On Saturday night, I finally watched the Wonder Woman movie. It’s been highly anticipated in general, both because of Gal Gadot’s short but redeeming performance in last year’s appalling Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but also because of the revolving-door rumors about a WW movie, and its many years in so-called development hell. It took me a long time to become a fan of the character myself, given the nature of creative work on a shared universe like DC Comics’ universe. Writers and artists come and go, each one wanting to leave their mark on the character. With each change in creative teams, you never know what version of your favorite character you’re going to get next. At the end of the day, every fan has their own idea of what Wonder Woman is, or should be.
Fortunately, this is an idea that the movie takes a strong stance on. Wonder Woman is a character full of contradictions. She’s a superhero, a princess, a warrior, a mythological figure and an ambassador for peace, and none of these roles, no matter how conflicting they might seem, can be elided and still remain true to form. An explicitly feminist character from her inception, Wonder Woman was initially conceived as a superheroine who fights evil, “not with fists but with love”. There’s a great deal that might be said about William Moulton Marston and his ideas of gender, and how they gave rise to the Diana we know. Whatever else might be said, though, what persisted is a profile of a heroine combining strengths stereotypically both masculine and feminine.
This is an interpretation that the film is obviously comfortable with. An extended first act shows us the child Diana on Themyscira, watching her sister amazons train, enthralled. The amazons themselves, as the proverb says, want peace but prepare for war. Their two most powerful figures are the Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), representing the side of peace and complacency, and her sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), advocating for constant vigilance. Despite their differences, both women clearly want what’s best for Diana and the amazons, and in accordance with their divine mission, for humanity itself. When Diana leaves Themyscira for Man’s World, she takes both of these philosophies with her.
The choice of a World War One setting for the movie is, in this context, especially telling. Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor lays it bare when he refers to it by the historical name, “The War to End All Wars”, a transparent piece of doublespeak that Antiope and Diana both see right through. DC and WB could easily have chosen to set the film against a backdrop of WWII, like Captain America before it. The Second World War, though it exceeded the devastation of WWI in sheer numbers and horror, lives in historical imagination as an era of both triumph and morality. Nazis provide comfortable canon fodder, and so WWII is the war that has become the home of countless films, series, comics, video games, etc. etc.
A narrative of triumph, however, would not have suited this movie’s temperament. It wouldn’t have fed Diana’s ambivalence, her confusion, her fear. Particularly not her wavering trust in her own ability to judge the good and evil of men’s souls, undoubtedly a critical trait for an ambassador, a potential future Queen, or, yes, a demigoddess. As a character-driven film, the story posits this as the driving dilemma of Diana’s character growth. It fuels the inciting incident that drives her out of her comfortable existence and out into the wide world, as well as the third act twist which, in this film, feels urgently necessary, not perfunctory like the twists in so many recent films.
One thing that feels acutely missing, given the above, is a greater degree of interaction between Diana and the plausible villain, Doctor Poison. A moment passes between them in the film’s climax that reaffirms Wonder Woman as a hero committed to ideals of peace and forgiveness, no matter how they chafe. Given an opportunity to exact revenge against the one who wronged her, and even with the backing of knowing her to be a war criminal, she chooses to let her live. The moral crux of the scene is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s iconic struggle with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, but it would have gained depth and poignancy if Dr. Maru had interacted a little less with Trevor and a little more with the heroine herself.
But Dr. Maru serves as a distraction, or possibly the setup for the villain of a future sequel. The true villain of this story is Ares, the god of war. He is the one whom Diana was created to defeat, a piece of crystal-clear foreshadowing from the first act that Ares brings home when he calls Diana what she is, a living weapon. The climactic battle between them has many promises to fulfill. First, its role in the plot is to shift the focus from the false villain to the true one. Next it has to expose the villain’s true motivation, which is both more complex and more insincere than the simplistic explanation we are first given, that Ares is a god of war, and it is in his nature to desire discord and not harmony. Most importantly, it brings to a boil Diana’s personal growth arc in a rollercoaster of anger, hope and despair.
Ares is a Messianic villain. He combines the holier-than-thou attitude of villains like Batman Begins‘ Ra’s al Ghul with godly selfishness and hypocrisy. All his actions are calculated, in the long run, to urge humanity to destroy himself because he desires to create a heaven on earth. But this earthly paradise is such not only in the sense of being free from violence and despair, but also because it belongs to gods and not to mortals. His motives are thus comprehensible but still self-serving. Diana recognizes this when she refuses his influence, though she still leaves to subtext the obvious implication that her home paradise of Themyscira is, in its own way, quite similar to the ideal that Ares espouses.
When confronted by the idea that men are perfectly able to get up to no good without Ares’ influence, Wonder Woman still ultimately chooses to believe in the value of humankind, though not without a crisis of faith. She rejects a dichotomy of good and evil which she was so invested in as a child, just as the movie itself rejects the idea that all the evils of the twentieth century can be laid at the feet of a globe-spanning conspiracy, as with the role of Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is another way in which the WWI setting served to build up both the hero and the villain of the story. Ares’ plan makes more sense in hindsight, if you conclude that it’s meant to take place over a godly time span, decades and not years.
I could write for hours more about the movie and its many nuances. I said hardly anything about the mesmerizing choreography of the amazons’ fighting style, or about my favorite of Diana’s action scenes. Nothing about the scene in No Man’s Land and how it anchors both plot and characterization, linking them inextricably. The role of Etta Candy as a woman of the outer world who inspires Diana’s respect. The story of Diana’s birth, how it differs from other versions of the same and what the implications are for this version of the character. Steve Trevor’s band of misfits and especially Eugene Brave Rock, who brought such gravity to the role of Chief despite his brief appearance.
Instead I will close with this: Wonder Woman is a five-star summer action film which approaches its subject matter with a little more finesse than is typical for the superhero genre. It fulfilled every expectation I had for it and then some. I fully see myself rewatching it, and finding more to see and love in it than I did in the first viewing. I recommend it whole-heartedly and have high hopes for a sequel.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.