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‘Wonder Woman,’ the movie: Firing on all superhero cylinders

Written By | Jul 6, 2017
Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot stars as “Wonder Woman.” (PR Still, Warner Bros.)

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2017 – It’s good thing a Wonder Woman film came out now rather than several years ago or even earlier. But most of the seemingly endless delay in creating and releasing this long-anticipated film really has to do with how major studios operate.

Not surprisingly, political correctness played a large part in the long, drawn-out development of “Wonder Woman.” At one point, the filmmakers could have very easily buried their heads in the sand rather than facing the inevitable gender criticism the industry has been clobbered with – often deservedly so – in the depiction of women on screen.

Less known to the movie-going public, they’ve also taken considerable flak in their cavalier approach toward increasing the number of female creators / directors behind the camera. (As in “there haven’t been very many.”)

This long winding road has only seen incremental progress along the way. But “Wonder Woman” is moving in the right direction, finally putting a feather in the superhero caps of Warner Brothers, DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment and the slew of other production companies that finally succeeded in bringing this film to the silver screen.

Case in point: “Wonder Woman” has been in production at several points over the last 15 years or so. Given this painful fact, it’s hard to imagine that someone like Patty Jenkins would have been given a chance to direct a major studio project like this when the film was finally green-lighted.

There’s a good chance that if this film had been made even five years ago, the odds of seeing a woman in the director’s chair would have amounted to a low percentage shot. Although improving somewhat in recent years, the opportunity for women to direct nearly any moderate-budget film, including a number of specifically female narratives has been just as limited. Ditto for any kind of film in the action genre, particularly when it comes to superhero films.

Given the context, choosing Patty Jenkins to direct “Wonder Woman” was a significant break in Hollywood tradition. Even more telling, that long-awaited, hopefully pathbreaking Wonder Woman film – the first female-centric superhero film since the disastrous “Elektra” (2005) – was bound to put the studio, cast, crew and, of course, the director under the most intense critical scrutiny.

That would have been true for no other reason than it was a chance to focus on Wonder Woman independently of any other DC continuity. It would be one thing to make a Superman or Batman film where the focus isn’t on the title character but more on its supporting cast.

“Wonder Woman,” on the other hand, absolutely required that the sole focus be on the title character and her struggles in her world and in ours. Her supporting cast would have to take a backseat. This was a film in which the most crucial element was to define her character. That’s largely why it became important to have a woman at the helm to make sure this actually had a chance of happening. Happily for all concerned, Patty Jenkins passed this crucial test with flying colors.

With regard to the content of the film itself, viewers will notice that the crucial elements of Wonder Woman’s origin story – those that have withstood the test of time – are all there from the very beginning. As in pretty much all the DC Comics iterations of her origin story over the decades, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) was born and raised on the island of Themyscira, which was created by Zeus exclusively for the Amazons, an ancient group of warrior women who had fought to free mankind from the grips of Ares, the god of war.

Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is vague about the mystery of Diana’s birth, given that she’s the lone child on the island. The Queen will say only that Diana was made from clay and is overly protective of her, which nicely tracks with Diana’s 1940s era origin story.

However, young Diana is headstrong and ends up being trained – initially in secret – by the Amazonian general Antiope (Robin Wright), who is Hippolyta’s warrior sister. That is, until the outside world comes crashing down to their island in the form of the American soldier-spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with the German military in hot pursuit. This sets off a chain of events that leads to Diana into the thick of the action in World War I.

World War I is an interesting choice. When it comes to superheroes, the most popular war to use as a background setting is World War II, given that, from an American perspective, it’s the one war that has a fairly unambiguous moral compass. Even among political opposite today, there is very little in the way of moralizing on the justness of this war, since everyone is pretty familiar with who the good and bad guys were on the European front.

World War I as a conflict was just horrible mess that engulfed both sides into technologically modern war that they were not ready for. An old-world mentality had gotten Europe into this “war to end all wars,” and the battle tactics employed on each side were stuck in the previous century despite the early 20th century perfecting of mechanized death.

