Make no mistake, Wonder Woman hangs on one thing: the performance of Gal Gadot and the expressions of her dark, aquiline, Israeli eyes. If you are not entranced with her intense innocence, her fierce resilience, or her empathetic grace, than you will undoubtedly shrug at this otherwise overly conventional and old-fashioned style superhero/fantasy flick. However, you will also be a weird outlier with no heart or soul. So... Good luck with that, you contrarian Philistine.
Wonder Woman proves that if you can do one right thing really well, you can get away with mediocrity everywhere else and audiences will adore it. Heck, they may not even notice in the first place. And Wonder Woman does that thing every time Diana Prince, played by Gal Gadot, takes center frame and unleashes the power of her fierce feminine gaze.
I suppose there is worse criticisms than to say the only thing good about the new Wonder Woman movie is it's main star, the intoxicating emotional complexities of it's lead character, and the kick-ass action scenes spread throughout the film. Wait, was I framing that as a negative?
Indeed, it sounds like a rave review. Gal Gadot shines as Diana, the princess of Themyscira, the secret Amazonian tropical paradise. Her charisma is incredibly engrossing every time she enters the scene, and no surprise, she's in a lot of scenes, so it's kinda hard not enjoy the movie. I don't just mean because of her looks (obviously everyone in a $200 million franchise film is gonna look stunning, even Chris Pine). She really is an excellent actress who portrays numerous different stages of the character's development. From the isolated yet professional business-woman in the present day framing scenes; to her youthful warrior-wannabe innocence on a secluded island; to her fish-out-of-water, wide-eyed enthusiasm; to her disillusioned heartbreak about the nature of mankind. And let's not forget her relentless pursuit of optimism. Gal Gadot sells each emotion, each expression, solely on the power of Diana's eyes. It carries Diana through her journey to becoming Wonder Woman, keeping her relatable and compelling at every turn. And when those turns require some punching, well, it's hard not to enjoy someone doing what they do best. Diana relishes the combat, if I'm not mistaken, and she brings us along for the ride. These visceral explosions of concussive violence kick you in the chest and take your breath away, .
So why then do I say, "That's pretty much all it has going for it," as if that's a bad thing. Whether that's good enough for you or not is subjective, and no doubt most of America, male and female, critic and fan, seems to be satisfied. But here's my case, and bear with me, because I plan to call attention to this key flaw only to ultimately reinforce it's key strength once again.
Underneath Wonder Woman's insatiable glare, there lies a pretty basic film. Patty Jenkins takes almost no risks when it comes to filming this movie. I think that had it come out ten years ago, it would've been as flat and unimpressive as Superman Returns and people would continue to bemoan the lack of good female superhero films. If it weren't so gender-innovative or if it weren't breaking the curse of the unfilmable Wonder Woman movie, I think it would be getting more middling reviews. In fact, this film is so conventional that it's borderline pedestrian, content to stay safely in the boundaries of basic film-making. At times, perhaps even basic TV-movie of the week film-making (budget and special effects not withstanding).
Everything is filmed so obviously and traditionally that it risks running the film into cheesy self-parody at every turn. The humor is needlessly goofy. The mythology is overly-grand. The action is slow-mo. The romance is sappy and inevitable. The horrors of war are sentimental. The social commentary is expositional. And the sacrificial fly-off is cliche. I thought about citing more concrete examples, but if you watch it again, you'll start to see them. Patty Jenkins crams a lot into this film, from straight-up myth/fantasy to war movie, to fish-out-of-water comedy to the obvious superhero genre--and none of it feels jarring, so props to her! But perhaps to counterbalance all the different directions she was pulling us she felt she had to keep the playing-field flat enough not to lose the audience. Well flat is what is. I would've preferred a stronger directorial style. Not Zack Snyder's style, so much, though he maybe gets a bad rap. He's bad with story development but great at iconic imagery, and you can't say he doesn't have a singular vision. Maybe Alejandro González Iñárritu or Alfonso Cuarón could've really given the film an atmosphere of its own. They know how to frame a moment or a scene to mean something without banging you over the head with the obvious. The film should feel daring and exuberant like its main character. Not this mainstream, mishmash of spoon-fed cinema. And it's so, so mainstream. I mean come on. We've all seen period war movies and romance and comedy. Don't film these moments like you're making a class project. Put some artistry into your work! Use subtext. Deconstruct a little.
