The Impossibly High Standard of Wonder Woman (A Review)


The lights hadn’t even come up in the theater, and already I had stuff to say.

My friends were sitting near me and waiting to see if there would be an after credits scene for the very first showing of Wonder Woman at our theater (spoilers: there isn’t). I hadn’t moved since the names started to flash across the screen, however. I was caught in a paradox of amazed glee and critical thought. Somewhere, the little girl inside me that bade me buy a Wonder Woman jacket and wear it to the theater even when it was way too warm was jumping up and down inside with joy. We’d just watched the first live action Wonder Woman movie and it positively soared. It reminded me deep down what a woman-led superhero film could and should do in all the right ways. I was jazzed, I was elated.

I had already pinged several things that pissed me off.

Welcome to the impossible standard that is Wonder Woman. Where nothing can be good enough, and Hollywood can’t help but make some blunders. This is our review.

[Note: This article is part analysis of the film, part discussion about Wonder Woman and her fan phenomenon. Absolutely will be spoilers ahead for the film.]

One of my most prized possessions.

A Girl’s First Amazon

I have been a Wonder Woman fan since I was a little girl. I remember clearly being very ill one day and my father coming home with some comic books. He didn’t know much about comics, but he thought they would make me feel better. Little did he know of course he was setting off a lifelong love that would change my life forever. Among those comics, along with a Justice Society story about the creepy Solomon Grundy and an old X-Men comic where the team goes to Japan and deals with Fing Fang Foom, there was a gorgeous comic with a gorgeous cover of a woman in a star-spangled bathing suit holding up her arms under a giant logo that said: WONDER WOMAN. My father had snagged me the now immortal Wonder Woman Vol 2 #1 issue. And I read that book cover to cover, my eyes wide, my tiny mind blown. I was a fan ever since.

Years later, I was able to walk up to George Perez at a comic convention and present him with a mint copy of the very same issue. My original copy had long ago fallen apart from love and use. I got to tell George Perez how much I’d loved the run, and how it was truly the first comic my father ever gave me. He signed it to me, and that comic hangs on my wall to this day.

With a story like that, you can imagine Wonder Woman has had an incredible impact on my life. I’ve collected first perhaps hundreds of her single issue comics, then went on to buy every graphic novel I could get my hands on, and then some collections too. I watched the DC animated series and the films. If it had Wonder Woman in it, if the story had to do with the Amazons and Paradise Island, I was there. I knew the names of most of the Amazons who helped raise Diana, followed all the storylines up until the New 52. My love of Wonder Woman followed me into my thirties.

But as I grew older, I also developed a critical eye for the media I consumed. I would pick up issues of Wonder Woman and frown, finding moments when the stories felt… off. I would have favorite writers with what in my eyes were better runs on the book. I’d cringe when Wonder Woman appeared in crossovers with writers who would write her as wooden, or else fall into a lot of patriarchal or patronizing tones. I would scour DC comics for good portrayals that matched my experience with Wonder Woman. I embraced the Gail Simone Wonder Woman, I ditched the Azarello. I knew what I liked, because in my head, I knew Wonder Woman.

Built inside my head was the composite image of Wonder Woman, a complex, almost unknowable character, built out of a woman’s infinite capacity for power, grace, compassion, humor, will, and hope. She was as much of a known commodity as she was a cypher, a character of infinite facets, dedicated to an ideal so much higher than what anyone in the imperfect world of men could achieve. In the comics, Diana of Themyscira was a pinnacle to be modeled after, even as she was also approachable and human. She was every woman, and the best of us. She was vulnerable and imperfect and fantastic. She was Wonder Woman.

That’s how you end up with shit like this. 

And when I heard they were making a movie about her, I was very, very worried. Because how could you achieve a film that captures the deeper parts of such a complicated character so many people take for granted. Go to any tween shop or nerd convention and you’ll see Diana’s smiling face slapped on lunchboxes, wallets, even underwear. Wonder Woman had become a brand, her symbol a merchandise logo ready to greet you wherever you went. But I’d often wonder how much people actually got what Wonder Woman stood for. “Feminism!” people would say. “She kicks butt!” Yes, but what else? Did they really get the depth of the character? And then, point of fact, would the film studios trying to make the movie?

Greg Rucka spoke at New York Comic Con last year about his time writing Wonder Woman on the eve of her 75th anniversary. He talked about how she was so much more than most people gave her credit for. He spoke about being honored to get a chance to explore Diana’s multiple sides and give her the best work he could do. I trusted Greg Rucka’s writing since I read his stand-alone graphic novel called the Hiketeia. His was perhaps one of the penumbral Wonder Woman stories, truly capturing Diana in all her complexity. I could trust Greg Rucka. I trusted George Perez, or Gail Simone. But a big budget movie? Did I trust it to handle Wonder Woman, the media icon I adored, with the proper understanding and respect?

