As I write this post, I’m less than one hour removed from having walked out of a movie before the big third act. And it was a very popular movie, one that broke quite a few records. It’s a wonder, really.
What’s even more of a wonder, woman or man reading this, is how I feel about it. It was okay. It wasn’t great or rad or huge or amazing. It just was. It was better than some of the other movies I’ve seen in the same universe, but it didn’t grab me or transport me or take me anywhere. I stayed in my seat, and did a lot of head shaking. A little eye rolling too. And that’s the problem.
Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean, in theory we should all be able to have our opinions and share them knowing that we’ll be respected as much before sharing as after, but I don’t know if you noticed this, it’s particularly difficult for some people to disassociate socio-political elements from storytelling elements. And that poses a significant problem for me right now, because I’m about to talk about some story issues with a movie and some people are going to assume I must be waving my genitals in outrage because how-dare-I-swim-upstream against all that this movie represents.
Here comes another dude talking Wonder Woman. Oh joy.
So first, let me say this and say it clearly – I have zero problem with the directing in this film. I have zero problem with the genders of anyone above or behind the line. It’s sad that it’s taken so long for a woman to accomplish what’s been accomplished. I think it’s fantastic that box office records are broken and a lot of people have panties and boxers in wads. Good. But that’s not where my issues are, and they never will be. However I know that for a lot of people that sort of thing forms a thick filter through which anything else I say will be colored, so even when I break down “hey this isn’t great development” it’ll be translated as “John sure does hate the womenfolk”, which is wrong, and any attempt to explain myself somehow reinforces that to a reader who comes in with their mind pre-decided.
Let’s talk about some positives. Wonder Woman, Gail Gadot, she’s great in this movie. She’s, yes, a good looking woman, but more importantly, she’s given a whole hell of a lot more to do in this film than stand around two dudes in a fight scene. She’s earnest and strong, and she is everything Wonder Woman.
Other positive: I think I saw the sun in a few shots. Like actual not-Snyderverse grey skies. The actual sun. Holy shit. Yes the color palette plunged quickly back to “muted = badass”, but there was actual color on screen at times.
Other other positive: It’s a really lean movie. Unlike the other Snyderian films that digress with long shots of staring or strange dream sequences or time tunnels, this story moves us from A to B to C without a lot of fat on the steak. Yay directing! Yay camera movement!
Okay, now let’s see if I can cover this story without plot spoilers. Just about everything I’m going to talk about is available in the trailers, so aside from one note about secondary characters being incredibly secondary, I’m not going to drop anything that isn’t either already out there, or isn’t sort of obvious.
Diana is an Amazon princess of Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, and when World War 1 breaches the shores of Paradise Island, she takes up sword, shield, and lasso (hey where was the lasso when she was hanging out with Batfleck and allegedly-Superguy?) to go do what’s right. Joining her is Captain Kirk and a cast of otherwise pretty forgettable goodguys. Opposing her, as is pretty standard in her early story, are some Germans. Ultimately, her journey teaches her valuable lessons about heroism and it’s what molds her into the woman who will later fight a CG burnt-testicle cave troll.
That’s the plot in really broad spoiler-free strokes. That’s it. This is an origin story.
Let us dive then into the parts where the story goes askew:
- Character Consistency. One would think that the Amazon princess who has never encountered the real world would be the very definition of the “fish out of water”, being that her civilization hasn’t really progressed much past the Battle of Thermopylae in terms of technology. However, throughout the film this is either ignored, or played up only when humorous. She doesn’t know what a dress is, but she has no problem encountering a truck or phone. What this conveys is that she’s only a fish out of water when the story doesn’t need her to know something, which means you’re sacrificing story momentum for the sake of joke beats before working to get back up to speed. If she’s a fish out of water once, she’s a fish out of water always, unless she’s got an in-story reason to understand something. This does not mean everything foreign needs to be explained to her, but it does mean that the writing needs to make deliberate choices about what she knows, what she can deduce or intuit, and what remains unknown to her.
