With this film three things that should have been possible a long time ago have finally happened.
- The story of the most well-known female superhero has now made it to the big screen seventy six years after she first appeared on the page and forty years after she featured in a very successful TV show.
- After the failures of films like Supergirl, Electra and Catwoman, Hollywood has eventually managed to produce a female led superhero movie that is actually good.
- Following Man of Steel, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, the DC/Warner Brothers extended superhero universe has for the first time managed to make a film that isn’t an embarrassingly shambolic mess of poor characterisation, lazy storytelling and overblown special effects sequences.
With regard to this last point, one of the posters for this movie showcases the fact that it has been rated ‘fresh’ on the Rotten Tomatoes website meaning it has gained a 75% approval rating from critics and users. I’ve never seen this used in film publicity before but presumably the studio are so thrilled to finally get this dubious quality mark that they are shouting about it like they’ve won an Oscar. Their last two movies got around 25% so you can see why they’d be pleased. All in all then this film is a success which is great news for cinema goers and feminists everywhere
To be fair Wonder Woman’s status as an icon for gender equality is shaky. Personally I’m behind this as an idea but the depictions of her over the years have often made her an overly sexualised figure; all curves and tight, skimpy outfits. Last year the United Nations named the character as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. This film’s star Gal Gadot and the TV show’s lead Lynda Carter both attended the ceremony. Within two months though the UN went back on this following a petition and great public objection on the basis that she presented an unrealistic and unhealthy body form, is overtly objectified and culturally insensitive. If you’ve seen the comics and the cartoons you can’t deny that her critics have got a point.
This movie goes some way to address all of this. For a start Gal Gadot is from the Middle East, not Malibu Beach and while she is impossibly beautiful her vital statistics are not excessive and she isn’t dressed in a swim suit. As much as I’d love to see her allowed to wear a pair of trousers the outfit does work. Yes she has bare legs and shoulders but the film challenges the question of why she’s not wearing more clothes by simply asking why she should be. She is part of a warrior race from a warm climate so her attire has practical justification and historical precedent.
As presented here Wonder Woman is undeniably a good role model. She is as educated as she is athletic and while she may not have experience of the outside world, she is well read on such matters and speaks hundreds of languages. She can certainly fight too. There is an extended sequence staged in no man’s land between the trenches that is superb. To those she encounters she seems naive but actually it is them who are socially conditioned and restricted by patriarchal convention. Some people have criticised the movie saying that once in the real world Diana (she is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman) is largely led by the man she meets, Army Intelligence Officer Steve Trevor, but I didn’t read it this way at all. She is guided by him certainly but only does what he asks when she can see the sense in doing so and is not at all hesitant in rejecting his advice when she knows better. What they have is an equal and respectful relationship which is what feminism is all about.
As in the comics Diana has grown up on a hidden island populated by the Amazons. They are based on the group of women from Greek mythology who were agents of war but here they are a powerful peacekeeping force, patiently awaiting the return of the Olympian Ares and ready to defend mankind against his vicious and destructive ways. In the comics it was World War 2 that caused Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, to travel to the US but here it is the First World War and it takes her to Europe which avoids any of the world’s greatest democracy Americana guff that’s not going to sit comfortably with a lot of people right now.
Incidentally the way rival Marvel studios have handled the inclusion of gods and demigods in their universe is to make them a race of Aliens, allowing them to sit easily alongside other races of Aliens. Here though they are just gods. There is no effort to rationalise this or make it more palpable to the sci-fi crowd so who knows how this is going to fit in with Superman when they turn up in a film together again? We are told that Zeus made mankind in his image to walk on the Earth but where the hell does the planet Krypton fit into this? In the comics Krypton has its own set of deities but this is surely only going to confuse things further so I suspect they’ll just ignore it.
Making Wonder Woman a descendent of beneficent supreme beings does potentially limit her character development a little though. She is a little holier than thou because she genuinely is morally superior to everyone else. Gadot and her director Patty Jenkins have managed to make her endearing though and certainly she is a much more interesting character than Henry Cavill’s Superman and more two dimensional than the whole of the Suicide Squad. DC remains a long way from matching the strength of character fuelling the Avengers films but this is a definite move in the right direction. The other thing that has scuppered the DC films is their over reliance on super beings smacking each other around and throwing huge sections of masonry at each other in the closing act which this film is guilty of to a lesser extent. What Wonder Woman does get right over the previous films is the protagonist’s motivations. Her frustrations and impatience are keenly felt, as is her heartache at the tragedy of war.
She is surrounded by some good characters too. Chris Pine is strong as Trevor and his crew of rag tag soldiers are nicely rounded out by Said Taghmaoui and Ewen Bremner. David Thewlis features in a piece of casting I’m not entirely convinced by but Danny Huston and The Skin I Live In’s Elena Anaya do well in the baddie roles while Robin Wright and Connie Neilsen do well enough emoting through their earnest frowns as Diana’s fellow Amazons. Crucially the film is not totally devoid of a sense of fun either and Lucy Davis doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as Trevor’s ebullient secretary.
What I needed from this Wonder Woman film was a strong lead and a clear feminist sensibility which I got. What I wanted was a rip roaring Indiana Jones/Captain America style wartime romp which I didn’t quite get but I am more than happy with one out of two and the story is more than good enough. The film has time to properly contemplate the nature of humanity in a way that doesn’t seem trite which earns it extra points and it is mercifully self contained for a movie that is one part of a bigger story. I can’t help but wonder what Joss Whedon could have done with this but I am pleased it was a lady calling the shots. In many respects, after seven and a half decades, this iconic character may just have become everything she should be without also being the things she shouldn’t.
Is this one for the kids?
A lot of little girls love Wonder Woman but this film is not for them. The 12A rating is there because of the violence which is moderate but constant. If they are over 10 then I would say take them, especially the boys. My advice if you have little ones who want to watch this is then dig out the old TV show which may not be perfect but it holds up well.