I’ve had a strange relationship with the build up for Wonder Woman. I remember when they announced it was on the docket for the DCEU several years ago. There seemed to be no real plan other than “get a female super hero movie out before Marvel does” and that’s never a great way to start. This was during a time when Marvel Studios execs were saying “we know you want a Black Widow movie, but that’s complicated…” and fans were responding with “fuck you, it’s not complicated. You have the character, and you have ScarJo, put her in a fucking movie.” Then DC announced “yeah, well we have the character and we have Gal Gadot, we’re making a fucking Wonder Woman movie. And we’ll even get a woman to direct it. Hey, Patty Jenkins! You’re a woman, right? Great! We’re going to revolutionize the genre, fuck Marvel!”
I was actually slightly on the complicated side. Not because I didn’t want a Wonder Woman movie. I did. And not because it’s hard to just put someone in a fucking movie. But because I was afraid that they would just… put someone in a fucking movie and call it done. And then it would be a disaster. I like Wonder Woman. I wanted a Wonder Woman movie, a lot! But I was willing to live in a world with no Wonder Woman movie rather than having a bad one… or even a mediocre one. Because mediocre wouldn’t be good enough. And when that movie utterly critically failed the lesson would be “Ugh, superhero movies with girls in them don’t work! No chick movies like this ever again!” and it would kill the franchise for at least 15 years. See Ghostbusters(2016). Even though people are acting like this sis the first movie starring a superheroine, it’s not. There’s been Supergirl, Catwoman, Barb Wire and Elektra. This movie was unequivocally better than any of these (including Ghostbusters). That’s not really hard. All of them were horrible. Ok, maybe Barb Wire didn’t suck. Actually. Barb Wire is way better than most people give it credit for. But this is still probably better than that.
Yes, we now officially no longer live in a world where there has never been a Wonder Woman movie!!!
Actually, we technically lived in that world before. There was a Wonder Woman movie back in 1974, only it was made for TV and I’m the only person on the planet who actually remembers it, except for maybe Cathy Lee Crosby who starred in it. Honestly, at this point I’m not convinced that Cathy Lee Crosby remembers that she was the original Wonder Woman. In fact, I just looked at her website… and she doesn’t. It’s not listed on her filmography page. She literally seems to think it’s more important that she list separate entries for the TV show That’s Incredible! and the That’s Incredible! reunion specials than it is to acknowledge that she was the first feature length Wonder Woman. It wasn’t good. The new movie was definitely better than that.
And Cathy Lee wasn’t even the first on-screen Wonder Woman. There’s also a five-minute pilot for a Wonder Woman tv series from 1967 by the producers of the original Batman tv series. It’s called Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? and it stars Ellie Wood Walker as Diana Prince, a 27-million-year old single girl living with her mother in the big city. Her mother constantly harps on her about her inability to find a man. This takes up a good three minutes of the plot until a sudden emergency means that Diana has to change into her alter-ego Wonder Woman, narcissistic superheroine addicted to her own reflection which she delusionally sees as more attractive than she really is. The reflection is played by Linda Harrison, a different actress… And there’s a good solid minute of Walker making “OMG, I’m so hot” fish lips into the mirror as Harrison mimics her. Though honestly, they’re both about equally attractive and not even obviously different people so the joke is kinda lost. Why is it only five minutes? Because four minutes in, the producers realized “what the fuck are we doing?” and pulled the plug on this trainwreck. Anyway, the new movie is sure-as-shit better than that! (but you know, if you’ve never seen, definitely go watch it on the Youtubes.)
