Wonder Woman

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, based on the character created by William Moulton Marston; released 2017.

The title character of this eponymous epic is never named. She is simply known as Diana. Only we, the viewers, know her as Wonder Woman. This allows the movie to remain slightly more serious than it would be otherwise. While nicely alliterative, “Wonder Woman” can sound a bit silly if you say it aloud too often. And in this movie that would have happened quite a few times. Since Diana is a comic book hero, she is headstrong, resolute and brave, plunging ahead while others hesitate. All they can do when she turns her back and hurls herself over a battlement is call out her name: Diana! Diana! Diana!

As if that would stop her. For Diana is an Amazon, of Greek myth fame. Well, almost famous — few stories about the Amazons survive. Aeschylus described the Amazons as a nation of men-hating warriors. Jason and his Argonauts wisely avoided doing battle with them. The Amazons were said to have fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Their chief city was Themiscyra, somewhere in the Caucasus. And they’re the daughters of Ares, the god of war. That much we know.

Sounds like a good back story, right? Well, maybe, except that isn’t the path the screenwriters followed, choosing instead to create their own ersatz mythology. In this retelling, Themiscyra is now an island paradise, hidden from the world like some tourist-free Santorini of the imagination. The Amazons are still warriors of a sort, fond of sparring and ancient weaponry, but they’re rather reluctant warriors, withdrawn from the world, almost isolationist. And Ares is now the sole surviving god, having offed the others in a primordial battle that we’re given as kind of a back story to the back story. Never mind that in the Iliad Zeus claims to be as powerful as all the other gods and goddesses combined, here he’s dead by Ares’ hand alone.

With his last breath Zeus designated the Amazons to be the protectors of his human creation, although it doesn’t sound like they’ve ever been very active in their assignment. This changes when American flyer Steve Trevor crashes off the island’s coast, WWI Germans in hot pursuit. Steve’s loyalty is to his mission and he’s anxious to leave the island. When he finally does, Diana accompanies him, intent on finding and defeating Ares and thus ending the war. And so at last we arrive at the basic conflict: Ares as opponent of humankind, Diana as our champion.

I would have settled for “Ares” as a symbolic menace, a shorthand term for the “darkness within,” as Diana calls it, or perhaps what Freud called Todestrieb, or death drive. But this being a comic book movie, Ares had to be something more, something tangible that Diana can battle. It’s easy to forget about this requirement since we’re not given any evidence of Ares’ physical existence for quite a while in a fairly long movie, only Diana’s OCD-like insistence that Ares is out there and that she must defeat him. When we finally do meet Ares, he turns out to be more Old Testament Satan than Greek god, and with an incoherent wish: to restore Earth to its pre-human state, sort of an Eden before the Fall, presumably with himself as the sole resident. Ah, if only this were the story of Diana leading the Amazons in a revolt against their own father, at least that would be something that might have made a bit of sense.

Brian O’Nolan, the secret identity of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, once said that “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.” He might as well have been talking of World War I, the senseless slaughter of millions, the mud and misery, the seedbed of 20th century warfare and atrocities. Wonder Woman tries to give us this world, but by the time we get to the trenches of Flanders, the movie seems to sense that it’s been going on too long and that we’re impatient for the battle royal to begin — you know, to see Diana strut her stuff. Once the camera follows her up and out of a trench, that’s the last we see of trench warfare; it’s pretty much Diana in action from there on out.

But that’s not such a bad thing. Somehow out of all the comic book tropes, magic stirs at times in this movie. And make no mistake: there are a lot of tropes here, starting with Diana’s opening voice-over narrative and the resulting flashback to the story we’re about to see. Much of the credit for the magic goes to Gal Gadot, as Diana, and Chris Pine, as Steve Trevor. The character of Trevor has a lot of baggage to carry. If Diana sees this mess of a world as a kind of manmade hell, then Steve is her guide to the underworld (and to London, for the requisite fish-out-of-water scenes). He also functions as love interest and, in a throwback to World War II movies and comics, as the leader of a vaguely amusing ragtag bunch who lack only a nickname for the cliche to be complete (Dirty Dozen, Howling Commandos, etc.).

But Gadot is the real star here, even though the movie could easily have been titled Diana and Steve. In retrospect, casting Gadot must now seem rather obvious, but at the time the choice was surely inspired; the list of Gadot’s previous roles does not suggest that Diana would be a breakout part for her, that she would be so good in it. Much of this begins with Gadot’s voice, which has a slightly rough edge and at times comes out pitched rather low. And then there’s her accent.

Movies give us many of the sounds of world English, particularly the American accent in all its variety, the accents of Great Britain and Ireland, of course Australian and New Zealand, even the sounds of Caribbean and Nigerian English. Recall the various accents in a TV show like Lost, for example. Perhaps we haven’t heard as many Israeli actors in our entertainments and so Gadot’s accent comes across as unplaceable to our untrained ears. And of course that’s exactly what you want in a movie like this: something different, something intriguing, something a little exotic.

Sadly, the movie’s secondary characters are mostly forgettable or so oddly turned out that you might think they popped in from some other production. The pecking order of bad guys in action movies is pretty rigid. There’s the big bad, but the hero never takes him down until the very end. Before moving up the food chain, as it were, there’s always a couple-three henchmen or lieutenants to deal with first, often unremarkable villains of the second rank, typically sporting bad accents. In Wonder Woman, these hapless parts fall on the shoulders of the Germans, in the form of General Ludendorff and Doctor Maru.

It’s a movie truism that if Nazis did not exist, we would have to invent them. Ludendorff and Maru can’t be National Socialists since the party doesn’t yet exist, but they are certainly Nazi precursors, anticipating action movies set 20 years later. Ludendorff is all burning anger and ambition. Maru wears a mask over part of her face to hide what we suspect is a scar from a laboratory accident. She is a mad scientist and a sadist after all. You know these two conspirators are evil before they utter their first lines; you could pick them out of any lineup. In other words, it’s hard to take them seriously. (It’s a pity true evil isn’t so easily recognized. Eichmann sniffled and snuffled with a head cold during his Jerusalem trial, looking every bit a schlub and a nobody.)

Wonder Woman is not a great movie, but within its genre it’s a very good one. By comparison, many movies of this ilk will now begin to look juvenile and garish, if they don’t already. But can it be viewed with pleasure by those not steeped in comic book lore and convention? The movie certainly seems intent on fixing itself firmly within the DC firmament, as an early scene shows Diana receiving a delivery from a truck marked Wayne (as in Bruce Wayne). A more rewarding approach might have been to let Wonder Woman define and inhabit its own universe, without any regard to its place in the franchise.

© 10 Franks 2017

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