Sunday, June 11, 2017

Film Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Even though she made her first appearance in 1941, thereby being part of the comics canon almost as long as fellow Justice League members Superman and Batman (who debuted in 1938 and 1939, respectively), Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, a.k.a. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, had never graced the silver screen until last year, when Gal Gadot briefly enlivened the slurry shipped to theatres as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Sure, the character had appeared in various iterations of the D.C. animated universe, and she was brought to life on television by Lynda Carter in the iconic series from the 1970s, but film eluded her, even as Hollywood burned through six big-screen Batmen (including the late Adam West), three Supermen, two generations of X-Men (and three Kitty Prydes) and an ever-lengthening roll call of minor or cult characters who now find themselves household names.

It wasn’t for lack of trying - Warner Bros. have been trying to make a Wonder Woman movie ever since the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies revived the commercial prospects of the genre. It briefly looked like it would happen in the mid-00s when Joss Whedon signed on to write and direct, but that fizzled out and he wound up making some other comic book movie.

Lots of explanations have been offered for why a Wonder Woman movie hasn’t happened sooner, such as the character not being well-known (even though, prior to the ‘00s superhero boom, she was one of maybe four or five superheroes that basically everybody could name) or that men won’t go to see movies headlined by women (which wasn’t true in the ‘90s and is doubly false in a post-Hunger Games world). Most of these boil down to thinly-veiled disguises for the same systemic sexism which prevents more movies for female audiences being made, and results in yearly stories about how “shocked” the industry is when movies by and for women do really well at the box office.

All of which makes it uniquely poignant that Wonder Woman finally arrives with Patty Jenkins, a director who herself has struggled, like many female filmmakers, to get movies made in Hollywood even though her first (and, prior to Wonder Woman, last) movie was Monster, an Oscar-winner which made a decent profit, sitting in the director’s chair. That the film itself is good, and at times great, is even sweeter.

After a brief scene in modern-day Paris, in which Diana (Gadot) receives a package from a certain moody billionaire containing a photograph of her as Wonder Woman with a group of soldiers in 1918, the story begins in Themyscira, the mystical, secret island inhabited by the Amazons, great warriors created by the Greek Gods to protect mankind from the corrupting influence of Ares, the God of War. A brief, breathless sequence introduces us to Diana as a young girl (played ably by Lilly Aspell) as she yearns to train in the art of combat alongside General Antiope (Robin Wright), even though her mother Hippolyta has misgivings about her learning to fight so soon. Jenkins moves nimbly from the scenes establishing the culture of Themyscira, with powerful women training their bodies and minds, to a relentless montage that encompasses Diana’s growth and development as a fighter, and the first stirrings of a greater power that sets her apart from the other Amazons.

Mankind, in the form of Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), intrudes upon this militaristic idyll when his plane crashes through the barrier that keeps the island hidden from the rest of the world. After saving Steve from a horde of German soldiers who were pursuing him, a visibly shaken Diana learns (thanks to her trusty Lasso of Truth) of the devastation caused by The Great War. Even though the war is moving towards a peaceful resolution, the armistice is in jeopardy thanks to General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston, whose transformation into Ray Wise is almost complete) who plans to use a deadlier form of mustard gas concocted by his his masked chemist henchwoman Dr. Poison (Elana Anaya) to inflict horrendous damage upon the British, French and American forces, thereby reversing the tide of the war. Believing that such brutality could only be the work of Ares, Diana decides to accompany Steve back to the world of men, determined to put an end to both the War and the God who may have started it.

One of the many refreshing aspects of Wonder Woman is its relative lack of plot. Unlike most modern blockbusters, the journey from point A to point B is not waylaid by a bunch of digressions and side-quests. The broad strokes of the story are pretty much there from the first act: Diana has lived a regimented but ultimately sheltered life on Themyscira, she has to come to our world to kill Ares, and to do that she'll need Steve's connections and knowledge to get to the Front. It’s a simple, elegant piece of mainstream storytelling that isn’t burdened with exposition (and what little there is gets relayed either through visual storytelling, or is buried in winning banter between Gadot and Pine). The film still has some of the expected blockbuster bloat and could lose 15 minutes or so, but at least its running time is mostly uncluttered.

