Wonder Woman is mostly notable for Robin Wright in her role as Total Badass. Unfortunately, Robin is at the start of the movie and the script goes on and on and on without her, getting weaker over time until we hit the end of the film where it all falls apart. I blame Zack Snyder for this. Spoilers will abound.
But first, kudos to the film on hitting Marvel’s inexplicable blind spot with a woman-lead (and diversely cast) superhero film that wasn’t a miserable heap like Suicide Squad, Catwoman, or Elektra. It is inexcusable that Marvel wasn’t rolling on a Black Widow: Hunts Down and Exterminates Hyrda Operatives for Your Viewing Pleasure film after Captain America 2. Marvel seems to be shifting back with the Black Panther trailer that everybody’s gushing about, only: what’s the plot? “Europeans are consistently shitty navigators?” I’m seeing Marvel moving away from functional mythos down into the rabbit hole of comic book cheese and am doubting their ability to sustain their franchise to its completion. Anyway, while Wonder Woman was highly derivative from Captain America, it wasn’t entirely bad. Until it was.
The similarities to Captain America are profoundly obvious at the end when the actor named Chris playing an elite American soldier named Steve while fighting against the obligatory Germans hijacks an superweapon-laden enemy plane and is lost with it. Really, there’s no functional difference between the typical World War II portrayal and the World War I portrayal they have here excepting a nod to the Ottoman Empire by this film’s Chris-playing-Steve during his introduction. They’ve got a world full of wars to choose from, but they keep on going back to the slimy mudhole that is northern Europe and now insist that they’re special because they’re cosplaying a few years earlier than is common.
Beyond Captain America, there are other borrowed scenes, most notable (in my mind) was basically lifting the “A handful of people on a leaky boat are gonna save the world?” exposition from Mortal Kombat. This, however, is not the big problem.
A bigger problem is that they’ve got Neville playing the god of war. I don’t know his actual name and it means so little to me that I’m not going to look it up: point is that he’s not Ares the god of war, he’s Neville the god of queue-standing. And he should not be in the movie.
See, the sick joke about World War I was that is was supposed to be “the war to end all wars” as is mentioned in the script. But, just like after Waterloo, “history continued” (Camus, The Rebel) and brought another century of fightin’ ’round the world. Now Ares tells Diana that he merely inspires the weapons, only he seems to be doing a shitty job of it because the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan and firestorm that consumed Dresden were both World War II inventions and Ares didn’t tell us about those, making him the worst god of war ever. So the part where Diana kills Ares is laughable bullshit because we know it did nothing, that the next war was far worse. Thus there were no stakes in that super-fight: Ares didn’t need to teleport in for his meaningless death, much less stuck around for it. All it really did was undermine Diana’s character.
We’ll come back to that claim after we cover the bullshit that was the actual fight. Zeroth, Diana’s been engaging in war for most of this movie–see also: the FF review, Anita tags this point–functionally sacrificing people-who-happen-to-be-Germans to Ares. That she’s oblivious to this point is particularly problematic here because it runs rather counter to her belief-and-love conclusion. The Slayers anime series consistently addressed properly attacking gods, from Lina’s choices of spells to Amelia crippling Xellos with an impromptu pep-rally: gods have to have their powers countered. Heck, even Return of the Jedi has Luke realize that he can’t just execute Emperor Palpatine with extreme prejudice without losing his moral core in the process. Specifically on-topic, Ares was able to (allegedly) fight every other god in the Greek pantheon because he’s a fighter, but in The Odyssey (book 8), Odysseus tells the story of how Ares got caught in Hephaistos’s bed-trap while having an affair with Aphrodite. Gods have vulnerabilities and just trying to brawl your way to-and-through the god of war is lazy filmmaking for a stupid character. So, first, when Diana tries to stab him with her sword and the sword melts, we should be totally unsurprised. But the reason given is that only gods can kill gods, which is exactly what she was trying to do and if physical damage doesn’t kill gods then why do they go out and start throwing all manner of shrapnel around the airfield? Destroying the sword makes total sense, but renders what follows totally senseless. Second, in a shocking miss from the script, Ares doesn’t condescendingly refer to Diana as “little sister” as he totally should have when revealing her divine origin. (She calls him “brother” later and he doesn’t deny it; this is relevant.) Third, being immortal, he didn’t even need to be there or pick a fight with his little sister; he could have just waited for the evil in the world to corrupt her. He’s used to being patient and sneaky. Fourth, when Diana does kill Ares (with damage reflection) she’s made the judgment that the mass-murdering fuckhead who cowers before her can live, but the dude who says she’s a mass-murdering fuckhead who deserves to die is the one who actually deserves to die. The moral of this story isn’t clear at all.
