It was with great anticipation and joy that I sat down to watch DC’s latest animated film, Wonder Woman. For far too long, comicbookdom’s original heroine has been left warming the bench as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man get to have all the animated and live-action fun. So it is a great relief to confirm that the film holds together very well, bringing strong characterizations and considerable action to vivid, 2D life. It stands tall, easily the most impressive of DC’s recent series of direct-to-DVD features, but – to fans of the character who have waited years for a movie like this – it all boils down to one question: Does it do justice to Wonder Woman? The short answer is…depends on what you consider most important to the character.
On the mystical island of Themyscira, a proud and fierce warrior race of Amazons have raised a daughter of untold beauty, grace and strength Princess Diana. When an Army fighter pilot, Steve Trevor, crash-lands on the island, the rebellious and headstrong Diana defies Amazonian law by accompanying Trevor back to civilization. Meanwhile, Ares (the god of War) has escaped his imprisonment at the hands of the Amazonians and has decided to exact his revenge – intending to start a world war that will not only last for centuries but will wipe out every living being on the planet, starting with the Amazons! It is up to Princess Diana to save her people and the world by using her gifts and becoming the ultimate Wonder Woman!
Many would argue getting that getting her origins right is half the battle, and they would be correct. All of the elements from Wonder Woman’s original origin story in 1941’s Sensation Comics #1 are present and accounted for. After suffering at the hands of man, the Amazons of Greek myth retreat to a hidden Paradise Isle to live in peace for centuries. When their Queen, Hippolyta, longs for an infant daughter, the Gods breathe life into the tiny baby she sculpts out of clay, and bless her with great speed and strength. As this Princess, Diana, reaches maturity, American air force pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the island and a contest is held to determine which of the Amazons will return him to the modern world. Against her mother’s wishes, Diana disguises herself and participates, winning the right to don the star-spangled costume, golden tiara and Lasso of Truth of Wonder Woman. The movie earns serious points for keeping at least that much the same.
Wonder Woman the character, however, as anyone who has followed her evolution in the comics can attest, isn’t quite so easy to nail down. Diana is the embodiment of numerous contradictions. A gorgeous, virginal Princess in a revealing one-piece who speaks of strength of character, inner beauty and women’s rights. A proud and skilled warrior on a mission of peace to undo the influence of the God of War. An outsider from a race of immortal, reclusive women trying to teach the modern world to be more open-minded. If a writer swings too far in any one direction, Diana can easily be reduced to a vapid pin-up or man-hating brute.
Case in point, the popular live action series from the 1970s. If Lynda Carter’s beloved portrayal of the Amazing Amazon laid the sweet and feminine on a bit too thick, Bruce Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited tried to rectify this by depicting her as more of an aloof outsider with a royal temper. Neither really managed to achieve the balance between beauty, brains, brawn and compassion believed by many to have been the crowning achievement of George Perez’s famed relaunch of the Wonder Woman title in the early 1980s. His 62-issue run on the book brought Diana’s mythological origins to the forefront, including supporting roles for the full Greek Pantheon, established her firmly as an Emissary of Peace and developed the unique attributes of each of her rivals, including Circe, Dr Psycho and the Cheetah to name a few). Though the first six-issue storyline from those books is used as a template for the events of this movie, Wonder Woman confidently marches to its own tune, stripping down each of the characters to the bare essentials and redefining them for a new audience.
Perez attributed the Amazons’ mistrust of men to their suffering at the hands of demigod Heracles and his army, who used seduction as their weapon to conquer and imprison the female warriors. Timm’s Justice League recast Hades, Lord of the Underworld, as the handsome aggressor, and the Queen’s one-time suitor, in an attempt to provide Diana with a more visually Satanic foe. This film finally brings Diana’s long-time comic book arch-nemesis Ares, God of War, to the forefront of the action, but re-envisions him as a Justice League-style Hades, Satanic motifs intact, in order to tie him more closely to Hippolyta. In a new twist, Ares’ abuse of the Queen is shown to have resulted in the birth of a son, a situation she rectifies early in the film, providing Ares with ample motivation later on to go after Diana.
