I went to see Wonder Woman, which was released last month with a great deal of critical praise, some controversy, and overwhelming success at the box office, mainly for one reason. I wanted to see a superhero movie set during the First World War, which, as the late Paul Fussell has argued, is the real birthplace of the modern world. Could a film based on a comic book actually address such a complex historical event? Or would the holocaust that took place between 1914 and 1918 merely serve as the backdrop to “lean in” feminism’s answer to Batman and Superman?
If it succeeds, and I think it does to some extent, it’s mainly by accident. In spite of an excellent performance by Gal Gadot, a physically charismatic actress who’s perfectly believable as Diana the daughter of Zeus, the writing struggles. The supporting cast and characters are underwritten and almost irrelevant. Steve Trevor, Diana’s love interest played by Chris Pine, is noble and self-sacrificing, but weak and dramatically flaccid. Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and her fellow Amazons are so badly developed, it’s often difficult to tell them apart. A very heavily fictionalized Erich Ludendorff, makes an effective super villain, but he has so little resemblance to the historical General Ludendorff they should have just called him “Adolf Hitler.”
Nevertheless, almost in spite of itself, Wonder Woman manages to dramatize the traumatic historical rupture that split the western world in half in 1914. The gorgeous Diana, a lithe, athletic six foot tall innocent born on a mythical, all female island which serves as the film’s prelapsarian Garden of Eden, travels to early Twentieth Century Europe with the above mentioned Steve Trevor, she’s so out of place her presence on screen simultaneously makes us look back to a mythical pagan past, and forward to 2017. Who is this modern young woman unencumbered not only by the restrictive clothing and female societal roles of London in 1914, but also by a sense of guilt or sin? We don’t go back to the Garden of Eden so much as the Garden of Eden springs forward in time to visit modern Europe. Diana has superhuman strength, but since we’re never quite sure exactly what kind of superpowers she has, it gives her an appealing sense of vulnerability. Will that shield protect her from that German machine gun? Will that German poison gas kill her? We share her desire to end war if only because we don’t want to see war kill her. She’s too beautiful to die.
Wonder Woman is banned in Lebanon because Gal Gadot is an Israeli who served in the IDF during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. I can see why. If I were Lebanese I doubt I could stomach its talk of “peace” either, but I’m not Lebanese and have never passed through an Israeli checkpoint, so I could ignore the nationality of the lead actress and concentrate on her sensual mouth and taut, athletic body. I can’t imagine any straight man could hate this film but I suppose they exist. It’s just too bad Gadot didn’t have a better leading man. Chris Pine is a handsome actor, I suppose, but to me he looks a bit too much like a doughier version of the 1990s film star Brenden Fraser. Whatever happened to him anyway? Wonder Woman has something that most superhero films don’t, sex. The romance between Diana and Steve Trevor is believable, if underwritten, and the comic scene where she wants him to sleep next to him in the boat and he’s too much of a gentleman to oblige her is more classic Hollywood then 2010s feminism. If only Cary Grant had been available to play opposite Gadot.