I’m starting to think that DC’s business model this entire time was just to churn out enough duds that we’d be happy when they finally made something mediocre. Now the rest of the franchise can just maintain the same baseline level of acceptability and we’ll all say, “Well, at least it isn’t Suicide Squad.” For all the talk about smashing boundaries and box office records, Wonder Woman is a solid B grade at best. This is the standard superhero origin story that we’ve seen time and again. Though it is competently made and lacks the structural and tonal issues of its predecessors, it suffers from a deficit of creativity that makes the film feel tired and familiar.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the film is bad. On the contrary, this is the obvious standout of the franchise. The suits at DC and Warner Bros. have clearly learned from their mistakes. Gone is the excessively dark, morose tone, the structural inconsistencies in the screenplay, the lapses in internal logic, the pointless, awkward cameos by other heroes, and the obtuse, out of place scenes setting up future plot threads for subsequent films. Without all these problems bogging it down, Wonder Woman is free to set itself apart from the rest of the franchise, and it succeeds…partially.
Though still much more serious than anything Marvel is making these days, this film is DC’s most lighthearted offering to date. There is a lot of situational comedy where you laugh along with the characters rather than at the characters. Smart ass quips will not be found here.
Zack Snyder is absent from the director’s chair and in his place is Patty Jenkins, a woman who now holds the record for highest grossing female directed live action film. Jenkins is a competent director, but she was either unable, or not allowed, to give this film its own visual style. DC seems to have settled on a consistent approach to its cinematography, and that approach is Snyder’s. Though he wasn’t behind the camera on this one, he was a producer and a writer. His fingerprints are all over the final product. Slow-mo shots and over-the-top action set pieces abound throughout the film. Fight scenes feel like Snyder, just not as good (after all, fight scene choreography is the one thing at which Snyder excels). For all the buzz about having a woman in the director’s chair, the only woman’s touch I noticed was that the camera’s Gaze was directed at Chris Pine rather than Gal Gadot. I found the inversion of the trope amusing and I sincerely hope it was purposeful.
It is also worthy of note that this is the most standalone film in the franchise. Though it clearly places itself within the DC universe, it does so subtly rather than overtly. Two oblique references to the existence of Batman constitute the entirety of the film’s connection to the rest of the franchise. Without the producers shoving pointless Flash and Aquaman cameos into the film we get something that actually has a sense of focus to it.
Indeed, Wonder Woman focuses on Diana as a character almost to the exclusion of all else. The entire plot is just a vehicle to deliver her backstory and motivation to the audience. She even has a character arc, albeit a simplistic one. I can’t believe I’m about to praise this film for actually having an arc for its lead character, but Man of Steel didn’t have one so I’ll take what I can get.
There’s a concept in screenplay writing called “the lie your character believes”. The protagonist begins the story believing in something which is false. As the story progresses they face situations where that belief holds them back. They struggle, fail, and suffer because something is fundamentally wrong with their worldview. In the finale they make a discovery or have an epiphany which reveals the truth, and only then are they able to overcome the source of the film’s adversity – usually the villain. Wonder Woman adheres to this concept with a formulaic, almost paint-by-numbers approach.
Without getting into spoilers, the main villain in the film is the Greek god Ares. The lie Diana believes is that by killing Aries she will eradicate all evil from the world. She believes this with an almost childish insistence. Of course, the world is more complicated than that, and her discovery of this obvious fact constitutes the entirety of her arc.
There are two major problems with this. First, the audience can see her discovery coming from a mile away, so the payoff of her arc makes us feel exasperation rather than revelation. Second, her simplistic worldview never truly holds her back. The soldiers and artillery she faces throughout most of the film pose no threat to her and are little more than fodder for action and spectacle. Since we don’t see her suffer or struggle because of the lie she believes, seeing her succeed at the end isn’t that compelling.
None of this makes the film bad, but it does prevent it from reaching its full potential. Though a clear step up for the franchise, its overly simplistic approach and familiar origin story make Wonder Woman entertaining, but forgettable. Even so, that might not be a bad thing. In light of how rocky DC’s first few films have been, establishing a baseline of quality was necessary. What matters is if they can translate this success into some momentum and give us a truly great film on their next outing. We’ll have to wait and see.