For the convenience of the scriptwriters, Ares is portrayed as more of a mortal, which permits Diana to engage him in hand-to-hand combat sequences, but ultimately robs their relationship of the nuanced respect they’ve shared for years in the comics. If Greg Rucka, Phil Jiminez and George Perez were able to spin stories out of Diana and Ares’ opposing ideologies without allowing either to triumph simply by smacking the other in the face, one can only wonder why Simone and Jelenic opted not to rise to the occasion and avoid the typical, tired hero/villain showdown. The end result is an Ares who never really comes across as charming, menacing or powerful as the producers would have intended and the film suffers as a result. Even once he’s finally regained the full breadth of his powers at the end of the movie, his plans are disappointingly one-note. The comic book Diana convinced Ares that launching a nuclear attack on the world would only kill off the worshippers from whose devotion he draws his very existence. If handled correctly, such a conclusion would have made both Diana and Ares look a little more wise, but then I often find myself wondering why Perez’s work isn’t followed more closely.
His Diana was as much an eager, joyful young woman as obedient servant of the Gods. Though she lacks the ability to fly under her own power, a trait she’s had since the 80s, this Wonder Woman is more the captain of her own ship, acting without any prompting from Goddesses or time for tearful farewells. As much as this re-interpretation empowers the character, her likeability suffers, and in that respect, she’s not alone. Hippolyta and the Amazons are shown early on to be remorseless killing machines with a stiff upper lip even when faced with betrayal at the hands of one of their own. Their Paradise Island is less a sanctuary of higher thinking as a prison from which even the Queen secretly hopes to escape. They are defined almost entirely by the abuse they’re suffered and as such, nowhere near the aspirational figures from the comics.
So, it only stands to reason that this Wonder Woman would be similarly unsentimental and battle-ready, not that this accounts for all her odd reactions throughout the movie. When Steve realizes Ares’ presence has incited acts of violence in Greece and Turkey, Diana is content to remain in New York and do tequila shots while waiting for further murders to occur and a pattern to emerge that will better pinpoint her enemy’s location. Later, when she’s threatened by a mugger in an alleyway, this Diana replies “Maybe I want somebody to get hurt”. In one of the movie’s cutest bits, she even teaches a young girl how to impale the boys who refused to allow her to partake in their jousting match. Ambassador of Peace, I think not, and it’s a shame. Whatever you want to say about Carter’s flouncy, grinning Diana, she stole the hearts of a generation in a big way. Even Justice League Unlimited‘s Princess eventually softened up a bit over time. This Diana still has a ways to go and as such, the movie lacks something quintessentially “Wonder Woman”.
From a visual standpoint, though, the film proves the days of groaning over the limitations of digitally-inked animations are far behind us now. The story opens with an epic battle the likes of which we’ve never seen in any previous DCU animated project, and continues to bring cleverly-staged, if somewhat overbearing, action sequences right up until the closing credits. The characters move across the screen with grace, with extra flourishes given to everything from small hand gestures and follow-through movements to hair and clothing. Though the basic look of the movie is still Bruce Timm-influenced and a far cry from Disney-levels of intricacy, the added shadows and diffused light create new, intoxicating environments. The freshness of Themyscira’s air is almost palpable. Its lush, ancient forests contrast nicely with the gritty streets of New York. The cloudy skies, especially, bring a level of realism and sense of scope to the world of the movie that marks a considerable step up.
As far as character designs are concerned, a small controversy was already brewing months ago, when an early promotional image showed Diana bearing more than a passing resemblance to another seemingly ageless icon…Cher. Thankfully, when this Wonder Woman leaps deflects bullets with her silver bracelets, the comparison will quickly be forgotten. Fans will be pleased by several small touches, including Diana’s Greek facial features and her mother’s brunette locks, and disappointed by the one obvious misstep – Ares. Until someone can make a case for why the blue armour he’s worn for the past thirty years is somehow less classic than the Joker’s signature purple suit, I will continue to speak out against this red-and-black look. He’s not Satan and audiences don’t need to see the color red to understand that a villain is evil. Etta Candy gets a similarly disappointing redesign. The “pleasantly plump,” as Timm later puts it comic book wife of Steve Trevor seems to have switched bodies with the typically thin Hades off-screen, who, in Wonder Woman, sits on his throne eating grapes as though he were Dionysus. First-time director Lauren Montgomery can hardly be blamed for wanting to set some of the characters apart from their past incarnations, though, and overall, has much to be proud of.
Perhaps the only aspect of the film that cannot be debated, even by the most particular of critics, is the invaluable contribution of composer Christopher Drake. Hippolyta has two rather moving, if noticeably dialogue-free moments in the picture, first when she sculpts her daughter into existence on a rainy morning and then when she unflinchingly allows her to leave home despite wanting her to stay. Both are bolstered by Drake’s enveloping score, which does most of the heavy lifting, bringing deep emotion to all the scenes and covering for where the script or performances fall short. A soundtrack DC had better be on the way because this man has pulled off quite a feat.
