“Wonder Woman” Isn’t Bad. It’s Boring.

This by-the-numbers, visually dull movie doesn’t deserve the praise it received.

Ninety-two percent of reviewers, according to Rotten Tomatoes, liked Wonder Woman — which just shows the limits of the site’s methodology. “Like” is such a milquetoast evaluation. A shrug of “Yeah, I thought it was decent enough” counts equally with “This was a genre defining cinematic breakthrough.” Lukewarm is indistinguishable from ecstasy.

After watching Wonder Woman, I have to think its 92% is of the lukewarm variety. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a good one, either. And its not-badness is perhaps inflated by the fact that it follows on two much less critically liked DC films.

Call it the Sigh of Relief method of movie reviewing. When expectations are low, or at least worry high, a movie that’s not bad gets reviewed as if it’s really good, because it allayed the fears of reviewers. After Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, expectations were low. (Though the latter film received far more negativity than it deserved.)

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Still, Wonder Woman’s sigh of relief is earned. Nothing stands out as aggressively bad, and there are quite a few things to like. Wonder Woman herself is super charismatic. Gal Gadot delivers an effortless performance. She’s not asked to do much, but she plays the role with enormous charisma. Godot is a far better Wonder Woman than Ben Affleck is Batman or Henry Cavill is Superman. (I say this as someone relatively unfamiliar with the source material, so it’s possible she misses in that regard, but within the context of the DC movies, she works well.)

Yet, beyond Gadot’s character, Wonder Woman feels entirely disposable. I liked that the movie was self-contained, instead of taking the Marvel strategy of every movie just being a cold open for the next, but story’s thin, the villains remarkably boring, and, most tragically for a DC movie, the visuals dull.

There’s not a single interesting visual filmmaking moment in Wonder Woman. The whole thing lacks any sense of style. Say what you will about Snyder, but he has an eye for gorgeous shots. Patty Jenkins does not. Wonder Woman looks more like a Marvel movie with heavier color grading than it does a DC movie as Snyder established them.

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Like is so often the case with comic book films, if Wonder Woman hadn’t been called “Wonder Woman,” but featured a super hero with all the same traits but a different name, and without the build-in fan base, it would’ve received at best low to middling reviews. There were good moments, sure, but it’s certainly not a movie I’d ever feel like watching again.

It does feature the best theme of any superhero to date, though.


The Contrasting Visual Styles of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes

Comparing what DC’s doing with their cinematic universe to what Marvel’s up to isn’t just about critics’ reviews or quality of scripts. Marvel has the leg up, at least right now, on both accounts. But there’s a more interesting divide, one that shows a fundamentally different approach to how a comic should make the transition to screen.

Let’s start with DC. Their style, so vivid in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, goes back to Zack Snyder’s first comic book adaptation, 300, and his first DC adaptation, Watchmen. Say what you will about their other features, but both are visually extraordinary and, more important to the central difference between DC and Marvel, both look like comic books. This isn’t just obsessive use of comic panels in composing shots, though that’s part. It’s that these movies, wherever they’re set, aren’t our world. They happen in one of the weird places that exist somewhere else. The landscape isn’t ours, nor the architecture. The colors are “wrong.” The sounds, too. These movies take the visual language of their source material and make it move.

DC continued this with Snyder’s first two movies formally in the new cinematic universe. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have heavy color grading, stark lighting, conspicuously framed shots, and so on. The latter movie in particular feels often artificial, not in a negative sense (though some might argue it is a negative), but in the way that pencil and ink are artificial, that the art of someone like Jae Lee is artificial compared to the photographic style of Alex Ross or Timothy Bradstreet. The movie is explicitly designed to look like another world. It’s explicitly designed to look like a Batman comic book.

We might summarize DC’s approach as bringing comic books to the screen. The trailers for Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad look like it’s an approach they’re sticking with.

Marvel goes in the opposite direction. The Marvel Studios movies are shot to look like our world. In fact, they’re shot without much of a recognizable visual style, and they tend to attach directors not known for visual style, as good as they might be in other ways. Setting aside the few films that explicitly take place elsewhere (Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor movies), if you pulled the superheroes and the scifi tech out any given shot, you’d likely have no way of knowing you were watching a genre movie.

So if DC’s cinematic universe is intended to look like comic panels brought to life, Marvel’s style is showing what our world would look like if it had superheroes in it.

This of course fits each publisher. Marvel’s thing, going back to Stan Lee, is to present its heroes as regular people with super powers. DC’s characters — at least the most famous ones with the maybe exception of Batman — are instead creatures of myth, demigods not at all like mortal men.

