Sunday, June 04, 2017

"Wonder Woman": review

[NB: minor spoilers in this review.]

Directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, 2017's "Wonder Woman" is an action-adventure story that recounts the origins of arguably the most beloved female superhero (does anyone still say "superheroine"?) of all of comic-book history. This particular story has been in development since the 1990s and is the latest attempt, after several tries, to bring Wonder Woman in a respectable manner to either the big or the small screen.* The movie is mostly a flashback to Wonder Woman's past, from the time she was a little girl, through her teen years, and up to World War I, when she enters the war as an adult, despite her mother's misgivings.

Diana Prince (Gadot) begins the film in modern-day Paris, where she is working at the Louvre. She receives a package from Wayne Enterprises, which turns out to be the original photo of her, in her Wonder Woman garb, posed alongside some of the men she fought with during World War I, including Steve Trevor (Pine). The photo causes her to fall into a remembrance of the past, and most of the rest of the movie follows that remembrance.

Young Diana is a little girl on the island of Themyscira,** a Greek-style paradise out in the ocean that is magically protected from the view of mortal men by a dome of glamour that causes all who look upon it to see only blank seas. On this island are the Amazons, ruled by their queen, Hippolyta (Nielsen). The Amazons are warrior women, and their trainer/general is Antiope (Wright), sister of Hippolyta, who trains young Diana in spite of Hippolyta's wishes that Diana be kept away from conflict and war. Diana, for her part, is eager to learn but quite naive (an issue that will follow her through the whole movie); Antiope sees great power in Diana and urges her to unleash that power and reveal her full potential. We follow Diana's training from girlhood to womanhood; we learn the story of the Amazons, who were made by Zeus to induce peace among men after Ares, Zeus' son and god of war, had sown the seeds of conflict into men's hearts. The Amazons have since retreated from the affairs of the world. We hear one version of Diana's own origin story: Hippolyta, wanting a child, sculpted Diana out of clay, which was given life by Zeus, who also created a weapon known as "the god-killer," to be used should Ares ever return. Technically, this means Diana is not an Amazon like her fellow warriors; she is something far greater, and her mother hesitates to let Diana know the full truth about herself.

Into Diana's adult life comes Steve Trevor, whose airplane pierces the island's dome of glamour, crashing into the sea not far from Themyscira's coast. Diana rescues Trevor before he drowns and is fascinated by him, as he is the first man she has ever laid eyes on. When the Germans pursuing Trevor also pierce the protective dome, they are set upon by the Amazons, but Antiope dies during the battle when she stops a bullet meant for Diana. Trevor is brought before the queen and interrogated; he brings news of World War I, ironically named the War to End All Wars. Diana, idealistic and eager to be of service, insists on accompanying Trevor back to Europe. The queen forbids this, but eventually relents when she realizes the willful Diana cannot be stopped. Diana appropriates the lasso of Hestia (a.k.a. the Lasso of Truth), a special shield, and a sacred weapon she has come to think of as the god-killer sword of Zeus.

The scene now moves to Europe, where Steve Trevor must deliver secret German plans for a new weapon to the British High Command, which includes Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis), who to all appearances seems to be this era's Neville Chamberlain, articulating a peace-at-any-price foreign policy. Diana and Steve eventually end up on the front, and the rest of the movie is about what Diana and company can do to end the war. The plot includes several twists, including the revelation that Diana is not who her mother said she is, and the true god-killer gifted by Zeus is no mere sword.

The most impressive aspect of "Wonder Woman" is its cinematography. The film is gorgeous to behold, especially the early scenes on Themyscira. There are moments when the special effects don't hold up, but these are minor visual issues that shouldn't distract the viewer from the overall sumptuousness of the story's depiction.

Director Patty Jenkins has done much to rescue the DC Comics brand from its current funk after three failures: "Man of Steel," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," and "Suicide Squad," all of which were clunky, tonally off, and generally unworthy additions to the mighty edifice that Christopher Nolan had constructed with his Batman trilogy. Jenkins infuses "Wonder Woman" with spirit and intensity; she has also crafted—with the help of writers Zack Snyder, Alan Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs—a fish-out-of-water story in which Diana, now among regular humans, must learn the ways of humanity, which she ultimately comes to love, warts and all. Diana's childlike innocence also humanizes her; without that innocence, she would simply be another overly powerful ancient being among overly powerful ancient beings. She also discovers some of her powers along the way, much like Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man in the early Sam Raimi films. An Amazon is merely a step or two up from normal humans; Diana, we come to understand, is a demigoddess.

World War I was a gritty, horrible, horrifying conflict, so depicting it in a PG-13 manner obviously means sanitizing much of the actual blood and gore. Jenkins keeps things from being too bloody, but still manages to convey, in some small measure, the ghoulish nature of war and the moral compromises that accompany it. Two scenes that stood out for me were the "No Man's Land" scene and Diana's confrontation with General Haig (old standby James Cosmo), whom she accuses of cowardice for not stepping out and fighting alongside his men.

The story kept my attention, but it fell down for me when we got to the final "boss battle," i.e., the moment when Diana, who has sworn to kill Ares as a way to stop the war, finally comes face to face with the ancient Greek god, who turns out to have been hiding in plain sight the entire time. The final conflict looks little different from the overwrought special-effects bonanzas we've seen in plenty of other superhero films. That's too bad, really, and it points to another flaw in the story, which is that Wonder Woman has spent so much time thinking about Ares, but almost no time developing any sort of relationship with him. As a result, the final conflict feels far less personal than it could have.

Those flaws aside, "Wonder Woman" is quite entertaining. Don't listen to the carping of insecure men who have problems with a female superhero, and don't listen to the complaints that this iteration of Wonder Woman is far less American than, say, the Lynda Carter version, or than any of the comic-book versions of Wonder Woman in which she's wearing a stars-and-stripes outfit. To my mind, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is a worthy successor to all those previous iterations, and her concern is for all of humanity, not just one section of it. Like Superman, Wonder Woman isn't one of us; she's something akin to an alien. But by the end of the film, she has come to the conclusion that love is the ultimate solution to our problems, and she has plenty of love to give. This isn't a perfect movie, but I look forward to the sequel.

*Some die-hards will say that Lynda Carter's version of Wonder Woman is plenty respectable. I watched the show when it was on in the 1970s, and like a lot of young guys, I had a crush on Ms. Carter. But looking back on the series now, I'd say it definitely had its corny, campy side, making it not so different in tone from the 1960s TV adaptation of Batman. It's a good version of Wonder Woman, to be sure, but not a serious version.

**Normally, when you romanize the "k" sound for Greek words, you use a "k," so: "Themyskira" would be more proper. Ah, well. Marvel, and all that.

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