Maybe I'm being hard on the movie. I really enjoyed it, but then again, that's kinda my point. I really enjoyed watching Jurassic World, too. Twice. Charisma and charm and fierce expressions go a long way. A looong way. To use a better example than Jurassic World, we saw a little of this same phenomenon in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, recently. That movie featured a space-pirate-ship boatload of flash and color and groovy music but underneath it was just a basic plot with really basic themes of family. But it was okay to have the skeleton of the story be so simple when the skin is so pretty. All the originality, all the bright lights and snarky punchlines, all the bickering banter was not only good enough to carry it, it was kinda the point. Director James Gunn knew where to focus his originality and where to play by the rules in order to produce something unlike anything else out there. The same is true here. Wonder Woman herself is so enticing to watch, so infectious from the very outset, that all the trite sentimentality about the human dilemma is secondary. Sure it could've been less overt and more artistically ambiguous. Sure the jokes could've been less [insert joke here]. Sure we could've edited out the panning camera shots of bewildered bystanders bemoaning the horrors of war. Sure we maybe could've deviated just a wee-little-bit from the "two main leads fall in love merely because they both have top billing" trope. And the action...
I don't care how impactful those action scenes were, or well-orchestrated, I could've passed on the sudden shifts from fast to slow-motion and the dizzying CGI-enhanced orbiting tracking shots as they spin through the air. I much prefer the way the Russo Brothers innovated action scenes in Winter Soldier and Civil War, for example, for Marvel. Or even the Jon Favreau Iron Man films, where most of the fighting felt very distinct from mainstream cinema. Patty Jenkins--unfortunately without any experience in these kind of effects--sticks to the same Matrix, Spider-Man, Transformers, 300 milieu that we've seen countless times before. She does it every bit as good as them, don't get me wrong. Maybe even better. Just not with any of the supposedly distinct directorial vision she's being praised for. It's not original. It's not even all that interesting, anymore (I'm looking at you third act fight scene!). But luckily, it's not at all that we came for.
We came for the Wonder Woman.
When that iconic, exotic theme music from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL comes on, the same theme that debuted to such excitement in Batman v. Superman last year, you just gotta sit back and grin. You feel the hard hitting drums and electric guitar riffs and god only knows what else and you forget all the quibbles. And Chris Pine is good too. One of his better performances, especially in the ending. Better than his role deserved. And the jokes aren't so unfunny after all. And the commentary on the innate nature of man and war is not without it's insights. And, and, and...
Well, you get the idea. It's a good film. I liked it a lot, actually. What saves all those things, whether they cause you to tear up or roll your eyes, is that fierce, feminine, gaze which has the power to redeem those lesser flaws by making them matter. It doesn't matter if the jokes are half-hearted because they provide context for Diana's naivete, which ultimately ties to her optimism and courage, which are more successfully depicted. It doesn't matter if the horrors of war are trite, they provide context for her compassion, which comes through as more genuine. It doesn't matter if the action is all over the place cinematically, it provides context for her fierce resilience, which is intense. It's not the setup that has to be perfect, only the payoff.
That payoff is the depth of character revealed in Diana's silent expressions, each time. From her childishly devious and over eager air-punches and air-kicks as a kid, watching the Amazons train, to her stubborn refusal to ignore No-Man's Land and instead throw off her coverings and embrace her armored warrior identity, there is something enticing and intoxicating about her gusto that is so pure and perfect, it compensates for the rest. It's the same indulgent feeling Iron Man gave us years ago when it teased us to come along for the ride of a billionaire who flies in a metal suit of armor. Or Wolf of Wallstreet (or the original Wallstreet, too for that matter) when it showed us how fun it can be to make tons of money really fast. Or when Ocean's Eleven invited us to hang out with the coolest movie stars while they have fun robbing casinos. It's specifically what was missing in last year's Doctor Strange (which I wrote about here if you missed it). It also happens to be the same key attribute I pour into my own creation Lorna Lockheed (and in my case I hope it really does compensate for story flaws because I'm just an amateur!). That kind of character indulgence, where they just love everything they do and they do it well, sucks the audience in and covers a multitude of film-making sins.
So in conclusion. The directorial style may be a little conventional for my taste, a little on-the-nose in its various emotional beats, and all of the film's various components a little too mainstream... But then every five seconds, Gal Gadot returns to the screen and we see a glimmer in her eyes. An unmistakable eagerness you can't not enjoy. A seductively self-indulgent fortitude that won't let anything get in her way. Not her mother. Not the Germans. Not Ares, the god of war. Not the flawed human condition pervading all mankind. Not even lousy film-making. No, she's gonna stand up against it. The fierce, feminine, benevolent warrior. And she dares you to stop her.