My partner and I went to see Wonder Woman last night. Short review: I thought it was great and I look forward to seeing more of Diana.
As with my previous ‘review’ of Rogue One, this’ll be presented more as a bullet-pointed list of thoughts than a coherent essay or article about the film.
This list will contain spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep them mild.
- A superhero popcorn movie in something as emotive as World War One is always going to be a tough sell. World War Two has been simplified into straightforward good versus evil of Allies & Axis, which had to be fought and was a resounding victory for the good guys. (And our favourite Uncle Joe Stalin, but we’ll gloss over that…) This bowdlerisation is such that Captain America and the Red Skull can exchange punches without it feeling… off. The First World War though is characterised in the popular consciousness as being a morally-neutral disaster – see the concerns over the video game Battlefield 1 being set in 1914-18, when dozens of first-person shooters, including Battlefield, but also the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor (remember them?) have done 1939-45 without more than a mumble of discontent. However, Wonder Woman pulls it off; it gets close, because she spends the entire film blaming Ares for corrupting the Germans into starting the war (the ‘Hitler Was A Vampire’ trope), but the reveal that actually, humans are just fond of killing each other keeps the blame for the war pinned firmly on real world politics. That the film is set during the dying days of the war, when both sides are trying to negotiate the Armistice, probably helps. Wonder Woman’s not going to be leading the Americans into Berlin here
- Misogyny. Lots of casual misogyny, particularly in the London sequence. However, Diana being Diana, she just looks confused and carries on doing whatever it was she was doing. Also, no one gets protective or dismissive of Diana by the end of the film. Being an actual demi-goddess helps, I suppose. The horrendously sexist attitudes of, for example, the British commanders and politicians, although appearing ridiculously overdone, weren’t that implausible for the era. A female police constable appears in a crowd scene in the film, stood beside her male colleague/bodyguard. Thousands of women served as volunteer constables during the war, to allow male officers to fight at the front, but a Metropolitan Police official was asked in 1916 if he ever saw women being taken on permanently. His reply was: “No, not even if the war lasts fifty years.”
- There was a recent episode of Doctor Who in which Bill (who is black) was cautious about leaving the TARDIS in 1814 London (“Slavery is totally still a thing,”) and is pleasantly surprised when she does look around the streets: “Regency England, a bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor’s reply is, “So was Jesus. History is a whitewash.” Aside from several non-white civilians, the London crowd scenes in Wonder Woman make a point of showing the ethnic diversity of the war effort. We see non-white troops from multiple nations. I’m not hot enough on the uniforms to identify the nations, but I presume one of the groups of Asian soldiers were the Indian Army, some others appeared to be from a Sikh regiment, and there was a black soldier at the docks that looked to be wearing British Army uniform (black British soldiers served alongside white comrades in the First World War, although non-whites were barred from becoming officers – there were several exceptions though). Of course, he may have been from the Caribbean or African colonies, but he appeared to be on his own rather than a part of a group.
- The ethnic diversity continues into Steve’s team, who are all (or mostly anyway) existing characters from the Wonder Woman comic canon. Sameer is Moroccan (and makes a point of highlighting his skin colour as a reason why his acting career has never taken off), Chief is a native American (who mentions to Diana that it was Steve’s people who took everything from his during their last war), and, well, okay, you don’t get much whiter than the Scottish Ewen Bremner.
- Visually, the film portrays its era very well. A historian might pick holes in some bits and pieces, but it feels right.
- The action scenes don’t fetishise automatic weapons in a way that some First World War portrayals I’ve seen have done. Even World War Two films and games fall prey to that urge, when rifles were still the most common armament for infantry soldiers. Dakka might look and sound good on screen, but it detracts from the feel of the era.
- Interestingly, the two German tanks seen towards the end of the film are not historically inaccurate. Yes, they’re clearly British tanks painted up in German colours (possibly the same props seen in British colours in earlier scenes), but the Germans actually fielded more captured British tanks than they built of their own. (For comparison, the Germans fielded fifty tanks during the war, only twenty of which were of German design, while Britain and France fielded literally thousands of tanks between them.)
- Finally, how often do you get a superhero film set in Belgium?
Diana / Wonder Woman
- Wonder Woman doesn’t get referred to as such during this film. I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Unnecessary Subtitles, but apparently it was the media in that film that gave Diana that name.
- Gal Gadot is excellently cast. She looks the part and plays it well too. I’m not sure what more I can say about her than that I definitely want to see more Wonder Woman.
