Wonder Woman (2017)
Wonder Woman (2017). Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, and Robin Wright. 141 mins. Rated PG-13.
The wonder of Wonder Woman is that, indeed, the film is a wonder, the best commix-inspired flick since the original Superman all the way back in 1978, some four decades later and countless comic-book adaptations of just about every superhero. The huge, central flaw in these “super” portraits is that there’s little that’s human about them, consisting mostly of machines (lethal) and flying bodies. “Human” means, in this case, a slightly complex and affecting quest for meaning, human connection, and “rightness.” Generally, the more of these values the better, though it is terribly easy to goo-up or pietize these elements. Big-time. Then again, this short list quest informs and shapes just about every major world culture.
So: before she becomes Wonder Woman (Gal Godat), there was small Diana (Lilly Aspell), princess of the Amazons, fathered by Zeus himself, though she does not know that salient fact, one which explains her remarkable powers, even as a girl (generally, Amazons have little regard for fathers or males in general). Hell-bent (or heaven-sent) on combat finesse, even as a small child, albeit with swords and bows and raised on a perpetually fog-shrouded island off the coast of Europe, she knows nothing of the (very modern) world beyond and is woefully naïve and ill-prepared to find herself amid the guns and gas of World War I. Go she will, though, forever leaving kith and kin to defeat incarnate Ultimate Evil, the monstrous Being fomenting magnitudes of global slaughter. Sound familiar?
Indeed, what fire, holy and otherwise, the tale does have comes straight from its deployment of telling aspects of the Judeo-Christian story, the old and less and less familiar meta-story of the West from which the film borrows more than a little of its soul. At the center is the notion of an unlikely savior venturing to a calamitous world made so by the unfathomable malefaction of humankind (the original comic book series did not have Wonder Woman born of Zeus but created from clay to protect the world’s vulnerable). To wit, of the condition of the world, there is no better case in point than utterly execrable World War I, a slaughter of still incomprehensible mindlessness (British military leader Sir Douglas Haig determined success by the mounting scale of combat death among his troops, seeing victory in British bravery facing certain death). The film briefly but tellingly shows the horror of life in the trenches. And by this Wonder Woman is appalled, wanting immediately to confront the mastermind engineering all this suffering and death. She is after all a naif, not really knowing the depth of the human mess she’s getting into. Still, more than game, she immediately wants to confront personally the monstrous dissembling creep who has spawned oceans of blood and death. Who that is, though, is a mystery, and then when finally revealed, it proves to be the one we least expect. In any case, she arrives, god-begotten, to set things “right” as best she can. And through it all she is compassionate and kind and welcoming. In short, there is in Wonder Woman a good deal more realism about this world and the profound and inescapable appeal of savior figures than most comix flicks ever manage; generally, the genre is much better at showing evil than genuine goodness.
Moreover, she gathers her own ragtag and very suspect band of ever-helpful (mostly) disciples. They do their thing, and it mostly works, except for when it doesn’t, and Wonder Woman comes to know the full meaning of, one, self-sacrifice and, two, the haunting pain of lost love and intimacy of soul. That path is set out by the one, a human, from whom we’d least expect it—a jocular, devil-may-care, and reckless adventurer, the one who finds Diana in the first place. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) not only stumbles upon Amazon world and Diana but will ultimately show her the way, both geographically and experientially. In the end, WW does triumph over evil, at least this time, but not without that untellable loss that life on earth always sooner or later exacts. Evil being evil, and humans more than susceptible to its wiles, both personal and political, there remains a plenteous need for her services and humankind straggles along. Carry on she does, though, albeit far wiser and very much alone, apparently deathless and ageless and always a pilgrim. How much so is suggested by the film’s prologue-epilogue frame device, one that suggests more adventures (or are they trials?) to come.
The wonder of Wonder Woman is not so much her supra-human powers, though that is usually what gets the most attention, just like Jesus’ miracle-making, but rather the who and what she is and does. That ultimately explains the attractiveness of the cinematic fable so very deftly crafted by Patty Jenkins (indeed, one has the sense that a male director might have messed things up badly, putting the emphasis on the powers rather than person). Then again, “Love Woman” probably would not have worked for the film’s title, rather muddying the nature of its content; giving away its surprise up front. The question is always about the purposes for which she deploys her remarkable powers, and the answer to that question is the true wonder of both WW’s being and Wonder Woman the film.