Wonder Woman: A Mess of a Movie

It’s not games related, but I need to make myself write something.

Wonder Woman DCEU logo

I watched Wonder Woman the other day. It’s the first movie in the DCEU I’ve seen and I found myself asking, “how low were everyone’s expectations if this was the good one?” It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not one that I’d call good either. I spent most of the run time alternating between annoyed, disappointed and bored. Overall, I give it a resounding meh.

But unlike most bad movies that have signifiers of poor craftsmanship that either gets in the way of the movie being enjoyable or displays a lack of care/a more fundamental trouble in the creative process, Wonder Woman doesn’t really have any of that. Everything in Wonder Woman from a craft standpoint is at least passable. The cinematography is clear, the editing follows basic film structure, the special effects while nothing special are at least well integrated and the acting is… variable.

Chris Pine’s cohorts are the standouts as believable and humanized characters from the wacky world of a comic book. Pine himself has a watchable charm to him even if he’s a little bland. Unfortunately for the main woman herself, Gal Gadot is an actress with a really limited range. The few times the movie asks her work within that range the character comes alive. She joyful, confidant and excitable about the outside world. However, the vast majority of the movie is asking her to work outside that range and she’s dull. She speaks in this dry monotone that I think was suppose to sound powerful or intimidating, but really just sounds like high schooler on stage for the first time. Pretty much everyone else is either forgettable or just functionary.

Despite all that, nothing is awful. Even the acting, at its worst, only falls to the level of uninspired. The problems with Wonder Woman are structural and therefore require a lot of explanation.

The first major problem is that the film validates Ludendorff’s philosophy. Germany is losing the war. They’re running out of food, medicine and bullets. However, while the rest of the German war council is ready to negotiate an armistice and possibly peace, General Ludendorff feels they can turn the entire war around with a new superweapon that Doctor Poison is creating. The whole movie revolves around the good guys on a mission to stop this superweapon. The spoken reason for the mission is that its use will kill an untold number of innocent people, but the camera frames the sabotage as the final battle of World War I. Cut to blowing up the plane and killing the big bad to celebrations in London with headlines reading ‘Victory’ and ‘Peace Treaty Signed.’

That wouldn’t be an issue by itself, but more importantly the movie supports the bad guy’s philosophy by having Wonder Woman enact it. She’s a demigod with superhuman abilities. She can take out an entire German battalion solo and destroys a church bell tower by jumping into it really hard. It’s not that the good guy’s are righteous or have some moral character that out flanks the evildoers, they win because Wonder Woman is a better superweapon than the Ludendorff’s mustard gas.1

The implications of the scene used to display her superhuman prowess are rather gross as well when taken in context of the war its portraying. It only took one solider to draw all the machine gun fire and take the German positions with limited casualties when all the British soldiers were unprepared to follow up on such an offensive. ‘Why didn’t the British try that instead on sitting on their asses for over a year?’ the film seems to be asking.

Yes, she’s a superhero and the scene is about taking action in the face of evil, doing something as opposed to not doing something. But the filmmakers chose to display this message in a context where it does not fly. This is World War I. Doing something is what killed 21,300 men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Secondly, the movie is rather ignorant about what World War I meant to the concept of war. Which it then passes off the ignorance onto Wonder Woman herself. Which in theory would be fine, at first. She’s never been to the outside world and has been essentially raised in the ancient world. I really thought this would be a fish out of water story.

Wonder Woman comes from an ancient culture following its own rules of warfare. We see this several times throughout the movie where she asserts this philosophy and how she takes modern man shirking these rule as a sign they’ve been corrupted by Ares. In a way, one can see her point. War is terrible thing, but the ancient philosophy of warfare highlighted the few noble traits that could be brought out: honor, glory, duty, courage, etc. Wonder Woman comes into the modern world and sees all these men shirking every single one of these noble traits, QED.

Except it’s World War I. This is the war that destroyed those beliefs that were held by cultures everywhere for millennia. How modern technology invalidated the deeply held ideals about warfare and the methods of prosecuting wars was one of the major shocks to the worldwide cultural psyche.

She calls the generals cowards for not fighting alongside their men. There’s a good reason modern generals don’t and it’s because of how technology changed how we fight a war. The war was so massive and destructive that no one single person could effect the outcome. The war itself was a machine that chewed up people to perpetuate itself. It is the very definition of “the horrors of war” and not the horrors that men do during a war.

