REVIEW: Wonder Woman

31 05 2017

“You expect the battle to be fair. It will never be fair!” exhorts Robin Wright’s Amazonian mentor to her trainee, Gal Gadot’s warrior princess in “Wonder Woman.” It’s tempting from an early point to view the film through a purely ideological standpoint, and cues like this almost seem to encourage it.

While writing this review, butt-hurt “men’s rights activists” (yes, those concerns are so imaginary they deserve to be put in quotations) are still complaining on Twitter about woman-only screenings of this film. The urge to lacerate prejudice through cultural consumption as if we were casting a ballot to vote is an alluring, but ultimately empty, one. Praising the disjointed “Ghostbusters” like a dutiful gesture of feminist solidarity really solved all our issues in 2016, right?!

The underlying hope of these actions is to foster a world where “Wonder Woman” will no longer be the most expensive film ever directed by a woman or the only major superhero film with a female protagonist; instead, it will be just one of many. So let’s start acting like it today by treating the film as what it can become, not merely what it means in the deeply politicized 2017 environment into which it is released. As the great critic Pauline Kael remarked, critics too often praise “movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ —’serious’ messagy movies. This often involves […] the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.”

So if you’ll pardon my existential opening, I’ll spare you another analysis about how progressive (or not) the gender dynamics are, whether or not director Patty Jenkins’ gender might “influence” the way certain scenes play out and if certain on-screen moments carry feminist undertones from off-screen drama. It was hard to squint past these things and just see the movie because, as a film writer, firebrands like this can so often be reduced to multiple start-points to an ideological thinkpiece. But there is some there there, so to speak, in “Wonder Woman.”

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

The film avoids the familiar missteps of comic book origin stories by relegating its mythology tie-ins to the film’s bookends. What we’re left with is primarily a fish-out-of-water war story featuring Wonder Woman transplanted onto the front lines of World War I courtesy of Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, a pilot who manages to crash on her seemingly protected island. She anticipates a more existential duel with Ares, the ancient god of war. Admittedly, she’s not wrong to expect that given the conflict’s moniker “The War to End All Wars.”

What she finds is something muddier, nastier and altogether more unsavory: a war of attrition where the agreed-upon strategy involves stagnation in the name of preserving life. The homefront in England isn’t much better for her, where she chafes at the idea of squeezing into an outfit for arbitrary fashion rather than obvious utility. These misadventures play like a high-octane variation on “Splash” or “Enchanted,” with Pine very game to play poker-faced, straight-laced and confused opposite a consistently incredulous Gadot.

The larger takeaway, however, is one of the better (if heavy-handed) Messianic allegories in the superhero genre to date. Most since “The Dark Knight” – cough, cough “Man of Steel” – consider it sufficient to invoke some vague notion of sacrifice and pose their protagonist in the form of the crucifix. But “Wonder Woman” goes further in exploring what that sacrifice is for: a human race torn apart by their own greed but worth saving from their inherent flaws. And this time, that salvation comes in the form of a badass heroine who can flip a German tank like a boss. (Sorry, couldn’t help but cram in one last shout-out to the haters and losers.) B /

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