Is Diana of Themyscira, the super Amazon heroine played by Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, a character or an icon? The Wonder Woman movie, part of the Zack Snyder DC Comics universe magnificently dramatized in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, never gives us her essence. Director Patty Jenkins examines her subject less deeply than Snyder has done. Could Jenkins, director of Monster (2004), about psychotic serial killer Aileen Wuornos — one of the most repugnant and perversely “feminist” movies ever — fashion a viable superhero? Instead, Jenkins’s Wonder Woman veers between myth, what we learn from myth, and what is popularly and simplistically demanded of myth these days.
The timeless, tentative “paradise” of Themyscira — the all-female society preparing itself for a prophesied battle with Ares, the god of war — is broken by the appearance of soldiers fighting WWI. This leads to Diana’s participation in man’s mortal world. As a young woman who has yet to realize her divinity as the daughter of Zeus (“Am I a god-killer?” Diana asks — more on that later), she faces the enormous consequences and responsibilities of modern civilization. Throughout, she behaves as a fearless, big-hearted standard-bearer.
This “She-ro” status might satisfy comic-book fans who found it difficult to accept the spiritual complexity of Snyder’s male superheroes, but that also makes Wonder Woman a superficial experience. As the origin story proceeds, Jenkins’s period-set action scenes slip into rip-offs of Captain America, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hellboy, and Jonah Hex. It degrades Wonder Woman’s worldly initiation, turning it into a banal quasi-romance with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British against the Germans.
While it’s okay for Trevor to be a pubescent girl’s cartoon crush, Snyder has prepared us for more: In Batman v Superman, a black-and-white photograph showed Diana posed with Trevor and three sidekicks — Scotsman Charlie (Ewan Bremner), Turkish Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Native American The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) — whose union suggests a global calling. But they’re actually just accessories, like Diana’s bracelets, with their electromagnetic force, and her golden lariat that compels men to speak the truth. They’re no more than bomb-tossing action-movie gadgeteers and gadgets. Even Diana’s flirtation with Trevor is more commercial than sexual. So here, again, is that character-versus-icon problem that reduces Diana’s personal, historical, mythological complexity.
Sorry, fanboys and fangirls, Wonder Woman needs to cohere with the way Snyder used comic-book fantasy to simultaneously elevate and deepen the complicated human drives of DC Comics characters. Unfortunately, Diana’s “god-killer” question lacks resonance and exposes contemporary faithlessness — unlike Snyder’s visionary films, derived from folkloric belief and Christian notions of sacrifice and redemption (which occasionally made Sucker Punch awesome, stirring pop art). Snyder’s mature perspective is traded for women-warrior scenes in Themyscira that replace 300-style sensual intensity with the near-camp of butt-kicking female toughness. Connie Nielsen as Diana’s mother Hippolyta and Robin Wright as her soldier-aunt Antiope split the difference between conveying maternalism and bravura as recompense for a society that lives sexlessly without men (not an issue in comic books but mandatory in cinema). Snyder’s revolutionary approach to pop art lay in using eroticism to display the force of his characters’ wills; it’s what makes his movies “adult.”
Wonder Woman, however, is “feminist” in a petty, trendy way. When meeting Trevor’s roly-poly British secretary (Lucy Davis), Diana retorts, “We call that slavery!” She questions Trevor’s dependence on a family-heirloom watch, saying, “You let that little thing tell you what to do?” That innuendo’s transparent appeal to female disdain signals Diana’s refusal to understand social tradition or to witness and perhaps admire masculine competence. Her observation of WWI’s No Man’s Land provides no special insight beyond the overly clever: “A living act of entropy.” Diana’s pronouncement “We are a bridge to greater understanding between all men” is one of the film’s empty feminist platitudes.
One cannot ignore the fact that Wonder Woman was made under cultural pressure. Jenkins is not an action director; clearly, she was hired only as a politically correct token.
One cannot ignore the fact that Wonder Woman was made under cultural pressure. Jenkins is not an action director; clearly, she was hired only as a politically correct token. The best action sequence follows a bullet hurtling to its fatalistic destiny, recalling Snyder’s breath-baiting image of a bluebird fleeing the talons of a hawk in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole. But Jenkins’s Amazon warriors rappelling down cliffs and shooting arrows against German rifles lacks the daring, visual extravagance of Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. In all film history, Leni Riefenstahl and Kathryn Bigelow remain the only women to exhibit proficiency at kinetic filmmaking.
Except for a flashback sequence that depicts the mythic history of the Amazons in a series of slow-motion Renaissance-style paintings (evoking the bas-reliefs in Man of Steel and the hieroglyphics in The Prince of Egypt), too much of Wonder Woman is realistic in a conventional Marvel Comics way, without Snyder’s visual passion. Maybe it takes PC women and whipped men to split that difference, but it’s a real let-down to realize that neither Bruce Wayne nor Clark Kent will appear to spark things up. Or maybe some fans will simply enjoy banality.
Most of one’s reaction to Wonder Woman depends on Gal Gadot’s Diana. It was puzzling when fanboys failed to appreciate the seriousness of Batman v Superman (which should have fulfilled their dreams of comic-book supremacy) and preferred to ogle Gadot — as if she were Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley or Jane Fonda’s Barbarella. Here, Diana is described as “the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen” when she interrupts the men-only sanctum of British Parliament. But Gadot actually looks girlish. Her features are so youthful that she can believably portray Diana as an innocent venturing into the adult violence of World War I; she combines a grown woman’s voluptuousness with the athleticism of a naïve tomboy. Wonder Woman downplays Diana’s pursuit of destiny in the fight against evil, so after much pyrotechnic superhero tussling with super-evil (David Thewlis as a proto-Nazi), she winds up declaring, “I believe in love.” She’s both a lesser character and a lesser icon than Snyder’s Superman and Batman. Diana, like her introductory movie, has childlike enthusiasm but no passion.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.