DC Finally Does It Better Than Marvel
Wonder Woman & the Art of Kicking Captain America’s Ass
About a year ago, I started banging out a spec script for a Captain America reboot where, instead of a tiny Irish boy scout from Brooklyn, our heroine starts out as a mouthy 4'11" Jewish girl named Rosie Rothstein (still from Brooklyn, naturally). She gets super-soldiered, gets the shield, dons her Rosie-the-Riveter-inspired costume, and battles friendly-fire sexism and anti-Semitism while kicking Nazi and Commie ass. After nearly dying to save the women of Berlin from the Soviets, she wakes up from her deep freeze in the present day, and is told that the president wants to meet her. She replies that she isn’t in the mood for a photo op, to which the doctor replies “I don’t think it’s that, Cap. I think she wants to meet her hero,” and it closes with just a hint of a proud smile crossing Rosie’s face… See, at the time, a female president had seemed inevitable, before a certain political catastrophe fucked that up and I had to drop the whole idea.
The main impetus for starting my forsaken screenplay, apart from the real likelihood that Chris Evans will get a little too cute in contract negotiations eventually, was how thoroughly annoyed I was with Captain America: The First Avenger’s candy-ass depiction of WWII. There was no mention of the holocaust, the Nazis were depicted as a lesser evil than Hydra, I can’t remember seeing a single Swastika onscreen, and ever since Spielberg charged up Omaha Beach, there’s been a certain sacrilege to depicting the nadir of human civilization as a bloodless affair. The movie used our darkest hour and the unmentioned murder of 6 million Jews as a backdrop for the same script as every other Marvel movie, and I left it with a vague sense of disgust. I mean, now that I think about it, I watched it at home, but still: I turned it off with a vague sense of disgust.
Imagine my delight in the cosmic coincidence, then, that the DC Universe’s own origin-story period piece put an unbreakable shield in the hands of a mighty warrior Jewess who knows how to use it, and brought in the horrific reality of World War I at a PG-13 rating while simultaneously entertaining the ever-living shit out of me. Minor pacing problems and the live-action video game of an ending aside, Wonder Woman charges headfirst into a dead-tired genre, on the back of a creatively discredited franchise, and delivers something transcendent of both.
Gal Gadot. Even though it lacks a verb or an object, after seeing that movie, I consider those two words a complete sentence. I knew she was a G when she singlehandedly rescued the nine-hour catastrophe-cum-defilement that was Batman vs. Superman, but good lord, is the woman a stunningly magnetic screen presence. It almost felt like the first time I saw The Rock onscreen, with a breathtaking combination of physicality and charisma, along with a smile that could cure cancer. Also, it helps that she’s an Ashkenaz Helen of Troy, with easily the single most perfect nose in the history of noses and those deep eyes that seem to see right into you (my girlfriend also claims she had flawless eyebrows). I went in genuinely concerned that Chris Pine would present me with yet another feature-length challenge to my sexual identity, but my heterosexuality and well-documented Sinai Fever were too high in overdrive to get lost in those crystal blues for so much as a second.
Beyond the superficial concerns, though, she’s one hell of an actress. This was a superhero movie made with a feminine sensibility, and that meant its lead needed to deliver a far greater emotional range than the usual stoic, unflappable, straight-power-lesbian-in-skintight-leather routine that passes for a “strong female character” in too many male-directed superhero and action films. She sells every part of that range: from profound sorrow to squeals of delight, from her inner conflicts of filial loyalty to her sassy Mediterranean indignation with the British high command, and above all, the thrill of sexual discovery with her co-star. Even when the material underserved the character, her performance was note-perfect. The bits with the ice cream and the baby were as heartwarming and delightful as anything I’ve seen since John Glenn in Hidden Figures, and that was some seriously delightful shit.
