Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some suggestive content

Score: 4 out of 5

Well, it's about damn time. Not just for a woman to headline a big-budget Hollywood superhero movie, though that is true. Not just for Wonder Woman in particular, one of DC Comics' "holy trinity" of superheroes alongside Batman and Superman, to get her own movie, though that is also true. No, I mean it's about damn time that we got a truly great movie in the DC Extended Universe, the attempt by Warner Bros. and DC Comics to catch the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Man of Steel tried to give Superman's origin story a new coat of gritty realism, and while it was entertaining, it also stumbled in the story department. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proceeded to make Man of Steel look downright good with how it managed to stain the legacies of Batman, Superman, and iconic supervillain Lex Luthor alike. I didn't even see Suicide Squad after that, and by all accounts, I made the right call. Wonder Woman, Warner Bros.' fourth film in the DCEU, was a make-it-or-break-it moment for many people. Not only were female movie and comic geeks rooting for it to not suck, fearing that the failure of the first blockbuster superhero film headlined and directed by women would cause studios to continue to find excuse to push talented actresses and female directors to the sidelines, but so were Warner Bros. executives and fans of DC Comics, fearing that, with the Justice League movie looking like a dumpster fire in the making, this movie's failure might leave Disney/Marvel with total hegemony over the superhero genre well into the next decade (and we all know what happens when Hollywood studios get complacent). Right now, this is nowhere near the biggest film of the year, especially not in budget ($150 million, fairly middle-of-the-road for a modern summer blockbuster) or scope, but it is easily one of the most important. Its success or failure will serve as a landmark for Hollywood for the next five years, at least.

Which is why I am so grateful that they finally, finally, got it right. Now, Wonder Woman is not a perfect film. It doesn't break much new ground beyond its female protagonist and its World War I setting, and the identity of its villain, set up as a mystery, was glaringly obvious. However, as far as superhero origin stories are concerned, this easily ranks up there with the original Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. It's a ray of light in the otherwise grim DCEU, fun and entertaining without sacrificing drama and stakes, visually vibrant but not afraid to get dark when it needs to, packed with killer action scenes, and boasting a star-in-the-making turn from Gal Gadot inhabiting the title character as well as Christopher Reeve did Kal-El of Krypton, or Tobey Maguire did Peter Parker. Rejoice, because (and I'm really sorry for this awful pun) the Amazon delivered.

Right from the start, this is a film that's unafraid to get down into the esoteric elements of Wonder Woman's mythology. On the island of Themyscira, the Amazons, a race of female warriors, live hidden from the world after a war between the gods that ended with Zeus, the last surviving god, banishing Ares, the wicked god of war who had led humanity to kill each other. Diana is an Amazon princess who wishes to train to become a warrior, but her mother, the queen Hippolyta, is extremely reluctant to let her do so, fearing that Ares will find them if she does -- especially as Diana starts to discover her strange powers. One day, an airplane crashes on the island containing Steve Trevor, an American spy working to sabotage Imperial Germany's chemical weapons research during World War I, and when Diana hears about the brutal "war to end all wars" going on in the realm of man, she suspects that Ares has returned and is once more manipulating humanity to destroy itself. Over her mother's wishes, she ventures with Steve into the world of 1918, from the smoky streets of London to the trench warfare raging in Belgium. There, she battles General Erich Ludendorff and his top weapons chemist Isabel Maru, aka Dr. Poison, suspecting Ludendorff to be Ares in disguise.

The place to start right away is with this film's greatest asset, Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot makes the role of Diana, Princess of Themyscira (or "Diana Prince", for short) her own from the moment we are introduced to her. Gadot, who served two years in the Israeli Defense Forces, is precisely as tough on screen as you'd expect from somebody with that background, with her Diana being a woman who, even at her most glammed-up, always seems like the sort of person who can easily dominate any man in her sight. However, while it would've been easy for her to play the ice queen, she instead injects a bit more liveliness into the part. Diana here is a naive, enthusiastic newcomer to the world of man with a very black-and-white sense of right and wrong, going in believing that Ares has humanity in his magical grip and that killing him will bring the war to an end in an instant. She finds London, with its smokestacks and pea-soup smog, to be ugly in comparison to the Arcadian paradise of Themyscira, and the subordinate position of women like Steve's secretary Etta feels just wrong to her. Over the course of the film, her idealism is repeatedly called into question as she herself starts to doubt her ability to make a difference, the world of man and its wars turning out to be far more complex than just a single bad guy pulling the strings of everything. However, while other DCEU movies seemed to offer little room for such optimism, this one instead elects to build it back up so Diana can emerge as a true hero by the end. This is basic "hero's journey" stuff, but it is the foundation for a solid epic movie plot, and this film, and Gadot, pull it off with flying colors.