But we’re about to make this morally messier because: fifth, Ares actual presence and subsequent demise confirms that Zeus, the serial rapist and patriarch-prime of the Greek gods, is Diana’s dad and source of her supernatural powers and not just a mythological abstraction we can shrug off.
Now before I rail on this point, let me observe that it was not required: if Ares did not actually show up in person then the truth of Diana’s origin could’ve been left ambiguous since nobody takes “praying to Zeus over a lump of clay” seriously. Alternately, Hippolyta could’ve been praying to Artemis and been given a daughter to foster/adopt–a demigoddess whose divine lineage is bound to Artemis, goddess of the Amazons, and whose possibly-mortal father is unknown and will remain unknown because Artemis knows that mortal men get killed for having liaisons with goddesses (Odyssey, book 5). If you’re really paying attention, this was the structural reason Steve had to die: Diana nookie got him killed in accordance with the mythos–good attention to detail, writers!
But this is Zack Snyder’s territory, and this guy has a history of including sexualized violence against women in his spectacles which is disturbing enough without noting that Watchmen had Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre) explaining to her daughter that she was okay with being raped because it got her pregnant. Now if Hippolyta isn’t being entirely honest about Diana’s origins and Zeus is Diana’s father as Ares suggested while roped and it’s a Zack Snyder film, can we reasonably speculate that Diana got her demigoddess powers from her mom being raped by the rapeyest god in the Greek pantheon? I have previously joked that the first step to a successful Wonder Woman character would be avoiding a backstory where she gets her powers after being bitten by a radioactive men’s rights activist. I think they crashed into that low bar both painfully and deliberately by tying Diana’s powers to Zeus.
I have been told that I’m misreading this because in the DC Universe, Zeus is actually a really nice guy. This is poppycock. Cultural appropriation comes freighted with baggage, and when they’re picking up Zeus specifically then they’re also picking up Zeus’s baggage. The Orphan Black crew knows this; they actually took on Leda and Castor because of the baggage. (Bonus: I’m betting Rachel kills the guy who started it all; as part of project Leda, that’s what her eye is telling her to do with the visions of the decapitated swan.) Battlestar Galactica picked up part of the Greek pantheon to give its people religion and features Baltar calling Zeus a rapist before it’s all over; they’re a totally fictional people taking on the Greek mythology with its baggage. Trying to erase baggage–as Marvel does by reducing Thor to just another alien with a red cape–doesn’t make it better, it just shows disrespect for the underlying culture that spawned the original mythos (and is why I don’t like Marvel’s Thor). Shifting Zeus to be Zeuus, with two U-s, the well-known Dutch god, is neither what they did, nor an improvement. They’re trying to tap into a vague brand of yesteryear and hope that people remember only the brand and not what it stood for, because what it stood for was the opposite of the empowerment that they want to be channeling down to the mortal women that Zeus couldn’t keep his cock out of.
But beyond that, even the script bears us out: the known unreliability of myths as demonstrated by the lack of durable effects from killing the god of war above and beyond his testimony against being defamed tells us that we also shouldn’t be accepting the associated stories about Zeus (in which Zeus is actually a really nice guy) at face value. So while Greek mythology generally admits that Zeus is a colossal dick, Wonder Woman asks us to believe that none of that is true because the folks who are habitually lying to Diana–as, to be fair, parents do–tell Diana it’s not true. So the critical thematic element where the world is more complex than the simple myths given to children that I enjoyed–ham-tastic acting not withstanding–is exactly that same element that tells us our first lady-superhero-headlining-a-proper-movie gets all of her superpowers directly from a serial rapist and icon of the patriarchy. This seems like exactly the kind of screw-up that Zack Snyder would contribute to Wonder Woman.
This point is clearly illuminated by the movie but inexplicably ignored by it. Again, I would point to Hellboy as taking an inescapably bad origin and using the character to transmute it as a good arc to cling to. Diana’s ability to reflect damage rather than simply causing it could be a nice visual manifestation of her personal ability to not be freighted with her family history. But I suspect that this isn’t going to be a thing that they ever come back to. I would be unsurprised to hear that such an examination of her dad–the source of her superpowers–takes the focus away from her, and she’s (legitimately) the point of the movie. So they’d be right… except that they already chose to bring Zeus into play.
So, to summarize, Wonder Woman was undermined by the decision to actually include Ares and thus demonstrate the extreme futility of Diana’s actions while simultaneously making her personal history clearly problematic in ways that the film refused to address.