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REVIEW – Wonder Woman

Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Richard Suckle
Screenplay by: Allan Heinberg
Story by: Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs
Edited by: Martin Walsh
Cinematography by: Matthew Jensen
Music by: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis
Based on DC Comics characters created by William Moulton Marston
Year: 2017

 

Seventy-five and a half years. That’s how long it has taken for Wonder Woman to finally get herself a film of her own. Twelve years. That’s how long it’s been since the release of Elektra, the last major superhero film starring just a major female superhero in the lead role and not as part of a team of predominantly male heroes. Five. That’s the number of films I count from Wikipedia’s list of superhero films since 1920 that have starred solely a female lead: Supergirl (1981), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005). It’s six only if you count the TV movie Witchblade (2000), which acted more like an extended pilot episode. While comic books have always had their own struggles with female representation, film adaptations (and even some original works) have always seemingly struggled more, largely because a lot more is riding on them ($$$). For some reason, executives just never really saw these properties as being as marketable (i.e., profitable) as their male counterparts, and it seems as though the aforementioned films have stood as evidence of why that is the case, both in the execs’ eyes and, sadly, in the eyes of many in the general audience.

The only problem with that logic, of course, is that those movies weren’t successful because people don’t want to see women in lead roles – they weren’t successful because they were all terrible movies (or, at best, movies that were basically destined to become cult classics in the first place). Wonder Woman herself had multiple setbacks over the years, with several projects being cancelled in pre-production, including one by future (and now former) Marvel Cinematic Universe helmer Joss Whedon. Until very recently, non-comic book reading audiences still primarily knew the character from the 1970s Lynda Carter TV series. To put this in perspective, this is kinda like if Batman were still known solely for the Adam West TV series until the release of Batman v. Superman – the movie, by the way, where the first and current cinematic adaptation of Wonder Woman made her film debut. You know, just last year – 2016? That’s insane, and even then she basically amounted to more of a large Easter egg for future films.

Credit where credit is due, however: the marketing team for that movie seemingly knew that she would be a highlight in what was ultimately a dower, boring, and overlong slog of an attempt to expand the DC cinematic universe and really played up her presence, even putting her front and center in posters and DVD artwork. Gal Gadot, the little known actress tasked with the responsibility of carrying the character’s visage on the big screen for the first time, certainly was one of the best things about that movie, and so hope remained that her solo film, the fourth in DC’s Cinematic Universe after the also disappointing Suicide Squad, would be the film that DC needed to go toe-to-toe with Marvel. Did they succeed?

… Abso-frickin’-lutely they did!

Yes, Warner Bros. and DC finally have their first widely well-received film in this universe, and while I personally enjoyed Man of Steel, even with all of its faults, even I have to admit that that film feels like a failure in the glorious light of Wonder Woman – which, I might remind you, is also the first and only widely well-received female-led superhero film to date. It’s also been a financial success, having broken the box office record for a film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and earning itself an impressive $228 million or so worldwide box office in its first weekend, hopefully putting to death any doubt that women can’t or shouldn’t be allowed into this alleged boys’ club. To say that Wonder Woman’s success was critical for DC and Warner Bros. would be an understatement, but it’s also important for the perceptions it’s going to hopefully shatter through its success. (You know, alongside the Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the latest Star Wars films, of course, which have been doing well to highlight some very strong original female characters themselves, despite the outcry of – well, if not countless, then certainly very noisy MRA-types who somehow don’t see the irony in standing up for stereotypically traditional masculinity while also whining about apparently inferior women bullying them.)

But you’re all probably aware of this, aren’t you? And probably even the most “woke” among you (Is it too late to change that term, by the way?) are potentially tired of all the think pieces pointing out this film’s undeniable importance. Is the movie itself really that good? Is the plot compelling? How’s the acting and action? Does the movie indulge too much in origin story or does it dive right in?

Well, considering that this is the first Wonder Woman movie, you can’t really fault it for going into detail for the character’s background, since I’m almost certain that people who know who the character is probably still don’t know her origin or even where she comes from – the island of Thermyscira, inhabited by an all-female race called the Amazons, who were created by the Greek gods to protect humanity from Ares, the god of war. The youngest among them is Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, who molded her out of clay and prayed to Zeus to give her life. Protective of her unique daughter, Hippolyta is more than a little hesitant to let her train with even her most trusted warrior, Antiope, in the ways of combat, as is tradition for the Amazons. Diana is headstrong and idealistic, however, and trains in secret, hoping to join her sisters in combat should Ares and war ever return to destroy humanity. Of course, war and humanity eventually come to her world when an American pilot named Steve Trevor crash lands into the Amazon paradise, bringing with him a fleet of German soldiers in pursuit. It’s the Great War, “the war to end all wars,” and, as Steve explains the graveness of the conflict, Diana volunteers to join Steve on his return, believing Ares has finally returned and is using his influence to cause this unfathomable destruction.

