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Feminine Wiles: “Wonder Woman”

Wonder Woman (2017, Dir. Patty Jenkins):

The original Wonder Woman comics were very much of their time. It can be read as coincidence, or fate, that her first appearance came in December 1941, the same month America plunged head-first into World War II. Diana Prince may have originated from an enchanted Amazonian island, but she was a wartime Yank at heart. Doing her part alongside the forces of good as they squared off against those nasty Nazis and similar opponents, she was a combo of Rosie the Riveter and a USO pin-up gal, a mythic feminist who had no trouble wearing short shorts while getting her hands dirty. Her creator Charles Moulton was quite the character himself: a psychologist who pioneered the first lie detector polygraph (Aha! Lasso of Truth!), a bigamist who lived happily with two women for much of his adult life, and an unashamed purveyor of bondage and submission scenarios that frequently found their way into his comics. As he once declared, “The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound… Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society… Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.” Heady stuff for kid comics, and one of the primary reasons those old Wonder Woman stories remain piquant to this day.

One wouldn’t expect the first big-screen adaptation of the mythos to have as much kick and kink — there’s too much at stake in terms of comic book franchises and box office mullah to risk pissing off the prudes in the audience, for one thing. Those holding out hope for a true adaptation of the Moulton originals, or even a taste of the campy delights that characterized the Lynda Carter TV version from the late seventies, are apt to come away disappointed from the Wonder Woman movie. But if you’re looking for something off the superhero film assembly line with more smarts and heart than most of its ilk, you’ll find Wonder Woman to be a mostly rousing entertainment.

wonderwoman2Gal Godot’s Diana isn’t as brassy or sexualized as previous incarnations, but the original character’s can-do spirit remains. The film quickly paces us through her youth as a wide-eyed waif who also happens to be a bad-ass warrior, and soon enough Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy with critical intel that might sway the fortunes of World War I, is crash-landing on her idyllic isle. Compelled to depart her home and assist those in need despite the misgivings of her protective mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana sums herself up with a single line: “What am I if I stay?” Despite what some of the hyperbole surrounding this movie might tell us, we’ve had strong female heroes before; one need only think of Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, or Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, just for starters. Still, an aspirational female hero as the center of attention in a kid-friendly comic book movie is a rare bird indeed, and Wonder Woman is in the mode of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, right down to the vintage war setting and the unapologetic nobility of its protagonist.

wonderwoman4Steve Trevor: Have you never met a man before? What about your father?

Diana Prince: I had no father. My mother sculpted me from clay and I was brought to life by Zeus.

Steve Trevor: Well that’s neat.

It’s that reimagining of that template from a feminine perspective that gives Wonder Woman its impact. (For once, the sisters, from director Patty Jenkins on down, are really doing it for themselves.) The film posits a code of honor that invokes more feminine virtues: Sure we can kick ass if needed, but grace and empathy will carry the day. Given the set-up, it would be easy to tee off against macho stereotypes and tweak men at every turn  — one can already imagine the snarky, on-the-nose jokes — but Jenkins is more interested in being inclusive. Kick-ass Diana is just fine letting the boys help out too, as in the film’s most stirring passage, when Wonder Woman leads beleaguered soldiers across No Man’s Land against the Germans. Astoundingly, there’s no “It takes a woman to get across No Man’s Land” zingers here: relying on action and movement alone, Jenkins trusts that the audience will get the point. While the film enjoys these straightforward heroics, it’s also coated with a melancholy that resonates with our current state of affairs. “I used to want to save the world,” is Diana’s first line of the film. By the end, she’s learned the hard lesson that one can save the day, but good and evil march on in lockstep for eternity.

Gal Godot in "Wonder Woman"All of this is to say that Wonder Woman has more on its mind than the usual testosterone-driven origin story. Ultimately, the reason it works is Godot. It’s a star-making turn, remarkably far removed from the runway-model poses of her first appearance as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman (surprise, surprise — Zack Snyder, the director of the latter film, doesn’t know how to handle actors, either). Like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, she makes sincerity eminently charming, and finds sly notes in Diana’s naivete without sacrificing the character’s stature. Most of the movie’s funniest moments come from her throwaway lines, as when she tastes ice cream for the first time and says to the vendor, solemn with joy, “You should be very proud.” Running the gamut from determined brawler to wounded innocent and healing maternal figure, she’s as appealing a superhero as we’ve seen in some time.

As an action spectacle, Wonder Woman is workmanlike rather than inventive, and the plot tends to chug from locale to locale without much gusto. But although Jenkins may lack the flash of other comic book directors, she lets the film breathe, and takes her time with the characters. When we’re not caught up with saving the world, we get to enjoy diversions like Diana and Steve having a chaste dance in a liberated town square, drawn to each other by their mutual loneliness. Above all, Jenkins is interested in actors, so that supporting parts like Ewan Bremmer’s shell-shocked Scottish sniper get turns in the spotlight. This more relaxed approach does wonders for Chris Pine, whose Captain Kirk was overwhelmed by the frenzy of the recent Star Trek movies. Here, wary and wry, he makes for a perfect second banana.

wonder-woman-teamSadly, Wonder Woman falls just short of becoming an out-and-out classic. The movie skimps on memorable villains (Danny Huston does his usual huffy snarl as a rogue German officer), and the final act is an overbearing CGI-drenched mess that has become de rigueur in these franchise films. Schematically, the film charts Diana’s movement towards understanding the nature of good, evil and everything, but in a curious move, evil as an abstract concept is anthropomorphized in the form of Ares, the God of War. Wonder Woman’s pursuit and ultimate confrontation with Ares is at odds with the grounded charms of the rest of the film — for a movie that plays it subtle with subtext throughout, the presence of a speechifying Super God who shoots massive lightning bolts every which way seems like a remnant from the other, lesser DC comic book movies of recent years. (Zack Snyder, who never met an overblown mythological archetype he didn’t enjoy pimping, is one of the writers credited with the original story for Wonder Woman, which suggests that the Ares business was his doing.) One also might wonder if the momentum of this film can be carried over to future installments, given that most of its zing comes from Diana’s first encounters with the modern world of men. Wonder Woman is easily DC’s best superhero film thus far, but is it an anomaly rather than a way forward? Would a Wonder Woman film set in the present day be nearly as fun, or sweet?

That’s a conundrum for the bean counters and creative execs at DC to ponder. In the meantime, one can savor Godot’s turn, and the film’s pleasing evidence that the gals can do it just as well as the guys — and might actually get more chances to do it moving forward, based on Wonder Woman’s lead. Most remarkably, the film stays sincere to the end. “So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be,” Diana reflects at the conclusion, and Wonder Woman‘s achievement is that such a sentiment in a summer blockbuster doesn’t seem far-fetched, or fake.

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