When I was watching Wonder Woman (2017) last Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think about Linda Williams’ essay on melodrama to rationalise what happened at the end. From what I hear it is the ending that tripped up an otherwise well-plotted, well-paced film about a female superhero that “little girls” all around the world have been eagerly anticipating.
If we examine the ending of the film, Diana (Gal Gadot) actually kills Ares twice. The first time she kills a pseudo-Ares and expects the entire weapons facility to stop loading up Dr. Poison’s (Elena Anaya) deadly mustard-gas-on-steroids bombs into the plane. Except they don’t.
Then the real Ares reveals himself to her and they fight. As she fights him, she suddenly hears Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) last words to her and draws strength from them. She defeats Ares in an amazing light show of flying fists charged with lightning and the German soldiers are freed of Ares’ influence.
The second ending didn’t go over well with critics. The question is why?
Linda Williams, in her essay “Melodrama Revised,” built on arguments made by Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill that melodrama is more than just another genre. Melodrama is a kind of base mode that undergirds all genres. Evidence of the imbrication of melodrama across various genre is seen in the 5 characteristics of melodrama she delineates in her essay. I summarised them in a previous post and if you’re curious, you can go here and here.
With regards to Wonder Woman though, I want to concentrate on how at its core, melodrama is a search for and a desperate attempt to recoup a space of innocence. And in order to achieve this, the film will oftentimes overreach in order to achieve this. In the words of Linda Williams, “One of the key features of melodrama… is its compulsion to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’ – that is, its tendency to find solutions to problems that cannot really be solved” (Williams 37).
At this point, the realism, or the filmic representation of the real that the film tries to pass off as THE REAL, breaks down.
Granted that Wonder Woman, as a superhero, is an element that is already in excess of the Real, within the construction of the film, there is a baseline of realism that the film, its plots, and its characters all come together to simulate. This can be in the form of emotional and psychological realism of the characters. For instance, Charles (Ewen Bremmer), the sniper from their merry band of fighters, is clearly established as someone who has been broken by the war.
Add to this that the film is a fictional revisioning of a key part of history, and Wonder Woman becomes a film with a specific register of realism. And it needs to adhere to this in order to be believable, in order for audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief. Unfortunately, in the second ending, the film overreaches. Quite drastically.
When a film overreaches in pursuit of the reconciliation of irreconcilable elements, it deploys all of its formalistic elements to this end. This includes:
- The sudden powering up of Diana accompanied by the over the top lightning show of CGI capabilities, a formalistic element that calls unnecessary attention to itself
- Suddenly hearing Steve Trevor’s voice, which the HISHE reviewer (see below) points out she couldn’t possibly have because she was still suffering the after effects of the bomb blast
- The swelling music
- The idyllic scenery/pathetic fallacy – the rising sun, the breaking of dawn, the dawning of the new day – these are settings we have been taught to associate with a fresh start, a dispelling of evil
- The minor characters’ reactions – the German soldiers are released from Ares’ influence. They take off their gas masks and we see their smiling faces
…in short, whatever it took to save the day. The end result is that the space of innocence is recuperated. Diana’s world view is confirmed and the war ends because Ares has been defeated.
Compare this to the first ending in which she mistakenly thinks she’s vanquished Ares. This is the point where Diana comes to a number of key realisations, all of which ring more true to the viewer that the ending we actually got…
- Killing one key figure in a war may do nothing to stop it
- The true extent of the mechanisation of war in WWI
- a precursor to Nazi compartmentalisation in the concentration camps in WWII that made it possible for ordinary people to do evil things – Excerpt from The Banality of Evil by Edward S. Herman
- Mankind is inherently predisposed towards violence
The point at which melodrama overtakes realism in Wonder Woman is also marked by two other aspects in the film.
When she first encounters Ares, she sees him through a glass window. When she rushes inside the guard tower to confront him, he reappears outside. I choose to see this as a nod to the weepies of the 1930s & 40s – like Stella Dallas (1937), Mildred Pierce (1945) – a genre that was said to be a woman’s genre. It was also a genre that was full of women either looking out of windows wishing to be free, or looking into rooms through windows hoping to be part of something.
The other aspect that read as melodrama was the trite suggestion that love conquers all. The recourse to emotion, especially when there wasn’t very much of it in the film other than the romantic love shared by Steve Trevor and Diana, felt a little lightweight. The film didn’t establish any sort of love for all humanity, or pity for one’s enemy in its earlier scenes. Quite the contrary, the Amazonians had a fairly harsh attitude towards humanity, and Diana trashes a bunch of Germans without mercy in no man’s land. So the 180 she does at the end comes across as a little superficial.
After comparing the two possible endings, it’s time to ask which is the real ending.
I was kinda taken by the observation made in the HISHE review that Diana may not have actually heard Steve Trevor’s voice at all and all she did was believe she did. This would either make her really idealistic, or delusional… If emotional and psychological realism have been established in the film, would this mean that Diana’s experience in WWI has left her with some kind of PTSD? I think I would prefer this darker ending because how can you deal with death and destruction on such a scale and walk away untouched by it?
However, having said all of this, Wonder Woman is a fantastic film. Great cast, great pacing, fantastic music, wonderfully shot action sequences. Go catch it!
And can I just say that Chris Pine is a fine actor. People shouldn’t have been surprised. Anyone who’s seen him in Hell or High Water (2016) would know this.
Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres, 42-88.