Having come out of the movie, the votes are in, and its this: Wonder Woman is a film that understands Princess Diana of Themiscira and Wonder Woman. And it also exhibits how much Hollywood tropes and the real man’s world can absolutely suck.

The Review

wonder_woman_SD2_758_426_81_s_c1From the beginning, Wonder Woman truly does its job capturing the origin story of Diana before she picks up the lasso and becomes the warrior who will kick ass in the Justice League. There is nothing more endearing than watching a tiny terror Diana galavanting without fear across the unbearably gorgeous Paradise Island, riding horses and watching the training of the no-holds-barred, thank-you-for-making-them-amazing Amazons. The warriors of Themyscira stride with dignity and grace across the screen, saved from being sexualized and exploited for the male gaze. Instead, the cameras spend time giving them the CGI badass treatment befitting films like 300, as the Amazons show just why they’re exactly the female force to be reckoned with.

By the time tiny Diana morphs into the incredible Gal Gadot, we’re already invested in loving this complicated group of women, tasked with preparing for a time when Ares, the God of War, will try to start the war to end all wars. The film especially takes time to highlight the difficult but loving relationship between Diana and Queen Hippolyta, her mother, as well as her strong attachment to her aunt Antiope. I could have watched an entire film set on Paradise Island thanks to their engaging interplay and the lushness of the scenery and the supporting Amazon cast. I was almost disappointed when Steve Trevor’s plane appeared, nose-diving into the ocean, even if it marked the beginning of Diana’s true adventure.

It’s also the moments when the cracks in the perfection of the story start to show.

Gal-Gadot-Wonder-Woman-PosterFor the most part, director Patty Jenkins weaves an incredible heroine’s journey for Princess Diana. Diana and the Amazons discovers war with the arrival of German soldiers on their shores, and with the help of Steve Trevor learn about World War I and the millions dying all across the world. Diana disobeys her mother, steals the lasso of truth and the God Killer sword (one of the most powerful weapons in the DC Universe!) and leaves with Steve to go save the world. She’s naive in thinking she can make everything better just by smiting Ares, who must be behind everything. Here, Gal Gadot plays Diana as the innocent princess, passionately dedicated to her ideals and ready to face down any foe to put her warrior skills to the test. She will save the world no matter what, because she represents the forces of good and right. And of course, she gets a rude awakening.

From the moment Diana sets foot on European soil, she spends a good deal of the film being pulled around by Steve Trevor in a constant state of agitation at the awfulness of man’s world. She’s confounded by the way in which women are treated, clothed, and disregarded. She speaks up to Etta Candy about her employment being akin to slavery. She pushes back against British generals who are willing to sacrifice their men to create an armistice with the Germans. She is Diana, indignant, proud, feminist, a true warrior.

And yet, I kept thinking, and yet.

When she goes over that trench line? Cheer. Go on. It’s okay. I know I did. 

Gal Gadot shines as Diana. She radiates the confidence, strength, compassion, and power I would expect from someone playing Wonder Woman. And when the action starts and she starts to move, she is a truly intense presence, radiating ferocity and capability. One long action sequence set along a trench line outside the town of Veldt had me positively cheering as Diana lets loose in one of the most awe-inspiring action sequences of the film. I would rate that scene as one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a film altogether, forget about just with a woman protagonist.

From Veldt, Diana heads off to find a German general who, along with his pet scientist, a woman named Doctor Poison, are out to get the Germans back in the war by creating the deadliest mustard gas ever made. The film rockets to a climactic ending with Diana hunting down the German general, who she believes to be the god Ares incarnate. It all comes down to a major battle behind enemy lines with Steve and a ragtag band of their diverse crew of friends in tow. And yet, as the film came around to the climactic ending and its slow wind down to the credits, I found myself seeing the chinks in the armor, the cracks in the candy-covered coating the last half of the film tried to feed me. I felt both exhilarated and dissatisfied.

I went into this film with high expectations. It would be impossible not to, considering the kind of fan I am of Wonder Woman. I wanted to walk into a film that managed to encompass Diana in all her complexity, all the facets that make her one of the richest characters in all the DC Universe. And, to my amazement, I did. I found Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana to be witty and sweet, heartfelt and vulnerable, fiery and aggressive, unapologetic and brave. I don’t believe they could have found anyone willing to tackle the role with such conviction and dedication as Gadot, and I believe director Patti Jenkins understood Diana when she made the movie.

And yet it isn’t Diana that fails this penultimate Wonder Woman film. It’s the rest of the film that fails Wonder Woman.