The all-star cast, meanwhile, is something of a mixed bag. Keri Russell (Felicity, Waitress) breaks free from her primetime past as soft-spoken Felicity Porter to deliver a surprisingly confident performance as the titular heroine. Rosario Dawson (Sin City, Seven Pounds) brings an inspiring level of passion and commitment to her role as the Amazon Artemis. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2, The DaVinci Code) and Virginia Madsen (Sideways) play well off each other as Ares and Hippolyta in the opening scene, but fall flat elsewhere. The simple truth of the matter is, voice acting is an art unto itself, and not every actor can bring across a well-rounded performance using only their voice.
Screenwriter Michael Jelenic, with story support from Gail Simone, takes special care to craft a self-contained adventure in no way hampered by the film’s limited running time, a brisk 70 minutes. The overall structure is sound, even though some of the supporting character arcs come off half-baked. Though they aim for a King Triton-like growth on the part of Hippolyta, the character feels more held back than anything else, boxed-in by the script’s desire to portray her largely as a bitter, one-note victim instead of the cautious and loving Queen fans have come to love. Similarly, Jelenic prefers to have Diana’s mission of peace come about as a result of the events of the film. Both are interesting variations, but like Justice League before it, run the risk of leaving fans feeling as though they’re getting an upside-down cake.
Elements like the infamous Invisible jet and Ares’ armies of monsters are thrown in without explanation. The Amazons fly atop winged horses that pop up conveniently for the battle scenes, but otherwise appear not to live on their island. In the climax, Ares calls upon lighting and raises armies of undead warriors, apparently without either Zeus or Hades’ assistance. These sorts of random occurrences don’t initially detract from the picture, but stick out upon repeated viewings.
More successful are the attempts to create chemistry between Steve and Diana, a couple whose Lois and Clark-styled beginnings were gradually abandoned in the comics, leaving Diana without a romantic partner for much of her 60+ year history. Though Simone, current writer of the Wonder Woman book, has been pushing the limits of Diana’s eternal virginity by pairing her up with Tom “Nemesis” Tresser, fans have struggled to warm to the idea of this fresh new suitor having the honour of ‘getting it on’ with the Princess. Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), who plays Diana’s original blonde boy toy as the familiar jackass with a heart of gold everyone knew in college, and is likely to win audiences over with his relatable, mature sense of humour. When Steve quips about the “God of Dependability” or starts spilling his heart out because his foot is stuck in the Lasso of Truth, you can’t help but smile. His “men are pigs” shtick eventually wears thin, but that’s more the fault of the script, whose overall depiction of men leaves much to be desired. He doesn’t completely seem like the perfect man for Princess Diana and there is often more animosity between them than affection, but the same can be said of the movie as a whole. Very close, but no tiara.
Still, this film feels as much like a tactical move as anything else. In creating a functional template for a feature film and proving to audiences that Diana can kick butt without the presence of a Justice League, perhaps Wonder Woman will encourage DC to finally move forward with a live-action film franchise or regular animated series. Then again, the PG-13 rating, with a slightly more bloody R-rated version eventually on the way, and implied sexual content kind of negates this picture from the “kiddie flick” category. Without the support of the Saturday Morning Set – who buy the toys that get cartoon shows turned into movies – can this film really make the impact needed to convince studios that kids, and their parents, will spend cash to see more of the Amazing Amazon? Only time will tell. And what is time to an immortal…?
The Two-Disc Special Edition DVD comes in an amaray case with a slip-cover. There’s a nice foil effect on the slipcase, and the design is much nicer than that of the single-disc, although closer inspection of Diana’s chest plate will reveal a small coloring mistake that’s repeated on the first disc. I can’t quite figure what situation would require her to pose like that, but regardless, it’s eye-catching and far nicer than the cover of the no-frills release.
The menu screen itself has a nice layout – divided into “Play Movie” “Bonus Features” and “Languages” – without some of frustrating animated introductions that are sometimes forced upon us. It’s worth pointing out that although the film is divided up into ten chapters, no chapter menu is included on the main screen.
Now, moving on to the audio/video quality! It’s rather hard for me to speak about the set’s Dolby Surround Sound 5.1 track, not having much of a fancy entertainment set-up. Still, everything sounded good to me! The dialogue was audible, and the mixing provided depth to the action without ever drowning out the lovely score. There are options on the disc for English and French subtitles, but the only spoken language track is in English. The 1.78 Widescreen aspect ratio [16:9 Transfer] is used to full effect. There is a clear sense of scope to the movie, and thankfully no problems with the digital transfer, which is clean of interlacing or ghosting.
