
Patty Jenkins also makes a lot of very quick shots that gut the emotional significance of key moments within Wonder Woman. When I think of the two films I have in my collection directed by women, one of the aspects that differentiates them from many of the other films I have is how the directors linger on faces to capture emotions, emotional transitions and actual reactions between characters. Sure, art house films are often more willing to capture clunky human emotions than blockbuster films, but it is hard to see how Patty Jenkins would have taken a hit as a director for attempting to show genuine emotional consequences for the actions within the film. Themyscira is an environment populated by immortals where that has been no evidence of violent death for centuries (since the island was segregated by Zeus). Early in Wonder Woman, at least ten women are killed (albeit some utterly ridiculously like a bullet to the gut that kills an armored woman instantly). How do the Amazon's react? One background Amazon runs forward, screaming in anguish to fall by Antiope's side and lift her head up. I'm pretty sure that before her first tear can actually fall, the shot has changed to Diana and Steve Trevor again. Regardless, that one Amazon's anguish is filmed in a wide shot, so it is part of a much larger tableau. By contrast - even if it was not initially clear and had to be seen many times to understand - when Legolas sees a fellow elf die in The Two Towers (reviewed here!), Peter Jackson lingers on Orlando Bloom's expression of shock, sorrow, and confusion. Jenkins guts almost every major moment of emotional resonance in Wonder Woman by cutting away from characters who are having reactions to the next moment of action.
Finally, there are the battles in Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a particularly bloodless film, which is nice in that one finally gets a film without anyone getting their throat slashed. But, just as cutting away from emotional moments undermines them, the impact of warfare is completely gutted by making everything bloodless. Diana pins a human to a roof by running him through with her sword, then stands in a room below the sword and there is no blood dripping from it. Really?! So, war is horrible and bad, but people don't really bleed in it, including a woman who is shot such that we see the bullet pierce her and her limp body swinging afterward for several seconds.
The final battle of Wonder Woman is one that seems to be garnering a lot of praise from fans and that has left me especially baffled. I've started playing video games over the last two years and that has truly opened me up to the idea that special effects are truly only special when they are rendered in a way that can be comprehended. I don't like playing video games with other players because I actually derive joy from exploring the virtual environments, walking around and seeing the nooks and crannies that programmers have bothered to develop. So, when the final battle of Wonder Woman is a daring nighttime raid, I felt cheated on two significant fronts. The first is that nighttime battles afford the special effects departments a number of opportunities to absolutely cheat on the special effects. There are numerous moments in the final battle of Wonder Woman where there is a clear light source presented - high light, building on fire, etc. - that allows for the bulk of the screen to be filled with shadow. In other words, detail is lost and the magnitude of the battle gets lost in darkness. That can work exceptionally well to create mood, especially in horror films. In action adventure sequences, it just obscures.
The second disappointing aspect of the final battle of Wonder Woman was very easy to define. It's a daring nighttime raid and a big special effects-driven sequence. When was the last time I saw that in a film based on comic book source material? Oh yeah, the last DC Comics film. Once the home video version is available, I fully expect that someone will do a comparative analysis between the battles from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (reviewed here!) and Wonder Woman. But, for those who are inclined to praise it excessively, I would ask, what is the virtue in Patty Jenkins simply replicating a Zack Snyder battle sequence?
The Problematic Nature Of Ares As A Villain
From a storytelling perspective, I was put on-guard the moment Ares was mentioned in Wonder Woman. To be clear, I love the use of Ares as a villain in Wonder Woman graphic novels. The God Of War is a great foil character for Princess Diana. In the books, some of the best, most complicated thematic work has been done by writers who are willing to differentiate Diana from Ares.
Ares, however, is a terrible choice for a villain for Wonder Woman and an atrocious adversary for a period piece.
Handled with adeptness and philosophy, Ares is not a bad Wonder Woman villain, but by the time Ares is mentioned in Wonder Woman, it is pretty clear that the movie is not That Type Of Film. Ares creates two huge problems within Wonder Woman, both of which are borne out in the worst possible way. The first problem is the suspension of disbelief aspect Ares forces into the narrative and how it affects the protagonists, the second problem is the historical aspect of Ares and his influence.
