OK, so I saw Wonder Woman on Friday. In a nutshell? It was pretty good. Of course, for a film snob like me, “pretty good” might as well be an epic fail. If there’s one pet-peeve of mine is a tendency of fans to lavish undue praise (and ticket sales) on a work that doesn’t deserve it. This is exactly why Hollywood chases franchises in the first place. A preexisting character means a preexisting fanbase. What fans do when they go to see a movie like Wonder Woman is performing an act of solidarity on behalf of their fondness for the character. This “goodwill” colors their perception of the film.
It also helps that we’ve regressed back to a Hatfield and the McCoys era of gender relations, so there are many that would like properties like this or the female-led Star Wars franchise to somehow bring both sides together. Of course, the high-profile nature of a property like this only attracts radicals on both sides to jump on a soap-box and pontificate.
I’m not going to bother linking to everybody else’s strong opinions on this film and what it supposedly represents because opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one but that doesn’t make one more important than another. And as I keep on saying, the #1 currency on the internet is attention. That’s really what people are looking for, more than any true passion about an issue. At any rate, here is ONE LINK that demonstrates this endless feedback loop of outrage over outrage over outrage.
I want to focus mostly on the “goodwill” aspect of those who entered the theater. Given that I saw the movie on opening night, these were the hardcore fans. And I do recall at certain moments hearing some clapping and “you go girl” murmurs. This would be understandable other than the reality that the film doesn’t quite justify such elation.
I am not saying the film is bad. It’s pretty good. But it also leans heavily on formula, especially when it comes to the now-hackneyed style of gratuitous Basketball-ad like slo-mo shots of characters in mid flight about to shoot an arrow through a heart or hack a chest with a sword. Zack Snyder didn’t start that trend. Heck, the original Wonder Woman of the 70s, like The Hulk, Bionic Woman, and Six Million Dollar Man, used slomo liberally. It’s just that now this has become such a tired cliche’ that it just makes me yearn for something different.
(Yes, we’re onto the review here)
Style is something I’ve had to just sort of bite my lip on with any modern movie. The first thing that drives me insane is the handheld. For some reason I did not notice overuse of handheld in this movie. I’m not sure why, so I’m not going to bash that aspect. It does have the heavy digital grading that has been applied since Lord of the Rings, but you can almost justify it as far as it being a period piece, sort of like The Aviator. There were times when it seemed like maybe they either shot on film or added fake film-grain.
The first time I saw her Xena outfit I wanted to write her off. However, the film does try to rationalize things fairly well, especially the use of the Excalibur-like sword. Luckily (and this is a spoiler I guess) the sword doesn’t survive the entire film, so we won’t have to suffer her swinging the sword around in future installments, which would just not be Wonder Woman-like enough, IMHO The shield does get a workout on the battlefield of WWI which is probably my favorite scene. I would like the shield to also be retired, however, as it’s a needless accessory.
As for Gadot herself, we get into generation-gap territory.
Wonder Woman of the 70s represents something very different from Wonder Woman of today. Wonder Woman of the 70s represents a purely fabricated fairy-tale ideal of femininity. I was a DC kid rather than a marvel kid. Even though I was more of a Batman than Superman fan, I recognized that Superman and Wonder Woman represented a sort of “sainthood”. Superman has often been compared to a boyscout, and Christopher Reeve’s portrayl matched that to a T. Lynda Carter, likewise, was like a girlscout. She operated within a narrow band of “soft” feminism where she was assertive but never bitchy. She wasn’t “badass” like Ripley or Sarah Connor. She basically did her job to fight for what was right with a sort of charm you’d expect from a princess (since technically she WAS just an exiled princess).
So when I first saw the Xena outfit I thought they were going to turn her into some 300 style warrior where she would be all badass and no charm whatsoever. There’s nothing wrong with badass. I just don’t want Wonder Woman to be portrayed that way. Thankfully, she wasn’t.
At the same time, there’s a vast difference between the two portrayals, starting with the obvious exotic ethnic quality of Gal Gadot. She’s an Israeli playing a Greek. She still reads as “white” but she has that tinge of otherness about her as well as her accent. This really sets her apart from Lynda Carter who is the epitome of an old-fashioned pinup girl. Carter matches the original comic book far closer, so purists may have a problem with this reimagining. (Actually, I don’t think she’s ever even referred to as Wonder Woman in the entire film, even when Bruce Wayne sends her notes. It’s always “Diana” with no true alter-ego to speak of, which is kind of disappointing. There was a point where she did something heroic where someone could have coinced the Wonder Woman phrase, but it didn’t happen. A missed opportunity. Alter-egos never hold up in these comic book movies.)
I would say ultimately it comes down to apples and oranges. There’s something extremely comforting and satisfying about Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. It just seems to fit. At the same time, the stories on the TV show were, I hate to say it, usually pretty bad, and the emotional stakes usually low. That old show is mostly a nostalgic security blanket. So I think there’s room for a new take, and I think the film does a decent job of trying to remove the cheese and raise the gravitas.
