Superhero movies and history epics don't often meet in the same movie. After watching the new "Wonder Woman," it's easy to see why.
Fans of the comic book will likely enjoy the film, an exhilarating romp through time and metaphysics that sees Gal Gadot, as Diana, realizing the true extent of her power and adopting the identity of Wonder Woman. But fans of historically accurate war films should probably steer clear. At best, this interpretation of World War I could be described as cartoonish, and at worst, downright insulting.
The problem is you can't glamorize trench warfare or dress it up to pretend that even though a peace agreement was reached, anyone came out of WWI truly winning. The Western Front was a horror show -- this much the film acknowledges -- that gave rise to modern warfare.
In the film, Diana rescues from the sea a fallen pilot and American spy, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), and leaves Themyscira, the women-only island haven where she grew up, to accompany him back to Europe. There she hopes to bring about the end of World War I by finding and defeating Ares, the God of War.
We all know there was no warrior princess in real life who arrived to save the day, but it's the attempt to find glory in a situation where there was none that's most troubling about the DC version of WW I. Sorry to bum you out, but there was just death, disease and more needless death. There were no heroes, at least as we understand them in Hollywood terms. And that's why it feels off to just parachute a superhero into the madness at that stage in history.
That complaint aside -- and it's a big one -- the film has many redeeming features.
The fantasy WWI setting mixes all the gas-mask gore of the real thing with a sepia-toned hue that attempts to make Diana look vaguely plausible -- as much as Wonder Woman could in that setting. She is down in the trenches with the men one minute and "over the top" in a stylized one-woman offensive the next.
Gadot's performance shines -- she's tender, warm and holy-hellfire powerful. When we see Diana as a child, we see her determination to be like the Amazonian women she lived among. Later, it's thrilling to see her as a fish out of water in early 20th-century England, railing against the male warmongers and peace brokers alike and refusing to accept she had no seat at the table.
Gadot's good looks are handled deftly, with no unnecessary lingering shots. I love Etta Candy -- another satisfyingly fully formed female character, played gloriously by Lucy Davis -- candidly pointing out that no matter what clothes Diana's dressed in, it will be impossible to pretend "she's not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen." I also love that when Steve insists on trying by putting her in glasses -- a common trope used to signal an attractive woman is attempting to play down her beauty -- she pretty much breaks her specs immediately in a fight.
On the feminism scorecard, there's even a nod to the suffragette movement. If I was being kind, I could extract from the otherwise mangled Greek mythology an interpretation of Ares as a metaphor for the patriarchy -- powerful white men who sit behind closed doors playing war games. But by the time Ares shows up, I'd given up hoping the war thing would ever be properly justified.
The film really hammers home that riffing on the first World War is not the same as riffing on WWII, which often feels like fair game because Nazis are easy to demonize and chasing them feels like vengeance. It's something game developers have struggled with for a long time. When EA finally did release a WWI first-person shooter game in the form of Battlefield 1, it got hit with backlash.
This sucks for DC, because Marvel's movies got there first with Captain America, so DC had no choice but to pick a different war.
Still, there are some weird Nazi vibes -- evil scientists, fantastical superweapons, a power-crazed, genocidal commander -- that infiltrate "Wonder Woman" and make it seem like it wishes it could be a WWII film instead.
Chief among these is the ludicrous General Ludendorff, a fictional Hitler-esque character -- in a very real narrative that's mainly about people in offices taking their sweet time negotiating the armistice. Yes, he's a comic book villain, but when it comes to WWI, there was no one single source of evil like Ludendorf. It just feels a bit wrong to try and write one in.
Have I missed the point of Wonder Woman entirely? Maybe. But Diana striding across no man's land to deflect German gunfire and save a village full of Belgians seems totally ill-judged. This rewriting of history doesn't sit well in the context of a rich canon of literature and films about the era, all of which essentially dwell on the sadness of it all in many beautiful and meaningful ways.
I went into this film worrying about feminism. I left worrying about history. I'm excited to see Gadot as Diana again, but hopefully next time it will be in a film where her fictional heroism isn't dramatically overshadowed by the very real-world failings of mankind.
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