No less remarkable and fun to watch is Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, the man who first finds himself introduced to the world of the Amazons, and then serves as Diana's introduction to the world of man. Ruggedly handsome in that modern Hollywood way (seriously, where did all these hunky action heroes named Chris come from?), Pine hits it off with Gadot right off the bat, the two of them becoming close allies and selling me on the affection that they came to develop for each other without their love story ever feeling forced. He holds his own in the action scenes, and gets more than a few chances to snark at the more ridiculous aspects of Diana's mythology (he can't quite wrap his head around her being carved from clay and brought to life by Zeus). Backing them up is a robust supporting cast that includes Saïd Taghmaoui as the spy Sameer, Ewen Bremner as the sharpshooter Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as the profiteer known only as Chief, Steve's allies behind enemy lines and a band of misfits who have all been touched by war in one way or another, as well as Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, the secretary whose short but sweet moments with Diana and Steve in London make for both great world-building and great comic relief. Back in the land of the Amazons, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright bring class and larger-than-life power to Queen Hippolyta and her sister Antiope, the leaders of Themyscira who come to blows over Diana's power and her desire to venture out into the world of man. At times, I found myself wishing the film had spent more time on that beautiful island. David Thewlis's Sir Patrick Morgan is an obnoxious bureaucrat whose bumbling Diana and Steve learn to ignore, while Danny Huston and Elena Anaya make for a deliciously evil duo as Ludendorff and Dr. Poison, the fun they're having with their parts most evident when they slaughter a room full of German generals who want to make peace with the Allies.

There is one weak link in the supporting cast, however, and it's not exactly a small one. Ares, the god of war who Diana and Steve are searching for in a quest to prevent a calamity, is presented as a mystery for most of the film, the question of whether or not he even exists left up in the air as Steve, understandably, has doubts about the existence of the Greek gods. The third-act reveal of his real identity is treated as a massive twist, and when he got to revealing his motivations to Diana, I thought it was a remarkably effective moment that drove home the film's moral ambiguity. However, anybody paying attention to the film is going to figure out who Ares actually is long before then. As a result, the film playing coy with his identity until near the end slowly wore on me, such that I was waiting for them to finally get to it. What's more, in light of Ares' big speech outlining his motive and actions, and in light of one of the real historical figures that serves as a character in the film, there was a missed opportunity to have Ares be somebody else. The actions that this person got up to after World War I line up perfectly with Ares' M.O., and it would've added that much more subtext to the already potent message that this film has about violence and war.

That said, it was Diana and Steve who were the focus here, not Ares, and this film gives them plenty of room to shine. Patty Jenkins' background in independent films (she wrote and directed Monster with Charlize Theron) and television left her surprisingly well-equipped to shoot big action scenes, often drawing on Zack Snyder's style with its heavy use of slow-motion but making it feel like its own thing. The scenes on Themyscira look beautiful, a stark contrast to the grit of London and the horrors of the Belgian trenches. In our first full shot of Diana in her Wonder Woman uniform, climbing up into no-man's-land to face the German soldiers head-on, she is framed as almost godlike, with an appropriate sense of awe from the men behind her who know that this is something none of them have seen before nor expected to see. In action scenes, she wields her sword, her shield, and the Lasso of Truth like she had been born with them, bringing a powerful presence to the screen, and while Steve and the rest of the gang may not have her Amazonian superpowers, they all get plenty of great moments as a team. The first big action scene, in which the Amazons battle German soldiers who have stumbled upon their island, proved remarkably inventive in its combination of sword-and-sorcery with a modern war movie, and while the CGI-filled final battle is nothing out of the ordinary by superhero movie standards, it still packed a punch.

Finally, there is the big question of Easter eggs designed to tie this to past and future DCEU movies, and it is here where I admire the restraint that this film displayed. Beyond a framing device of Diana, in the present day, receiving from Bruce Wayne an old photograph of her and Steve in World War I, this is an almost completely standalone film. There are no moments designed to shoehorn in plot points to be resolved in future films. There are no ham-fisted references to the ancestors of, say, Bruce Wayne or Lex Luthor. There isn't even a post-credits scene. What you see here is what you get; this is a film that stands entirely on its own two feet without depending on the rest of a hypothetical future franchise to support it. I shouldn't be praising Warner Bros. for this, but it's clear that they learned their lesson from the harsh reception that that sort of stuff received in Batman v Superman, and instead, they devoted this movie to the character whose name is on the marque. Erm... congratulations?

The Bottom Line

If, at the end of the day, Justice League sinks the DCEU like many, myself included, expect it to, then at least we got one truly great film out of it. Wonder Woman is an origin story done right, an awe-inspiring blockbuster that, while imperfect, still represents a milestone for Hollywood, and it's likely to be one of the best films of this summer when all is said and done.

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