This divide means the two universes are keyed to telling different sorts of stories, though I think Marvel’s approach better allows for the integration of cosmic level characters than DC’s allows for street level, personal stuff. Regardless, it’ll be fun to see how much this style continuity continues.


Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition is a good movie

I never saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice during its theatrical run. I saw reviews, the scathing piling on that had DC partisans crying conspiracy, claiming the only way the critics could say it was that bad was if they were on the Disney take.

I assumed the movie was bad. And maybe it was. But the Ultimate Edition, which adds what I gather are quite a lot of missing scenes, isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty great. I watched it on a whim, not expecting much, and found myself consistently surprised. This may be the most I’ve enjoyed a superhero movie since Nolan wrapped his Dark Knight trilogy. It makes me excited for Justice League, which isn’t something I expected.

What I liked

The visuals. The Marvel movies have a specific aesthetic, the result of their broader approach to making superheroes live action. Namely, they’re shot to look like what you’d get if you dropped costumed vigilantes into the real world, the world we actually live in. It’s our world, it just happens to have these minor gods walking around in it. Zach Snyder goes for something different. He brings the look of the comics to the screen. Batman v Superman isn’t our world, it’s a moving comic. The result — as we got before in Man of Steel and Watchmen — is far more visually interesting than anything from Marvel Studios. Snyder frames his shots with more attention to detail, composes them more carefully. There are moments of genuine beauty in his use of color and light. I’ve long thought that superheros are better served by animation than live action. They aren’t meant to look real and so when you make them real — putting an actor in a suit — they come off more like cosplay than like characters brought to life. Snyder’s aesthetics keep that from happening. The MCU’s do not.

Ben Affleck. Here’s a guy who was born to play Bruce Wayne. And he owns the role. Others, like Christian Bale, are better actors overall, but nobody — nobody — looks more like he stepped off the comic page than Affleck. (The only thing that could’ve made him better is if they’d dubbed in Kevin Conroy’s voice.) A perfect casting.

Lex Luthor. The trouble with many comic book flicks is their forgettable villains. The second Thor movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, really any of the Marvel films without Loki or Ultron, all of them are just big, tough bad guys with gravelly voices and rage. There’s no charisma. Same thing held with earlier DC Universe films. But Batman v Superman’s Lex Luthor works. I’m not sure his plan works, but you can see why he does what he does and how he’s crazy enough to think it’s the right plan.

What I didn’t like

Batman and guns. On the one hand, the angrier, more violent Batman we got was cool. This is an older Bruce, the Bruce of Dark Knight Returns. He’s sick of this shit and wants to break things. But having him mount actual for real bullet shooting guns on his bat vehicles crosses a well-established line for the character. Having him hold a gun in his hands and kill people with it goes even further. It was unnecessary and I hope they walk it back in future films.

Alfred. Jeremy Irons needles Bruce, as he should, but he somehow manages to make that needling come off less like frustration and more like contempt. The whole point of the Alfred/Bruce relationship is that Alfred, no matter how much he puts up with and no matter how many times he’s disappointed, loves Bruce Wayne. He wants, more than anything, to see Bruce happy, even if that means — especially if that means — giving up Batman. Irons’s Alfred does not love Bruce Wayne. He despises him.

The other super guys. Wonder Woman was okay. But our brief glimpses of the rest of the JLA, especially Flash in his silly outfit, brought the movie back in that cosplay direction Synder’d been otherwise so good at avoiding.

What I didn’t care much about either way

The plot. Yes, there were plot holes. Far fewer, I take it, than in the theatrical release, but still plot holes. A plot that holds up on further reflection is too high a bar for super hero movies, though. What matters is that the plot not be so nonsense that it distracts while watching the movie. This test the film passes. It’s silly, yes, but so were all the plots of Scott Snyder’s magnificent run on the Batman comic. You have to just accept those things, as long as they’re not too bad. And Batman v Superman’s plot wasn’t too bad.

The thing about super hero movies for me is that, other than Batman, I don’t much care about any of these characters. I don’t have anything invested in the DC or Marvel universe because I don’t often read comics anymore, and when I did, I wasn’t a super hero guy.

What this means is I approach these movies differently than a fan would. There needs to be something to grab my attention beyond seeing a dude dressed up as Iron Man or the Green Lantern. Batman v Superman gave me that, particularly with its frequently stunning visuals and its remarkably excellent score.

It wasn’t as good as Nolan’s work, but it was better than all but a couple of the Marvel movies and Zach Snyder deserves far more credit than he got.

But, then, I felt the same way about Watchmen.