Diana with the God Killer sword

Lost Opportunities

From the get-go, the movie is fabulous at juxtaposing the safe, vivid confines of Themyscira for the uncertain, drained-palate wide open man’s world. Yet from the moment Diana walks into Europe, it’s as if the film is sapping away what made the first half special by introducing her to the banalities of patriarchal early 20th century life. Diana is criticized, boxed in, mansplained, and rejected. And while all of those moments would have been perfect examples of the failures of man’s world, the film does not give Diana enough opportunities to press her agency in those situations. While she does speak up against the authorities of male-oriented society around her, the protestations are given too little space around the often redundant and overly mouthy Chris Pine. The camera spent entirely too much time focused on his soulful blue eyes for my taste, driving Diana out of scenes where she could have been the agent of action in her own film. Instead, Diana is led, sometimes literally by the arm, from gun battle to gun battle, left with enough time in between to impress some guys in a bar over her strength and be horrified by the horrors of war.

For the next half an hour at least, Wonder Woman is effectively led through her own movie by Chris Pine’s Trevor, who does a fantastic job of portraying a likable and fun movie hero. But that in and of itself is half the problem. Pine is written as an equal hero alongside Diana, and once the film gives him the reins, it often forgets to let Diana take them back.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681Diana finally wrestles back some agency during the fantastic trench-battle scene, where she seemingly remembers she doesn’t have to listen to this guy she fished out of the ocean. Instead, she almost single-handedly saves the day after pushing back against the men around her denying she can do what she knows she’s clearly capable of doing. And once Diana starts to move, it’s a joy to watch. Her action sequences are pure poetry, her joy at rescuing innocents in harms way infectious. This is the Diana I came to see, one deciding on her own how to go about saving man’s world from itself.

And just like that, the film comes back to a screeching halt by veering off into a love plot.

Oy vey.

Yes, that’s right, Steve Trevor and Princess Diana. Team Steve, right everyone? Not only are we treated to an all-too saccharine scene of Trevor and Diana dancing in the newly falling snow among the people they saved, but the film makes the almost unforgivable sin of deciding to have an implied sexual encounter between the two.

Now before you jump up and shout, “But Steve and Diana were a thing in the comics!” I’ll ask you to slow your roll for a second and look that shit up. In fact for the most part, though Steve and Diana had many years of intense attraction to one another, they did not in fact end up together in many continuities. Diana and Steve were the couple that never were, with Steve ending up with Etta Candy in the original continuity before the reset, and Diana going on to be attached to different romantic partners including Superman (New 52), Batman (er, almost, in the Justice League cartoon), the mercenary Nemesis, and more. Steve and Diana’s story was the implied deep feelings of two people tied together by love, friendship, and destiny. It does not, however, involve a hasty hookup in a half-bombed out Bulgarian apartment building. Because, you know, they don’t have anything better to do and what would the movie be like without a love story, right?

From here, the movie starts to hit more fits and starts. Diana spends too many scenes being bossed around by Steve, who undermines her at every turn, probably because of his burgeoning feelings for her and need to be overprotective. Diana ignores him for the most part, which is refreshing, but his constant interfering only provides the plot devices necessary to get from one scene to another while undercutting Diana’s agency at every turn. By the time we get to the now famous from the trailer blue dress party scene, Diana has basically had to end-run around Steve just to get anything done. And while once more that could stand as a perfect expression of Steve’s position as an arm of the controlling patriarchy, expressing itself in inappropriate post-coital possessiveness, it’s played off instead as the knowing actions of the experienced soldier restraining the hot-headed princess.

If only the script let that be true…

Even when Diana proves Steve’s choices have cost lives, there is no repercussions to him literally laying a hand on her to stop her from doing the right thing. Steve Trevor is wrong, gets in Diana’s way, constantly undercuts her agency, chides her for doing what she was trained to do all her life, and gaslights her, and is lionized for it.

wonder-woman-2017-photo025-1495491531570_1280wThese errors are compounded by other issues of representation and missed opportunities in the film. An awkward early scene between Diana and Steve skims almost coyly around the question of Amazonian sexuality (“aww shucks, don’t you know about marriage and sexual pleasure and stuff?”) while ignoring the fact that during the death of a beloved Amazon early in the film, one of her fellow warriors clearly races over in what looks like the grief over her dying lover. That lost moment and odd perhaps erasure of queer inclusion in the film is coupled by some stunning backseating of Doctor Poison as a villain in the film. Touted as a terrifying figure, a murderous chemical genius out to kill for the love of it, Doctor Poison is instead relegated to the German general’s frail sidekick. Her sole moment to shine is in a scene during the castle party when she, wait for it, nearly falls for the undercover charms of Steve Trevor.