- Born Sexy Yesterday is a trope (explained in more detail behind the link) in which a science fiction character, almost always female, is portrayed in a sexualised way, despite being either naive to the ways of the world (a mermaid come ashore, for example) or literally being born yesterday (Leeloo in The Fifth Element comes to mind, but it’s also the central conceit of Weird Science and its sub-genre of nerdy wish-fulfilment movies). Diana brushes against that trope, in that she’s an outsider to the world beyond Themyscira, but her naivety is emphasised as idealism, rather than foolish cluelessness. There are also a few moments where that same naivety is used to highlight the hypocrisy or prudishness of the mortal world, such as her continuous criticisms of women’s dress in 1918. It helps that the scene in Selfridges was also very funny.
- However, my partner was rubbed up the wrong way by an early conversation between Steve and Diana, prompted by Steve’s awkwardness over their sleeping arrangements on the small boat they take from Themyscira. Diana appears ignorant of the idea of marriage and relationships, yet in the comics she’s mentioned having relationships on Themyscira. (A quote from the comics: ‘So, let me get this straight, you’re from a paradise island of science fiction lesbians, with a side of bondage?’) The conversation is explicitly about marriage before sleeping with someone in the literal, as well as euphemistic, sense, and that marriage was part of the natural sequence of then having children, growing old together and being happy with one other person forever. As Steve readily admits, it doesn’t always work out like that. At the time, I read the conversation as saying that Themyscira simply didn’t have the same rigid family structures as the mortal world; they were more communal, egalitarian or whatever, but there’s also the reading that the film was saying same-sex couplings can’t have proper relationships or families. It was explicitly stated earlier in the film that Diana was the only child on the island, moulded from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus, so that’d suggest family and relationships are treated very differently there than in our world (or at least, our world in 1918). I think I’d have to watch this scene again, but since I’ll probably pick up Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray when it comes out, no problem with that.
- Oh yeah, the bondage comment above? The creator of Wonder Woman was bigly into that sort of thing. Why do you think Diana’s lasso makes people tell the truth? It was also a common feature of the early comics that Diana would end up getting tied up and taunted by villains. The film avoids all that, but I do think that a moment in the climactic fight scene was a nod towards the character’s history: Ares pins Diana to the ground with a length of telekinetically-hurled tank track and villain-monologues at her. However, the scene is not played for eroticism, but as an obstacle for Diana to overcome.
- Speaking of the lasso, and of the Wonder Woman get-up itself, the bright colours worked marvellously in the otherwise muted and muddy scenes in Belgium, particularly during the incredible moment where she climbs that ladder into No Man’s Land. (As a side note, they weren’t explicit with it, but when characters described it as ‘No Man’s Land’, the audience knew full well what was going to happen next.)
- The No Man’s Land scene is what happened next. You know those bits in superhero films where the film manages to sell precisely who or what the hero is? When Spiderman loses his mask during the train sequence and the New Yorkers just give it him back, promise not to tell anyone what they saw, and then try and protect him from Doc Ock? Or when Superman lands a crashing plane safely onto a baseball pitch and the crowd go wild, and then he mentions to the passengers that flying is still statistically the safest way to travel? No Man’s Land was that scene for Wonder Woman (and Patti Jenkins had to fight to keep it in the film!). It’s the scene where she ceases to just be a naive idealist with a few nifty superpowers, and becomes a goddess who inspires all who witness her. From the moment she sets foot on that ladder, the air in the cinema got very dusty. The aftermath sequence in the liberated village was a wonderful respite from the war and showed the human side of the conflict.
- And what happens later is just cruel, but a necessary part of Diana’s journey to discovering that not everything evil in the world is the fault of Ares.
- Chris Pine put in a solid performance of what, in any other film, would have been a two-fisted pulp hero. Wonder Woman manages to still give him time in the spotlight to do his dashing spy stuff, without detracting from Diana’s own plot and character arc. In fact, strip out the superhero stuff on both the good guys’ and the bad guys’ sides, and you’re left with a perfectly serviceable pulp spy/action movie about Steve Trevor and his buddies shooting and punching their way across Belgium.
- He even manages to be the love interest who inspires the protagonist. Holy gender-flip, Batman!
- Hell, since this film is set in 1918, if it weren’t for the fact that this film forms an end-point for his character arc, you could probably get some mileage out of a Steve Trevor spin-off. Think of it as Biggles for an American audience.
- Oh, wait, that godawful idea already exists, thanks to the 1980’s.
- Using a real-world historical figure as the main villain was another bit that could have turned out badly. For a start, Danny Huston looks absolutely nothing like Ludendorff. Furthermore, the historical Ludendorff (alongside Hindenberg) pushed the Kaiser to seek peace, unlike the version presented in the film, who was convinced that Germany could still win in late 1918. Again though, the film made it work.
