DC Films hasn’t put out a decent film in almost a decade. Loud, brash, abrasive films with overlong runtimes, grim tones, and bland, muted color palettes comprise just about everything that’s wrong with the superhero genre. Instead of letting up on the oppression, DC Films doubled down placing Zack Snyder as the visionary for a DC expanded universe. Therefore, I had no expectations for Wonder Woman.
As the film started, I rolled my eyes. Another lengthy origin story unfolds as a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) learns about the ways of the all-female Amazons and the god of Ares they are sworn to protect the earth from. An absurd amount of time is spent arguing over whether or not Diana will be trained, Diana doing training anyway, and finally mother and leader Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) allowing the now adult Diana (Gal Gadot) to train.
It’s a waste of time and had me bracing for another boorish, paint by the numbers superhero flick. Like many modern blockbuster, there’s a compulsion to tell the audience who this character is and where she comes from. A lot could be shown or inferred with a handful of lines or the opening monologue instead of scene after scene of Amazons explaining to a young Diana who they are, what they do, and what they believe.
And then Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes near the island. He bursts the bubble Diana lives in and she becomes embroiled in a quest to stop World War 1 by finding Ares who she is convinced is the driving force behind the war to end all wars. She believe it her duty to kill Ares in order to bring peace to earth.
The film shifts from mythological origin story to a delightfully funny fish out of water story as Diana goes about being the Amazonian warrior in a conservative wartime London where a woman’s function in the war is secretary or nurse. After butting heads with brass, the film shifts tones once again as a unlikely suicide mission.
This mission delivers the best narrative and emotional beats of the story. Diana discovers her optimistic view of honorable war-making doesn’t align with the trench warfare of the modern world. And her efforts to save every last person is an almost existential exercise. And the good she is trying to save often seems to be at odds with her worldview that Germany is being corrupted and manipulated by Ares.
The film becomes a deep struggle with human nature and justice as Diana finds arbitrating good and evil not nearly as clear cut as her mythological roots makes it sound. In a modern age, such idealistic moralizing is seen as a kind of foolishness. Diana is faced with a humanity that might not be worth saving, a humanity that might deserve to be wiped out. Instead of the stereotypical good vs. evil of her childhood stories, she find the world a morally gray space.
Steve Trevor and his smarmy gang are the kind of people one would generally avoid. In one scene as they carouse, three of them recite: “Let’s get what we want.” “Get what we need.” “And never get what we deserve.” For the men in the middle of the war, there’s not the sense that they are inherently good. They’re a lot who know they’ve done horrible things and that the ends might not justify the means.
This wartime story creates a complex moral space only to have the final act reminds the audience that this is a superhero film and the order of the day is spectacle. It ends in a rather uncreative brawl-out by two seemingly invulnerable beings until all that’s left is a lot of rubble. At least placing it in a war zone makes it a lot less horrific and unsettling that the aftermath of Man of Steel, but it still can’t rescue the third act from being yet another uninspired final showdown.
A core 90 minutes of this film is fantastic. There’s an ethos and nuance to the characters, the war backdrop forces Diana to confront the flaws in her worldview bred in an isolationist society, and the action is in service to furthering the plot and characters.
But the film is bookended with some of the most cliche and uninspired superhero tropes. These tropes are tedious and uninteresting after almost two decades of getting these types of films regularly. It’s hard to get past the power fantasy enacted by essentially godlike beings that continues to perpetuate the majority of these films.
And the visual extravaganza Wonder Women displays is equally uninspired. Director Patty Jenkins takes cues from Snyder’s previous work with a bizarre obsession with slow motion and a visually muted color pallet. It doesn’t help that a lot of the CGI involving people looks fake and the slow motion shots only accentuate the problem. There’s also a lack of visual creativity on display with most action set-pieces being little more than sanitized wartime fighting mixed with superhero fisticuffs.
Compare it to recent Marvel work and it becomes apparent how visually stifling and dull this film is. Scott Derrickson’s turbo-infused mashup of The Matrix and Inception style visuals made Doctor Strange one of the trippiest blockbusters ever and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 used its action set-pieces to create a cornucopia of color and deliver memorable visual gags.
Wonder Woman is unable to escape the baggage of DC Films reputation. It’s a film I had to endure to get to the good part and then had to endure its dreary fine act. The visuals are only slightly better than Snyder’s dark, grimy superhero aesthetic. But it has a heart and core thematic tension to it that has been completely absent in DCs films and even DC’s tainted vision of superhero blockbusters can’t completely tarnish the heart of gold underneath the messiness.
© James Blake Ewing 2017