Apparently having a female character killing people absolves film writers of any responsibility to produce drama, conflict or characterisation
Is it worth writing this? With a 92 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and almost unanimous critical acclaim, Wonder Woman seems to have been accepted as an instant classic.
I could find only one negative review, a rather confused and insubstantial offering on the Guardian that saw its author being roundly attacked in the comments section as some sort of reactionary defender of the patriarchy. I expect to escape such attacks, largely due to the fact that no-one actually reads my blog.
But I feel it must be said. The film isn’t good! It’s an utterly routine serving of assembled tropes, Crocodile Dundee goes to the big city trope mixed with the one-sided rampage of that godawful Lucy film and standard superhero fare, stuffed with one-dimensional characters and spectacular action scenes utterly devoid of tension for the audience.
Let’s begin with the basic premise that interest stems from character or plot. We like to see a character face an obstacle and overcome it, or a character follow an arc that leaves them either broken or triumphant, we like to see plots that surprise or unsettle us.
So character, first. The protagonist Diana is boring. As far as I could see, she had no distinguishing character traits beyond basic human empathy whatsoever apart from a generalised naivety. She appeared to experience little internal conflict and I don’t think anybody watching could really pretend to themselves that her flirtation with leaving human beings to their fate near the end was anything more than an artificial structural turning point in the story – note that this moment of crisis did not spring from any conflicting traits or motives within her but entirely from external events.
Put simply, she is not realistic or empathetic in any way. And yet every review I read of this film is assuring me that she represents some sort of breakthrough in female portrayal in cinema.
The hostile response to my argument might be that I am demanding that female characters be flawed. No. I am demanding that characters full stop be flawed. At what point did subscribing to the universal laws of storytelling become surplus to requirements? Basic precepts that are taught to children in creative writing lessons from the time they can write, such as plot driven by conflict and character, creating interesting characters in the first place, have in all appearances been entirely abandoned. They were good enough for Jane Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Homer and Charles Dickens.
This has been a major problem in the Superhero Movie Industry (full disclosure, I am not a fan) throughout its increasingly assured and seemingly interminable reign in Hollywood. Captain America and Thor are two of the very worst examples, bland Ken Dolls devoid of personality or humour.
But some of the films in the genre have shown it is not necessary for characters in superhero films to be so. The best example is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in the X-Men films, by far my favourite superhero portrayal: a character complex and tortured enough to make his final offering Logan a genuinely moving dystopian classic. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique/Raven in the same series has been given less development but still operates on plenty of levels. Bruce Wayne, particularly in the Dark Knight Rises, is also an excellent, flawed character. And even with a character like Iron Man, at least you can say more about him than: “wow he has a cool suit”.
It is, of course, possible to have a good film with an unflawed lead. Gladiator springs to mind, for example. Maximus is not really an interesting character in his own right but his purity contrasts with Commodus’s various corruptions and the conflict between his narcissism and profound self-loathing. The audience can pity Commodus on the latter point even as they yearn for his eventual destruction for his debased malevolence.
Wonder Woman offers no such complex villains or any Proximus figures sitting somewhere in the grey area. Every character is either completely good, completely bad or comic relief. In a strange way, the film’s central thesis – that human beings are both good and bad – seems to have been misunderstood by the writers themselves.
But again, it’s still possible to make a good film without any particularly interesting characters (Lord of the Rings, say), if interest in the film springs from somewhere else. Gladiator, for example, while still performing admirably in the character category is mainly driven by the classic narrative of a decorated general being reduced to a slave through the actions of a psychopathic rival only to rise again to gloriously avenge himself on said rival.
And this is where this film again for me falls so utterly flat. There’s no tension! Gladiator literally ends with the hero dying. I never for a second felt even mildly concerned for Wonder Woman’s safety because she was never in danger. She was a fucking goddess!
The action scenes were, as I mentioned above, ‘spectacular’ in their way, although I was extremely aware that I was mostly watching a computer generated image. But, and again maybe I am just in the minority here, I don’t enjoy action scenes because I enjoy them as spectacles. I enjoy them because I get something else from them. That can be tension, as in say a Die Hard film, where part of you believes that John McClane might die even though you know he probably won’t, or the sheer comedy of Fast and Furious films (the cinema openly laughed at Dwayne the Rock Johnson physically manoeuvring a missile with his bare arms).
Hollywood is giving us what we think we want, action scene played out earnestly as spectacle rather than story, but the end result is their utter superfluity, that your experience of the story would be much the same if you just fast-forwarded these scenes.
I can’t agree that it is. I don’t think any piece of art should be forgiven for profound, intrinsic flaws because one supports its ideological aims. And I can’t support the idea that the essence of future feminist cinema is a depiction of women as faultless to the extent of being literal divinities.
So does Hollywood need more films with female directors and female leads? Absolutely. Is this film up to the task? Absolutely not.