But Wonder Woman is so awesome that toxic gasses, range weapons capable of firing 10 projectiles a second, and a battlefield spanning hundreds of miles with logistics that require entire office blocks of staff to manage mean nothing. It’s trying to venerate a mode of thinking that got millions killed before everyone realized you can’t keep fighting a war in the old ways.

It begs the question of why the filmmakers chose to set their movie in World War I? On the one hand they get the thematic consequence that war itself in the bad guy instead of an unambiguous enemy with a morally reprehensible philosophy like in WWII, something they try but ultimately fail at capitalizing on. Yet, on the other hand, you can’t use it as a setting for a battle of good verses evil. Which they try to do anyway.

This is where the movie goes from dull and uninspiring to outright disappointing.

It’s a superhero film and in the minds’ of its creators that means its narrative has to be simple. The hero is the good guy and by the climax they have to defeat a bad guy. Over and over the movie asserts that once Wonder Woman kills Ares everyone will stop fighting and the war will end. Then the movie plays the one cleaver card in its deck: Ares didn’t do anything, humans did all of this to themselves.

At the beginning of the movie, I was a little annoyed that they turned him into a baseline Satanic figure and Zeus into a Christian god figure, even if that makes no sense in the Greek pantheon where all the gods are jerks regardless of their sphere of influence. Yet, when Ares finally shows up in person, he’s given a Faustian element. They made him interesting, at first.

He gives this speech where he wanted to show the other gods the truth about his father’s creations. How man’s nature was flawed. It’s even sort of hinted at that the other gods didn’t believe him because they were creations of Zeus and therefore couldn’t be flawed. The gods were arrogant and effectively gaslighting Ares to a certain extent so as not to defy Zeus. That’s interesting.

All Ares’ wanted was to be validated. To know that he wasn’t the only one that saw man’s corruption and the destruction they wrought. Maybe if they saw it to, they could do something about it and return the world back to its more beautiful original state. All good stuff for an interesting and complex villain. Yeah, these beliefs have got some nasty implications, but he’s the villain. He allowed them.

Then Wonder Woman has her moment of revelation. She admits that she sees the corruption in man. She is the godkiller weapon. She was made to kill Ares and she is validating him, giving him what he wants. She goes on to say that they are also more than their failings. Still good.

However, instead of using that as a stepping stone for a more complex confrontation, Ares says, “Then you must die.”

World War I is a complex, morally messy 4 year long “event” in human history. For a short few minutes, Wonder Woman looked like it was going to incorporate that moral complexity into their main hero/villain confrontation, but instead reverted to the boring, outdated status quo of the genre. It doesn’t believe anything because good guys are good and bad guys are bad. It’s as simple as that.

Imagine, for a moment, if instead Ares had said, “Prove it.”

Given that Wonder Woman is all about compassion, this could have been her driving motivation for a series of films. What was she doing for the century between then and now? Trying to convince a god that humanity has something worth saving, even in the face of our constant failures. Ares brings up World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, the Khmer Rouge etc. Wonder Woman counters with the Nuremberg trials, the civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other things I’m having trouble thinking of right now. Hell, there’s even more drama in her having a lack of material to work with, especially to a god, that due to his very essence, sees everything through a lens of conflict.

Think about it. A century passes. An alien in blue spandex shoes up to inspire humanity towards their better selves, meanwhile a man dressed like a bat tried to prevent humanity from falling victim to their worst impulses and in the middle is Wonder Woman, acting as our advocate.

Since Justice League was supposed to introduce the New Gods, wouldn’t it be great to have one of the Old Gods still kicking around to have some say in the matter? Even if it’s just a comment after the fact about some new god stepping on his terf? Hell, I would’ve loved to have seen what Wonder Woman’s argument would have been when the two of them meet the Joker.

But no, we don’t get any of that or the myriad of interesting story possibilities opened up by such a small change, because we need one more punch and one more explosion.

All the pieces were there. That change in ending could have, well, not fixed the other structural issues, but certainly dimmed the problematic nature of screwing with the realities of WWI by ultimately not validating Ludendorff’s philosophy. However, I can’t let it slip pass that the route they chose to go down also breaks the meaning of the film.

It invalidates its own twist. Ares didn’t make man do it, man did it to themselves. Except no, sorry, you killed the wrong person, the real Ares is over there. So, Wonder Woman finishes him off and we see all the German soldiers laughing and hugging as if coming out of a stupor. Then we cut to that aforementioned victory celebration in London. Kill the bad guy and what do you know, the war did end.

