I wouldn’t necessarily say that Wonder Woman is a great superhero movie. I’d say it’s just a really good movie. It’s exciting, and, best of all, it’s morally rigorous. At its heart, it’s a movie about an extraordinarily gifted and powerful young woman who is convinced she knows how to save the world. Her weakness, as a protagonist, is naiveté, innocence, based on a childhood in which she was raised on myth, not history. Ultimately, she has to cope with disillusionment and confusion. She has to make a crucial decision; given humanity’s propensity for war, are we worth saving? I know, that’s a familiar sci-fi trope. But it’s still compelling.
Gal Gadot plays Diana, who is pretty much a goddess, immortal, raised by Amazon warriors. She’s superbly trained in the ways of combat, which is weird, because the Amazons live on a remote island, guarded by mists, where no one ever comes with whom they might fight. They’re anti-war, like most great warriors, but war, for them, is at best a faded cultural memory. Still, they spend their days training. They’re in incredible shape, and they are amazing with bow, arrow, spear and hand-to-hand combat. But why? Who are they preparing to fight?
And then World War I intrudes. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes flying in, his plane shot to pieces, and crash-lands in the Amazon’s lagoon. Diana dives in and saves him. A German flotilla sees him land, charges in after him, and Diana, and her Mom, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and her BFF, Antiope (Robin Wright; so good to see Buttercup again!), fight them off. And Antiope dies, but only after executing the most spectacular stunt in action movie history. Movie’s worth seeing just for that one stunt. And also the scene where Diana takes out a German machine gun nest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Diana (never once, in the entire movie, called Wonder Woman, BTW), decides that Ares, God of War, has to be the instigator of WWI. I mean, a massive war, tens of millions of casualties, fought for the most idiotic reasons; of course, it has to have had malevolent and superhuman origins. The God of War done it. Has to be.
Except he didn’t. Didn’t need to. We see, briefly, Field Marshall Douglas Haig (James Cosmo), head of the British Expeditionary Force, and he expresses typically Haigian indifference to his own soldiers’ high casualty rates. It’s hard to imagine the combination of pig-headedness, callousness and sheer imbecility of the British (and French and German) High Commands, but the completely insane way in which WWI was prosecuted, on all sides, is a matter of historical fact. No wonder Diana is misled, and goes on a search for Ares, who, she’s been told, she can kill with her special sword.
I’m delighted that the movie is set in the First World War, and not the Second. WWII might tend to support the ‘some enemy hath done this’ school of thought about warfare origins. I mean, Hitler, right? But no. No enemy hath done this. We’re perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves.
Finally, of course, Diana meets Ares, played by Professor Lupin, otherwise known as David Thewlis. And he tells her the truth. And initially, she can’t handle it. And finally, she does.
At the time I watched the movie, it didn’t occur to me how cliched that final confrontation between Diana and Ares really was. My son pointed it out to me. Final fight scenes between superheroes (good v evil, of course), are inherently undramatic; guys flinging other guys into buildings, doing massive amounts of property damage, but not actually hurting anyone. When you’re impervious to being damaged by ginormous collisions with big steel-and-concrete structures, then why do you insist on flinging your opponent around the way they all do. What are you accomplishing? It’s boring, honestly; nothing’s at stake. Diana and Ares are having a deep and profound conversation about the nature of evil, and why Men (feminist, right?) fight wars. They didn’t need to bash up buildings to have that convo. Also, spoiler, but the movie suggests that she decides for humankind because she’s learned about love by falling for Steve Trevor. It’d be more interesting if she fell in love with human beings, more broadly understood. For women, and their children, since this is a feminist superhero movie. Not just some dude, making this a romantic melodrama.
So it’s not as feminist as it imagines itself being, and the ending isn’t anything innovative. It’s still a fine film, beautifully conceived and superbly acted. And it stars Gal Gadot, who is a miracle as Diana. The whole cast is terrific, in fact, including Chris Pine, who gives depth and relevance to a pretty thankless pretty boy role.
It’s really good. If it could have been a bit stronger, so what? It’s the best summer action movie so far this year. It’s so good, in fact, that for a second I forgot who the President was. That’s my new benchmark.