The result was a lengthy, gruesome standoff that claimed millions of lives. Unlike World War II, there simply wasn’t a lot of hope or even a sense of purpose for the soldiers fighting and dying in World War I, save for the necessity of somehow ending it.

The contrast between the “man’s world” of this savage war and the attitudes and morality of all-female Themyscira is staggering in “Wonder Woman,” a contrast that is quickly established, given that the first act of the film it takes place entirely on the Amazon’s bright and shimmering island. There’s a quick transition from Diana’s childhood to young adulthood, and, while there’s the sting of frustration as Diana grows up, the atmosphere couldn’t be more positive for her.

It’s clear skies on Themyscira until Steve Trevor comes crashing into this idyllic world, brutally awakening its timeless occupants to the brutality of modern warfare. This results in Diana’s first real experience not only with men but with death, as the initial battle with the island’s German invaders leaves Antiope dead and inspires the Princess to follow Steve into World War I to help him stop what she feels is the grand design of the Amazons’ greatest enemy, the war-god Ares.

As Diana and Steve gather their forces in the grime and soot of wartime London – a shock for the Princess – a grey haze of disillusionment spreads across her visage upon meeting with this outside world of men for the first time. Like us, even today, she finds it difficult to grasp the Byzantine higher rungs of military and governmental procedure that seem to defy her clear sense of purpose and her heroic instincts.

Despite this, after joining Steve to gather up a rag-tag team of tough but quarrelsome mercenaries, Diana and crew soon find themselves at a turning point in the middle of trench warfare. Up to this point Steve’s associates, condescending and skeptical of having a woman tag along, have gotten glimpses of Diana’s power, but haven’t grasped its true extent. But when Diana finally erupts and attacks the Germans in full battle regalia, complete with armor, wrist gauntlets, shield and sword, minds are quickly changed.

It’s at that point that Diana exposes her true physical potential by almost singlehandedly freeing a French city from German control. It’s by far “Wonder Woman’s” most engaging sequence, taking time to showcase exactly what makes Diana such a fascinating action hero.

The force, speed, and efficiency of her superb (if ancient) military training is one of the things that’s sets her apart from other superheroes. She’s a beacon, clad in red and blue armor standing out in sparkling, heroic contrast to the dulled and muddied tones of the surrounding battlefield and military uniforms.

The dynamism of Diana on the battlefield and in war torn Europe once she’s finally able to reveal herself is striking and it has an effect on how the forward motion of the film. Everything she does from this point has a dramatic and inspiring impact.

Her other compatriots, Moroccan actor Sameer (slickly portrayed by Said Taghmaoui), the Scots sharpshooter Charlies (Ewen Bremmer), and the Native American tracker “Chief” Napi (Eugene Brave Rock) are all broken individuals, worn down from various past battles in the military and in life. Diana can’t change their lives or give them new outlooks. But she inspires them instead to accept the scars of their past and keep fighting for something better.

“Wonder Woman” peaks at this point, at least in terms of character development. The film quickly moves into more familiar action/adventure territory without regaining its earlier balance, although it never becomes dull. The moral, physical, military and gender elements are still plainly there, and the film pushes a number of key points about the neverending process of war and the flawed ugliness of mankind. Yet these ideas never quite coalesce into satisfying whole, though the effort is clearly made.

Nevertheless, this film stays on point in the most important way: it never loses its focus on the life, the character and the philosophy of Diana. At times the movie skips a beat when it reaches a bit too eagerly for “inclusiveness,” and in so doing, becoming a little careless in the way it misses the mark.

But “Wonder Woman” is storytelling at its best, capably and consistently capturing exactly what makes Diana such an engaging and inspiring hero. It lays out an excellent thesis as to why she’ll always remain relevant in the DC canon. The movie’s cast, crew and above all, its director should be justly proud of this effort.

Hopefully, Wonder Woman will continue to stand out when she combines forces with Batman cinematically this fall, as together they assemble yet another superhero team: “The Justice League.”

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.