- It helps that Ludendorff is one of history’s bad guys anyway – he was a leading proponent of the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth about Germany’s 1918 defeat and took part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Film-Ludendorff believed that war was the foundation of human civilisation (thus placing him firmly into worship of Ares, even if he didn’t realise it). Interestingly, this aligns fairly closely with real-Ludendorff’s beliefs. He was a social Darwinist who venerated war as a driver of societal advancement. Ironically, he did allegedly convert to the worship a pagan god, specifically the Norse Odin/Wotan, after the war. He also believed that Jews had conspired to undermine the German war effort by seeking profit ahead of patriotism, and condemned Christians as weak. So, yeah, he was pretty much a perfect fit for the Nazi party.
- When I see Danny Huston though, I will always see him as the jazz musician/axe murderer from American Horror Story: Coven. Maybe the film-makers tried giving him real-Ludendorff’s little kaiser-moustache, but decided it didn’t suit him.
- Ludendorff turns on his own government, to the extent of murdering the rest of High Command when they try to negotiate the German surrender on behalf of the Kaiser. Sure, it’s a way of making clear that the film isn’t trying to tar the entire other side with the crimes of its supervillain, but the Red Skull also turned on the Third Reich in Captain America: The First Avenger. At least there it set up Hydra as being a separate organisation that could succeed the Third Reich, but it just didn’t feel necessary in Wonder Woman.
- The jovial way in which he and Dr Poison laughed as they killed his colleagues also felt a bit out of character – at no other point during the film did Ludendorff express any positive emotions.
- Hang on, fridge logic kicking in… It can’t possibly have escaped anyone’s notice that a dozen senior German officers had died in a horrible poison gas attack, and yet dozens of equally senior German officers bring their wives along to Ludendorff’s gala later in the film. Really? Even if Ludendorff had covered up his murders as a freak accident, surely they’d have been a bit more circumspect in accepting his invitation.
- Ludendorff shoots one of his junior officers dead fairly early in the film as punishment for not preventing Steve Trevor from stealing Dr Poison’s notebook and blowing up her lab. As noted, Ludendorff is a rogue element within the Imperial German Army, but at this stage he was still overtly loyal to the government. The German Army executed very few soldiers during the First World War (150 death sentences, of which only 48 were carried out) and although summary executions on the battlefield probably occurred and aren’t properly counted, this was in Turkey, at the heart of friendly territory. Sure, executing underlings for failure has a long tradition in arch-villainy, but it felt unnecessary here. Sure, it could be said to set up his willingness to murder more senior German officers later in the film, but his motives were very different: here it was anger and stock villainy, but there it was patriotism and lust for war.
- It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Ludendorff wasn’t Ares, despite Diana believing he had to be. It’s obvious from the outset that Diana’s simplistic view of The War To End All Wars is a mistake. Still, he made for a very good decoy antagonist, particularly with his ahistorical(!) use of weird blue gas ampoules to give himself super powers.
- Okay, I did not realise that. Danny Huston also played Theo’s cousin Nigel, the government art collector, in Children of Men. That’s two things I’ve seen him in before Wonder Woman.
Dr Isabel Maru / Dr Poison
- A somewhat underused character, to be honest, but also an example of the ‘Scarred Villain’ trope. Come on… in such an otherwise wonderfully progressive film, the disabled character is a villain.
- That said, it was nice to see the period-accurate mask she wore over the hole in her face. Trench warfare led to a lot of facial wounds, and survivors often wore masks like that to get by in daily life. (Also, in the UK, there were special park benches, painted blue if I recall, reserved for disfigured war veterans, partly to give them privacy from people staring, but partly perhaps to avoid the social awkwardness of realising you’ve just sat down next to a gentleman with only half a face.)
- During her first appearance, Steve describes her as a ‘psychopath’. He must be really into his study of psychology to be using a word like that in 1918. I guess Diana just understood the Greek translation of ‘suffering mind’ and figured, ‘Yeah, evil weapons designer, makes sense’.
- Good grief, that’s what her surname was? Comic books have a lot to answer for.
- I’ve managed to go through all the trailers and articles about Wonder Woman without ever once placing Lucy Davis. Derp. She’s Dawn, the receptionist from The Office. Also, it’s 16 years next month since the first episode of that particular show was broadcast. I feel old.
- Etta was awesome, and (like Dr Poison) felt slightly underused. Of course, this being 1918, and with most of the rest of the film being set in or beyond No Man’s Land, there’s not much scope for her to be directly involved. She certainly made the most of the London scenes though.