Instead of plot, Jenkins injects character and humour. While the film boasts a couple of stunning set pieces - including the instant classic scene in which Diana ventures into No Man’s Land in order to pierce the German line and bring relief to a starving village - its strongest moments come when Diana and Steve get to know one another and navigate their very different perspectives on the world. Much like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which also dropped a God-like being into the concerns of everyday humanity, the film gets a lot of laughs from Diana’s interactions with the decidedly non-magical world of London circa-1918. Considering how relentlessly bleak the previous D.C. films have been, it’s thrilling and jarring to see a moment as whimsical as Diana having her first taste of ice cream, then turning to the vendor and telling them that they should be “very proud”. These aren’t the half-hearted gags that Ben Affleck croaked out in Dawn of Justice, or even the increasingly strained quips that have become a staple of the Marvel universe: Wonder Woman has legitimately great, honest to goodness jokes, and they serve a vital role in providing much needed contrast to the operatic bombast that the film inherits from its Zack Snyder-directed forebears.

Beyond the fish out of water conceit, the interplay between gender and setting is brilliantly used for both humour and drama. Taking Diana from a place where women are in command and men are a distant afterthought to one in which women are subservient in every conceivable arena is rife with possibilities, especially when you get to see the discomfort her presence brings to such all-male situations as army briefings and parliamentary discussions. (Jenkins does not exploit or linger on Gadot’s beauty, but she does playfully let it grind the British government to a halt for a minute.) It’s also delightful seeing the effect she has on Steve’s secretary Etta (Lucy Davis, at her most funny and charming) who, like the audience, is awed and inspired by Diana’s blithe disregard for patriarchy.

Central to all of this is Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana and, for fear of sounding hyperbolic, she is about as perfect for the role as you could hope. In her ability to convey a sense of disconnection from humanity, while also being completely and utterly earnest in her desire to help as many people as she can, she recalls Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Like Reeve, there is an almost instantaneous spark of revelation the moment she appears on-screen; a sense that she just is Wonder Woman, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Everything that made her the highlight of Dawn of Justice is heightened and expanded upon, thanks both to her more central role in the story and her undeniable chemistry with Chris Pine. Whether they are fighting side by side in an alley or he is awkwardly standing naked in front of her after a bath, there is a natural frisson between them that makes their relationship feel sexier and more tangible than any previous superhero pairing.

While the importance of Wonder Woman as the first female-led superhero movie since 2004’s Catwoman (as well as only the second female-directed superhero movie ever after Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone) cannot be overstated, it is ultimately a superhero movie, and that means it comes with some of the genre’s more regrettable flaws. In this case, it's a borderline dreadful third act which boils down to the familiar sight of two super-powered beings smashing the hell out of each other using every building and vehicle within reach.

What makes the reversion to the mean so dispiriting, apart from the sharp dip in quality from everything that came before, is that it squanders a (comparatively) quieter, even poetic ending, one which would have both complicated and clarified the themes of the movie and of Diana’s arc from powerful but naive warrior to someone who has witnessed the worst of humanity. A late in the game head fake does complicate her view of humanity, but it also muddies the driving message of the film (all war is brutal and unforgiving, and World War I was infinitely more so for being pointless), by layering on a slightly different one (gratuitous violence is fucking sweet, brah). There are graceful moments within the cacophony, mainly to do with the culmination of the Diana-Steve relationship, but its tedious bluntness is an unwelcome reminder (alongside the film’s colour palette, which runs the gamut from grim to sickly) that Zack Snyder, both as producer and co-screenwriter, is part of the film’s DNA.

Still, falling prey to the trappings of its genre shouldn’t overshadow how often Wonder Woman transcends them.

Grade: B