Netflix’s In Wonder Dares to Ask, “Is Shawn Mendes Superman?”

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Netflix’s In Wonder Dares to Ask, “Is Shawn Mendes Superman?”

Canadian pop superstar Shawn Mendes is a quintessential Gen-Z success story. The 22-year-old sensation rose to prominence by going viral on Vine (R.I.P.), with his six-second covers catching the eye of his now-manager Andrew Gertler and earning him an Island Records deal at age 15. He’s since released three chart-topping albums, with another, Wonder, arriving in early December. Enter In Wonder, in which veteran music video director Grant Singer (who’s worked with The Weeknd, Lorde, Sam Smith, Ariana Grande, Mendes and many other A-listers) provides what’s billed as an “unguarded” look at life in the eye of Mendes’ tropical storm of adulation. As you might expect of a documentary on an artist of his stature—on which the subject himself is an executive producer, as are Gertler and Singer—In Wonder is less a revealing window into Mendes’ world and more an extended hype reel for his forthcoming album. Its aggressively wholesome 83 minutes don’t interrogate Mendes’ private life, but rather bump into it on occasion before continuing on their way, leaving the star’s squeaky-clean aura entirely intact.

The “journey toward self-discovery” promised by In Wonder essentially just serves as a pretext for us to spend some time looking over Mendes’ broad shoulders, both on his recent world tour and in the studio, an easy sell for his many adoring fans. After an opening sequence that vaguely gestures towards the escape Mendes finds in performance (“I’m just a guy, and I love music,” he confesses), we join him in São Paulo, where his tour has done such a number on his vocal cords; he’s speaking via the text-to-voice function on his phone. It’s from this moment of crisis—well, by In Wonder’s standards, anyway—that we rewind through the singer’s entire life, retracing his path to the top of the pops. The story, much like Mendes himself, is charmingly devoid of controversy. In a total inversion of the “tortured artist” archetype, Mendes describes a frictionless, dream-fostering upbringing: “My parents, my friends, nobody for one second looked at me and said you’re crazy. Everyone was like, ‘Go for it.’” It’s easy to see why, as we’re shown Mendes commanding the star treatment at his literal first concert, during which he’s rushed onto the stage by security past throngs of screaming fans (read: teenage girls)—Mendes-mania was fully formed from the jump.

As such, In Wonder is less concerned with what little adversity Mendes has faced along the way (though it does make a late-breaking effort to gin some up) and more fascinated by how easy he makes managing all that stardom seem. A not-insignificant portion of the doc’s runtime consists of Mendes making a point to warmly greet various venue staffers, crew members and random fans. He remains close to his family and old friends, with fond memories of his hometown of Pickering, Ontario, and a reverence for adjacent Toronto’s Roger Centre—he sells the massive arena out after writing that goal out repeatedly in his “manifestation journal,” with that triumphant show serving as In Wonder’s midpoint. There’s no industry exploitation, no being hounded by paparazzi, no self-destructive rock ‘n’ roll excess. Mendes himself is near-impossible to dislike—he’s preternaturally talented and driven, and looks like he was created in a handsome man factory, sweet and ebullient. He comes across as Justin Bieber without the asshole streak, a well-adjusted kid forgoing every excuse to get a big head, and his only Achilles heel appears to be that he cares too much and works too hard (a flaw not lost on his partner and collaborator, “Señorita” singer Camila Cabello, whose occasional appearances, specifically her duets with Mendes, are catnip for pop enthusiasts). The most interesting question of In Wonder, then, is where the act ends and the human being begins. Surely Mendes has his flaws, right? And Singer plans to put them on unflinching display?

The answer is … not really. Remember, In Wonder shows us its cards from the get-go: Mendes is “just a guy who loves music,” and by the end of the doc, once we’ve followed him from the 72nd show of his world tour to the 105th, we wind up right back at that pat level of insight. “I wish, at the end of this tour, I had some profound thing to say about all of this, but you know what the truth is?” Mendes muses. “You walk up on the stage and you look around and you think, ‘I’m just a guy who really loves music. Time to let go.’” Again, for fans, that’s plenty. Why look the gift horse that is Mendes’ “magic”—a term he uses frequently throughout In Wonder, and seems to view as the ultimate aim of his work—in the mouth? So while Singer’s film delivers on its promise as a smorgasbord for Mendes-maniacs, it mostly glosses over that journey we were promised, undermining quite a bit of what In Wonder otherwise does well.

Without any real arc to Mendes’ trajectory—a straight line from unfettered success to success fettered only by vocal wear and tear, with a “dark night of the soul” consisting of a single canceled show, for which his fans immediately and unequivocally forgive him—In Wonder can’t do much more than coast on its subject’s charisma, as its attempts to set higher stakes fall flat. Its images of Mendes performing emphatically in front of packed arenas, roaring seas of silhouettes and cell phone flashlights, are consistently stunning, and it’s exhilarating to follow Mendes into the audience at the conclusion of each show, hugging and high-fiving his weeping front-row fans, the camera bobbing behind him. But these scenes aren’t complicated in any compelling way, amounting to little more than empty spectacle. The moment is never too big for Mendes, taking the air out of those sweeping crowd shots.

Mass adulation is simply depicted as the norm for Mendes, and though he touches briefly on his desire for a standard young-adulthood, free of the ever-mounting pressures of stardom (“intense” is the harshest descriptor he brings to bear on these), he remains unbothered by them. Screaming strangers surrounding his van are presented not as a constant stressor, but as “a dream,” with Ólafur Arnalds’ beautiful score (which In Wonder rarely earns) reinforcing that oddly rosy assessment. It’s as if Mendes knows who butters his bread and can’t bring himself to admit, except in passing, that that level of attention can be paralyzing. Even his revelations to that effect are leavened with diplomatic gratitude and softened by his wholesome charm: “[Sometimes] I just want to hang with my parents and watch movies. Drive around a suburb and lay on a soccer field and, you know, smoke a joint and stare at the stars with my friends, and like, eat some beef jerky.” And who could blame him? But these flashes of tension between Mendes and his public persona are too few and far between, as In Wonder sacrifices those avenues at the altar of the singer’s all-consuming, “Olympic athlete”-esque dedication to making “magic.” The doc has its cake and eats it, too, reaffirming Mendes’ vulnerability without putting much of anything on the line. The 19-year-old who sang about being “overwhelmed and insecure” on “In My Blood” is hardly anywhere to be found.

In Wonder’s revealing final scene finds Mendes in the studio, recording a quiet piano track, the intro to his album inspired by those grueling months on the road. “You have a million different faces / but they’ll never understand / unless you let them in,” he sings. “You’ve been a million different places / Still unsure where it’ll end / Stuck in wonderland.” Mendes’ wonderland is alluring, indeed, but that understanding remains elusive.

Director: Grant Singer
Release Date: Nov. 23, 2020

Scott Russell is an associate music editor at Paste and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.

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