Wonder Woman (2017)
Dir. Patty Jenkins; Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
2 out of 4 stars
There is a moment in a trench on the front lines of World War I when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) looks at Diana (Gal Gadot) and says “This is No Man’s Land. No man can cross it.” The follow-up line to that from Diana would read “I’m no man.” However, instead of telling the ill-informed Trevor this, Diana elects to do something rather more impactful: she crosses it. It is here, on the edge of No Man’s Land, with sword, shield, whip, tiara, and cuffs united for the first time, that Patty Jenkins and DC unveil Wonder Woman. The message and tenor are clear. In a genre boundlessly tread by male figures, Wonder Woman is not “just one of the boys” and has no intention of trying to fit in.
Wonder Woman achieves what other DC offerings have failed, which is simply to have fun as well as save the world. Gone are the moody colors of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and the stilted humour of Suicide Squad (2016). Diana arrives as a fully formed presence quite sure of her voice and goal. Much of this is owed to Gadot, who slips effortlessly into the essence of Diana of Themyscira. She inhabits the character with an engrossing mixture of no-nonsense pragmatism, an endearing stubbornness, and a potent dosage of hope. The audience becomes well acquainted with the growth of young Diana, the sheltered princess, to older Diana, the warrior and leader.
In the realm of the DC cinematic universe, she is distinguished from each of her colleagues in more ways than her gender. The cinematic iterations of Batman and Superman that we have seen from Zack Snyder achieved nothing better than a sapping of individuality. These grand figures became stand-ins for the ideals they represented with little else to offer. Diana is a carefully-crafted character with personality and flair to spare. It bodes well for the future of the franchise. Yet, taken out of the context of the DC cinematic world, the film is blisteringly disappointing for its lack of originality.
The lightness of the film is in no small part due to the considerable chemistry on display between Gadot and Pine, and the inherent comedy in putting someone without a knowledge of the greater world with a man who has become quite weary of such a world. There are a multitude of films which use this incompatibility for comic relief, but Wonder Woman somehow finds new ways to present it. In one scene Diana asks Steve about his watch, noting “You let something tell you what to do?” It is humorous to think about her not understanding the concept of a watch, and yet it also allows for a pause, thinking about what conceptions these two worlds operate on. It strikes a balance of humour and insight which, though less prevalent than one would hope, appears enough to sustain through the film.
Nonetheless, the film surrounding Diana is significantly less unique than she is, even if it begins on an especially promising note. Opening the film on the hidden island of Themyscira separates Diana from her contemporaries, reminding us that her story is pulled, and significantly adapted, from Greek mythology. Seeing Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, far removed from her Princess Bride (1987) days of damsel in distress, ride around on horseback at the head of a battalion of Amazons, battling German soldiers on the beach is a remarkably invigorating visual. The very fact that the first twenty minutes or so of the film unfolds with an entirely female cast is remarkable unto itself. It is therefore unfortunate that Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg choose to remove Diana so quickly from this setting. Trevor’s crash landing in the ocean, and Diana’s dive into save him, functions as a deus ex machina: Diana feels trapped on the island, so here is a man to show her the world.
The choice to place the majority of the bloated second and third acts during World War I, bookended by passages in the present where Diana reflects on her past, immediately sets up a parallel with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). In both films, a heroic character with a moral rectitude elevated above the common man must lead a band of slight misfits into seemingly insurmountable odds to propel the allies over the German forces. Captain America places this in World War II, but to the extent which Wonder Woman emulates the cinematographically aged style of the former, it appears exceptionally similar. Both Captain America (Chris Evans) and Wonder Woman are faced with the fact that they are elevated in comparison to those around them. Both face doubts concerning the worthiness of the people surrounding them, but as they are heroes, they push through them. Both face off against an ultimate foe who hides behind the Germans to propagate a more universal evil. I draw this comparison because Wonder Woman had the chance to separate itself from its precursors and instead opted to adhere to the model.
No matter how distinctive Diana is as a character, she is limited by the lack of scope present in the film itself. For this reason, while I never found myself bored, I also failed to be surprised or overly engaged. Her battle with Ares is well-crafted, but it adds no new aspects to the climatic fight. Her time in London is played for laughs, but with the exception of the sword she carries around for part of it, the circumstances could be pulled from any war time espionage or war thriller. The events unfolded and left little substantial impact. It is, ironically, too derivative of its precursors to stand tall on its own. Even the score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, feels cobbled together. It is as if Gregson-Williams listened to the most predominant themes from war and superhero films and decided to pick and choose what he liked. Danny Elfman he is not.
There are aspects of Wonder Woman which I enjoyed quite a bit, above all which is the privilege to see the character finally realized on the big screen where she belongs. Wonder Woman delivers an entertaining film that nonetheless cannot seem to honour all of its separate parts. It is so self-aware of its place as an important cultural touchstone that it seems to attempt too much. By being a war film, an origin story, a romance, and a superhero film, it struggles to strike a satisfying balance. It is a promising introduction to Diana of Themyscira, and it is exciting to think of what is to come now that she has arrived, but as a singular work of art, it achieves little for itself.