Wonder Woman is Wonderful

Everything I heard about the movie WONDER WOMAN beforehand intimated that it would be terrible.

My daughter went to see it, and rolled her eyes in a typical teen girl scornful way when I expressed doubt, and she sternly and imperiously commanded me to go (despite that, as a father, I outrank her by more ranks than a brigadier).

Well, I am glad I let her guide me. WONDER WOMAN is wonderful. It is the third best superhero film I have ever seen (Brad Bird’s INCREDIBLES is first, Alexander Suskind’s SUPERMAN THE MOVIE is second).

I am fearful I will not be believed when I say how much I liked this. Yes, it was made by the same folk who made the execrable and hideous MAN OF STEEL.

I will try to keep the review free of spoilers, but I will discuss the theme and the moral, and this may indeed spoil a major plot point. So, if you wish to be as pleasantly surprised as I was by all aspects of this film, read no more.

This film, unlike nearly every other superhero film I can bring to mind, was actually about the nature and use and shortcomings of heroics.

It was about what it means to have an ideal, and what it means once one decides that doing nothing in the face of the weeping of the world in pain is no longer an option.

Some, or so I hear, did not like the ending, because they did not like the answer to the paradox of the fact that one heroine cannot save the world, but she can inspire the world. So be it. This film is not for such as they.

But the film was for me. If my tastes overlap yours to any degree, this film is also for you.

I give it eleven stars out of ten, which is something I usually reserve for Hayao Miyazaki films. And also because I flunked math.

Go see it.

Let me brush aside the fears first:

If you were afraid (as I was) of a liberal sucker-punch, or a feminist Mary Sue, or an in-your-face feminist message of any kind, put all such fears aside.

Yes, Wonder Women, even from the first days of the 1940’s was an is a woman stronger than any mortal man, and has often been used as a feminist icon.

But she is an Amazon. Amazons are figures of Greek myth. I hope no one will accuse the Greek of the Classical Age of being anything remotely like a feminist. Merely putting an Amazon into a story does not make the story feminist.

More to the point, the man-hatred which has overwhelmed and replaced modern feminism with its postmodern brain-eating doppelganger is nowhere present in the film.  Indeed, the burgeoning and unspoken affection growing between Diana and Steve Trevor is one of the good points of the film.

The gratuitous sex scenes that mar too many modern films is thankfully absent.

More to the point, the FORCE AWAKENS style celibate sexless fraternity between hunky young hero and hot young heroine which more deeply mars too many postmodern films is also thankfully absent.

Myself, I have never before liked Steve Trevor as a character. A man in love with a woman stronger than him is uncomfortable and unpleasant even in the best circumstances. Usually it is undramatic in an adventure tale, because the man is left with nothing heroic to do.

This script solved that problem by making Diana an innocent, even if superhuman, young woman from her isolated paradise, and hence a fish out of water. So she still needed help despite her powers.

Trevor in this film is not only her guide for more than half the film, his human contributions to her fights, struggles, questions are made valuable. He is not just a male damsel in distress.

If you were taken aback (as I was) by having Wonder Woman appear in a World War I film, fighting the Kaiser, rather than World War II, fighting Hitler, please also let those questions go.

The setting of this film had to be the Great War and not the Second World War because it is the nature of War that is the enemy here, and the Nazis were too clearly and unambiguously wicked, and the cause of the West too clearly just, to be useful to make the point the film makes at the climax.

The Great War was a mess. No general is remembered for his brilliance in this war. There is no Rommel, no Patton. And it ended in Armistice, not unconditional surrender.

This film no more discusses the causes or the issues of the war any more than STARSHIP TROOPERS the book discusses it. Because that would detract from the point being made.

If you thought (as I did) that we need not another origin story for a superhero any more than we need a left-handed smokeshifter, well, relax.

Most super origin stories tell the origin in the first third of the movie, have him go through a very rapid apprenticeship being a crimefighter in the second third, and face the villain in the final act, usually a villain insufficiently developed to be any threat. It has been done to death.

Not so here. Her origin story is the whole story, and the realization to which she comes in the ending is the moment of painful growth usually put at the end of the first act.

Wonder Woman has a more interesting (and feminine) origin than Superman or Batman. They are orphans. One lost his planet, and another his parents. Wonder Woman enters exile from a literal paradise freely and voluntarily, out of a passionate love for mankind, a romantic love for the first man she has ever seen, and an idealistic sense of the terrible duty laid on her whole race.

One of the clever bits of writing was to establish, at the end of the first act when Diana is exiled, that there is secret she does not know, which her mother never says. This sets up a very interesting tension, because, frankly, the viewer does not know where the question Diana has set for herself is feasible. The villain she seeks may or may not exist at all.

And she is not a crimefighter. She fights soldiers, not gangsters. But the sheer magnitude of the war makes her effort surely be in vain.

