Contemporary Hollywood is the superhero movie. A timely mix of the appropriation of a once niche culture by the mainstream fueled through star-studded scoops into wells of intellectual property, superhero cinema continues Hollywood’s centennial trend of transporting audiences into unreal worlds while maintaining the capitalist status-quo of valuing the unique efficacy of the individual over collective action.
The contemporary dominant taste regarding the superhero film, I feel, revolves around a carefully pitched balance of fantasy and pathos. The spectator demands relocation into a world unlike our own while riding on the backs of believable characters with which she identifies. Man of Steel (2013) was derided for its lack of coherent pathos amid a flurry of over-wrought fantasy, while Superman Returns (2006) faced pushback for its supposedly “arthouse” treatment of emotion without giving Kal-el his proper supernatural due. Wonder Woman soars because it deeply understands these essential components to effective superhero cinema, and the result is an earnest, unironic treatment of characters’ feelings and the fantastic world they inhabit.
The film stars Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, a native of Themyscira, aka the island home of the Amazons (warrior women created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war). Trained by General Antiope (Robin Wright) in combat, Prince leaves the island upon the intervention of WWI with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in the hopes of defeating Ares amid his brutal “endless war.” She arrives on British shores, and discovers the breadth of her powers while encountering a cadre of supremely performed baddies and Brits.
Woman soars as a piece of supernatural spectacle. Its fight sequences are beautiful and coherent, resisting the brutal hyper-intensified continuity popularized by Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay that asserts a homogenous haze over any given moment of combat. Rather, the fighting is crisp, punchy, and at times intentionally slow (given director Patty Jenkins’ penchant for stretching out any particularly cinematic frame into slow motion, not unlike her DC contemporary Zack Snyder).
Jenkins has also a penchant for performances, as evident by Pine’s delightfully idiosyncratic take on the WWI-era spy, and Gadot’s refreshing steel amid a narrative lousy with men working to halt her movement. Milking the film for expressiveness in costuming, color, and the crannies on its supporting actors’ faces, it’s clear Jenkins doesn’t mess around when orchestrating a good time. Jenkins’ camera treats the human face in particular with such refreshing clarity and space that Woman reminded me continually of Béla Balázs’ writing on physiognomy in early cinema.
In his essay “The Face of Man,” the classical theorist treated close-ups of the human face as gateways into “a new dimension,” rooted in the idea that the human face is the visual essence of human-ness (130). So powerful is physiognomy that it bears no relation to space; rather, it transports the spectator to another dimension of subtle and infinitely varying emotional information (131).
Jenkins’ long takes of human faces emoting in Wonder Woman are an effortless example of the power of Balázs’ physiognomy, as they work to transport the spectator outside the spatial confines of Woman’s narrative and move her, generating an at times transcendent effect in the cinema. This is an achievement in the superhero genre, as it strikes a lovely balance with the film’s spectacle. It’s a wonderful movie.
Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” Ed. Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White. Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston: Bedford, 2011. 130-35. Print.