Character Motivations, Part 1. We need to define a writing term first. “Practical motivations” are the things a character knows how to do and therefore excels and looks for opportunities to do those things as a way of asserting control or competence in the world whereas “conscious motivations” are the desires, hopes, goals, and dreams of a character that they feel and that influences them to action. For our woman of wonder, the practical motivations are set up in the first half of the first act, a very breezy set of action montages where Amazons fight each other and our main character shows growing competence. It’s worth noting here (and we’ll do it again when we talk dialogue) that this is uneven montage construction, as she’s never shown failing, just always improving, so it’s hard to assess that these actions, this combat, is truly a challenge for her.
The conscious motivations are imparted somewhat nebulously. We’re told that she’s special, we’re told somewhat that she’s good and that she believes that mankind (non-Amazonians) is by default good, and that by itself should be enough for us to buy her as a hero in the story. Except that we know she’s a hero, because she’s all over the other movie where Bruce punches Clark and then feels bad about it. It’s these conscious motivations that we’re told about and don’t really see (she doesn’t have a “save the cat” moment although she has three moments where she gives the “hero speech”), that lead her to get into the big action pieces of the movie, and we’re supposed to be swept up in it … except that if we’re told rather than shown, it isn’t really embedded in us as an audience. We don’t get that chance to feel what she feels, and we’re distanced from connecting with her.
- Character Motivations, Part 2. Our main character gets into the plot because she sees danger that no other character sees. This is good, because every character who isn’t her or Captain Kirk is kind of disposable and tepid. And that includes the antagonist (who we’ll get to in a minute). Any time a protagonist has to accomplish something that want for accomplishment should sit at the confluence of two things – a character arc and a plot conflict. Diana doesn’t really have an arc, because naivete isn’t really an arc, it’s part of what’s shed when you have an arc, sort of like the hair you lose during a haircut is only part of what informs the new changed haircut. Diana goes off to confront the bad guy because he’s the badguy, with no other motivation than “that’s what the story says to do.” But what does Diana want to do? What she should do is dependent on her arc, but I can’t say for certain what her arc was beyond “I’mma go be an Amazon during WW1.”
The Antagonist. In the majority of superhero stories, the hero and villain are on a collision course because they’re on the same line, moving in opposing vectors at roughly the same velocity. The motivations for each are as much chess match as they are binary conflict. In the film, the fact that Germans represent bad (because Germans = Nazis no matter the history, right?) is used as a blanket to certify that the villain is a badguy. Look out he has a gun. Look out he’s stomping around. Someone has to stop him, oh no. All this guy (it was Danny Huston by the way), all Danny Huston needs is a moustache to twirl and we’ll hit peak generic villain status. We learn about his goals through the protagonist (and worse still, through dialogue said by a secondary character to the protagonist) so that his goals can afford to be generic and broad because anything that ticks the “it’s bad” box counts. So if you were to ask me what motivates the story’s villain, it’s a generic reason of “bad guys like fighting and winning.” Yawn.
Lack of Tension. Maybe this is due to the fact that this story is set a century prior to the last one, so we know she survives, and we double-know she survives because she’s in the Justice League trailer too, but here in this movie, where we’re sitting having paid our $16 for a 3D matinee, we should at least have a feeling that maybe there’s some danger. Oh wait, no? We’re gifted with shots of her taking on a war zone unscathed and always looking like she was bred for war with technology she’s never encountered like it’s no big thing? Oh, okay.
Yes, this movie is low on the “Oh I hope she’s not in danger” scale. Nope, she’s not really in danger. And she should have been. Because it’s the overcoming of that danger that lets us root for the hero when the odds are greater as the movie progresses. She’s got gauntlets that deflect bullets. Shinguards that deflect bullets. An indestructible shield, and a sword. Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’s never dirty. Also, her hair never gets messed up. Magical Amazon hair and skin care products, I guess. Also, her makeup palette changed from shot to shot sometimes, either that or someone went a little LUTS-wild.
- Dialogue duds. There’s quite a bit of talking in this movie. Not like an Altman or Smith film, but still, there’s a lot of back-and-forths. And sometimes the dialogue sounds like people, where they have feelings and aren’t cranking it up to 11 for “their moment”, but other times it’s clear that the dialogue is delivered because the character is center frame with a tight shot. Some of this dialogue doesn’t work.
