It’s only good manners nowadays, when starting a review to say, in big capital letters, SPOILER ALERT if you intend to reveal any juicy details about the plot. I will do that for Wonder Woman (here it is – SPOILER ALERT) but I’m not sure I need to as plot is definitely not it’s strong point. In fact anyone over the age of 12 who has ever seen a film could have written this plot. I’d hazard a guess and say that this is the plot those apocryphal monkeys left alone with some typewriters came up with. It is the Homer Simpson of superhero plots; bloated, lumbering and mostly misguided.
Yet, just like Homer, it has a certain charm and much of that charm can be summed up in two words; Gal Gadot. The actor who plays Wonder Woman (or Diana Prince in her non-super disguise), does so with utter sincerity and conviction. So much so that she not only carries the whole two hours of overblown, hokum filled twaddle, she actually makes it soar, just as she does when leaping off a cliff to save Steve (Chris Pine) from drowning.
Obviously Gadot is stunning to look at, with a fabulous physique and one of those faces like Sophia Loren, where every feature is slightly wrong, yet combined make great beauty. Her Wonder Woman does the required job of both impressing and arousing the men around her. The problematic sexual fetish of the warrior woman cannot be overlooked in this film. Is Wonder Woman a bit of totty for the male gaze, an oppressive fantasy fulfilment for women or, most chillingly, the unreal woman who can’t be harmed, thus allowing gender thugs the fantasy of violence without consequence? Or can she surpass all of those stereotypes to be something a little more complex and subtle?
In this film, which takes time giving us her back story, we understand that Diana Prince is a child in a woman’s body. Having never left the Island of Themiscyra she is unworldly and naïve. She takes everyone at face value and offers her trust to humanity, certain in the ideology she has been taught, that only Ares, the god of war, is the font of evil. Through her experiences once she comes into the real world, she learns that humanity is more complicated and complicit in evil than she thought.
The film is brimming with engaging characters (although David Thewliss has a good go at hamming it up). The costume and design team have created a stunning looking film, gritty yet glamorous. Some of the action sequences are genuinely thrilling and the final one only drags a little (unlike the climax of many action films where I feel like I could go to watch another film, come back and they’d still be repeating the same dull old fight choreography). But at every turn, the actors and design teams of Wonder Woman have been let down by the plot and script.
Gadot is forced to spout lines that could have come from a Donald Trump tweet. It’s left up to Chris Pine to suggest a more complex philosophy and whilst he carries off his role well, I’m not sure philosophy was ever Pine’s strong suit.
There has been lots of discussion about whether this is truly a feminist film and the answer is, of course, no. There are great feminist moments; the Amazons are a role call of fabulous but not so young women actors, such as Robyn Wright, all proving they can kick ass and wear great Mohican braids. But it’s a big budget studio film and as such, there can be no radical social agenda of any kind. It has to fit in with a franchise where Batman is played by Ben Affleck for goodness sake. One might fantasise about Gal Gadot being the lead in an independent WW film, where a team of great writers could really pull out all the stops but that ‘aint gonna happen anytime soon.
And there’s something else afoot, something related but that I’m starting to find even more worrying than unconscious gender bias or failing the Bechdel test (which at least this passes). That is all these super hero films and their relationship with political and philosophical ideology. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re being sold a belief system along with our popcorn, a belief system that is hypocritical and pompous and refuses to examine itself.
“Love,” Diana Prince keeps saying. Loving our fellow humans, spreading love around the world; this is the key, this is what we fight for. But these films never examine what they mean by ‘love’. Love is not a defined, unchanging entity. Love changes its meaning depending on who is feeling it. When Diana Prince says love, she doesn’t mean the love a religious extremist might have for his faith or the love an addict might have for his drug. I would suggest that she very specifically means a Protestant, neo-liberal love of the Western good life, one that values nuclear families, competitive sports and low taxes. It’s just that the scriptwriters felt that was a bit of a mouthful for her to say as she levitates above a German chemical warfare research facility. So she just says ‘Love’. And so films like this fly around the world, reinforcing our own sense of rightness and slipping cultural colonisation into races and nations that have a completely different value system. And we never acknowledge that is what’s happening.
Even more concerning, is the ever present belief that in order to achieve this world filled with ‘love’, there needs to be one final act of catastrophic violence. You can’t achieve peace without first doing some serious killing. But it’s ok, it’s only the bad guys that get killed. Let’s ignore the fact that who the ‘bad guy’ is depends on which side of the wall you’re standing…
With all of these qualifications, I should like to report that I stayed awake during this film, which for a woman of my age is the acid test of a worthwhile trip to the cinema. On occasions, especially when she goes over the top into No-Man’s Land, I was thrilled by the action, amused by the “let’s poke fun at every sexist stereotype’ scenes and even a little choked. I found a brief moment really touching, especially considering recent events that seem to have changed our world irrevocably. Dancing with Steve, Diana asks him what people do when there isn’t a war. He looks at her with regret.
“I have no idea”, he answers.