Rating: 3 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
I’ll confess I’ve never seen one episode of the British TV series The Avengers, nor read a single issue of the Bronze Age Wonder Woman comics that were inspired by The Avengers, which changed Wonder Woman from a superhero to a powerless and costume-less martial arts expert. This 1974 made-for-TV film was based on that era, featuring Diana as globetrotting spy with no obvious extra-human abilities. And, to my surprise, it pretty much works. Diana here is an amalgam of James Bond and Moneypenny, posing as Steve Trevor’s secretary, while also being his best secret agent. It’s never clear why she can’t just be an agent there, and why she still takes notes and books meeting rooms and other secretarial work all day long if she’s that good an agent (Wonder Woman seems to be her codename?), but that’s the 70s for you.
When an unknown criminal organization simultaneously steals 10 secret codebooks from five different allied countries, they demand a $15 million ransom or else they’ll reveal the identities of 39 undercover agents, leading to their capture or even their death. Steve Trevor tasks his best men with thinking of a way out of this situation, while preparing the ransom money as a back-up. He also sends Diana out into the field to track down the people behind this. Her “intuition” takes her to a certain Mr. Smith in France, and she soon clashes with his agents there. She chases them from France to New York, but still isn’t able to recover the books. Trevor ends up delivering the money to the demanded drop point (via trained burro!) in a ghost town in the southwest, but Diana covertly follows the burro to Mr. Smith’s secret Grand Canyon lair, where she manages to finally defeat him, recovering both the books and the $15 million. Mr. Smith is so impressed with her skills he declares his love for her as he’s carted away by the authorities.
As a low-budget spy thriller, this works for me. Diana resembles James Bond in her quiet confidence and unflappability. When she arrives at her hotel in France, she’s immediately attacked in the elevator. She simply kicks the assailant out into a hallway, pushes the Close Door button, and then proceeds to her room as if nothing happened, where she seems amused to find a listening device in a bouquet of flowers. She also shares regular sexually-charged “battle of wits” type conversations with George, Mr. Smith’s psychotic second-in-command, though doesn’t actually sleep with him, falling just short of going full 007.
My favorite early moment in Wonder Woman starts with Diana reporting back to Trevor via a phone booth, when a car drives right through the booth to run her down. She dodges out of the way, and then, when she sees the car backing up to try again, does a quick gymnastic move to flip herself up onto an awning. Then she looks at the car as it faces her for the third time, and she smiles. That smile is a great character moment for her. She’s not scared—she’s not even concerned—she’s excited.
Some other great moments for her: After following the car back to a compound (she had put a tracking bracelet on it, because everything is bracelets in this movie), she finds a bottle of her favorite wine (established in an earlier dinner scene with evil George), smells it, and pours it onto the ground. Later in New York there’s a poisonous snake in her hotel room, which wraps itself around her leg. She calmly calls room service and orders a bottle of milk and a saucer (which apparently snakes love? I don’t know, I bought it), tells them to have the server take his shoes off and let himself in, and offers a $50 tip if he can do it within a minute.
The burro thing is hilariously weird. The burro being showered. The burro entering a cave and walking out the other end with three duplicate decoy burros. The burro being carried by a helicopter. Diana riding the burro to confront George. So much burro!
George employs a pair of hired killers, a man and woman, who dress identically and have identical hairstyles. They are truly bizarre and Diana beats them up several times and I love them.
As a story about Diana of Themyscira, this doesn’t work for me. There is an early scene, the first time we see Diana, where she’s saying her farewells to her mother and her fellow Amazons, and there’s a thick film around the camera for some reason (like it’s framed in Vaseline) that completely fails to evoke whatever feeling they wanted it to evoke. The scene itself is not very interesting, and there’s a regular (and unsettling) loud clanging of bracelet-striking-bracelet as Diana continually grasps her sisters’ forearms that reminded me of the scene in Boogie Nights with the firecrackers.
To counter Diana, Mr. Smith hires a rogue Amazon, Ahnjayla, to work for him, and she ends up being pretty useless. Her big scene is a staff fight with Diana (using javelins as staves) and it’s incredibly dull. They never show both actresses in the same frame, so all we see is one of them swinging a staff, and then the other holding up her staff, and there’s a blocking sound. It’s one of the worst fight scenes I’ve seen in any “superhero” film.
Diana’s Wonder Woman costume isn’t inherently bad (it’s a mish-mash between her traditional outfit and her kung fu Bronze Age jumpsuit), but her choice to wear it for the first time when she’s supposed to be in stealth-mode, slyly following the burro to Mr. Smith’s base, is puzzling.