Monday, July 17, 2017

About That "Wonder Woman" Movie

Wonder Woman was never one of my favorite superheroes, even though I was always more invested in DC properties than Marvel ones. Princess Diana of Themiscyra has a complicated origin story, a bunch of random powers that don't seem to go together, and no particularly interesting allies or villains associated with her. Being a "Justice League" fan I was familiar with her, and I've liked the various bits of media that have featured her over the years - including an excellent animated direct-to-video feature from a few years back. However, I wouldn't count myself as a fan.

And now here come Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins to give us a live action Wonder Woman who I finally feel like cheering for. Her origin story still strikes me as one of the weaker ones, as superheroes go, but at least all the various elements feel consistent here, and the character of Wonder Woman herself is given her due. Diana's journey from spirited princess of a hidden island of warrior women to full-fledged heroine is handled very well, and thankfully there's no real attempt to darken or add complications to her story the way that we've seen with the most recent Batman and Superman films.

What surprised me the most was how much of a WWI film "Wonder Woman" turns out to be. After early scenes establishing how Diana grew up among the Amazons, as the daughter of their Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she meets the American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whose plane crashes on their hidden island home. She journeys with him back to Europe, believing that the war is the result of the god Ares' influence on mankind, and intends to kill him. The rest of the film follows their adventures getting to the Front, and trying to stop the evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from launching a devastating gas attack that would destroy the impending Armistice.

Gal Gadot makes a great "Wonder Woman," accent and all. She really gets across all the hopefulness and heroism of the character, and is appropriately inspirational and badass. I think the film's real secret weapon is Chris Pine, however, who is essentially playing Captain Kirk again, but a Captain Kirk who does a great job of both embodying this particular era in history and transcending it. Another major highlight is Robin Wright as Diana's aunt Antiope, a warrior woman who inspires her niece to follow in her footsteps. The Amazons in general are fantastically cast, all played by incredibly physically impressive women who sell their battle scenes with everything they have. The weak spots are the villains, but that's mainly due to them being fairly two-dimensional baddies. I'm not even going to name the actor who turns out to be playing Ares, because it's quite obvious when you see him. I'll just say that he's had much better material on television this year.

The Great War is treated with all possible gravity, staying within a PG-13 rating, but acknowledging the horrors of warfare. This setting really gives Diana's actions some weight as she grapples with how best to fulfill her mission. I appreciate that while Diana's gender is acknowledged and there are some brief jabs at the sexist attitudes of the era, the filmmakers don't feel the need to underline it. We understand how strong the Amazons are from their spectacular fight scenes. Diana demonstrates her independence and drive again and again in her dogged pursuit of Ares. The "stranger in a strange land" narrative works very well for her, slowly chipping away at Diana's idealism and naivete while also also allowing for little moments of humor and subversion.

And it makes such a difference to have those moments of lightness and romance. Diana and Steve Trevor's relationship is handled right, so when the plotting starts to sputter and falls victim to the usual third-act superhero pitfalls, at least the emotional throughline is strong enough to get us through the ending. "Wonder Woman" is by no means a great superhero film, though there are a few moments of greatness in it. However, after the DCU has delivered one grim, unfun slog after another, it's such a relief to have one that balances out its sequences of intensity and bleakness with warmth and optimism. And though there are some superficial similarities between "Wonder Woman" and the first "Captain America," it's tonally very distinct from the MCU.

So while I'm thrilled that the new live-action "Wonder Woman" movie has been so well received by critics and audiences, and that it's going to pave the way for more female-led superhero films, and maybe get a few more female directors heading up blockbuster films, what I really love about it is that it's righted the DCU franchise. Well, at least temporarily. We'll see how "Justice League" fares in a few more months.


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