Part of this dialogue revolves around a secret being kept from Diana, and prior to my walking out of the theater, the audience is left barely enough breadcrumbs to suss it together. Not that it needs to be spelled out (though my fear is that the third act hinges on the reveal, so gag me, I’m glad I bailed), but the danger in keeping a secret from the audience is that you can generate more confusion or disinterest than mystery and a want to solve it. Yes, it’s possible to keep a character in the dark but not the audience, but ideally, you keep both in the dark so the reveal carries an impact.
- Convenient Plot. When a story is lacking tension, a “ticking clock”, a plot-idea that imparts danger or impending harm is used. There’s a ticking clock presented in the mid-second act, but it’s done conveniently. (This might be a spoiler, and I’m sorry) This story hinges around the WW1 armistice, where the good guys want the war over and the bad guys don’t … but there’s an extra level of complication because the armistice is also presented as a problem because it’s happening soon. Or is it?
The movie’s logic is this – if the badguy isn’t stopped, then the war will go on because badguy will be bad. If that’s the case, the armistice won’t matter because the badguy will be cause more fighting. If the badguy is stopped, it’s the same as the armistice, because the war will end. So how exactly is the armistice a ticking clock? Where’s the urgency?
- Double Convenient Plot. Usually in a linear plot (A to B to C), you arrange the scenes at A, B, and C to be reachable and progressive. Like in a road trip movie you have to go to B from A and to C from B. Weak writing shortens the distances between points (usually between B and C, because it creates false urgency and masquerades as heightened stakes. What happens here is that point C is right next to point B on the map. A literal map.
Convenience neuters tension. It neuters momentum. It takes the foot off the story throttle. It reduces danger. In general, it’s not a good look, particularly in the back half of a story.
- Slow-Mo No No. Slow motion shots are meant to turn the ordinary into extraordinary by putting the focus and elongating the tension around an action. A ball being caught, a switch being thrown, slow motion turns an action we wouldn’t think twice about into a motion we have to pay attention to. And as in other films (300 comes to mind … which makes me think there’s something about using Grecian material that requires slow mo), slow motion shows up here whenever there’s a big fight moment. A moment, where we’d be paying attention to the protagonist either way, where now we’re forced to double-extra pay attention just because she’s leaping out a goddamned window or jumping like a ballerina before shooting an arrow Horizon Zero Dawn style. Slow motion for slow motion’s sake makes it not special. It’s supposed to be special. Too much of it makes it not special. Also, slowing down action beats doesn’t make the action more important.
Lousy CG. Short note here – it’s like someone just learned about masking and keyframes in Final Cut Pro. And why blur on the big CG stunts? To show something you wouldn’t subject a human or practical effect to, why does it have to be partially motion blurred with its lighting slightly off so that it screams “digital effect”?
Most Secondary Characters are Bland. The majority of non-critical characters are utterly replaceable, and only two of them stick out in my mind (Princess Buttercup, and I’m pretty sure that one guy was Remus Lupin). Secondary characters are often service characters, people who serve a function to the plot’s completion or character arc, otherwise they’re relegated to quips and levity. With a period piece, the secondary characters are often waypoints to measure the framing of the story, that is, these characters are the touchstones so that the primary characters can stand out more. In this film, this is taken to such an extreme, the secondary characters melt away aside from ticking a few standard movie quotas.
A secondary character should strive to stand out in some way that is greater than their plot contribution. Secondary characters should stick in our heads because of the impact they have on the protagonist’s arc, and no, it shouldn’t come through dialogue nine times out of ten. It’s not about catch phrases and quips, it’s about showing something that either makes an impression on a character or showing that not-doing something makes an impression on a character.
This all makes it sound like I absolutely destroyed this movie, and there were parts I liked beyond the physical appearance of actors. The big scenes they’re hanging hats on (No Man’s Land, Themyscira) work, and some of the smaller scenes (there’s one with snow, there’s a great moment with boats and fog) that do work.
If you’re about to tell me that my opinion doesn’t count because I walked pre-third act, I hear you. But by the time you hit the third act, the story should have all its major elements either presented or has hooked me to stick with it. What I saw of the first two acts didn’t keep me in the seat. If your mileage varied, I do hope you liked the movie.
Would I see it again? With friends, yes. On TV or Netflix, once sure.
And for the record, I do think this movie will generate less ire and workshop material than Batman vs Superman, which is both good and bad.
Until next time, good friends and creatives, keep rocking, and don’t you dare give up.