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Movie Review: July 2017

Wonder Woman
directed by Patty Jenkins
Atlas Entertainment, June 2017

Wonder Woman: The World’s Been Waiting for You

So, we finally have a live-action feature-length Wonder Woman movie. We’ve only been waiting forty years. That’s the amount of time in which we’ve had six-and-a-half Superman movies and two long-running Superman tv shows (plus a cameo on Supergirl), and seven-and-a-half Batman movies and one tv show (if you count Gotham). Laid out like that, one begins to understand why Wonder Woman fans have been a little tetchy.

There’s a lot to like about Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. In some ways, it’s overwhelming. It’s like I had to wait for Christmas for forty years and no Christmas, however wonderful, is going to live up to that. The best thing to do would be to wait a year and watch it again and see how it holds up. For now, though, I’d like to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that this film breaks all the records and opens the floodgate for movies featuring all the other amazing women characters out there. Maybe now we can afford to have a bad superheroine movie without wondering if we’re ever going to get another one. A women-led superhero film should not be this big a deal.

The story: on the island of Themyscira, the Amazons have lived in paradise, in isolation. From an early age, Diana wants to become the hero who will bring the peace of her people to the world. One day she gets her chance when a plane carrying American pilot Steve Trevor crashes nearby, and she rescues him. Trevor tells her of the horrific world war that has engulfed the outside world. In fact, the war invades, as the German navy that has pursued Trevor ends up on the beach, forcing the Amazons to mount a glorious defense. For Diana, the solution is plain: She will go with Trevor to the outside world and kill the god Ares, thus ending all war.

Of course, the situation isn’t so simple, and Trevor spends much of the movie chasing after Diana and trying to explain to her that things aren’t so simple. But Diana so believes in the inherent goodness of people that they can’t possibly be so horrible without the influence of the evil Ares. She learns otherwise, that war happens because people are problematic, and Ares isn’t inciting war, he’s feeding off conflicts that already exist. Diana’s idealism is only a tiny bit broken, though—she still believes she can save the world. Even if it takes forever.

So much to unpack here. There are inevitable comparisons to DC’s recent Superman and Batman movies, which have been criticized for their grimness, especially for their failure to acknowledge Superman’s inherent idealism. But this film stands on its own—much like the way Diana’s appearance in Batman v. Superman was so vivid and unlike the surrounding mess, that she might as well have come from an entirely different universe. We didn’t even get a teaser for the upcoming Justice League film. One of my friends pointed out that in Wonder Woman, an entire town gets gassed to death, a prominent action sequence takes place in the trenches and wastes of No Man’s Land, the film confronts the horrors of the first World War—and yet it all feels so much more optimistic than any of the recent DC films. That comes from the characters and their beliefs in greater values and purpose.

The movie I most want to compare this to is Captain America: The First Avenger. Like Captain America, the character Wonder Woman was born in the Second World War. The film avoids repetition with the wildly successful Captain America movie by moving back to World War I instead. But I argue that the function of setting the movie in the past is the same: The conflicts don’t need any explanation. The good guys and bad guys are clear cut, easily identified, and the heroism is pure. These wars become wallpaper to serve as a backdrop for tales of unapologetic, un-cynical heroism. Modern conflicts are murky, filled with turncoats and subversion that make us question the very possibility of the heroic. Modern conflict is cynical, unwinnable. But the World Wars, particularly the Second, come with a built-in mythology that there really are good guys and heroism really can exist.

If Wonder Woman was going to model itself on anything, Captain America was a good choice, because it provides proof of concept that idealism can be earnest and not ridiculous. (Although I confess, when the climactic moment involved Trevor jumping on a giant diabolical aircraft filled with bombs, and he has to stop it before major cities are destroyed, I did wonder if we’re going to find him frozen in ice at some point. I’m sorry. I won’t bring up the ice again. But I am going to keep calling Steve’s team of ne’er do wells the “Not the Howling Commandos.”) The success of both these films suggests that modern audiences are absolutely starved for tales of earnest heroism, and that maybe earnest heroism ought to exist in the modern era as well. Both DC and Marvel would do well to make note of that.

Now, back to Wonder Woman and what I liked and what I didn’t. A successful Wonder Woman movie was always going to need more than just one woman, and the film aces that test. This movie has so many women in it. Glorious women. Big, tough women, not supermodels posing with swords. We also have Etta Candy, who I was worried would be comic relief but instead comes across as quietly, delightfully competent and smart. And the intriguing Dr. Poison, who I felt got short shrift in the film, shoved aside for more flashy villains. She and Diana barely interacted, and I wanted there to be more.