Adding gods to the narrative for what is intended to be a "real world" film creates a true challenge for writers. Wonder Woman is, in many ways, a fish-out-of-water story in which the Fantastic Element (in this case Diana Of Themyscira) is thrust into the entirely recognizable real world. Diana enters the world outside Themyscira with a core belief that Ares is directly responsible for World War I. This sets Diana up to either have the epiphany that she is wrong and Ares is not directly responsible for the war or puts the burden on showing how Ares is orchestrating and feeding off the war.
Wonder Woman falls down because it tries to do both.
Diana fails to identify the mundane personality of Ares correctly, which is fine. But then, of course, Ares is revealed and it turns out he is responsible for World War I. So, we get both actions - Diana has the moment of horror where she believes she is wrong when her first kill does not end the fighting and then Ares is revealed and it turns out he is trying to prolong the war. Wonder Woman then takes a horrible turn that clearly differentiates between those who love the source material and the johnnies-come-lately to the film: Wonder Woman fights Ares. In the books, Wonder Woman realizes in her very first battle that she cannot defeat Ares utilizing a physical confrontation. That makes absolute sense; you can't defeat warfare or the concept of warfare by beating the shit out of it. How did no one in the creative process for the film get to that philosophical truth? The critical fault of using Ares as a villain in a "kill the villain" action adventure film is that the climactic fight ends up being philosophically stupid. But, Allan Heinberg and Patty Jenkins go for it - Wonder Woman slays Ares and we see a German soldier losing the impetus to fight and embrace one of Diana's allies.
That leads to the critical problem of using Ares as a villain for a period piece: If Ares was defeated to end World War I, how the hell did World War II, the Korean War, The Vietnam War, genocides in Africa and Cambodia, and every other military conflict that followed ever happen? Did Wonder Woman just get lazy? Was Wonder Woman unable to find the reincarnation or reconstitution of Ares before those conflicts reached their boiling point? There is a simple fix for Wonder Woman - that Ares acts as a virus that slaying him does not fix, that he has infected the hearts and minds of Men such that even after he is killed his influence lives on - but it is not within the film and utilizing it would force major changes to the DC Comics Cinematic Universe. But, within Wonder Woman, the premise is that Themyscira was segregated from the World Of Mankind to keep it safe from Ares's influence and wars sprung up outside Themyscira because Ares could influence everywhere else. Ares started World War I, Ludendorff and Dr. Maru leap on that, but Ares needs war to continue beyond the initiatives they take, which leads to the climactic battle.
In a contemporary piece, where the consequence of a climactic battle could actually be used to entirely reshape the reality of the cinematic universe, Ares could be a great villain. Wonder Woman could have shepherded humankind into a more enlightened era after destroying Ares. But, alas, making Wonder Woman a World War I period piece puts a burden on the film that makes Ares a virtually impossible adversary to use well.
How Wonder Woman Became Second Fiddle In Her Own Film
Wonder Woman is being hailed by a lot of people as a great example of a strong female character and reading and hearing those arguments has made me wonder what film those people were watching. Diana is headstrong and she has some moments where she stands up to do both her own thing and acts independently of anyone else's wishes. Chief among the actions Princess Diana takes is taking a moral stance to the civilian bombing of the village of Veld by running directly through No Man's Land to decimate the German forces in the area.
But, objectively viewed, Wonder Woman is far more problematic. Steve Trevor has a great role in Wonder Woman and it is easy to see exactly why Chris Pine was excited about the project. While people might want to laud Wonder Woman as a great feminist story wherein an icon steps up to solve problems, that is not what actually happens for the bulk of Wonder Woman. The majority of incidents in Wonder Woman feature Princess Diana haplessly rushing into situations in blind defiance of others or being pulled out of a place by Steve Trevor, who then solves her problems.