If you thought (as I did) from the commercial that Diana would be some sort of snarky snoot, the very opposite happened.

If you like superheroes and that for which they stand, you will fall in love with this character. She starts off as an innocent and wide-eyed idealistic character, someone who cannot understand the smogs of London any more than she understands the practice of sharpshooters killing men at dishonorable anonymous distances, or the practice of spies telling lies.

And yet she is also the kind of woman who squeals with delight at seeing a baby. Her all-female paradise of immortal women had no children among them, save only her.

She is charming in every scene, but also regal, which is a rare combination.

But when she finds that the dark and dirty world is more complicated, and that even evil men are somehow worth pitying, she does not lose her idealism, but it deepens and hardens into something more mature.

So much for my false fears. Let me discuss the strong points of the film, the weak points, and the theme.

The strongest point of the film is the female lead. This is the best Wonder Woman since Linda Carter, and, in a way, if I may be permitted to blaspheme, she was better than Linda Carter.

For one thing, a big budget blockbuster can choreograph the action to make the absurdity of frail little women fighting huge and hearty Huns seem more realistic to the eye, especially when done in stylish slo-mo. No shots of Linda Carter picking up the rear of a car obviously being raised on jacks so that the back tire spins was in evidence here.

I saw no stiffness or self consciousness in Gal Gadot’s acting which Carter occasionally had; she delivered lines both comic and serious with perfect conviction.

Her beauty is luminous.

Few actresses look like the comic portrayals.

Portraying a proud Greek warrior maiden as an innocent yet sensual figure is paradoxical, nearly impossible. Bruce Timm could do it in animation. No one has ever done it in real life before.

Chris Pine plays the perfect foil to the wide eyed but dark-eyed deadly Amazon beauty with a proper mix of humor, charm, and embarrassment. He actually acts as a real man might act caught in the impossible situation portrayed.

When the Amazon from paradise asks him what mortals do when there is no war going on, he talks briefly of family life. Her strange sexless existence cannot comprehend the concept. She asks what it is like. His answer is simple and heartbreaking, but the line is delivered in an understated, powerful way.

Even the minor characters have personality here.

The action is lavish, the set design is perfect, the music and craftsmanship is without mistake.

The dialog is witty and never languishes. The good humor, despite the grim theme, too often absent in DC superhero films, here was flying in full force.

But all taken in all, the best part of the movie is the super heroic nature of the heroine. She speaks to the highest ideals of everyone she meets, from evil scientists to weary footsoldiers to overworked secretaries to an ice cream salesman. The writer and the actress avoid the twin pitfalls of making such lines too earnest hence too sappy or of taking them too lightly, hence merely playing them for laughs.

There are laughs involved, but, again, the writing goes neither left nor right, but goes deep. The ideas do not fit into the real world, the world of misery and bloodshed and mustard gas and pointless killing and babies starving. But the ideals are as necessary for the life of man as bread and wine and air to breathe.

In one of the earlier scenes, the moral of the story is summed up nicely by Steve Trevor. His father told him that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who do nothing and those who do something. “I’ve already tried nothing,” he says laconically.

Never have I seen the dichotomy between the foolishness of high ideals and the stark necessity of idealism for human life than when, visually, with only a word or two of dialog, Wonder Woman first appears in her full regalia of red, white and blue, and makes her way across no-man’s-land.

I am not sure if the writers meant this, or if I am reading into it a symbolism of my own devising, but the fact is that superheroes have two functions in life. Heroes in real life are rare, and they save lives and win wars. But even imaginary heroes, superheroes, inspire the disheartened and disillusioned.

That was here. Nothing like that was in BATMAN BEGINS or MAN OF STEEL. People shown imitating Batman’s vigilante contempt for the law, or people shown worshipping Superman like an idol of old are the very opposite of this.

And WONDER WOMAN had it. She has the superheroine glamour. She inspires.

Drawbacks? I can find a dozen, if I put my mind to it.

1.The color palate is too dark.

This version of Wonder Woman is dressed in dull red, dull white, and dull blue against gray backgrounds of mud and rain. Hardly the picture of the Wonder Woman we know and love.

And since, in this film, she goes to England, not to America, why is she dressed in star-spangled red, white and blue togs anyhow?

2.Wonder Woman is shown having powers in the final scene she does not have in the comics.

3.Purists will be puzzled about her origins.

4. She is in the wrong war.

5. There is no invisible jet.

6. The gods are dead, whereas in the comic continuity, they are up and around.

7. The actor picked to play Ares the wargod was grossly miscast, to the point of absurdity.

8. German officers are shown not once, but twice, murdering their own men in front of witnesses (in real life, the Germans were the most disciplined military in modern history).

