One of the summer’s most anticipated films, Wonder Woman promised us a hero’s journey steeped in classical mythology but firmly grounded in our own contemporary matters, all wrapped up in an empowering story of feminine bad-ass-itude. We got a little of that, but what was there was buried so deeply in a mire of bad storytelling that it could easily elude even the most sensitive of Hephaestian metal detectors.
Wonder Woman’s flaws are apparent right from the very first scene. We begin with a framing device that situates the audience in the contemporary DC film universe before introducing us to the plot device that will bring us to our real story. Diana Prince – Wonder Woman – admires a newly acquired photograph of herself and a group of First World War soldiers, and, in case that wasn’t enough to indicate that this is a storytelling prompt, there is also a note from Batman himself expressing a desire to hear the story behind the picture. So far, despite being overly long, this framing device has served its purpose. We’ve had our world established and we’ve been introduced to a maguffin that interests us in the story – II, at least, was very interested in seeing what Wonder Woman was up to at the Battle of the Somme.
But when we fade out of this framing device and into the past, we fail to emerge in the trenches of the Western Front, but instead find ourselves in classical Greece. We are now ten minutes into the movie without a hint of plot or any motivation for the protagonist – or even a protagonist, for that matter. But this need not be disastrous, so long as we get an inciting incident, a character goal, and an obstacle within the next minute or two. Heartbreakingly, the first person we see here on the Greek island of Themyscira is a young Diana Prince and we know that in addition to an unnecessary framing story we are also going to get a prologue.
Setting aside the adorableness of young Diana, the beautiful scenery, and the meta enjoyment of seeing the Princess Bride as an Amazonian bad-ass, the prologue is a storytelling mess. We know from the framing device that what we are watching has nothing to do with the story we are here to see, and these minutes of delay are filled with an uncomfortable purposelessness that had me checking my watch and wondering when Wonder Woman was going to arrive and when the movie was going to start. The prologue itself didn’t have much in the way of plot or character arc, but that by itself needn’t be painful – after all, prologues exist to give the audience some background information necessary for understanding the plot of the main event.
But, even after spending too long on the framing narrative, this prologue goes on and on and on until, after nearly twenty minutes, the prologue transforms into a first act without any warning and still without having introduced a plot element or a character motivation. Moreover, the inciting incident, when it finally comes, isn’t especially inciting. An American spy (Chris Pine) appears, with the German navy in hot pursuit to retrieve the maguffin he’s stolen. Themyscira finds itself under assault from Kaiser Wilhelm’s marines, and while the Princess Bride dies tragically in the battle, the Amazon’s ultimately prevail. And that’s the end of it. Themyscira is in no more danger and needs no protecting from Wonder Woman. All that’s left to do is decide whether to let Chris Pine return to the War.
Chris Pine’s description of the First World War incites Diana to leave Themyscira to take up arms against the cartoonishly evil Germans whom she believes to be the servants of Ares (the Amazons’ nemesis) and therefore a danger to Themyscira. Yet, this threat is vague and devoid of urgency, and even Diana’s mother, the Queen Hippolyta, thinks that Diana is overreacting. The idea here is to create an immediate obstacle to Diana’s goal of leaving the island, but all this does is undermine the scope and urgency of Diana’s sudden character motivation by signaling to the audience that nothing is actually at stake for the protagonist or her community. This is hardly a Campbellian call to adventure and rather feels like the movie Star Wars would have been if Obi Wan Kenobi had been written out of it.
Ultimately, we move into a second act without a clear motivation for our protagonist. Diana has no immediately discernible purpose and no obstacle to overcome. Rather, she is accompanying Chris Pine on his clearly defined mission, reducing Wonder Woman to the role of overpowered sidekick. Even after Chris Pine accomplishes his goal and takes on a new mission to destroy the world-ending maguffin, Diana persists in helping him rather than working to achieve her own (still nebulous) goals. As we move into the third act, some conflict emerges between Diana and Pine over tactical decisions about which route to take and whether they should be looking for the maguffin itself or the person who created it. This conflict feels false and contrived – easily solved over a beer – and seems to be signal that the writers finally realized that they were two-thirds of the way through the movie and still weren’t sure what the protagonist’s goals were.
As the third act progresses, we find Chirs Pine continuing to search for the maguffin while Diana searches for its creator – whom she believes is Ares. Each believes that his or her way will save the world, but the audience is never given enough information to come down firmly on one side or another, and so, while we know that the world is going to end if something isn’t done, we don’t know what that something is or for whom we should be rooting. In the end, they both achieve their goal. Chris Pine sacrifices himself to blow up the maguffin while Diana defeats Ares in single combat. Still, even as the credits are rolling, we aren’t sure what Diana accomplished because the stakes of temporarily defeating Ares were never clearly articulated. Without clear stakes for Diana’s struggles and with Chris Pine making the ultimate sacrifice in the accomplishment of his own goals, the film ends with Wonder Woman still playing the role of Chris Pine’s sidekick.
Indeed, of all the characters in the film it is only Chris Pine whose arc maps onto the Campbellian hero’s journey, even if we see his story from Wonder Woman’s perspective and come into it in media res. Chris Pine is the one who has been called to adventure to defend his community against foreign baddies. Chris Pine goes into the belly of the whale and emerges into a fantastical world. Chris Pine gathers supernatural aid in the form of Wonder Woman’s help. This element is particularly revealing as, early on, we see Wonder Woman gathering her special sword on Themyscira seemingly fulfilling this part of the Campbellian journey … only to discover later that there was never anything special about that sword – that she was the god-killing weapon all along. And who gathered her? Chris Pine.
Wonder Woman wasn’t all bad. Much of it was quite enjoyable, and it was more than a little refreshing to see a woman carrying a summer action film. But ultimately the character is let down by her own story – a story that constantly thrusts her into the role of sidekick. Wonder Woman demonstrates to writers how important it is for our protagonists to have clear goals, motivations, and obstacles. No amount of beautiful prose or cool world-building can make up for the absence of a discernible story.