Ambivalent about an Amazon: Wonder Woman smart amid superhero tropes

By Liam Lacey

Neither a wonder nor a blunder, the new Wonder Woman is better than the usual comic book movies - though short of the resounding triumph some early reviews have declared.

Mostly, it settles for a draw, lively when it roams free of the comic book genre conventions and dull when it conforms to them.

 Gal Godot as Wonder Woman

Gal Godot as Wonder Woman

When we first meet her, Wonder Woman - aka Diana Prince - is looking chic and fully dressed while working for the Louvre art museum when she receives an envelope from her friend Bruce (Batman) Wayne. Inside is a century-old photograph showing showing her, in her Wonder Woman outfit, posed with a group of soldiers.

The photograph launches Diana, on a trip down memory lane back to her birthplace, on the paradisal Greek island of Themyscira, the homeland of the Amazonians, semi-deities created by Zeus to send a message of love to mankind.

Here, Diana grows up as a princess, daughter of Queen Hypolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her sister general, Antiope (Robin Wright). 

In this militaristic utopia, women of various ages and ethnicities swagger about in tunics, light armor and single braids, race their horses through flowery meadows and leap from cliff-tops, uninhibited by the presence of men. All of them speak in curiously-accented English, which only makes sense when you realize the cast is conforming to the accent of Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, who plays the adult Diana.

Then a Man, along with the horrors of civilization, arrives, crash-landing his plane into the sea. The interloper is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). And he's a spy working for the Allies, being chased by a horde of enraged if easily dispatched First World War Germans.

More importantly, he has watery blue eyes and bee-stung lips and some unfamiliar body parts. Wonder Woman begins to wonder. She has a sudden desire to help him escape and proceed to the front lines for a showdown with the war God, Ares (which happens to be her prophesied destiny). 

Because consumerism is the new politics, Wonder Woman is being sold through a couple of talking points. For the fanboy brand loyalists, this is supposed to be the film to rejuvenate the Warner Brothers-DC Universe franchise, arch rivals to Disney-Marvel. Though unless you're a DC shareholder, this seems a limited concern.

If you like women as well as comics, you might see buying a ticket for Wonder Woman, a character with a legit feminist lineage (including the cover of Ms. in 1972), as a vote for the future of robust female role models in movies. You can also support the rarity of a woman director, Patty Jenkins, in charge of a blockbuster.

One could point out that The Hunger Games franchise, with almost three-billion dollar earnings in worldwide grosses, has already established that girl power works at the box office.  Though, no question, there has been a dearth of women warriors in blue miniskirts and tiaras who can also sling trucks around.

Herein lies the paradox of Wonder Woman: icon of women's liberation or feisty bad girl. Wonder Woman's creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, strove to create a superheroine who personifiesd female love as opposed to male violence. He was against women's servitude but very pro their erotic bondage, evident in Wonder Woman's boudoir-skimpy outfits, knee-high boots, "lasso of truth" and manacles. "I'm both frightened and aroused," declares a male character after Wonder Woman strips down for action, which seems to be point of a movie aimed at both sexes.

Taken simply as an action-fantasy movie, the movie is genuinely refreshing in much the same way as the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, was. Instead of the usual petulant male superhero - a demi-deity with a sense of purpose bordering on zealotry - she's here to bring an end to war on earth, not just work through her childhood neuroses.

She is played by a long-limbed model, Gal Gadot. And while her range isn't greatly tested, Gadot has plenty of presence, toned but not bulging muscles, with arched eyebrows and a steady gaze that suggest a focused bird of prey. 

As well as leaping, lifting and punching through rock, we learn, she can speak more than 100 languages and read chemical formulas in Sumerian.

But mostly, the film focuses on her valor and naivete rather than her intellect. Her innocence about the world of humans is played for humour, reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Ron Howard's mermaid comedy, Splash.  She needs a man to explain difficult things to her, like deceit and cruelty and ice-cream cones. 

Yet, there's much about the movie itself that is unquestionably smart. Director Jenkins (in her first feature since 2003's docudrama about Aileen Wuornos, Monster) and writer Allan Heinberg have taken the set-ups of the original early 1940s DC comics back a generation to the Great War.

That shift adds several resonances. There are allusions to first-wave feminism, when women were still campaigning for the right to vote. The period was also the golden era of pulp fiction (the script name-checks Edgar Rice Burroughs). As New Yorker writer, Jill Lepore, wrote in her history of Wonder Woman, it was an era when ideas about the moral superiority of women and fantasy fiction about feminist utopias were popular.

There are other astute story-telling choices here, including the way the script shifts from fantasy to screwball comedy on the boat-ride to England, to fish-out-of-water comedy when Diana arrives in Edwardian London, flouting the social and sartorial conventions.

Subsequently, the movie transforms into an espionage thriller when Steve, Diana and a crew of mercenaries – including Scottish marksman (Ewen Bremner) and multilingual Moroccan spy (Said Taghmaoui) - and a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock) cross the channel to get behind German lines.

Adding out the collection of concisely-sketched sidekicks is a prominent English politician (David Thewlis) secretly backs their plan, for his own complicated motives. 

But when the movie relents to the comic book franchise's demands -- the two-plus hour running time, the wafty speeches about human nature, the big bang ending -- it deflates. The villains here are particularly disappointing, falling in the dead gap between amusing plausibility and camp. As a German general, Danny Huston, spitting out Germanic consonants like the bad guy on an after-school special, while his woman accomplice, a chemist, subtly known as Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), is a facially-disfigured monster from the pulp-fiction historical dustbin.

Following historical precedent, the plot gets badly bogged down in the European trenches before it finally breaks loose.

The last half hour of is familiar fantasy movie climax, involving fireballs, the testing the limits of superpowers and a lot of unnecessary exposition from the villain. None of this exactly whets the appetite for Justice League, the omnibus superhero film due out this November, though because of director Jenkins and her star, Gadot, there's reason to look forward toWonder Woman 2.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Lucy Davis and Connie Nielsen.  Screenings begin Thursday night at Cineplex Yonge Dundas, Scotiabank Toronto,  Cineplex Varsity and Cineplex Yorkdale.

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather