Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman movie review.

With DC now four movies into their cinematic universe, their efforts to clone the success of their rivals at Marvel have not panned out for the better. Because of the studio's frantic and misguided production schedule, they've painted themselves as this wayward ship whose crew has no idea how to steer it, leading to underwhelming clunkers like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, and the absolute failure Suicide Squad.

For those reasons, I was never eager for Wonder Woman, not because I wanted it to fail, but I was afraid of how the studio could botch it. It's no secret that we've been desperately starving for good female-led superhero films after bombs like Catwoman and Elektra, but with how aimless and lost Warner Brothers is, I was terrified that seemingly the most surefire victory they could possibly ever be handed, would instead become yet another notorious trainwreck...

...Which is why I'm thrilled to report that Wonder Woman finally rights all those wrongs, and does justice to its iconic source material.

Living on the concealed island of Themiscyra with the all-female army of Amazons, training warrior Diana (Gal Gadot) saves the life of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy for the British Embassy during World War 1, who must get back to his superiors with stolen plans for superweapons from the German Army, led by Danny Huston's General Ludendorff. Hoping to restore some hope and optimism to the war-torn outside world, under the belief that these raging battles are the work of the God of War Ares, Diana joins Steve on his journey back home and into the battlefield in Germany, where she'll soon carve her identity as the freedom fighter Wonder Woman.

The greatest side effect of all the DCEU movies so far has been their relentless cynicism. In an attempt to differentiate themselves from Marvel, all of their films so far have been grounded in a brooding and joyless mood lacking in soul and enjoyment, bathed in muted and grey color schemes to pass off the illusion of being gritty and intense movies, and drowning under wanton and at times downright sociopathic destruction and mayhem, all the while losing touch with what it was that made comic fans fall in love with the source material to begin with. Not to mention the relentless set-up and intertwined callbacks to prior and future films that make them feel convoluted, never letting them feel like standalone adventures. This is why I was so thankful for Wonder Woman breaking apart from the pack, serving as the complete antithesis to the cynical and brooding fare before it, with an old-fashioned and riotous good time worthy of the Amazon heroine.

After a quite exposition heavy set-up taking place on Diana's island, seeing her torn between the simple life of a child insisted on by her mother (played by Connie Nielson), and that of a warrior trained by her aunt (played by Robin Wright), once the information is finally out of the way, everything settles into a consistently enjoyable time.  As an adaptation, Wonder Woman is exactly what you want to see out of a superhero film; updating the more dated original elements to the source material, but staying respectful to the essence of what made it tick. That essence being to bring hope and kindness in a time otherwise plagued by violence and prejudices, in a ferocious WW1 setting that doesn't feel too detached from our current present, making me believe that this was a film we needed at this moment.

Said issues of bringing kindness and hope are best embodied by Gal Gadot's starring performance. Since making her grand, if tacked on entrance in Batman v Superman, Gadot has clearly been establishing herself as the MVP of this universe, and the same amount of confidence and nobility that she brought to that disaster more than suitably carries over to her solo venture. A firm believer of the ancient legends of her island, Diana is often projected in this very naive light, her main goal to find the one bad guy pulling the strings and making men kill each other (in this case, Ares), often refusing to believe, and what we seem to realize as fact now, is that men are not so innocent, that there is this compulsive need to fight and to spew hatred, a concept very hard to wrap her head around, that she may know to be true on a subconscious level but can't seem to accept. But despite that naive energy, Diana is certainly anything but a weak character, a confident and steadfast warrior as is Gadot through every fight sequence and battle to come her way. She's the perfect embodiment of the character's nobility, compassion, fearlessness, charisma, and (no pun intended) wonder, built with the fierce physicality to match her exuberant spirit, to the point where Gadot isn't merely playing Wonder Woman, she is Wonder Woman.