However, like so many origin stories, there’s a lot of exposition to trudge through, including some unfortunate voiceover narration. The opening revisionist Greek mythology reminded me a lot of the Prologue from Fellowship of the Ring, and it has some innovative visuals of classic Bosch style paintings rendered in sort of a pseudo-3D.
I can’t help but feel, in the process of listening to voiceover narration, that I’m being told a “bedtime story”. It’s dramatic in a way, but it isn’t fully cinematic. It isn’t that it hasn’t been used effectively in the past. It’s a hallmark of rom-coms, for instance. But I’m seeing it more and more and I’m wondering if it’s just an attempt to data-dump information for the foreign market.
There’s also large blocks of exposition within the film itself, which is unavoidable, but there’s a way to reduce them and ask the audience to fill in the blanks through context. Again, using expository dialogue is sort of a copout and it kind of talks down to the audience like they’re kids. It’s a very rudimentary flavor of filmmaking but one which we’ve become so used to that we rarely expect anything more.
Petty Jenkins said she used the Donnerverse Superman as a template. I actually did not see a lot of parallels between the two. The closest was a brief period where Diana is awkward in WWI-period dress and trying to navigate through a revolving door. In Superman, Kent’s awkwardness is supposed to be somewhat of a put-on whereas with Diana it’s actual fish-out-of-water. However, we’ve seen fish-out-of-water so many times. It’s hard for it to be fresh. Even the sexual tension kind of came across like Twins (the movie with Arnold and Danny DeVito) but with the genders reversed. I’m sure there was a little Splash and Little Mermaid mixed in for good measure. This aspect of “been there, done that” is hard to break, and the film never quite finds a unique voice, instead opting to keep leaning on familiar tropes, up until the final obligatory big-spectacle of a battle.
(There is one plot twist about who or what is the primary villain that I found unpredictable. However, after the suprrise twist, it’s a pretty predictable battle royale.)
Its saving grace is the emphasis it places on ensemble, as the plot eventually becomes a spy caper. This was actually eerily similar to Rogue One, actually, and most of the Wonder Woman plots, at least the modern ones, involved Diana/Wonder Woman acting as a spy. There are shades of Indiana Jones as far as a sort of golden-age-of-Hollywood comic banter, a style that was aped successfully in the first Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser (now due for a reboot with Tom Cruise).
The upside of the period setting is it prevents the sort of crude language and post-modern cynical attitudes of something like a Guardians of the Galaxy. (You know, like Drax asking Star Lord’s dad whether he has a penis.) There’s a time and a place for such a thing, but it’s refreshing to have characters basically mind their Ps and Qs and hide behind polite euphamisms. Note that this Steve Trevor must have been born sometime at the tail end of the 1800s. Pine is NOT going to portray him the same smart-ass way he did with nuKirk in Star Trek. These are all characters reflective of 100 years ago and the end result is something that is, for the most part, a PG affair. Even the sexual innuendo is kept at the 80s level and the inevitable love-scene is the proverbial fade to black. So there is a wholesome old-world quality to the tone here which is at odds with the desire on the part of Snyder to revel in cynicism and violence-porn.
So yes, I’d say Snyder himself remains the weak link in the chain. He is credited with the story here, and probably encouraged Jenkins to do all the slow-mo choreographed action moves. If the film were willing to truly be its own animal and not feel beholden to tie into Snyder’s grimdark nihilism at all, it may have been better.
Now, I’m objective enough that despite the fact that I did enter the theater with “goodwill” I can not gush with praise about this film. However, I know most casual filmgoers can’t be that objective. After two crappy Snyder-verse films in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman and a man in the whitehouse who grabs women by the crotch, the public just wants something like Wonder Woman to right these wrongs. I don’t think it is capable of doing it, but it won’t stop so many from wishing it could.
In order for a film’s reputation to last, for it to resonate, you usually need a combination of a public that deeply wants that kind of story AND for the story to deliver completely. The original Star Wars is what fit that bill. Star Wars was the escape for the cynicism of Vietnam and Watergate.
I think there’s enough desire for escapes and fan phenomena that a film like this will heavily benefit in the box office, but when people look back it just won’t have the staying power that so many thought it would.
Now, could a sequel change that? Absolutely. Origin stories are only the first chapter in an ongoing arc, and there’s potential here, but it is, as yet, unrealized. This film’s legacy will therefore probably depend on the quality of the sequel.
Oh, BTW, there is one huge spoiler about Steve Trevor that I don’t want to reveal. I can understand why they went the way they did with it, but it does what so many film versions of comic book characters do, preventing the character from recurring in the way they did in the comics. If there’s one really big controversy for comic book purists, it will probably be that.