Wonder Woman’s been cleaning up at the box office, a relief to anyone invested in seeing more female superheroes on the silver screen. As the first women-centric film from DC, Wonder Woman’s female representation mostly lives up to the hype. The film begins traditionally with the titular heroine’s origin story. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the princess of Themyscira, a shrouded island whose population consists entirely of gladiatorial Amazons. Her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) explains to her daughter via storybook exposition that their people were a gift to mankind from Zeus, destined to hunt and kill the god of war Ares if he ever returns. Diana can’t wait to get started, but her mother has some reservations about getting involved in another war.
I was content in those early scenes of the movie to sit back and marvel at the sheer number and diversity of women filling the screen. Filmed on location in CGI-enhanced Madera, Themyscira is a Mediterranean paradise that immediately contrasts with DC Comics’ infamous gloomy greys. It’s fantastic to see women of different ages, colours, and body types duking it out for sport across the picturesque scenery. In the total absence of male gaze, the Amazons’ short leather skirts and bare shoulders genuinely do feel empowering for once.
If the whole movie had consisted of sun-bronzed women showing off their rippling muscles and battle prowess, I would have had few complaints. Sadly, it’s not to last. War is brewing outside the shelter of the island—World War I, to be exact, a departure from the original comics’ WWII timeline. Diana’s life is turned upside down when dude-in-distress Steve Trevor (played handsomely if not compellingly by Chris Pine) crash lands his plane in the nearby ocean. She immediately jumps off a cliff to his rescue, but there are other outsiders in hot pursuit. When soldiers land on the beach, the stakes feel much higher than the loss of Superman’s home planet in Man of Steel; this is a paradise that would truly be a shame to lose.
The first fight scene is also the best one. Amazons clash with the German soldiers in a heady sequence of old-fashioned sword-swinging versus bayonets. Seeing so many women fighting alongside one another with the coordination of a militant sisterhood makes it all the better. Afterwards Diana convinces her shiny new love interest to take her to the Belgian front to find and slay Ares once and for all, which she thinks will end all the carnage; Steve, a worldly British spy, is less convinced.
Wonder Woman loses much of its magic once Diana sets off on her quest, in much the same way that the most delightful part of the first Hobbit movie was watching the dwarfs sing folks songs and toss each other plates. The movie feels like it wanted to tell a curious fish-out-of-water story about a woman from a world without patriarchy, but got bogged down under the conventions of its genre. It’s at its best when it focuses on Diana as a character. Gadot plays her role with a charming combination of poise and vivacious joy, resulting in a character who’s peculiarly untouched by the ugliness of the world around her, whether she’s striding implacably through a battlefield or earnestly telling an ice cream vendor that he should be “very proud.”
I expect some will be annoyed at how Steve is the pragmatic one. It plays quite close to the “born sexy yesterday” trope, in which a man finds a perfect companion who’s more child than woman. In this case, the sting is eased by how the writing is clearly intended to be a female fantasy, romance included. Wonder Woman is equal parts warrior and princess; how well that sits with people will depend on how comfortable they are seeing the two exist in the same space. It’s certainly the pure-hearted power fantasy I would have wanted as a kid.
The movie scores additional points by cramming its side characters full of diversity too. Steve’s band of not-quite-criminal comrades include Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), and perhaps best of all the Chief played by Eugene Brave Rock, who was given broad creative control over his own portrayal in the film. Director Patty Jenkins takes the male-dominated war setting and crams the backdrops as full of women as conceivable in every scene it might make sense. It’s deliberate, perhaps even pandering, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t refreshing to see a Hollywood movie spit in the face of female tokenism.
If the movie has a weakness, it’s definitely the script. The humour isn’t strong enough to provoke more than a wry grin for the most part, yet the writing can’t hold up to scrutiny during serious moments either. Grafting the story onto WWI feels a mite disrespectful, too, when the plot can be so cartoonish. Steve introduces himself as “one of the good guys” and the Germans as “the bad guys”, which isn’t challenged nearly enough for a film supposedly about uniting all of mankind. You can’t take a serious look at morality and have shallow German baddies cackling over their ridiculous sci-fi gas weapons. I had mixed feelings over the portrayal of one of the main antagonists as well. How exciting to have a disfigured female scientist! How uncomfortable when she’s the foil to Diana’s conventionally-attractive goodness.
In the end, Wonder Woman falls back into convention. The finale is a dull CGI showdown with far too many explosions; the villain is tedious. The tin-eared dialogue is even more tedious, as it pushes its last-minute message about the power of love. The idealism itself is welcome, but the movie shows too much of the war and not enough of the peace to stick the landing, and so the perpetual angst machine carries on business as usual. At least this time Warner Bros. and DC’s offering comes with a likeable (female!) protagonist. I could watch many more films about Diana, especially if they involve a return to Themyscira. Hopefully the next movie learns from its heroine and infuses itself with just a little more wonder.