Wonder Woman mostly succeeds in creating a compelling origin narrative of one of the DC Cinematic Universe’s most promising superhero characters, even as it is weighed down in its final act by the appearance of a bombastic villain and some dubious plot choices.
I have to say that the inherent premise of Wonder Woman seems a little silly from the outset. An island of Hellenistic superhuman female warriors sounds like some sort of adolescent male fantasy, treating the prospect of empowered woman warriors as an exoticised “other” straight out of outlandish Greek legend. And how does it fit into the cosmology of the greater DC universe, and how Gotham City and Superman fit into it?
Also – how old is Diana anyway? Thousands of years old? Is that why she knows hundreds of languages? How long have the Amazons been hiding in their island, and are they all immortal or something?
But anyway, if we take all that at face value, Wonder Woman does a creditable job (as much of live action can) of making us suspend our disbelief. Much of it comes from the film’s sense of humanity, established in the first half hour or so of the movie, which portrays the society of the Amazons in grounded fashion, centered around the figure of young Diana as she goes about her business and secretly trains to become a strong warrior like her elders.
As the movie goes on, it deftly avoids a lot of the tired tropes that one might expect govern the plot beats of this kind of origin story. For example, Diana’s departure from her cloistered existence is not met with anger and resistance from her mother, but instead with rueful and loving acceptance. The gendered jokes and sexual hangups are kept to a minimum, and do not hinge on Diana being a complete neophyte about sex and gendered relations. Diana is strong, but also embracing of her femininity in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative.
As a superhero, Diana’s character narrative centers around the tension between her power and her confident naïveté over the affairs of the greater world. Part of her growth in character is about having her idealism punctured by the horrors of World War I, but reforming her sense of self through her sense of compassion. The film also plays up Diana’s fish-out-of-water nature in the ways you’d expect, but she manages to overcome that and succeed in her endeavors through a combination of dogged optimism and steely courage – refreshing in its earnestness and vigor.
In addition, Steve Trevor is a good kind of “superhero girlfriend” character – he exists, has things of his own that need doing, and is prepared to sacrifice himself for it. He’s a character independent of Diana, even as he serves to provide an emotional anchor for Diana’s character development.
That said, I wasn’t impressed with the movie ultimately panned out in the third act. Diana’s journey has thus far involved her quest to hunt down and kill the god of war, Ares – whom she thought was responsible for the evil in men’s hearts, whose influence led to war ad conflict. Diana’s resolve to kill Ares is therefore rooted in her optimistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of people. But when she cuts down who she thought was Ares, and the war continues to go on, she realises that her conception of good and evil is hopelessly naive.
The film, till that point, was doing a creditable job at developing Diana to the point where she needed to have that realisation. At that point, Ares was just a bogeyman to focus her energies – and I really thought that the film would go ahead and let Ares remain just that – a convenient moral fiction. But the film does reveal that Ares exists, and I wish it hadn’t. Ares’ reveal is flawed in many respects – it brings back the kooky mythological part of the franchise that could have been glossed over, Ares himself doesn’t look the part in the least (one of the lamest looking and sounding supervillains played straight I’ve come across), and Ares’ motives are your typical nonsensical supervillain shtick.
I guess to some extent it might have been important so that the film could have a climactic showdown with a powerful nemesis – sort of how Obadiah Stane ended up being the villain in the first Iron Man – but I thought that if the film had had more guts, it would have just gone ahead and revealed that Wonder Woman’s worldview was wrong and she was just another gifted metahuman who could come into her own because of what she’d learnt about herself in her experiences in the wider world, and not because she’s some ordained demigod. I suppose the challenge there would have been how to send off the film on a high note – although I’m sure there would’ve been other ways to do so.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 lassoes of truth