Speaking of beautiful people giving incredible performances: as I said before, I’ve had the worst man crush on Chris Pine since Bottle Shock, and the Tom Cruise to my Rosie O’Donnell did not disappoint. It reminded me of how, in what was supposed to be a female-centric Ghostbusters, Chris Hemsworth walked off with the movie every time he was onscreen; however, unlike his fellow über-Chris’s beautiful village idiot, Steve Trevor is a thoughtful, pure-hearted, and noble example of real masculinity, and all its redemptive qualities. In spite of that, he’s never some one-note leading man type. He’s assertive towards Diana without being antagonistic, and his frustrations with her don’t inflict a forced motivation on the narrative. Their romantic attachment is not only truly sweet, it never feels like a chick-ish cheapening of our heroine’s real objective. Also, “I’m above average” was one of the most perfectly-delivered lines I’ve heard in awhile.
The action, at least until it turned into the Götterdämmerung, was a glorious return to form for the DCEU style. I truly enjoyed the Dragonball Z-esque madness of Man of Steel, particularly that it broke what I liked to call the three-punch paradigm in superhero movies: every fight is two pulled punches between a pretty-boy actor and a stuntman, followed by a CGI’d super-move that is inexplicably 500 times stronger than the previous two attacks. It may be a little easier to maintain a visual realism that way, but the plastic look aside, I like how super-beings hit like super-beings every time in DC movies. Half the reason Batman vs. Superman sucked, in my opinion, is that you can’t throw a homo sapiens in a suit through a building, which left the action feeling rather flaccid. Until, of course, another super-being showed up and redeemed it.
But that ain’t this movie, not by a damn sight. From the crazy flips of the Themischyra beach fight — Buttercup could tear Inigo a new asshole, by the way — to the hero shot over the top of the trench and the thoroughly badass lasso work in the Belgian village, the action hit hard, and it just worked. Gal Gadot, being a veteran of kicking people in the face and taking a punch, threw herself into the live shots like Jackie Chan, and the animators lent a sense of weight and impact whenever the characters went digital. The slow-mo and the ramps were as prominent as they are in any 21st-century action movie, but Patty Jenkins employs them more judiciously on her first go-round than most dudes do on their third or fourth blockbuster (and Michael Bay did on his 10th). The ramps feel less like a music-video affectation than they do live-action comic panels and splash pages, and they got me amped.
For all the fun I had, Ms Jenkin’s deftest touch is the seamless integration of the real horror of the war into the plot without it ever feeling dour (I can watch Paths of Glory on my own time). The war was a horrific, generation-destroying orgy of carnage heretofore unseen by man, and the film got that across without a drop of blood, let alone the exposed viscera that have been standard fare for war movies since Saving Private Ryan. The men shaking in the trenches, Ewan Bremner’s PTSD, and the gas attack all communicated the nightmare without softpedaling it à la Captain America or wallowing in misery, and every instance furthered the narrative and themes of the movie while staying propulsive throughout — an admirable efficiency of storytelling.
It must be said that the finale between Diana and Ares got kinda weak (if you think that’s a spoiler, you have somehow never seen a comic book movie). A movie needs to define the limits of superpowers and magic in order to maintain dramatic tension in fights involving either, and until the final showdown commenced we had no idea that Ares was Magneto or that he had his dad’s knack for chucking lightning bolts. We certainly had no idea how hard he was to kill or anything, so it all felt chaotic and arbitrary. Also, while I greatly enjoyed the bits in London, I can see how it might feel like a lull in the story to some viewers. Also, it felt distractingly silly that they have Wonder Woman actually speak an improbable range of languages while shooting all the German scenes in English mit ein German accent. I get why they did it, but it was still stupid. Also, for an island so cut off from the outside world that they don’t have guns, Themiscyra’s scientific knowledge was remarkably up to date.
Those quibbles matter, but every one of them is matched by the many small joys of the film, from Lucy Davis’s secretary and the dressing scene to the lovers’ first dance. For every whiff of eye-rolling comic book nonsense, the movie delivers nuance that is genuinely worthy of the name, like a villain who actually has two sides in a comic movie, the exploration of the inner life of the evil scientist, or the thoughtful inclusion of an Indian character who softly reminds any rah-rah American viewers that our greatest sins were committed more recently than we like to tell ourselves. It’s well-constructed, beautifully performed, and its few faults are essentially those of the genre itself. I walked out of the movie with my dead-and-buried enthusiasm for Justice League crawling out of the grave, despite the soul-numbing horror I witnessed last summer. If we must live in an age where the cinema is wholly consumed by comic book movies, let them all be more like this one.