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Leaping Over the Low Bar (with inches to spare): a Wonder Woman Review (no spoilers)

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. 

21 comments for “Leaping Over the Low Bar (with inches to spare): a Wonder Woman Review (no spoilers)

  1. avatar
    June 3, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    #Woder_Woman_susu_gede

  2. avatar
    June 3, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    So you don’t remember Man of Steel as part of the DCEU? (Only mentioned BvS and Suicide Squad as predecessors.)

    • avatar
      mav
      June 3, 2017 at 5:08 pm

      Shit. Yes. That should be FOUR films. I guess I should fix that.

      And ugh… I guess that basically gives you my feelings on how bad I thought man of Steele was.

  3. avatar
    June 5, 2017 at 5:18 am

    I would give this movie an A+ for a couple of reasons.

    Most of the characters in the movie were strong characters. Not strong female characters. Not strong male characters. Just solid, yet flawed well written(for the most part) characters.

    The way the action scenes were shot and paced, allowed me to turn a blind eye to some pretty mediocre and sometimes bad CGI. I agree with you 100% on that one. With what is possible, this movie fell a bit short.

    Gal Gadot and Chris Pine were great. They both did a good job of making me care about how they were going to get from point A to point C. Yeah, I was a bit annoyed that they didn’t pick up on the “twist”, however, my girlfriend didn’t really notice it either, and I would chock that up to being more engaged in other things than a lack of perception. So ultimately it isn’t that big of a deal to me.

    I LOVED, and I mean LOVED how they portrayed her abilities. While Superman muddled through or just magically was able to do certain things. I felt as if she was discovering her powers as she went along. And the fact that she didn’t know just what she could do made a few scenes even better for me, without spoiling anything that wasn’t in the trailer:

    1. Climbing the wall bare handed. She wasn’t even sure she could get there, let alone how she was actually going to get up to the top, the look on her face when she figured out what to do next, goes back to one of my favorite segments from BvS(Doomsday bats her away and as she gets up, there is a wry smile on her face, that said more about her character than 1 and a half movies of Supes).

    2. The big bulletproof shield scene. She just does what she thinks needs to be done. She doesn’t fully get the world of men, she only kind of understands what their weapons will do, and she by no means thinks she is free from danger. Hell neither are we, yet she climbs up that ladder and faces shit head on. THAT was completely bad ass to me. Very reminiscent of the best MCU character, Captain America. Doing what needs to be done, no matter what.

    3. A couple of other “whoah” moments, that showed the audience that she was more than we had ever seen(on screen) from the character.

    Is the movie perfect? Nope. While I felt the pacing was pretty good(where did it drag for you Chris Maverick I’m curious), it had a bit of the Thor time scale issue going on(A couple of things including character connections/comradere, happened a bit too quickly for me). I would prefer a few more clips that convey a passage of time(think red line on the map scene while flying around the world from Indiana Jones)

    You know I am about as anti SJW, feminist, progressive, etc as they come. And I was very curious as to how the filmmakers would handle the pressure to make some sort of statement relevant to the social climate we live in.

    And IMO they nailed it. If you are looking for a female role model, a symbol of female power/equality. This was about as good as you could get. If you were simply looking for a well written character with cool action and a descent story, again, it doesn’t get much better. For me this movie is top 3 comic book movies post Iron Man. Actually I would say it is tied for second place with Iron man as the best first solo movie for a character. Winter Soldier is still the best comic book/superhero movie to date IMO, just FYI/

    For once I actually agree with the vast majority of your review(not that it matters LOL, just stating that I agree and appreciate your insight.)

    Oh, and Suicide Squad was fine, just wish they would have made me give a shit about ANY of the characters LOL

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      So I use star ratings not grades. But I am going to assume an A+ would be your way of arguing for a 5★ rating.

      To me a 5★ movie is perfect. it is not a marker of how much I *like* something. It’s a matter of objectivity. Godfather is a 5★ movie. 3★ is still a thumbs up and this certainly got that. But you saying it isn’t perfect would immediately make it NOT 5★.