And of course there’s the old Lynda Carter series from the 1970s. Arguably, this film was better than that. I think this is actually probably better than that in a technical sense as well. In many ways, that show feels very much “of it’s era,” but it holds up surprisingly well. It “looks” dated and clearly suffers from budget and technology issues, but the storylines of it are kind of engaging and fun, and you can sort of feel it’s cultural relevance as an artifact of mid-century feminist approaches to television. It feels innovative. It feels important. And it was. The 1975 Wonder Woman series (along with contemporary shows action heroine shows like Bionic Woman, Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels) fundamentally changed the ways that women could be portrayed in genre media. No the shows weren’t perfect. Yes, there’s a fair amount of camp to them when viewed through the eyes of a 21st century fan. Yes, they all heavily lean on the male gaze and rely on the fact that it’s just as important that the heroine wear a skimpy outfit and look good flipping her hair in slow motion as it is that she be a competent crime fighter (if not more so). BUT, they did allow her to be a *COMPETENT* crime fighter. This is very much highlighted by comparing it to the Walker pilot from only a few years earlier. Even with the joke and the camp and the sex appeal, they were able to present an image that the female lead could be a heroine in her own right that didn’t necessarily need saving. She could drive the plot, without the assistance of a male protector, something that couldn’t be said about even progressive similar shows with female heroes of the sixties like The Avengers and The Mod Squad. The Lynda Carter series made Wonder Woman (and by extension, female leads) viable as a lead protagonist in an action role.
That was what this film was shooting to accomplish. It wanted to be that stake in the sand that could forever change how we look at women on screen. It really wanted that, but it didn’t quite get there. Yes, as I said, it was probably technically better than the Carter series (though less fun). It also manages to be important because of what it stands for. But it wasn’t quite as remarkable as it wanted to be.
But it didn’t need to be.
When I was doing the Wonder Woman roundtable at PCA/ACA a few weeks ago, someone in the audience asked us if we were looking forward to the new movie. I said I was cautiously optimistic. I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it a lot, and the buzz around the picture had been pretty good. But I was trying to not get to excited because the buzz was also pretty strong around Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad and those turned out to be… is it fair to say “disappointing?” Can I say that without too much fanboy nerdrage? I actually even liked Suicide Squad… I think it’s fun. Fuck it! BvS is a total abomination. Sure it made money, but it was craptastic and fanboys be damned, it’s just a shitty movie. But the singular best part of the movie is the ten to fifteen minutes that Gal Gadot has on screen as Wonder Woman. In order to be a success this movie didn’t need to be Citizen Kane. It didn’t even need to be the 1975 Wonder Woman. It just needed to extend Gadot’s fifteen minutes into a feature and somehow not manage to utterly suck. And it undoubtedly did better than that.
It is certainly, without a doubt, the best film in the DCEU franchise so far. Of course, that’s not actually all that high praise, because it’s only film number three.* But it’s solid, and I can’t actually say that about the last two. Suicide Squad may be more fun… but this is a better movie. BvS will probably end up making more money. This is a better movie. There’s a lot of good going on here. Gadot continues to make the character engaging. The bulk of this film takes place during WWI rather than modern day as her previous outing, and she did an amazing job of making the character seem younger and more naive. In BvS, Gadot played Diana as a grizzled veteran who sick of the darkness of the world. This Wonder Woman is more innocent and excited and full of… wonder. Even though we don’t see the intervening times between the end of WWI and her appearance in 2016, you feel as though there has been time for her develop and change over the course of the 20th century. Robin Wright also does a great job in a supporting role as Diana’s aunt Antiope. In fact, as far as Strong Female Characters™go, I was heavily invested in Antiope’s arc and watching her develop more than anyone else including Diana. Everyone else is… fine. The rest of the cast isn’t amazing; they don’t stand out. But none of them really stink or drag the film down either.
It’s not perfect film. I’m usually not really one to critique the special effects of a film one way or the other. As long as they get the job done and I don’t notice them, I’m happy. In this case however, a lot of the CGI (especially but not limited to the magic lasso) was actively bad. I was constantly aware that certain things were fake and that took me out of the movie. This was upsetting because I know they have the technology to do better. In fact, this was one of the few areas where I felt BvS outshines Wonder Woman. In fact, some shots were below the standards I expect out of their far cheaper CW Arrowverse. In 2017, I’m just aware that they can do better and I couldn’t not notice. As a side note, it’s not really part of THIS film, but there was a trailer for the Justice League movie at the beginning (before the film started instead of embedded in the middle like BvS did… ugh). Cyborg looks AWFUL. Like really really really bad. Again, it’s 2017. Say what you will about the Transformers movies, but at least they’ve proven that it’s possible to CGI a robot into a scene and make it look like it’s really there. Instead it looks like something every so slightly more advanced than Jason and the Argonauts, and while there was nothing quite that bad in this film, some effects looked like maybe they were pretty artificial (I’m not naming them because of spoilers).
