Yet another of Marvel’s advantages is that they’ve been able to crank out many variants on standard hero’s journeys, one of which being the superhero-in-historical-combat story of the WWII-era Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman is most reminiscent of that film, despite it taking place in a very different war. Jenkins cuts out the easy morality of the Nazi’s, and pastes it onto imperial Germany. It’s a somewhat awkward fit, as the Germans of WWI are the ones who played soccer with the Allies in the Christmas ceasefire and not the genocidal SS. Nevertheless, the villains here are represented by Danny Huston’s bloodthirsty General Ludendorff and his mad-scientist sidekick Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya). As Wonder Woman takes place towards the end of the war, Ludendorff is attempting to delay Germany’s surrender for as long as possible, making him a prime contender in Diana’s eyes as being Ares himself.
Where Wonder Woman surpasses Captain America is in its assemblage of a crew around Diana. None of Cap’s sidekicks made much of an impression beyond Neal McDonough’s bowler hat, but Jenkins infuses Diana’s team with a humanity deserving of a better film. Trevor is the all-American superspy, given plenty of screwball life by Pine, but the three misfits around him generate pathos and muddy the moral waters. Said Taghmaoui plays the team’s flim-flam man, a talented actor blacklisted due to his Moroccan heritage, Ewen Bremner plays a sharpshooter crippled by what he’s seen and done in the war, and Eugene Brave Rock plays a neutral smuggler, unwilling to fully commit to a country that has ravaged his people. This trio makes the most of their getting-to-know-you scenes around the campfire, and injects a surprising amount of pathos where none was expected.
However, Wonder Woman isn’t allowed to follow through on the novel and interesting path suggested by the presence of Diana’s team, among other breadcrumbs. There’s the potential for thorny ethical dilemmas where Diana’s zeal to unmask Ares ruins an armistice, for instance, but scenarios like it are elided and avoided. As is Snyder’s wont, there is a bald-faced Christ metaphor running throughout the film, with Diana eventually affecting a crucifixion pose, just like Superman did in Man of Steel. It’s sometimes more subtle, as Diana’s grander goal is to inspire humans to be their greater selves while Ares is a corruptor dragging humans towards their worst impulses. Trevor offers a bleak alternative, where humans are simply weak and self-interested and don’t need a god to whisper evil into their ear.
With all this gray, it slowly dawns that there might be something revolutionary happening. The presence of the trio, ostensibly fighting with Diana on the side of a racist, brutal, and genocidal alliance of nations, adds weight to the possibility. What if a superhero didn’t have a nemesis? What if the climax was a moment of self-knowledge and redefined purpose? For much of Wonder Woman, there’s the distinct possibility that Ares is only a bedside fairy tale, long-departed from the world. Alas, Wonder Woman cannot help but surrender to the whiz-bang of Manichean figures smashing things in a sequence too dark and inconsequential to even qualify as entertaining cinema. This cop-out deflates the film’s premise and neuters any thematic takeaways.
With the dream of a formally inventive superhero entry destroyed, what’s left with Wonder Woman is the character and the spectacle. Both get the film to a respectable entry and the best of DC’s bad bunch. Gadot is a true find as Diana. She has a gravitas that makes her utterly believable in every aspect of the character, and everyone she meets in the film is justifiably in awe of her. She’s a genuine character in all things, incapable of guile and a worthy leader of men. Jenkins’ big centerpiece involves Diana striding out of the trenches across no man’s land, and where Snyder’s action chops always seem bloated and fascistic, Jenkins’ eye is more noble and charitable, turning the main character from a sword into a shield. The opening battle on the Amazon’s island switches the dial from defense to offense. I didn’t know I needed Robin Wright leaping off of a horse while firing a bow and arrow, but I apparently do. Wonder Woman is a let-down, but it’s easy to see why it became the tremendous hit that it did with rousing sequences like these.
Wonder Woman contains its share of frustrating teases and feints towards something new, but it must surely be difficult to steer a nine-figure production away from the calm waters of conformity and predictability. Jenkins had enough riding on the film’s performance that there were only so many risks that could be taken. With the cachet that she’s accumulated from helming a huge success, maybe her next big-budget work will capitalize on the ingenuity and maturity that I feel is thrumming through her film. Wonder Woman’s not perfect, but it’s a fine start. C+