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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman A Solid Hit

Wonder Woman a Solid Hit
Gal Gadot Stuns in the Title Role
Mark Charalambous, June 2017

Yes, it’s true. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. I know it’s already a cliché, but this cliché has seldom been worn so appropriately. I cannot imagine another actress as Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is indelible. She is simply riveting on the screen. That much was evident from her first appearance in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice—owing mainly to her physical appearance. The directors chose a woman more reflective of the mythic origins; not casting a Nordic beauty like Lynda Carter, but a middle-eastern beauty. Gal Gadot is Israeli. The look is different from previous incarnations from both television and the comic books, and it works to perfection.

But the really good news from Wonder Woman is that Gal Gadot is not only perfectly matched visually to the role, her character is also beautifully written! 

This Wonder Woman is no smart-aleck, kick-ass gender-feminist seizing any opportunity to pummel men and ridicule our inadequacies while educating the audience on the evils of patriarchal oppression.  Rather, she is what would be expected of a woman raised in a world without men, of a warrior caste, and raised to fear and distrust the “other”: men. She is an innocent. And that is how she acts and responds to the Europe of WW1—as well as to her love interest, British military spy Steve Trevor, adequately played by Chris Pine.

Diana (she is not called “Wonder Woman” in the movie; presumably this will happen in the upcoming Justice League movie, the next in line from the DC franchise) was raised to believe that Zeus created the Amazons to protect mankind. A great conflict between the Gods resulted in the evil antagonist Ares, God of War, sowing evil, hatred and war among mankind. When she decides to accompany Trevor back to the “world of men,” it is with the explicit aim of killing Ares. She assumes that this will immediately put an end to all of mankind’s strife, including the “war to end all wars.”

Later, this belief is severely tested and leads to Diana’s epiphany that enables her to reach her next level as a warrior, when she will eventually team up with Batman and the other members of the Justice League.

Upon arrival in London, her innocence serves as a device for social commentary when she is exposed to the “modern” world. When Trevor’s secretary explains her job to Diana, she responds “Where I come from, that’s called slavery.”  Earlier, in Themyscira, the hidden Amazon island into which chance draws Trevor and the War, he shows her his watch and explains it's function. Diana responds by asking him why he needs a device to tell him what to do?

Under less skillful direction, these bits could’ve come across as hackneyed or contrived. But to writer Allan Heinberg and Gadot’s credit, they provide endearing moments of comic relief.

 (A word about Chris Pine. He made his bones playing Captain Kirk in the reconstituted Star Trek franchise. Clearly, he did his homework well.  Perhaps too well. If I closed my eyes I could believe Bill Shatner himself was speaking some of his lines. Pine has, perhaps inadvertently, adopted many of Shatner’s speech patterns, and even his facial mannerisms.)

Sure, Wonder Woman is replete with social justice messaging (besides Trevor her entourage includes a middle-eastern POC and a Native American), but Gal Gadot is so sincere, believable—and winning—in the role, that I don’t feel like I’m being hit over the head with it.

Naturally, Diana has plenty of opportunities to display her martial superiority to mere barroom thugs and heavily-armed German soldiers alike with only a sword, shield and her lasso. She is an Amazon fighting in the Great War. But that is to be expected. This is who the character is. What we don’t get is the typical absurdities we’ve come to expect from the genre, such as beautiful women in high heels and lingerie handily dispatching gangs of thugs. Cue Atomic Blonde trailer.

Yes, Wonder Woman fails the Taylor Test[1], how could it not? We are, after all, talking about an Amazon—the cultural archetype of a “strong woman.”  They and she, a 1940s comic book character inspired by the ancient Greek legend, are not products of present-day feminism.

(Parenthetically, it is worth noting that recent discoveries in cultural anthropology have unearthed evidence that the legends may have a historical basis. Evidence of a female-dominated culture of horse-riding archers has been found in Mongolia, where the descendants of the Sauromations of the Russian Steppes eventually migrated.)

You may have noticed the buzz of negative criticism for the movie from feminist quarters. A lot was riding on this movie. The standard screed regarding female superheroes (we can’t refer to them as “superheroines” anymore) in film is that ... for some unknown reason... they fall short at the box office.  There is a great resistance to acknowledging that—surprise!—superhero comics are primarily read by boys. Boys’ interest in superheroes is a part of growing up, anticipating their own entry into manhood; a way to vicariously imagine themselves as ideals of manly heroism.

For readers largely unfamiliar with the evolution of comic books over the past several decades, female superheroes in comic books often ventured into what, in a simpler age, would be called soft-core porn. With the advent of the internet adolescent boys now have images of the real thing to satisfy their hormonal urges, but it is quite clear from images of female characters such as Power Girl and Harley-Quinn that female superhero comics served that purpose. 

So, feminists eagerly anticipated this movie. After all, Wonder Woman is the mother of all female superheroes. They were hoping for a glass-ceiling event. A movie to level the playing field and show once and for all that men bear no inherent athletic superiority to women and boys should hold no monopoly on comic book superhero movies. And when it was announced that a woman would direct it (Patty Jenkins) ... well!

But spearheading an attack across No Man’s Land in the Belgian Front, handily trouncing armed German soldiers as well as thugs in London, and chafing against the oppression of women in “modern” society is insufficient. She isn’t a sexually aggressive, preferably lesbian, full-time advertisement for feminist righteous indignation at everything male. Additionally, she is designed to satisfy male concepts of female beauty.  

Here’s what Slate writer Christina Cauterucci wrote in her review:

“To me, whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.
... By the time the action got too fast-paced and loud for any more characters to marvel at Diana’s fine bod and bone structure, I was about an hour past being sick of the ‘sexy lady is also hyper competent’ joke.”[1]

Excuse me, Ms. Cauterucci, but I think your penis envy is showing.

Furthermore, she’s white—and horror-of-horrors!—falls in love with a man.

What we got instead was a love story. A story with the message that love redeems mankind. The story of a man’s love for a demi-goddess, and a goddesses’ love for mankind—and the most bitter pill of all—a woman’s love for a man.

On top of feminist antipathy, opposition is coming from the Islamic quarter. Gal Gadot served in the Israeli Defense Forces, which is required of all Israeli citizens. She also publicly condemned Hamas in a Facebook post during military actions in Gaza in 2014. Hence, the movie has been banned in Lebanon and Tunisia, and was pulled from a film festival in Algeria.

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows—with feminism and Islam being perhaps the strangest of all.

The ultimate message is one of love. That may sound trite these days—especially considering the turn taken by the DC movie franchises lately—but it is proving welcome to movie-goers and critics alike. Feminists will have to be content with the first successful female superhero movie, directed by a woman no less, that redeems a franchise. Sorry if it’s not enough. I loved it.

Wonder Woman is not a perfect film. There’s plenty to criticize.  But any flaws are more than made up for by a new screen star that commands your complete attention every moment she is on-screen. I look forward to more Gal Gadot Wonder Woman.

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[1] B. Taylor. “An action/comic book movie is approved if it doesn't have a token scene where the lead female—unarmed and single-handedly—beats up a team of armed men, demonstrating superior martial prowess to the male main character/hero.”  Notes From the 3rd Rail: Civilization in the Crosshairs, Marcus Clintonius Americus