Let’s start going over the bonus features on the first disc. Starting off with the commentary track, Timm, Jelenic, Montgomery and DC honcho Gregory Noveck touch on a variety of topics, including an expanded explanation of the Amazon Persephone’s arc, the reasons behind the decision to deny Diana the power of flight and possible ideas for a sequel. There are several unusually long pauses in the track which left me wondering if WB edited out some comments, but it otherwise moves along at a casual, informative pace.
DC comics readers will be excited to see a first-look at the next direct-to-DVD project, Green Lantern, starring the voices of Law and Order: SVU star Chris Meloni as pilot Hal Jordon and Victor Garber as his mentor/foe Sinestro. The piece features the actors and production team commenting vaguely on the plot while storyboards whip past the screen.
Fans who purchased DC’s last DVD movie will recall having seen a similar promotional featurette for the Wonder Woman movie, and it is also included here. The actors and creative team all make brief appearances to drum up interest in the flick and express gratitude to one another for a job well done. Though it clocks in at a brief ten minutes and repeats most of the information included in the featurettes on disc two, it’s worth watching if only to see Rosario Dawson kiss her “guns”.
Two similar features for Batman: Gotham Knight and Justice League: New Frontier are included, along with four trailers – Lego Batman, Inkheart, Scooby Doo and the Samurai Sword and The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest.
The second disc features two documentaries exclusive to this special edition DVD. The first, Wonder Woman: A Subversive Dream touches on William Moulton Marsden’s creation of the character and her metamorphosis into a feminist icon. A Harvard psychologist, Marsden is famous for having created the lie detector machine, which itself became the inspiration for Diana’s Lasso of Truth. Through the use of vintage clips, the doc really succeeds in painting a portrait of the era in which Diana was born. Among those interviewed in the 24-minute-long featurette include Wonder Woman-enthusiast Andy Mangels, various authors and, somewhat amusingly, Playboy figurehead Hugh Hefner. Sadly, the participants stop short of elaborating in detail on why Marsden himself is considered somewhat controversial. Denny O’Neil, meanwhile, whose reinvention of the character in the 1970s robbed her of her powers, costume and, arguably, her identity, is provided a welcome opportunity to explain himself. Curiously, the discussion concludes without mention of Perez’s 1980s relaunch of Wonder Woman, which is surprising given its impact on the movie. Though the feature mostly skims the surface, it still does a good job of explaining to newcomers how Diana’s evolution over time cemented her as a fixture in pop culture.
After that, Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth covers a variety of Wonder Woman-related topics, but begins with a look at the archetypes Marsden drew upon when linking his creation to the world of Greek myths. A quick history lesson on the various Greek Gods is provided, as well as glimpses of some of the remaining temples in Greece. While the participants here are mostly the same as in the last featurette, the piece itself is rather unfocused. Fans will be happy to see mention made of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman series, but disappointed the lady herself makes no appearance. It also clocks it at roughly 24 minutes.
Though rights issues were likely to have played a role, I have to express disappointment over the fact that neither of these featurettes detailed the history of Wonder Woman on the small screen. Having starred in the aforementioned Carter series, and then co-starred in the numerous Hanna Barbera Super Friends cartoons and again on Justice League, it would have been interesting to hear what the various DC and Warner Bros creative teams thought about the evolution of the character with regards to this new movie.
Perhaps to offer us an opportunity to do exactly that, producer Bruce Timm throws in two Diana-centric episodes of his fan favourite series Justice League Unlimited. “Hawk and Dove” focuses on Diana’s battle to control her temper while trying to keep Ares from inciting a civil war. “To Another Shore” is a decidedly more entertaining romp, in which newly christened Ambassador Diana of Themyscira finds herself battling various members of the Legion of Doom when they crash an environmental conference. In addition to Wonder Woman Susan Eisenberg’s great chemistry with Scott Patterson, as Agent King Faraday, the episode also focuses on the most likeable aspect of this version of Diana – her sibling-like relationship with fellow outsider Martian Manhunter.
The second disc also features a Digital Copy for those wanting to download the flick onto their PC, Mac or iPod.
In the end, Wonder Woman doesn’t quite fly. While the movie comes very close to nailing everything a Wonder Woman movie should be, the cast and script miss the mark in some rather important areas. Still, fans of the character and DC Comics in general will find plenty to enjoy in this Special Edition set that will hopefully serve as a first in a long line of further Wonder Woman releases. In other words – let’s bring on a sequel and see if we can’t do better.
Wonder Woman is now available to own on DVD and Blu-ray.
Wonder Woman review written by DisneyBoy.
Note: This review is also available to view at The World’s Finest.