      The two things you chose to highlight were certainly cool moments. But that’s just all they were. That’s not a good “movie” it’s a cool sequence. Is it the kind of thing that 40 years from now… including all similar movies that come out between now and 2057, I’m going to say “and this is still the pinnacle of filmmaking”? or even “and this still has something relevant to say.” If it comes on cyberneuralHBO while I’m flipping around will I stop and say “Oh wow. Wonder Woman is on. I must drop everything and watch this right now.” And it’s not there.

      Things that bugged me: It’s long. The CGI is bad. Etta is entirely irrelevant to the plot other than the fact that she’s a part of the Wonder Woman mythos so had to be represented. Sameer, Chief and Charlie wonder in just so that there’s a team and also don’t really accomplish much. They’re essntially dismissed with little consequence from the plot on at least two occasions only to be brought back in to fill out a scene later on. The love story is completely unearned and only works in that we as viewers can make the jump that the two attractive leads in the film are clearly going to hook up and fuck. And once they do, they’re sort of “in love” the next day and he dies…. just because. That’s not a story that’s relying on a trope. The framing device is weird inconsequential. Its not part of the narrative and serves no purpose beyond connecting it to the rest of the shared universe. It causes more problems than it solves. She hung out with these people for a week 100 YEARS AGO. If she’s still hung up on them, there needs to be a more cohesive reason than she danced with and fucked one dude once and he died the next day. She is naive for far too long pacing-wise. It makes sense for her to believe the myths that Hippolyta told her as a child, but there’s no point in which she learns anything after that until killing Ludendorff just happens to not work. Ares then has to explain the plot to her in pure exposition just so that they have a reason to fight. Since there are really three different tonal films in the three acts, Themyscira is just dispensed with and forgotten about once she leaves which feels unbalanced in much the same way the rest of Trevor’s team.

      Stuff like that.

      Like I said, this doesn’t make it a bad movie. On the contrary it’s a good one. Thumbs up. But Actual reviews beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” are about nuance.

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      Chris Maverick I can agree with all of the things you mentioned. For me THIS A+ is about the movie as a piece of entertainment as opposed to a critical exercise in film making.

      Basically, every aspect of this movie did what it needed to do, with her character hitting all of the notes that I am looking for in a superhero flick.

      The CG was good enough. The pacing was not distracting. The holes in the plot only bother me if I ignore my experience watching the film for the first time. But as I said, I can completely agree with what you said as a critique of the film.

      Maybe I am being too generous. I have no problem admitting that. But I enjoyed this character portrayal so much I think I will always tend to overlook some of the flaws.

      Thanks for the response.

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 12:55 pm

      Also, I tend to compare in genre. So I guess I am rating it against other super hero films as opposed to classics.

      Much like I would give Master of Puppets an A+, but would not compare it to say a particular Beatles record, many of which would get the same grade.

      Just an FYI

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 3:15 pm

      And that’s certainly fair enough, but it does’t really change any thing.

      The Superhero genre has become very hybridized. It mixes with other genre types and attempts to be something “more” than just what it has to offer alone. Certainly if I look at just movies in that genre, I can say the original Superman is kind of the standard bearer of being good as a superhero movie. And since 1978 there’s been many movies which are better and worse.

      BvS is certainly worse than Wonder Woman or Superman ’78. So is X-Men Apocalypse to take something else recent. And Fant4stic is REALLY bad on almost any level.

      BUT, Winter Soldier is better as a cohesive film than this is. Logan is REALLY REALLY REALLY good and shows the potential for the genre. Even it wasn’t perfect. I had a couple issues with it and ended up giving it a 4★. The Dark Knight is around there too. But even if I were to call Dark Knight and Logan 5★ films, Wonder Woman is objectively on a lower level than they were. Perhaps more culturally significant overall because of it’s “firstness” for being a super heroine flick, but as I pointed out in the review… it really wasn’t the “first” so much as it was the first “good one.”

