Wonder Woman is a runaway hit, but ANDREW JOHNSTONE goes against the grain to declare it an unmitigated disaster.
If you are new to Wonder Woman, this 1940s comic book creation is derived from one of the oldest stories/poems on record, the ‘Epic Of Gilgamesh’ (Mesopotamia – 2100 BC). Gilgamesh is the inexhaustible King of Uruk. His lust for work, war and women is insatiable and he is driving his people to distraction. They beg the gods for respite and the gods respond by creating a man every bit the equal of Gilgamesh, one designed to haul him into line. Change a few details and you have Wonder Woman, similarly fashioned by the gods from clay to protect the people from a powerful individual who is blind to all but himself.
Wonder Woman’s proper name is Diana, Princess of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, and is the creation of psychologist/inventor (the blood pressure test) William Moulton Marston (pen name: Charles Moulton) and artist Harry G Peter.
She is based on three women: Marston’s wife Elizabeth and their co-habitant Olive Byrne – both of whom he described as strong and unconventional – and Margaret Sanger, the noted birth control activist whose ideas led to the creation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Marston was deeply inspired by early feminists.
Except for one fallow year in 1986, Wonder Woman the comic (DC) has been in constant print since its inception. She has appeared in numerous animated TV series and was the subject of a successful live action TV show that ran from 1975-79, with actress Lynda Carter in the lead role.
In the seminal 1936 work How To Win Friends And Influence People, writer Dale Carnegie informs us that negative criticism works better if prefaced by a compliment, so first up the good stuff:
The main cast is exceptional. Gal Gadot-Varsano as Wonder Woman is a cynicism free zone and her earnest and admirable character is a superhero to believe in.
Her sidekick Chris Pine (Steve Trevor) demonstrates why he’s an A-List star. His performance is pitch perfect and the blazing non-sexual chemistry between Pine and Gal is the unassailable glue that holds the film together. (I emphasise this point because it was refreshing to experience a male/female relationship built on mutual respect and care rather than sexual tension).
The casting of Robin Wright (General Antiope) and Connie Neilson (Queen Hippolyta), women both in their early 50s, in strong supporting roles is a credit to the enterprise. Largely unadorned by age-concealing clothes and cosmetics, these women are mature and proud of it and by their presence alone make one of the most substantial pro-female stands in a film determined to make all kinds of positive statements about women.
Also of note is Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s personal secretary. She is on screen for all of five minutes, but her brief comic turn is a delight and her feminist credentials are among the strongest on display.
Wonder Woman herself is less a feminist statement than a portrait of a person who knows her own mind and heart and is not afraid to follow it for better or worse; a declaration about individual courage as much as anything and an important message for everyone, especially for young girls learning to navigate the tricky waters of a male dominated world.
The message that ‘love is all we need’ is a worthy if unrealistic and the examination of ideological thinking is prescient given the current international trend for populist politics. The god Ares could just as well be Erdogan, Duterte or Trump. To quote the Greek god of war himself: “Only I could see the truth about man and because none of the other gods would listen I had to kill them all”. It’s a dangerous attitude that enables all manner of extremist behaviour – a theme that is deftly explored throughout the film.
Now for the bad: The rest of the cast were largely one-dimensional and as for Trevor’s team of sidekicks, they served the narrative in no useful way whatsoever. The only thing anyway at all memorable about them was the wild haircut of the Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremner).
I was especially disappointed by Danny Huston (brother of Oscar winning actress Angelica and son of great Hollywood director John Huston) whose evil German was bad guy by rote. He is such a fine actor and deserving of better material, as was David Thewlis as the god Ares, a role so undemanding they might have just sketched him in as a computer simulation and saved themselves a paycheck.
The narrative flow is where it all falls down. Numerous unresolved plot lines and irrational narrative leaps result in a story that lacks any sustained tension. I suspect the director did a better job than the final product suggests, and wonder if her good work was undone by a committee of studio desk jockeys interfering with the editing process based on test screening and audience surveys, or perhaps nerves. After all, Jenkins is a newbie and there was a lot of money at stake.
In the final analysis any opinion I have on this film is a moot point. It has been a huge hit with audiences and a 92 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes tells me that I am way off beam with the consensus. Wonder Woman is a mess, but was I a kid and less jaded I would have loved it and left the theatre inspired to do good in the world. You can’t argue with that.