Ares SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING
- As effective as it was for Ludendorff to turn out not to be Ares, I think the film would have worked better if Ares had been played by Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Movie. I suppose killing Ares in the origin film gives her the breathing space to do sod all for the next hundred years before she turns up in Batman Versus Superman. I do hope though that we get to see Diana in other eras in her standalone films, possibly still tying in Ares’ influence after his death, rather than how the Captain America films started in World War Two and then became modern day Avengers films.
- I liked the bit earlier on where Ludendorff dismisses the idea of armistice with the (allegedly) Thucydides quote, “Peace is only an armistice in an endless war.” Diana takes that as proof positive that he is Ares, but it also fits in with Ludendorff’s socially Darwinist warrior mindset and, on a meta-level, is a clue for the audience.
- Also, the presence of Ares in the film also slightly dilutes the film’s message that war is a human failing, not one by the gods. That said, there is something to be said for Ares’ argument that all he was doing was guiding humans towards an extinction that they’re determined to inflict on themselves anyway (complete with a meta-comment about how the Treaty of Versailles was a major cause of the even-more devastating Second World War).
- That flashback sequence definitely included some Rogue One-style CG face-transplants. (CG faceplants?) There’s no way [censored] is that buff.
- So… Steve flies a plane from the Ottoman Empire to crash it on Themyscira. This is presumably somewhere in the Mediterranean, assuming it works by normal geography. A light bomber plane of that era couldn’t get much further than that. He and Diana sail away from Themyscira, apparently spend one night asleep on the boat, and by the time Diana wakes up they’re being pulled up the Thames by a tugboat? Themiscyra can’t operate using normal physics, clearly.
- After all, the fastest route from the eastern Mediterranean to London is to land on the south coast of friendly Italy, take the train through Italy and France, up to the English Channel at Calais, get a boat across to Dover and then another train up to London. You don’t sail all the way around the Iberian peninsula.
- What happened to the Germans who landed in Themyscira? The Amazons only took one prisoner from the battle, and that was Steve, and then only because Diana protected him. There were several dozen of them in the landing party pursuing Steve, as well as a fairly hefty warship. Now, we saw the warship run aground when it unexpectedly found itself on an island where previously there’d been only sea, but is it seriously plausible that not a single man aboard survived that? Also, as badass as the Amazons are, a lot of the casualties they caused on the Germans during the beach battle were from arrows. Did not one of those soldiers survive those single puncture wounds? Maybe the Amazons are old-fashioned and they all developed sepsis and died.
- Or maybe the Amazons murdered every last wounded or half-drowned man who wasn’t directly protected by Diana. Well, I guess they do model their society around the classical era, where that sort of thing was allowed. (Or am I overthinking this?)
- The German mooks (and other soldiers, actually) were cast well as extras. They looked like just ordinary blokes conscripted to fight a war that was far bigger than they were. (This makes the apparent off-screen mass executions on Themyscira feel a bit more off.) Their innocence and youth are explicitly emphasised after Ares dies and his influence fades.
- Frankly, I think that scene needed a bit of explanation, since everyone stopping fighting because Ares was dead shifted the film back towards the ‘Hitler is a Vampire’ trope, rather than the war being a thing started by humans. Sure, the classic ‘Britisher, the war is over, we are now friends,’ as seen in everything from Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter and Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong, is a World War One trope, but they didn’t even do that. I dunno, maybe Ares’ death led to brief feelings of pacifism, rather than a universal rejection of conflict, and that was reflected by the Armistice being signed shortly afterwards.
- As great as the No Man’s Land scene was, were there really that many Belgian villages left near the front line that still had people living in them in 1918? I guess this was post-Spring Offensive, so possibly these guys had been living behind German lines for four years after being largely ignored by the German occupiers.
- I don’t know if the modern-day book-ends to the film were really necessary. It was nice to see that photo (the one they’re posing for in the header image) on a glass plate, but the Wayne Industries logo plastered everywhere, plus the final ‘somewhere a crime is happening’ moment just screamed of DC waving its arms and shouting, “Hey, remember that we’ve got a shared superhero universe franchise as well!”
- You have Themyscira, and then you have the world of men. Not humans, or humanity, but men. The terminology was specific throughout the film. Partly, I guess that’s because ‘humans’ is a very science fiction term, and this is a fantasy film, but it also emphasises the contrast between the island and the rest of the world.
- Speaking of Themyscira, it was lovely. The architecture, the landscapes, the sea, the Amazons themselves, all perfectly designed.
- The Amazons had an interesting mix of ages as well, despite being a whole bunch of immortals.
- As has been noted elsewhere, Robin Wright has gone the Leia route and grown up from being Princess Buttercup to becoming General Antiope. Meta.
- David Thewlis is always worth watching.