In choosing its subjects, this column often takes a pass on the main superhero blockbusters, the Marvelers and Justice Leaguers and X-Folk. When somebody tries to do something distinctive or different with the genre, as this winter’s Logan did, I’ll review it, but the major franchise pieces don’t need the attention and mostly don’t deserve it: The Marvel movies have a glossy pre-fab forgettability, and, since Christopher Nolan stepped away from Batman, the DC movies have been pretentious dreck.
But the latest, Wonder Woman, merits attention, because so many hopes have been piled onto it. First, there are the hopes of DC fans desperate for evidence that their superhero universe, having been dragged down into the slag heap of mediocrity by Zack Snyder, isn’t going to condemn them to sit through one turgid glower-fest from here to Aquaman VII (already on a studio release schedule for 2029, I’m sure). Second, there are the hopes of critics and activists (and critics-cum-activists) desperate to see a female-led superhero movie succeed and eager to wash away the taste from their last great woke-Hollywood cause, the lousy all-female Ghostbusters.
This latter desperation is a trifle strange, since it’s not as if the movie industry is all that short on female action stars. As Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon noted a month ago, during a silly debate about whether Wonder Woman was getting the promotion it deserved, the claim that Hollywood doesn’t support lady action heroes can be disproven by simply listing recent films. From The Hunger Games to the recent Star Wars movies to such B-movie franchises as Resident Evil and Underworld to Angelina Jolie yesterday and Charlize Theron today, the movie industry sells female warriors as enthusiastically as it sells James Bond and Jason Bourne and whatever grizzled gunslinger Liam Neeson is playing next.
What it hasn’t tried to sell, though — at least not since the Elektra and Catwoman bombs of yore — is a female superhero headlining a movie of her own. And since superheroes bestride Hollywood’s business model, I suppose the industry cannot be called enlightened until equal representation conquers the comic-book blockbuster as well.
For such a conquest, this particular Wonder Woman is well-chosen: The Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who plays her, is absolutely perfect for the part, with the mix of otherworldly beauty, natural-seeming athleticism, and guileless innocence (but not foolishness) required to persuade you that her character was actually fashioned by Zeus himself to be the world’s protector and then raised on an island of similar superwomen far from the world of men.
Watched over by her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and trained in the martial arts by the Amazon general Antiope (Robin Wright), our Diana grows up believing in the Amazonian catechism — a pastiche of Greek mythology and Milton’s Paradise Lost in which the wicked god Ares plays Satan to Zeus’s Jehovah, rebelling against his father’s love for mortals and corrupting the hearts of men so that they turn everlastingly to war. Only the Amazons can protect humanity, the catechism goes, though that task apparently requires near-permanent seclusion while they await Ares’ reemergence, at which point they will be ready with a sword forged especially to kill a god.
Into that seclusion crashes an American soldier-spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), trailed by some savage, vengeful Germans. The year is 1918, it turns out, and the war to end all wars is happening, which persuades the eager-for-heroism Diana that Ares must be loose. With sword, lariat, and armor, she accompanies Trevor back to a sooty London and then the Western Front. There he and a motley band of multicultural irregulars (a Scot, an American Indian, and an Arab) try to stop Danny Huston’s General Erich Ludendorff (whose descendants should sue for libel) and his sinister accomplice Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) from using some sort of chemical weapon to turn the war’s tide. Meanwhile Diana tries to do her superhero thing — saving the innocent, slaying the wicked, and ending the war by killing the god she assumes must be responsible for it.
In all this business there is some genuine fun, mostly when the movie plays with Diana’s fish-out-of-water status in a still-corseted London, and some genuine chemistry between Pine’s mortal and Gadot’s demigod. There is also some real beauty in the palette that the filmmaker, Patty Jenkins — lauded for her female-serial-killer movie, Monster, many years ago, and since then a victim of the real Hollywood sexism, a bias against female directors — paints around her Amazon.
But there is also too much mediocrity, too much comic-book cardboard, to call this (as many critics eagerly have done) an actual good movie. The Amazon-island dialogue before Trevor’s arrival plays like a rejected draft of a bad sword-and-sandals epic. The use of World War I has a touch of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds about it, but without his wit and facility for reimagining the past; instead, both the English leaders (notably David Thewlis, as a peacemaking politician who might not be exactly what he seems) and the German baddies are cartoons, and boring ones at that. The scenes with Trevor’s wartime buddies play like the screenwriter wrote “Insert Camaraderie-Establishing Dialogue Here” and forgot to fill it in until an hour before filming. And the grand finale is like unto every superhero grand finale before it, a dreary round of explosions, flames, and fisticuffs — even if the actor playing Ares is no doubt having the time of his professional life.
Only Gadot transcends, goddess-like, the all-too-mortal film around her. And as for whether raising the hottest-possible woman on the highest-possible pedestal while the men around her gape is #TrueFeminism or the patriarchy’s subtle, sweet revenge — well, that’s a question I will leave to the warring tweets and #hottakes that have already begun.