I adored the Amazons, particularly because they were not young. Diana’s mother Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen) and her beloved aunt and trainer Antiope (played by a buff and badass Robin Wright—yes, that Robin Wright) are middle aged. Old enough to be the mentors of a vibrant young woman. These are women in the primes of their lives, comfortable in their skins and in possession of wisdom. Those characters would not have been believable if they’d been played by young actresses. It’s wonderful to see mature, capable, deadly women on the big screen. More, please.

Diana’s naiveté is both a strength and a weakness. She takes out a machine gun nest because she doesn’t realize it can’t be done. This determination makes up for the corny fish-out-of-water comedy, which I mostly forgive because it also shows up in the first episode of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman.

Some of the action sequences and framing were absolutely gorgeous. This film is in love with the athleticism of the human body, and even when the CGI got cartoony, it was still fun to watch. I particularly loved a top-down view of Diana deflecting a dozen bullets during a back-alley ambush. The long action sequence in No Man’s Land made me cry: It’s a striking image of this one person trying to single-handedly put an end to the horrors of that war. So hopeful, against a backdrop of such misery—it’s heartbreaking.

I love that Diana is superpowered, and that she fights because she’s good at it, and not because some trauma in her past is driving her to be a hard-bitten warrior. Tiny Diana desperately begging her mother to let her learn combat is adorable. (“I don’t need a sword. Just a shield. No sharp edges!”)

I think the film had just a little too much of Steve Trevor, although Chris Pine sells the rogue with a heart of gold interpretation of the character nicely. I was a little bummed that in the big climactic moment, Diana needed to be inspired by what the men around her were doing, and not by the inner strength that had served her so well for the rest of the film. It’s done for a reason; there’s a theme here—that love is perhaps the greatest human power there is, and it’s Diana’s love for her comrades that inspires her. I’m torn, because on the one hand it’s important to show that she can fall in love, that she has human emotions and human interactions that don’t detract at all from her power. But I felt the focus shift away from her just a bit more than I liked.

One more quick note: I’ve been a fan of David Thewlis (probably best known as Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter movies) for a long time, and I’m so pleased that he gets to chew on a big chunk of scenery here. (Spoiler: He’s totally Ares!) It’s like he’s been biding his time all these years as the quiet, unassuming guy in the background, just so that you wouldn’t expect him here.

Wonder Woman is part of the holy trinity of comic book superheroes. Next to Superman and Batman, she’s the only hero to remain continually in print since her creation. While Superman and Batman have had some kind of tv or movie versions in production for a big chunk of that time, Wonder Woman, barring a couple of fits and starts and failed pilots, really only had the 1970s tv show starring Lynda Carter. That show was a cultural milestone, and I make the argument that it helped launch an entire generation of woman writers (like me) in urban fantasy and other sub-genres who grew up watching her and took it entirely for granted that women could be kick-ass heroes. (Interestingly, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins also cites the Lynda Carter version as in inspiration: “I’m interested in the Wonder Woman that I grew up with,” wapo.st/2rKfgX1.)

Why has it taken another forty years to get another live-action version of her in production? Well. I had a chance to see that failed 2011 pilot starring Adrianne Palicki, and someday I’d like to shake the hand of the network exec who killed it, because that thing needed to die. (Note: it was absolutely not Palicki’s fault; she did the best she could with what she had.) Here’s a taste: The last scene shows a morose Diana Prince petting her cat and eating chips while struggling to fill out her online dating profile. Seriously, I’d rather not have a live-action Wonder Woman at all than that monstrosity.

So, it took forty years because some creators out there still think that anything starring a woman should look like a bad day in the Cathy comic strip. Or that a woman should be a sexy pinup before she’s a powerful hero. And then they can’t figure out why nobody buys into it.

I get asked, still, “How do you write strong women characters?” and I find the question increasingly baffling and rage-inducing. You write a character. You just write a regular human character, and you should be able to come up with a whole list of different traits before you ever get to gender. Diana is powerful, ambitious, stubborn, naive, empathetic to a fault, a lover of life and experiences, filled with a quiet rage, and also with a deep faith in the ultimate goodness of people. The story in Wonder Woman builds on all of this, grows out of the hero she is, and doesn’t impose on her some tired stereotype of what someone else thinks she ought to be.

So, Wonder Woman gets it. The great mystery of how to make a successful superhero movie with a woman character was never that much of a mystery, for anyone who took the time to think about it.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio advice show. Her newest novel is a planetary adventure, Martians Abroad. Bannerless, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, will be released by John Joseph Adams Books in July 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.