9. No warrior-woman from a military warrior culture would confuse a secretary (technically, a junior government officer doing desk work) with a slave, on the grounds that the secretary obeys orders. If she did confuse the two, she would object later to hear herself being so described.

10. When the innocent Diana asks about marriage, Steve Trevor, allegedly a man from 1919, refers to a secular wedding before a judge, rather than a preacher in a chapel.

11. The godslayer sword is not from the comic. The godslayer theme is not from the comic, but from Xena Warrior Princess.

12. She does not change her wardrobe via Linda Carter spin. Where is the spin?

All the drawbacks are small and easily forgiven.

This theme is for the movie is taken directly from William Moulton Marston: the Amazons, through the power of love, are meant to stop war. He was not a very admirable man in any way, and his ideas were as offkilter as his private life, of which the less said, the better.

But under the hands of Patty Jenkins, the director, and the four writers, this theme of love and war is handled with remarkable insight, humanity, and depth.

Usually a female director is a sign to stay away. usually having four or five writers is a sign that the script is a mess. Not here. The direction was flawless. If it missed a beat, it was a beat I also missed.

The writing shows remarkable craftiness for a superhero flick.

For example: when Diana is being dragged through the trenches of the Great War, and hears the suffering of all mankind, just like the young Buddha, the first time he saw death and suffering outside the walled pleasure palace where he was imprisoned, she continually goes to try to help, but has to be pulled back into line by Steve Trevor, reminding her that the mission is to save more than one person at a time.

The theme is inverted when she does finally throw all calculation aside to help one person, and inspires and leads an allied breakthrough in the lines, and saves an entire village.

Then the scene is inverted again, cruelly, not long after, in  fashion I will not reveal.

This scene is repeated, or, rather, inverted once more, at the climax of the film where Trevor volunteers to help one mission, leaving Diana free to work on a much larger scale.

At the risk of revealing a major plot twist, Diana attempts to solve the problem of the World War in one particular, mythical, magical and straightforward way.

This is a difficult trick for any writer to pull off and rare is the writer who does it, because he seems to have only two ways to go.

First, he can have the simple answer succeed: Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, and the movie is over (even though, come to think of it, the Empire is still in business.) Call this the Star Wars option. It is optimistic. Solve the problem, kill the bad guy.

Second, he can have the simple answer fail: the magic spear cannot kill the evil dragon after all, but instead some greater sacrifice is needed, and the tale turns cynical and dark. Call this the Dragonslayer option. It is pessimistic. Killing the bad guy save no souls. It does not change human nature.

(In case you do not remember the ending of DRAGONSLAYER, the old and tired king, who had been feeding virgins to the dragon, is the one who takes credit when the sorcerer’s apprentice slays the dragon, and only at a terrible personal cost. The king then outlaws magic. Not a happy ending from a fairy tale. It is the ending of a Film Noir story.)

But here, the writer found and exploited a third option. Instead of going optimistic or pessimistic, he went deep.

In this background, the true causes of the World War were spiritual, not political, or, rather, and more to the point, a spiritual evil was augmenting but not creating the natural evil impulses found in man, political and otherwise.

The surprise resolution of the film happens when the superheroine has to fight the spiritual evil on the god versus goddess level; the human solider has to fight the human evil on the soldier versus soldier level.

On the spiritual level, as in real life, the good and evil is clear and well defined. On the human level, as in real life, good and evil is less clear. Spies lie. Sharpshooters kill dishonorably. And mercy crops up where there is no right to expect it.

As in real life, a tempter or temptress does not take away your free will, and you are not excused from your weakness by the fact that someone flattered you. But as in real life, the tempter is guilty of the deception and false counsel he perpetrates, and the fact that you walked willingly into his snare does not excuse him for laying a snare.

The writer here did not throw all blame on Eve and excuse the snake, nor throw all on the snake and excuse Eve. Neither nature nor nurture takes the whole blame.

Practically no other film, and certainly no superhero film, portrays the subtle yet clear distinction between evil in the abstract versus the evil in men’s hearts, and did not fall into the simple optimism of STAR WARS or the simple cynicism of DRAGONSLAYER.

And I should say that this clarity on the spiritual level combined with cynicism on the human level appeals to me personally a great deal, because it is my worldview, and moreover it is a worldview I almost never get to see portrayed faithfully.

The only other book I can think of with this theme are books very different in nearly every other way: the science fantasy books of Gene Wolfe, or the murder mysteries of GK Chesterton. It was almost CS Lewisian in the brilliance of making a very subtle point using very blunt story telling instruments. CS Lewis can address a idea even theologians or philosophers have trouble phrasing clearly, and put it in terms a child can grasp. The gift is rare. I think this film has it.

I am sure I have said too much, and spoiled too many surprises. My apologies. But this film inspired me to improve my own writing, and no film I have seen this year has done that.

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