Wonder Woman delivers a worthy superheroine, but doesn’t dazzle

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (Clay Enos | Warner Brothers)

I won’t deny it: The release of the long-deferred big-screen manifestation of Wonder Woman is an important cultural milestone, especially coming as it does in the midst of widespread efforts to roll back progress for women in America. I love that it finally got made; that it was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins; that it’s being rapturously received by many critics; and that consumers of every conceivable gender are lining up at the box office to say, “Take my money.” But why don’t I love this movie more?

Though not a true comic-book geek, surely I’m an obvious part of the target audience for this film. My introduction to Wonder Woman on the page happened during the so-called Golden Age of DC Comics, before the world-weariness of Marvel had supplanted it in the hearts of young Americans. I was a tomboy who found dolls and tea parties insufferably boring. So I hung out with boys and climbed trees. We ran around our back yards knocking each other down and getting dirty. Together we would read the latest issue of Justice League of America and act it out. I was always Wonder Woman. I wanted to be her.


Then I learned to read novels, and quickly lost interest in the comic-book universe. Stories relying on that many pictures were for people with limited imaginations, thought mini-snob me. So I missed all her subsequent costume changes, retcons and parallel Earths. By the time Lynda Carter came along, I was looking down my nose at TV as well. But Wonder Woman as a proto-feminist icon still burned in my heart; and when Gloria Steinem put her on the cover of an early issue of Ms. magazine in the 1970s, it was my Boomer generation that she was reeling in with that glowing golden lasso.

I really should love this movie more. It’s going to thrill and inspire a generation of young girls, and nudge their male counterparts into presuming that the women in their lives should and will be powerful and ethical, efficient and compassionate. This is all excellent news.

But, but…I wasn’t thrilled. “Disappointed” would be putting it too strongly, but I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling as pumped as I should have been. It’s a well-made film, overall; Gal Gadot is just about perfect in the title role, and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor holds up his end of the romantic angle with persuasively raffish charm. An actor very skilled at portraying scenery-chewing nasty characters gets to be the Big Bad in the end. The many, many fight scenes are beautifully choreographed (even if we do sit there snickering over the fact that all the German machine-gunners aim all their bullets only at the heroine’s magic shield and not her superlong unprotected legs). The World War I-era scenery, props and costumes are fabulous.

The screenplay is just not that well-written – much of the dialogue sounds “fraught” in the way that comic-book speech bubbles so often are – and too earnest by half. I’ve been spoiled by the light touch given to characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Banner in the Marvel cinematic universe, I guess. It’s tantalizing to ponder how this movie might have been different, atmospherically, if Joss Whedon had remained at the helm, as he was a decade ago. But in the DC universe, good is good and evil is evil; with the exception of Batman, you don’t find much in the way of gray characters.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any humor in Wonder Woman. The trouble is that our heroine is forced by her sheltered upbringing among Amazons, cut off from the corrupted world of men, to play the straight woman (in the sense of “straight man”): sort of a distaff Captain America role, square and squeaky-clean. Meanwhile Steve and his multiethnic bomber crew of disreputable spy cronies – Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – and his aide Etta Candy (Lucy Davis, who seems to have wandered in from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) get all the funny bits. Diana’s naïveté serves as their foil, and though her intelligence shines through, along with her commitment to ending war, she’s sorely lacking for witty repartee. This origin story being largely about her culture shock upon emergence into the real world (think Madison in Splash, with superpowers), perhaps the inevitable sequel(s) will give the character more to do in the way of verbal give-and-take.

My other main quibble is that as a superhero, Wonder Woman is just too ridiculously over-superpowered and invulnerable – a standard complaint among fandom of the comics version as well. On paper, she does have her equivalent of Kryptonite; but it’s a bit controversial, evoking S&M/B&D, and tricky to bring to the screen in a PG context. If only a god or fellow demigod can give her much of a fight, how will future directors find Diana worthy antagonists? A mere crime boss like the Joker wouldn’t have a prayer. Maybe that’s why movie audiences keep coming back for the all-too-human Batman through iterations great and lousy.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is just another symptom of women having to do things twice as well as men, backwards and in high heels, in order to be perceived as half as competent. I wanted Wonder Woman to be better than it is. It’s still pretty damned exciting. Go see it by all means, and if you or your friends have daughters, bring them along.