But that's not to undersell her co-star Chris Pine, who manages to shed his Captain Kirk skin with a new kind of dashing rogue hero. Steve Trevor for much of the movie serves as Diana's guide to the outside world, a natural and effortless one thanks to Pine's charismatic presence, and giving Diana a glimpse of the good that can come of mankind, but also the hidden darkness living underneath them as well. Pine feels very natural in the role of a World War spy, embodying the demeanor of a classic Golden Age actor quite often, and is especially aided by his terrific chemistry with Gadot. The film also features a number of other thoroughly enjoyable and rock solid characters and payers, including the likes of Robin Wright, Ewan Bremner, Lucy Davis, David Thewlis, and Connie Nielsen.

And this is to say nothing of the style of the piece. Director Patty Jenkins, whose only other feature film credit is 2003's Monster with Charlize Theron, steps back behind the camera every bit as confident before she left. She brings with her an interesting new perspective into the superhero tropes and subgenre, bringing with her a suitably feminist touch (don't worry, Ghostbusters crowd. The guys are just as capable as the gals), and her great ways with character interactions is one of the greatest strengths of Wonder Woman. It's a beautifully paced film taking careful and necessary time to slow down and take a breath, keeping the core story points to basics to give the players some soul and genuine emotional heart, a huge leap in the right direction from the overplotted emptiness of prior DCEU entries.

And in another step in the right direction, thanks to this careful attention to characters, this allows the action to carry a greater level of stakes and investment. In addition to her way with character, Jenkins also brings with her an inspired touch to the style of Wonder Woman, at times emulating the flair of the comics in a reimagined oil canvas style, and restoring the beautiful color back to the usually grey DC output (including Diana's gold and black outfit from BVS retaining the glorious bright red and blue). Jenkins has a playful, intimate, and grand eye for the action of the film, spreading smaller doses of thrills throughout the film as they build to bigger showcases. A midway sequence of No Man's Land is undoubtedly one of the highlights, and though that may elicit comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger, I'd argue that this film manages to hit those buttons in a stronger way. And after the bloodthirsty mayhem of prior DC films (and the comical running theme of areas being uninhabited), I can't stress enough how refreshing it is that Wonder Woman scales back on that glorified destruction with much more isolated, and convincing stakes that while cutting down, isn't afraid to show the consequences of the war, with the violent acts in the film serving a genuine purpose; intense and harrowing without feeling cynical.

Alas, if anything isn't quite as strong, there is a trade-off in that the villains of the piece are somwhat weak. The core villains of the piece are built in this classic Raiders of the Lost Ark mold (they may as well be Nazis), and that would have been fine on its own, led by Danny Huston's vile General Ludendorff. He's clearly having fun playing this classic Belloq style of villain, and he is such an enjoyably scenery-chewing presence, as is Elena Anaya as his personal scientist Dr. Maru, who gets to have and is a lot of fun as this "visionary" mad scientist, whose personality is as toxic as her experiments, to the point that everyone has coined her the nickname "Dr. Poison". But because Diana is so perpetually focused on the threat of Ares, these two threats begin to feel very undercut and undermined as you await to see when - or if - Diana's ultimate foe will finally do battle, and really fails to establish certain elements early on for sake of preserving late twists (one of which that I unwittingly predicted long before it actually happened.

But if this is really the most I have to complain about, it's still such a non-issue. And besides, it could have been *much worse* than that. If anything, my reaction to Wonder Woman can best be summed up with a sigh. Not of apathy, mind you, but a sigh of relief that everything turned out well, a sigh of tightly wound thrills finally untied, a sigh of approaching the end of a beautiful and emotional journey. If Wonder Woman isn't as intense as Logan, or as unique as Guardians of the Galaxy, it's still exactly what you want to see out of a traditional comic book film, and actually works to give DC a leg up over their rivals at Marvel, who'll no doubt be going into overdrive for their upcoming Captain Marvel. With such a dire track record for female-led superhero films, for Wonder Woman to come along and right the continual wrongs of the industry, course correct its franchise's trajectory, and do justice to the classic characters and stories that inspired it is nothing short of a miracle at this point.

That doesn't mean DC won't still have to work very hard if they expect to hold on to that good will they've earned, and it'll be ever harder still if they expect to beat their competitors at their own game, but this latest DCEU entry is a bold and hugely improved step in the right direction, making a grand statement that they're here to stay.

Still not hopeful for Justice League, though...

****1/2 / *****

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