wonder woman movie review (or: the problem with origin stories)

With all I had heard or otherwise read about Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (92% on Rotten Tomatoes with a promising 91% audience score), I was looking forward to seeing a film that could supersede my general disappointment in the superhero genre.

As the movie began, I was reasonably captivated by the Amazons and their island. The beginning of Wonder Woman proved to be an exciting and wonderfully shot watch. With the strength of this opening, I could have watched two hours of activity on Themyscira alone. Jenkins succeeded at pumping me up for both the action already playing out and that which would follow. The stage had been completely set for an epic, but at the end of the 140 minute runtime, I had been completely lost to Wonder Woman’s initial draw. I was left bobbing around in a sea of exposition, with little to cling to but some well-done cinematography and a few emotional beats.

I think that my real issue with Wonder Woman boils down to my issue with origin stories in general. The majority of Marvel and DC’s catalogues have created a certain formula for these types of films, one which ultimately equates to a boatload of exposition. The problem is not that there is a necessary backstory to give, but that it tends to be given in an entirely unnecessary (see: boring) way. When it comes to action-packed films, I think it’s easy for the director to focus all their energy on the battles and drop the ball on the rest of the story. The bulk of this genre can involve too much tell and not enough show, and this approach simply can’t hold up in the context of an origin story.

I found that Wonder Woman often falls into this same trap of favoring spectacle over story. The film hits as it should in the action sequences, the sweeping shots of Themyscira, and the incredible “No Man’s Land” scene, but these become overshadowed when Jenkins opts to give us the information outright rather than allowing her vision to play out. For example, the mention that Diana was not born of Hippolyta but handcrafted from clay and granted life by Zeus. We are explicitly told this through dialogue between Diana and her mother. But imagine for a moment that rather than being spoon fed this fact, the film opens with a scene of Hippolyta sculpting her daughter and Zeus subsequently “birthing” her. Minimal (if any) dialogue needed, and we are still given the key information necessary to move the story forward. There is always more than one way to present something to the audience, but some ways are undeniably better than others. Jenkins’s approach took me out of the world she worked so hard to craft, and undermined the truly satisfying parts of Wonder Woman. While Gal Gadot gives an excellent performance (finding the sweet spot between naivety and strength), and Chris Pine once again brings his talent, their characters did little for me. While cinematographer Matthew Jensen does his job expertly, his prowess can’t save a sinking ship.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not begrudging the storyline itself, nor the input of exposition. I understand that there are specific steps to be taken when crafting an origin story, and while Jenkins hits all the beats with Wonder Woman, that’s all she accomplishes. Her biggest mistake was in following the same tried and (debatably) true methods of similar movies. The film has some real strengths; I just would have liked to see something fresher than getting the entire past, present, and future through conversation between characters. When it comes to film, there should always be room for innovation. In the case of Wonder Woman, there isn’t anything new or interesting at play, and that can stop the story from being rewarding to the audience. It’s an entertaining movie, and it’s nice to look at, but it isn’t good storytelling. For a film to be great, it must seek to do more. So it’s a superhero movie, does that mean it must sacrifice everything outside of this? Can an origin story not go beyond surface level, getting to the gritty show over tell?

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