I almost never root for a movie to fail with critics or at the box office. Hundreds of people work on movies, and regardless of my personal tastes or filmmaking trends I would like to see come to an end I wouldn’t wish failure on all of the artists involved in creating a film. On the other hand, I occasionally find myself rooting for a film to succeed, sometimes even in spite of my own feelings about the film itself, because that film’s success might have a positive impact on the film industry or the world as a whole. And so, I find myself absolutely thrilled with Wonder Woman’s reception, both its strong showing at the box office and it’s nearly universal praise among critics and audiences. The feminist in me knows what it means for a studio to release a big budget superhero film with a female director and have it be such a smash hit, and the film fan in me loves that the DC Universe has finally found some heart and joy after their recent misfires. Having said all of that, while I may be wholeheartedly cheering for Wonder Woman, and while I think it is an excellent film, it didn’t resonate with me as fully as I had hoped.
Some Mild Spoilers Below
There’s so much to love in Wonder Woman that I scarcely know where to begin. Everyone is rightfully talking about the action sequence in the trenches. It’s an electrifying, exhilarating, and empowering sequence, with Diana literally shedding the image that society has thrust upon her (something she does frequently in the film, stripping off clothes deemed “appropriate” by the men around her to reveal her battle outfit underneath) in order to lead a charge against the enemy, inspiring the troops behind her as a result. It’s an action scene filled with iconic shots that show Diana’s power and her goodness, as she fights to ultimately rid the world of war and eliminate the corruption in the hearts of men that leads them to do battle with one another. Those are the moments that stick out the most in my mind: Diana crouched with her shield and sword drawn as she faces a storm of bullets, Diana flipping a tank that threatens innocent civilians, Diana demolishing a tower to take out a sniper and rising victorious from the rubble. The action in general in the film is far more engaging than in previous DCEU films, and director Patty Jenkins has a wonderful eye for it, but the No Man’s Land sequence is the one that everyone will remember.
That the story and characters failed to live up to the power, emotion, and importance of the action is not necessarily a measure of faults in the rest of the movie as much as it is praise for the action. But I will say that at times the story and characters left me a little cold. A friend of mine described Wonder Woman as a cross between Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, and while I think it’s better than either of those movies it does at times feel a little derivative. Diana’s fish-out-of-water story has a lot of similarities with Thor’s in his first outing, but in this case Wonder Woman frequently uses that setup to offer criticism and observations on modern society (even if the film is set during World War I). And of course the war sequences, complete with the group of misfits Steve is leading into battle, recalls Captain America and the Howling Commandos, but the supporting characters in Wonder Woman are at least given more to do. Despite Wonder Woman improving on the formulas it borrows, it still feels a bit too familiar and predictable at times.
As exciting and empowering as Wonder Woman is, it does on occasion fall a bit flat, let down by its screenplay. The opening half-hour or so set in the Themyscira, the land of the Amazons, is excellent, filled with badass female warriors and legendary tales as we watch Diana grow from a protected princess into the mightiest warrior. It made me wish the entire movie was focused on the Amazons. But once Diana and Steve leave Themyscira things become a bit slow, hampered by how little chemistry I felt between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. They get a solid number of laughs, and both are fine actors separately, but I never felt a strong onscreen connection between the two. Gadot, in fact, is a little stiff in the first half of the film, only showing her potential as an actress once she’s able to unleash the Wonder Woman side of Diana and show a wider range of emotion. The supporting cast is generally very good, though many roles felt underused. The script as a whole could have used a bit more punch and refinement. Some plotlines feel like they never pay off (Steve’s secretary Etta getting to run the covert operation from London, for example, could have been so much more with just another couple scenes), while some developments are just silly (Steve sails the pair to London overnight), while other story beats are too predictable (the Godkiller, for instance). Nothing is particularly bad about the script or story, it’s just that the parts in between the film’s fantastic moments feel unnecessarily flat or bland at times.
The best move made by DC Films with regards to Wonder Woman was hiring Patty Jenkins. This movie could have been a disaster in the hands of a man, who might have objectified Diana in a number of different ways. But Jenkins understands the male gaze and not only how to avoid it but how to subvert it on occasion. Sure, Diana is objectified by a number of characters in the film, who appreciate her beauty above everything else, but the camera never does, nor does it allow the audience to. There’s a healthy debate to be had about her outfit, which in theory is for battle but which exposes a lot of skin, but Jenkins intentionally films Diana in ways that a male director would never think of. There’s no denying that Gal Gadot is a gorgeous woman, and a lot of her body is on display in the film, but I found that almost every shot (especially during the action sequences) surprised me, so accustomed as I am to the male gaze. When Diana sticks a hard landing on the battlefield, or contorts in combat, the image on the screen always serves to remind us of her power and strength rather than to give us something to ogle. The skin-exposing costume allows us to marvel at Diana’s muscles, the effort of battle, and the beauty of the female body for what it can accomplish instead of how pleasing it looks. There are no “accidental” upskirt shots, or leering angles shot from below to make her butt or boobs stick out, and Gadot’s thighs are allowed to jiggle just as any other human being’s would. In fact, the only character who gets ogled by the camera in Wonder Woman is Steve. And to top it all off, Wonder Woman has a complex and interesting female villain too, displaying an understanding that woman are allowed to fill more than just a handful of specific rolls in movies. The entire film was such a refreshing change from the way women, even badass women, are usually portrayed onscreen that it almost outweighed the delight at finally getting a female superhero film directed by a woman.
Wonder Woman has so much going for it that it’s hard to believe it’s set in the same universe as Man of Steel, a film I disliked enough that I haven’t seen either Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. Beyond the feminist overtones, the empowering Diana, the humor, the phenomenal action (infinitely better than Man of Steel’s boring finale), and the beautiful cinematography, Wonder Woman deals with complex topics such as the nature of war in a way that’s far more subtle and interesting than other similar movies (Captain America, I’m looking at you). With its message of peace and optimism in humanity it seems wildly out of place within the DCEU, and I’m so happy that audiences and critics are embracing the movie. It has the potential to bring so much good and change, or at least to kickstart some good and change, to the film industry. So it makes me a little sad to say that despite the many ways it succeeds Wonder Woman is neither my favorite superhero film ever or even my favorite superhero movie this year. (Those would be Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, respectively, though Wonder Woman is better than Logan.) It didn’t manage to connect with me personally as much as I hoped it would, though admittedly my emotions are a little erratic these days, most of which I attribute to some flat spots in the script that took me out of the experience. But regardless, Wonder Woman is a revelation and hopefully a game-changer, one which I will continue to root for in the weeks and months ahead.