There were also some writing choices that I questioned. While I liked the naiveté that Gadot gives Diana, it was at times a little too much. Particularly towards the end of the film, I felt like it takes her too long to catch on to the twist. There is a difference between naive and stupid… and it gets to a point where once the audience has picked up on the cues and she hasn’t it kind of makes her seem like a bit of a dumbass. This probably could have been fixed with tighter editing. Which is also a problem. At two hours and twenty-one minutes, the film is maybe 20-30 minutes too long. It feels like it drags in places. I especially wonder if children will sit through it. There was a lot of story packed into it, and not all of it is equally engaging. Like many modern summer blockbusters, this film was clearly being rewritten by committee as the shooting and reshooting was going on. At times it feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. A nice thing about the superhero genre is that it lends it self very well to genre hybridization. But here, things got somewhat disjoint and schizophrenic. The film begins as a superhero origin in the first act, before kind of organically turning to a war picture for much of the second. The war film is more engaging than the origin story (other than, as previously mentioned Wright’s Antiope), but then it sort of inexplicably picks up a lot of tropes of a swords and sandals flick for the final act. This comes out of nowhere. It feels like it was supposed to be a through line from the first act, but it really just… isn’t. Several characters sort of enter and leave the narrative with no real point or explanation. It’s clear that there’s probably a lot on the cutting room floor that could turn this into a three and a half hour directors cut. But unlike BvS, it doesn’t NEED to be. Even though there are clear issues with editing and disappearing storylines, the story feels complete. There’s a beginning, middle and and an end, and even with the holes, you can see how the characters got from point A to point C.
At the same time, the film seems to realize the importance of what it is trying to do and so it has a bit of an aspect of trying to be all things to all people. It wants to be a strong feminist message while still being mainstream marketable. It wants to present a strong and meaty role for Gadot while still being an exciting action fest. It wants to respond to the criticism of the other DCEU films being too dark and grim and still be serious. It wants to make sure there’s action set pieces to entertain the fans but still have a storyline. It wants to have enough easter eggs in it for the geeks while still being a standalone movie. It wants to be accessible for kids and yet intelligent for adults. And it’s still for the ladies, so it needs a love story… except we want to be progressive so lets toss in some allusions to the fact that all Amazons are lesbians… but not too much because we don’t want to scare off the squares! It tried to do a lot and it all feels kind of schizophrenic.
None of these problems are egregious enough to make the film unenjoyable. It’s quite fun. But as I was watching it, I kept thinking to myself “how the hell do I rate or review this?” I very much want to judge it on it’s own merit… as though I am unaware of the past iterations of the character or the cultural moment that it exists in. But that doesn’t seem fair in this case. Because as a movie, it’s ok. A solid 3 out of 5 stars. BUT, it’s impossible to divorce this film in that way. Because a big part of the story of Wonder Woman, both for this film and as a character overall, is her status as a feminist icon in the cultural moments in which she exists. That has always been her purpose and that is her purpose here. So when I take that into account, it makes me view the movie with different eyes. But it also makes me more aware of other films in this cultural moment that are attempting to do the same thing. Most notably, the last two Star Wars movies. I gave Force Awakens a 3 and Rogue One a 3.5. And while I think I actually enjoyed Force Awakens more than I enjoyed this, I recognize that objectively, as films that are trying to do what these films are trying to do, this stands right in between them.
Will it be the film that everyone looks back on in 20 years and says “this changed everything?” No… it’s just not going to be. There are too many others, many of which will feature women and chances are one has to be better than this… especially with less pressure on it. But it doesn’t suck. And given what it has had to compete with… that’s a high accomplishment.
★★★¼☆ (3.25 out of 5 stars)
*Author’s Note: As Mark Seely reminded me in the comments, this is actually film number FOUR in the the DCEU franchise. Not three. I had forgotten Man of Steel. This does not change the substance of my review at all though, and if nothing else pretty much gives you my opinion on Man of Steel.