      So it moved the needle. And that’s great. But it didn’t move it into the territory of “this is a work of art and everyone should see it even if they aren’t fans of this genre” (which is what I feel is the case for 4★ films.)

      In fact, as a good reference, off the top of my head:

      5★: Perfect movie. People will be talking about this forever
      4★: An Artistic Masterpiece. See this film even if you aren’t into the genre because this is significant as a film in and of itself.
      3★: Good movie. Thumbs up. See this is you like the genre but don’t see them all.
      2★: Ennh movie. Not really that good. If you’re not into this kind of movie you won’t like this. Thumbs down
      1★: Even if you like this kind of movie, you probably will think it’s kind of bad.
      >1★: This is a piece of shit.

      Maybe I’ll turn this into a blog post in and of itself.

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      I think you make some good points. I would say for me it is an A+ because of how it made me feel, but objectively I can agree with a 3 out of 5

    • avatar
      June 5, 2017 at 3:19 pm

      Not a game changer, but it really did strike a chord with me emotionally

  4. avatar
    June 6, 2017 at 5:12 am

    I’m seriously a little upset that she didn’t “destroy” Ares with an epic kick in the nuts. I feel like it really needed to go there.

  5. avatar
    June 6, 2017 at 5:13 am

    But really, I am confused at her timeline. How is it she aged as a child but now she’s been the same age since WWI? Doe she only age on her island?

    • avatar
      June 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

      I think growing up is different than aging. If you’re immortal, you don’t stay a baby the whole time, you grow to 20ish and then stop. Which was also a little weird because there are clearly older women on the island. So maybe she’s the only one who’s immortal because she’s a demigod. OR they all age very very slowly. But this raises my other question: exactly how long ago did Ares kill the gods? Just from the movie, I would think “about 20 years ago.” Supplemental interwebz reading indicates it’s more like 5,000 years. In which case I think she should be a bit more emotionally mature.

    • avatar
      June 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

      I think growing up is different than aging. If you’re immortal, you don’t stay a baby the whole time, you grow to 20ish and then stop. Which was also a little weird because there are clearly older women on the island. So maybe she’s the only one who’s immortal because she’s a demigod. OR they all age very very slowly. But this raises my other question: exactly how long ago did Ares kill the gods? Just from the movie, I would think “about 20 years ago.” Supplemental interwebz reading indicates it’s more like 5,000 years. In which case I think she should be a bit more emotionally mature.

    • avatar
      June 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

      It’s not explained. Assuming the Amazons lived during the period where people actually worshipped Greek myth, that would make her at least 2500 or so and as old as 4000-5000. But I think that in general we’re supposed to believe that gods and god-like creatures age from birth to hotness and then just stay that age.

    • avatar
      June 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

      It’s not explained. Assuming the Amazons lived during the period where people actually worshipped Greek myth, that would make her at least 2500 or so and as old as 4000-5000. But I think that in general we’re supposed to believe that gods and god-like creatures age from birth to hotness and then just stay that age.

    • avatar
      June 6, 2017 at 7:40 am

      To Max’s point on how long ago. The movie doesn’t totally make it clear when the Amazons got shipped off to Themyscira. The actual worship of the Greek Gods was like 2000 BCE to 500 BCE or so…. though maybe the amazons got shipped off “before then” the same way Jesus happened “before now”. But my understanding of it was “the gods put us here just before they died” so maybe 500 BCE or so?

      And I got the impression that Diana was born ON the island, and not before. So maybe she’s young in general. We don’t know that the gods were still being worshipped when Zeus and Hippolyta hooked up. For all we know Diana was born in like 1890 CE.

      But I think its more that they age REALLY REALLY slowly… Like one year of visible aging every 100 years of time. So that point where she was like 8 watching the everyone train… that was like 400 BCE. And when it looks like she’s 12 and riding horse back, that was like year 0. So she’s basically “aged a year” in the time since the WWI.

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