Princess Diana speaks many languages, but otherwise she is presented with surprisingly little intelligence. As a fish-out-of-water story, Diana is expected to be ignorant and lacking in assets, that makes sense. But in Wonder Woman, Diana is presented without being particularly resourceful, smart, or articulate. Before Diana ever leaves Themyscira, she takes it upon herself to steal the sword she thinks is the God Killer and run away with Steve Trevor. Wonder Woman features a scene where Hippolyta exerts authoritarian control over the Amazons when she tells her people and Steve Trevor not to leave Themyscira to fight Ares's influence. A character who is ethical, articulate, smart and resourceful would debate the issue. Seriously, why doesn't Diana argue her point and try to persuade any other Amazons to accompany her?
In London, Diana is told "no" more often than anything else. Rather than take the initiative to build her own coalition that she leads, which she reasonably could have done by starting with Etta Candy, she is dragged along through most of the narrative by Steve Trevor. The thing is, Wonder Woman rewards initiative with disaster. Steve Trevor, a tactically-minded spy, attempts to use his skill and intelligence to defeat Ludendorff and Dr. Maru. To do that, Trevor has to infiltrate a German party and all he asks of Diana is for her to stay outside so he can do his job. Diana, "taking the initiative," knocks out a woman in a stunning dress, poorly infiltrates the party (drawing a lot of attention to herself) and sets the Germans off such that the cover is blown for Trevor and the Germans wipe out Veld. Wonder Woman is not so much about a smart character solving problems as a woman forcing herself into situations because she arrogantly believes she knows best at the cost of many people's lives. What kind of message is that?!
But, backtracking, Steve Trevor is given most of the heroic moments of Wonder Woman. Trevor has Dr. Maru's notebook, which is fine and makes sense. But after the set-up, Wonder Woman misses all sorts of opportunities to raise Diana's heroic stature. Diana is literally asleep when Trevor gets the pair to London. Diana starts to assert herself with the British government and military leaders when Trevor extracts them and persuades her to do their own thing. Diana does not leave rooms because she realizes that the men there are bull-headed idiots who aren't actually listening to her, but because Trevor pulls her out, tells her to fight the right battles and tells her the conclusion she didn't get to on her own.
While Steve Trevor has the resources - maps, situational knowledge, and personnel (Sameer, Charlie, and The Chief) - within Man's World and that makes sense, Wonder Woman continues to elevate Trevor at the expense of Diana. In the battle for Veld, for example, Steve Trevor (who witnessed the maneuver once!) moves everyone to the fallen door to launch Diana up to take out the sniper. The difference here is all the difference; here Diana has a moment where she is in the exact same position with all of the same knowledge, tactical experience and observational skills as Steve Trevor and the moment is given to Trevor. Diana has the opportunity to lead and command in a way that will lead to the desired outcome instead of disaster, but instead it is Trevor who once again asserts authority successfully.
Wonder Woman is one of those films that becomes more and more insulting to women the more one deconstructs it. Steve Trevor makes the heroic sacrifice that inspires Diana to take action as a reaction to the most banal form of love (Diana kicks Ares's ass after Trevor sacrifices himself and she has flashbacks to her experiences with Trevor as opposed to, for example, her decades of love for Antiope, who risked everything to train her as an act of love, against her mother's wishes). Even the set-up of Wonder Woman is an insulting form of mansplaining. How? Diana is given the photograph she has (apparently) coveted for almost a century by Bruce Wayne. But why? In Wonder Woman, World War I ends with Diana in Germany mere miles from Veld, the place where the photograph was taken. Everyone in Veld is dead, Diana is in mourning for the just-killed Trevor, and the photograph was taken maybe a day prior? Why wouldn't Diana just go and get the picture? But, instead of Diana going back to Veld and finding the photograph, she has to delay her gratification until Bruce Wayne provides it almost a hundred years later?! Talk about women being put in positions where they have to be given what they want or deserve instead of being able to take it on their own. This is suppression of women to an almost hyperbolic extent!
Wonder Woman is an amazing character and a great feminist icon; almost none of her complexity, grandeur or intellect transferred to Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman, regardless of the hype or how much Wonder Woman fans and women in general would want to argue otherwise.
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© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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