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Both pleasing and problematic.
on March 3, 2009
Created in 1941 by American scientist William Marston (with assists from his wife Elizabeth and their polyamourous lover Olive Byrne), Diana of Themyscira, Wonder Woman, has become one of the most famous heroes in comics. She is usually counted among the "Big Three" of DC, her owners, alongside Superman and Batman. This is, however, illusory in many respects; the character has never received even a fraction of the popular or creator attention of her alleged compeers (having, for example, to settle for a supporting role in Bruce Timm's own DC Animated Universe when the others got series of their own). This is the first new solo Wonder Woman project in any medium apart from comics in more than thirty years.
As mentioned, Timm and co. have worked with the character before, on "Justice League Unlimited", an exercise which was frankly a disastrous adaptation of the character. Stripped of her personality and most of the important parts of her origin, with her villains and supporting cast either not there at all or bland ciphers, very little of what made the character great came through there. I was apprehensive approaching this DVD, because, while a huge fan of Timm's animation, his track record with Wonder Woman is not good. It was also hardly encouraging for writer Michael Jelenic to admit to not having known anything about the character before he was assigned to the film. I should say, some spoilers are to be found.
The basic plot, as has been outlined in the other reviews here, is in common with Diana's previous comics origin stories: Ares, God of War (Mars, in Marston's original version) is loose and out to destroy the world, and it is up to the champion of his rivals in the Greek Pantheon to stop him. The Amazons, mythical race of warrior women, hold a contest to determine who will face the threat, and Diana, defying her mother's wishes, enters and wins. Whether or not she is accompanied by Steve Trevor as a love interest varies; here, she is. Nothing revolutionary here, but there's no reason to radically change a solid and important story (which Timm and co. did in JLU).
The animation is beautiful; by far the best stuff in any of the DC DVDs they've done so far. The Wonder Woman design is appreciably Greek, athletic and powerful while still very beautiful (though DC's own artists have a hard time rendering this version of the design consistently on the posters and other promotional material; compare the covers of the single- and two-disk versions of this DVD) and many other characters, such as Artemis, are rendered more or less perfectly. The film can also be pretty funny, and it's pretty bloody, too; the battle scenes are close to flawless. This is easily the finest action yet depicted onscreen in DC's animated efforts, which is quite a high bar to clear. Bettering JLU, there's a more serious take on the character's mythology here, both in terms of the actual Greek mythology and Themysciran society, which in this case is inhabited by some actual characters with more than one dimension, rather than a bunch of drones lorded over by Diana's undeveloped mother.
And now we arrive at the parts of the story where the writers are asked to really interpret the character, and, once again, they trip (though on the whole I'd say not as badly). Sigh. I know (moreso than most, even) that Wonder Woman as a character has had a lot of different takes over her 70-year history, but in the broad scheme of things, there are in fact thematic elements that have been consistent from Marston onward. One of these, and really chief to the whole character, is that the Amazons are a superior and enlightened society who prize culture and the arts as high as martial prowess, love peace, and are meant to bring it to the wider world and save it. Get that through your skulls, Timm and co: superior society. Not "bloodthirsty Xena clones" and "strawman feminist". Because that's more or less what they are here, just like in JL/U. They're aggressively misandrist, to a point that they'e never been in the comics outside of abortions like Amazons Attack. If anything, they learn a valuable lesson on tolerance from Steve Trevor. They've got no philosophy or higher ideas here.
Speaking of Steve Trevor, he's back in his Silver Age form, ie, sexist cad. Why do writers keep thinking a feminist hero should fall in love with a cad who is constantly making jokey, piggish advances? I mean, if you want him as a love interest instead of the Perez version, at least go with Perez's take on his personality: Post-Crisis Steve was a competent, gentlemanly fellow.
On the subject of Diana's power levels; getting the thing that most people will talk about out of the way, she can't fly, which is lame (because creators are all obsessed with that stupid jet), but not insurmountable; the bigger issue is that her power levels are wildly inconsistent. When she first meets Steve, they get into a fist fight, at which he, in another unbelievable moment, actually holds his own for a bit, both in terms of martial arts proficiency and knocking her around. In other scenes (such as the clip they've shown online of her fighting Deimos), she's a mid-tier bruiser, throwing guys through walls and punching them across the room. Jelenic seems desperate to avoid any suggestion that Steve isn't Diana's equal in order to not offend male audience members, which is a terrible way to approach this sort of thing; Steve is not Diana's equal in combat in the slightest, nor should he have to be.
Setting aside these things (which, apart from power levels, are subjective, I suppose), parts of the plot/character-interaction are just baffling. Consider, after winning the Contest while in disguise to avoid her mother's ban on entering, Diana unmasks before the crowd and her mother, the Queen, who...has no reaction to this, whatsoever. That's a pivotal moment in the story, but Hippolyta just blankly offers congratulations. This has always been a key moment in the characters' relationship, but instead, there's nothing.
Timm's best work (ie, most of it) shows audiences the core of his heroes, what makes them unique and awesome as characters. Jelenic, the writer, mentioned something along these lines in his interviews: when talking about Hippolyta, he described her as "almost Wonder Woman, but she isn't, which leads you to the question of why isn't she Wonder Woman? What is is about her and Diana that makes Diana Wonder Woman?"
Jelenic never answers his own question. The war with Ares ultimately requires of Diana nothing that her mother couldn't have done, or Artemis (and not just because the Amazons all have the same powers here); absolutely anybody can use the Lasso of Truth here (indeed, it's Hippolyta's), and the defeat of Ares comes when Diana kills him with her sword.
Ooooh, nobody else could have done that. Except they can, and they do.
The contrast with George Perez's work in "Gods & Mortals" is just jarring here; Perez and later writers (such as Byrne, whose work on the character I find problematic in a lot of respects, did a lot of good in this respect) connect Diana's lasso with something inherent in her character, her devotion to Truth. When Perez's Diana faced down the God of War, she couldn't defeat him physically; instead, she realized that that wouldn't work, and instead she uses the lasso to show him that if he gets his wish to unleash ultimate war on the world in the nuclear age, he'll destroy the world, and thus all his worshippers, and, ultimately, he and the other gods will die too. That's something that nobody else could have done; that's why it was crucial that Wonder Woman save the world. Superman would have failed there; Batman would have failed; the rest of the JLA would have failed. It's Diana's wisdom (sufficient to outreason a god) and her special truth power that save the day.
I mean, it's great that they depict her as a great combatant, but that's the bare minimum for any superhero; we go a bit further here by having her and the other Amazons unapologetically use lethal force (suck on that, Geoff Johns), which is a bonus. But, fundamentally, the creators' answer here for what makes Wonder Woman cool and unique as a superhero is that she beats people up real good. The lasso is just an accessory that they use as fodder for jokes about people telling the truth a la "Liar Liar", rather than something that says something profound about her.
Maturity is more than just showing blood and making titty jokes; it's frustrating, when writers have laid the groundwork for a far more adult and intelligent Wonder Woman, one that wouldn't run afoul of any censor, Timm and his very talented associates seem incapable of taking us there.