One big problem with the current glut of superhero movies – aside from the sheer arse-crunching volume of them, and a general lack of interesting ideas – is that they tend to feel like great big advertisements for themselves and their various iterations (toys, video games, t-shirts, Pez dispensers etc). Does director Patty Jenkins’ highly anticipated, predictably pumped-up and SFX-filled Wonder Woman stand for something greater? You could argue it either way.
The film marks the first time Hollywood has backed a heroine-driven superhero movie since Catwoman and Elektra, both released over a decade ago. These productions were directed by men, as were (or will be) a number of other projects championed for their supposedly female-centric visions, such as Ghostbusters and the upcoming Oceans 8.
In that sense Wonder Woman is a welcome addition to the market: a large-scale female-led movie that is, shock horror, actually female-led, at least in terms of its principal star and key creative. The knowledge that this partnership is an anomaly is nothing if not an indictment on the supposedly progressive Tinsel Town.
“She has the wholesomeness of Superman and the fish-out-of-water musing of Thor, with a joie de vivre that will be tested by precarious situations.”
In Wonder Woman a meaty prologue begins, circa the early 20th century, on the beautiful paradise island of Themyscira, which, with its aqua blue water and impossibly green trees, looks like a meditation screensaver or high-res desktop background waiting to happen. Here the Amazon princess Diana aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) resides with her fellow arrow-shooting and sword-swinging sisters. They train regularly and, it seems, fight rarely, though they are forced to defend their picturesque home when it is attacked by Germans, shortly after the unexpected arrival of fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
When Wonder Woman learns that a world war is raging somewhere far off in the distance, humans killing each other for no good reason, she resolves to lend a hand, considering Steve “a bridge to greater understanding.” When she follows him back to England, the plot takes on the structure of Crocodile Dundee. A decent-hearted rube from the wilderness stumbles through the big smoke, gazing around quizzically and reciting a procession of “that’s not a knife” type lines, illuminating the trivial behaviour of city people while simultaneously demonstrating that he or she is above it.
Unflappably kind and strong from the get-go, Wonder Woman is not a particularly interesting character. She has the wholesomeness of Superman and the fish-out-of-water musing of Thor, with a joie de vivre that will be tested by precarious situations – like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. There is nevertheless something beyond charming, even wondrous about her presence, largely a combination of Gal Gadot’s highly memorable performance and the dearth of similar protagonists in other movies.
“We’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before; with such promise behind and in front of the camera, it aches to see it again.”
You can take or leave the mano a mano combat scenes, replete with Matrix-inspired freeze frame shots. But watching the titular hero storm the (male-dominated) war battlefield is something else: a loaded image for multiple reasons, with a real kick to it. Jenkins doesn’t have to do much to point out the reality of a world being destroyed by men fighting endlessly and senselessly, although, thanks to the heavy moralising of Allan Heinberg’s screenplay, she does anyway.
The battlefield setting could have made for a roaring finale with a genre-bending and quasi-historical twist, but instead the director sticks to the playbook. It’s not lines of dialogue such as “only love can truly save the world” that makes Wonder Woman’s last act a real fizzer, but the reliance on hackneyed formula and cockamamie spectacle. The hero faces off against a seemingly insurmountable bad-guy-from-Central-Casting, throwing around what appears to be a range of fluorescent Photoshop-generated squiggly lines before one of them inevitably keels over.
We’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before; with such promise behind and in front of the camera, it aches to see it again. After delivering nonstop male-dominated superhero fare for many years now, potentially facing audience fatigue as a result of overexposure to the genre, Hollywood has searched its soul and decided to recast rather than reinvent. From a certain perspective perhaps that makes sense: Rome wasn’t built in a day, etcetera etcetera, so best to slowly change the system from within.
Nevertheless, it is hardly an exciting stance creatively. Mad Max: Fury Road, with Imperator Furiosa stealing the film from its namesake – in turn becoming the perfect superhero for the age of disruption – proved it is possible to recast and reinvent at the same time. The question of whether Wonder Woman will be an industry gamechanger when it comes to greater diversity in Hollywood remains to be seen. Most of us hope it will. If the film is an advertisement for anything, let it be that.
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