I don’t hate this film. I can’t. When I was returning the disc to the Redbox, I tried to think of how to describe it. I toyed with “pile of trash” but that was just inaccurate. The movie isn’t trash. It doesn’t sink that low. It’s a pile of nothing. It makes a statement, then takes it back. Goes in one direction, then backtracks in the other. It’s so confused about what it wants to be that it’s completely insubstantial.

I get that for a lot of girls and women, seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen is a powerful symbol by itself, but that seems to be all she is, a symbol. I hear people talking about iconic moments and the meta meaning of finally having a super successful Wonder Woman film out in the world, but as for the film itself? Maybe I’ve just missed it, but I never hear anybody talking about the film itself. What qualities in Wonder Woman speak to them?

Would the answers be more meta criticism? If that’s the only value derived from this film, then really any variation of a Wonder Woman film would have done. Wouldn’t it have been great if all that meta meaning had been attached to a good movie instead?

Another reason I can’t come down too hard on Wonder Woman, despite how I sound above, is that I don’t think the Hollywood Blockbuster form will ever allow something like what I described to ever happen. It had a seed of a good idea, but the necessities of modern movie making mean its myriad of problems will persist and its potential will never be allowed to bloom. It’s not economical.

Iconic image, but what does this image mean?

Iconic image, but what does it mean?

Addendum:

The above was based on a tweet thread I wrote over the weekend after watching Wonder Woman. The following were some thoughts I had some time later. I separate them here because I have mixed feelings about this particular reading. Despite having come up with the argument, I’m not wholly convinced by it.

I think Wonder Woman may have unintentionally validated an aspect of fascist ideology. Follow me down this rabbit hole.

Wonder Woman takes place during World War I, but the movie so desperately wanted to be set during World War II. Ludendorff, historically, was a proto-Nazi. He supported most of Hitler’s policies and supported his rise in Reichstag. Furthermore, he proposed a philosophy of exclusion and power consolidation. All of this is ancillary information that informs the character that you can read more about in this great Robert Rath piece, but doesn’t dictate who he is in this movie. In the film, we see him promote aspects of fascist ideology. He supports extreme militarism through the superweapons of Doctor Poison, belief in his right to rule is descendant from ancient cultures by invoking the Greek gods, a ‘with me or against me attitude’ by killing the rest of the war council, and he even has a special drug that acts as a ‘will to power.’

The camera goes even further films the Germans as one would do in a pulp serial or, more commonly understood, an Indiana Jones movie. They may not have the swastika shorthand, but Wonder Woman takes all the other techniques used to portray the Nazis as a dangerous, endless foe that must be stopped. The Germans here may not be actual Nazis, but for all intents and purposes of film language, they are Cinematic Nazis.

Ludendorff’s belief in a superweapon that could change the course of the entire war was a belief Hitler held right up until the Allies were on his doorstep in Berlin. If he could get one of his superweapon projects online then they could turn back the tide. It’s a trap numerous comic books, films and video games have fallen for. There was no Nazi super science. Nazis were generally against science of any kind on principle.

Furthermore, weapons and technology don’t mean much if you don’t have the resources to continue to prosecute the war. The film makes it explicitly clear that the Germans have a starving population as they’ve run out of food. They’re also running out of ammunition. A member of the German high command explicitly says both of these things. Hell, the fact the Germans still had bullets and bombs caused Chris Pine to go on his secret mission to the Ottoman Empire to find out where they were getting them.

The mustard gas will kill a lot of people, but if you can’t fight a war, what difference does it make? The movie puts an ultimate importance on this weapon. The film gives us lip service that its about saving people, but the plot of the film ties the weapon’s importance as paramount to the war effort. Then it further validates the superweapon philosophy by having a different superweapon win the war. According to the film, Ludendorff had the right idea, he just had the wrong weapon.

And remember, Ludendorff was a proto-Nazi, presented as a Cinematic Nazi where he spouts facets of Nazi ideology. This includes the ideas of superweapons over logistics, might makes right, then ties its main character’s actions as a mirror to that philosophy. The fact that Wonder Woman succeeds kind of implies the method was right. Unintentionally, the movie validates a portion of Nazi militaristic ideology.

That’s where my brain went anyway. Maybe I over thought it. I can’t discount that possibility. Yet, I also can’t help but feel like there is something there in that mess of reasoning.

  1. Literally in one scene where she breaths it in with no consequences. []

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