Film * Patty Jenkins * Comic Book World War I * 2017
You know, for someone who doesn’t really care about comic books or their movies, I sure do seem to spend a lot of time watching them. Oh well, at least now I understand why I’m seeing so many little girls running around in Wonder Woman outfits. That first scene featuring a five-year-old Diana doing adorable little punches probably sold a million Halloween costumes by itself. I’m not even trying to be cynical about this, while young girls have plenty of fiction written just for them, there is an obvious and upsetting lack of big screen avatars for girls and women to get excited about. Wonder Woman does not solve the overall problem, but this film is a pretty great start. While I’m not sure the world needed yet another origin story, at least this film is entertaining in its own right. Also it’s apparently something of a period piece, which I think I knew but then forgot, but whatever because that period happens to be right smack in the middle of my wheelhouse.
I’ll get into the World War I stuff in a little bit, before that let’s talk about heroes for a moment. All heroes – fictional, larger-than-life heroes, not your cousin fighting fires for the Forest Service out in Wyoming (no offense to the Wyoming Hotshots obviously) – are different, but all share some similar traits. A Hero must be selfless and dedicated to protecting those weaker than themselves. In the instance of Wonder Woman or Superman, this is basically all of humanity. Since this first trait is paramount, much of the time Heroes are cornballs: Captain America I’m looking at you. Most of the time they have a Code which aligns with their sense of ethics and morality. When it comes to the Code, Heroes are absolute. The only time they violate their Code is when it is necessary for the plot, to facilitate some kind of crisis, but generally resolution comes in the way of upholding that Code. Heroes are generally easy on the eyes. How would we know they’re the good guys if they’re not hot? Now, not all of the common Hero traits are positive. There’s a certain arrogance and/or forced humbleness with most Heroes. It’s not their fault. After all, a Hero is by definition extraordinary, there’s going to be some amount of headstrongness born from that. What can make that stubborn sense of superiority grate sometimes is the fact that very few Heroes are, you know, smart.
Wonder Woman pretty much fits that bill dead on. Since this is an origin story (sigh) we get to see the weird island-out-of-time where Diana came from. We’re also given a real weird lesson on Greek mythology that, hmm, is a whole different thing. Look, they’re myths for a reason and fiction can take whatever liberties they want with them. There’s no definitive version of these, just like there’s no definitive version of the King Arthur story or any other tale that’s been kicking around for a few dozen centuries. That said, the whole Zeus versus Ares angle is kind of weird, and mostly just reminds me of God of War. Anyway, there’s an island, there are Amazons, there’s a special little girl named Diana. We do not know why she is special, but even as an adolescent she’s clearly more talented than the rest of her cohorts when it comes to slow-motion acrobatic ninja kicking.
The actual story begins when the island-out-of-time is breached by the modern world. And by modern world I mean 1918. As I said, this is a period piece, and the rest of the film takes place during the final stages of World War I. Once Diana leaves the island to seek her fortune by hunting down and killing Ares, Wonder Woman turns into a fun fish-out-of-water story for a little while before ratcheting up the action to pretty awesome levels. Honestly there’s not much to spoil about the story, considering the entire movie is a flashback taking place within the brain of 2017 Wonder Woman, who hasn’t aged at all. Obviously World War I doesn’t last forever. There’s no tension there. Instead, once the action gets going and the story moves to the Western Front it becomes an ensemble war film. And it’s pretty good. Of course it’s still a comic book movie, so there was a constant struggle on my part to get the Modernist scholar inside my brain to just the hell up already.
Okay, I just need to get this out so I apologize in advance. If I don’t let that little bastard in my brain have its say, I’ll never hear the end of it. So here goes. First of all, movie, the Germans in the first World War weren’t Nazis. They were not the unilateral, obvious bad guys who came later on to demonstrate actual, extremely unambiguous evil. I think Wonder Woman understands this, deep down, but the first impression the film gives is that Allies are good, Germany is evil. We even get a couple of sociopaths who are Nazis in all but name, and I get that the movie needs villains but the notion of WMD’s being a thing in 1918 is a bit much. Secondly, I don’t know, there’s an anachronistic vibe about the whole thing which is a little off-putting. Nobody said “you got this” in 1918, not even Americans. Americans working for British Intelligence. Ahem. Now, maybe that makes a little more sense than it does on its face considering that the United States was a very late entry into the war and that America’s influence in the direction of the war was limited at best. Last thing: airplanes were not that large and could not fly that high in 1918. Not even close. Like, I know we’re looking at “the future” and all but just no, stop it.
I feel a little better now. I know I have a problem when I’m watching a big summer superhero movie and the thing that takes me out of my suspension of disbelief is the film’s portrayal of the Germans in World War I. Glowing rope that makes people tell the truth? Whatever, Britain and France were every bit as complicit in chemical warfare and senseless, unceasing slaughter as Germany was, movie! Actually, the movie eventually comes to terms with the ambiguity of World War I, and by the end it’s pretty clear that the story uses this war in particular to make its broad, comic-book-ass point about human nature. During the scene where Diana crashes the boy-club party in Parliament and overhears one of the generals talking about soldiers like they’re not even human is a pretty clear indication that the film knows what’s up. It just takes its time getting there.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear that Diana is a full-fledged member of the Hero club. She’s a badass with a clearly defined moral and ethical Code. This is also her first outing as a Hero, so the moments where I was super annoyed with her character, frustrated by her know-it-all-ness, are absolutely intentional. Wonder Girl is becoming Wonder Woman, after all. When she starts chastising her crew for ignoring the horrors of trench warfare – horrors of which she knows absolutely nothing about, by the way – Diana refuses to listen to Steve or anyone else about the nature of the war. This is frustrating. Her character has exactly zero frame of reference for what she’s seeing and experiencing. She has no understanding of the size and scale of the conflict she’s trying to end. She’s lived on a tiny island her entire life, for crying out loud, the very concept of “millions dead” wouldn’t even compute. Yet here she is telling everyone they’re amoral monsters for ignoring the suffering around them. Then she does some hero shit, stands up in the trench (A Wonder Woman Could Stand Up, thank you and goodnight), and wrecks house on the Germans, thus saving some random tiny village and everyone is happy.
Except, of course, said tiny village is doomed anyway. Also, since Diana has no grasp on the modern world at all, she cannot possibly realize that she would have to repeat her set-piece bit of Hero-y awesomeness about 5,000 more times to actually effect any change on the war. Now, if Diana had the ability to actually listen to other people, maybe she would learn some of this stuff. But remember what I said about Heroes being kind of dumb? So Diana has to learn the hard way, Steve blows himself up in his impossible aircraft, and Wonder Woman learns a valuable lesson about humanity. The story basically ends here, after the climactic battle with Professor Lupin and the sacrifice of Diana’s almost-boyfriend, so we’ll have to wait until the inevitable sequel to learn if any of the coming-of-age lessons learned here actually stick. I hope they do. Wonder Woman is a really good superhero movie, and Diana has the potential to be a really good character as well as being the kickass Hero she already obviously is.