WONDER WOMANThe film also manages to get some wonderful racial and ethnic stereotyping into the movie with Steve’s three buddies in intrigue, Sameer, Charlie, and Chief. Sameer is played as a lying grifter whose heart really lies in the theater. His “very sorry, master!” acting to Pine’s pretend German general as they try to sneak into the castle is almost painful to watch in its stereotypical awfulness. Meanwhile, Charlie (played by the phenomenal Ewen Bremner) has the chance to be a poignant character as a crack sniper dealing with issues of PTSD. He might have gotten there however if he wasn’t buried in the trope of the Drunken Scotsman so hard its almost shocking. And then there’s Chief, the Native American smuggler who manages to magically show Diana where the bad guy is going by sending up smoke signals. No joke there. For serious.

The end of the film has its moments of fantastic action and cheering triumph as Gadot’s brilliant portrayal of Wonder Woman carries us through the somewhat overdone CGI final battle. However by that point, the holes in the third act have led to so many and yet moments. Even when the film pulls a reverse fridging to kill of Trevor in an act of sacrifice to get Diana mad enough to succeed, it is couched in such typical patriarchal language its hard to get through it all. Diana sees her lover get blown out of the sky and loses her cool, screaming and fighting her way through the Germans while being goaded into her rage, emotionally out of control (of course, because how like a woman). She only manages to take control of herself when confronted by a woman she is about to kill, the very Doctor Poison who had slaughtered so many on the battlefield. And of course the film flashes back to Trevor’s last declaration of love to her, and his words of wisdom earlier in the film as he mansplains the way to have compassion for those unworthy of protection. Only then, remembering her lovers words, does Diana find the strength to stop her enemies. The answer all along, she says, “is love.”

And that’s when I just about fell out of my chair.

c-38a4sxkaavykzLook, I was worried from the jump that Wonder Woman would fall into the love story trope. I prayed up and down on a stack of Gail Simone issues that we’d end up with a Mako Mori/Raleigh relationship instead, with two deeply connected people out to end a terrible threat together, rather than indulging in the traditional boy-meets-girl nonsense. When I heard the leaked songs from the soundtrack leading with the gushy song by Sia featuring a chorus with lyrics like “To be human is to love,” I knew there was a chance we were in trouble. But when Wonder Woman rose into the air crackling with lightning, empowered by the knowledge that love triumphs over all, I knew we’d tumbled right into some magical girl anime territory. I knew that somehow, somewhere, some studio executive saw a cut of the film and said, “You know what this needs? It needs a handsome love interest to be an equal hero, to give the little lady some support, because she can’t carry this all herself. Oh yeah, and this needs more CGI. All super hero movies need more CGI.”

Look, here’s the real truth of it: yes, Wonder Woman is powered in large part by love. Love for mankind, for her fellow Amazons, for the world around her, pretty much for everyone. She is a being made of love, really, and fueled by it in a world where things go horribly wrong all the damn time and she faces terrible, unrelenting darkness. And that’s what the movie is desperately trying to get at in its own hackneyed way. But by undercutting Diana with that awful “I love you” tripe with Trevor, it turned the benevolent complexity of a woman with boundless caring for the whole world into what sounds like a greeting card answer. The complexity, the depth, was lost.

By the end of the film, I was on a wild see-saw ride inside. The credits rolled and I was unsure how to feel. On the one hand, Gal Gadot had captured everything I wanted to see in Diana. She had found that spot that Greg Rucka talked about, that place where the complexity of the character could be found. She was the physical presence, the beauty, the grace, the wit, everything. I could not have been happier with Wonder Woman. She was perfect.

Wonder-Woman-Movie-ArtworkAnd yet she was too perfect for the movie she was in. She was too perfect for a movie that wouldn’t trust her to just be herself, to stand strong and make her own decisions without being led by the nose by a male counterpart. Though the character might be young and on the beginning of her journey, there was a great difference between showing inexperience in the character of Diana and providing the movie with tons of moments of bad patriarchal behavior that are barely ever addressed or confronted. By the end it was quite clear the movie had lost the complexity of Diana in favor of tropes better recognizable to a general movie audience: the star-crossed wartime lovers, the lost and enraged hero saved by the power of love. And while it might be revolutionary for some that the genders of these tropes have been flipped so the hero has become the Wonder heroine, as a fan of the character for two and a half decades, I am not that easily impressed. I expect more.

And that’s where this movie fell short. Perhaps there was no way it could have met my expectations, as high as they were. No film could probably come close to the image I have in my head of Wonder Woman, built up from a little girl’s adoration through twenty five years of appreciation. Yet I could only hold the film up to that internal yard stick and see where it fell. The result was exciting and sad all at once. Because perhaps if the movie had just trusted in its own Wonder Woman and the power of her character to be who she could and should have been, the movie would have achieved that place of perfection. As it is, it stands as the best of all the DC films so far and perhaps one of the best superhero films out there yet. A solid 8.5/10.

And yet, what could have been. And yet. 

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