If you must compare, Wonder Woman feels a lot like an amalgamation of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger with its blend of mythology and the period war setting (swapping out World War II for the more ambiguous and apocalyptic World War I for this film), but there’s no doubting that Wonder Woman has its own identity. Diana herself is an idealist, kind, and wise, but she’s also naïve thanks to her sheltered and idyllic life among demigods. Because she is not beholden to any government, she is compelled to speak her mind on the spot and make a stand when the nuances of flawed and frequently callous human logic leave something to be desired. The film is incredibly smart with this aspect of the story, neither making this about her femininity being superior (so stop crying, you bunch of bearded babies) nor asking for the audience to take a leap in logic by accepting her idealism as something that only a demigod could aspire to achieve. Diana is a mouthpiece for reason and compassion, concepts that all people should understand but sadly frequently choose not to. When politicians and generals behind desks speak of “acceptable loss,” Diana responds appropriately: she knows that casualties are inevitable in war, and that war is often necessary, but she is no less horrified and outraged by this attitude and disregard for human life. Her experiences in the outside world challenge her desire to help humanity when even those with whom she grows close to have done or benefited from something terrible done to someone else. And so a lot of the conflict within the film is not just a matter of who to take out in the hopes of stopping the end of the world, but also in reconciling the good with the undoubted evils that humanity is capable of inflicting upon itself.

In exploring the relationship of its hero with their purpose and relationship with the rest of humanity, Wonder Woman is already lightyears ahead of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman in terms of quality. That it’s also capable of blending the darker themes with more lighthearted moments and still not compromise on either aspect is yet another area where the film takes exception with its predecessors. There’s also Gal Gadot who is… well, she’s simply wonderful here. While some have complained that her body type is perhaps not ideal for an Amazon warrior, she’s still very capable of conveying the physicality of Diana – not just in battle scenes (which are, of course, also the result of stuntwomen and CGI enhancements), but even in less flashy moments. Diana is a compelling, likable, and inspiring character, and it comes out in Gadot’s performance, whether she’s taking in the sights and tastes of London, balking humorously at the impracticality of women’s fashion, sharing a romantic moment with Steve, or standing up to the various forms of villainy that arise throughout the film, be they god or mortal. Director Patty Jenkins may have snuck in a few moments referencing the Christopher Reeve Superman films, but none of them compare to Diana’s own iconic moment in the trenches midway through.

The side characters are also not shortchanged, with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor not getting a vengeful reversal of the damsel in distress trope but rather having his own moments of internal and external conflict. Pine and Gadot are great together, and while Jenkins certainly would’ve been in her right to show men how women are typically treated by swapping the roles, she merely shows us how it should be, regardless, and it works just so well. (Though, I should note, all the guys who said that they were looking forward to this film “because she’s hot” are going to be disappointed to know that that particular aspect is the one exception that’s humorously subverted. Let’s just say that Pine is looking fine.)

I do have some quibbles with the film, of course, and that is mostly regarding the special effects and action editing. Wonder Woman has plenty of exciting action scenes, many of which are ultimately excellent, but it is also guilty of some unconvincing CGI work that took me out of the movie a few times. Whenever the film gets ambitious with its camerawork, or whenever there’s a gratuity of explosions, or a character is defying human capabilities, the film’s seams show and the effect looks obviously like… well, an effect. It’s not something exclusive to these DC movies, but it is prevalent in their productions so far, to the point where it’s become almost the signature look of DC/Warner Bros. movies, and I know they can do better.

More annoyingly, the action scenes make frequent use of that obnoxious trick of slowing down both action and sound to emphasize an iconic, trailer-friendly shot and then speeding things back up moments later, allegedly to create a more dramatic effect, but it’s actually used so liberally, it feels more like the film tripping over itself and barely recovering. It doesn’t need it, since a lot of the scenes are very fun and would remain very fun without it.

The film’s villains also barely register as more than utilitarian and necessary to keep the plot moving, not really becoming compelling in their own right, something that a lot of comic book films have been guilty of, but when the character work on the heroes is so good, I’m also willing to give it some leeway. It would have been ideal to have them be more fleshed out, but the film is still well-paced and focuses on its likeable heroes, and that arguably could’ve also had the effect of ruining all that. I will say that they still serve their purpose well and better, in fact, than those in a lot of other films of this sort.

Wonder Woman is an important milestone in a lot of ways. While I continue to adore the superhero film subgenre and have yet to experience the fatigue, I also recognize that there’s still a lot of growth to do in many areas, and bridging the gap between male-led films and – well not just letting female-led films in, but letting them exist in the first place – is one such area that was well overdue. This film is progress – for women in general, for female directors in this male-dominated playground (particularly with such a huge blockbuster), and for female lead characters. But it’s also just a great film in general – again, no qualifiers like “for a female superhero film” or even “for a DC film” necessary. It smartly uses the World War I setting to its advantage, and it recognizes the charisma of its lead actor and character while also pairing her up with a thoroughly engaging and entertaining cast of supporting characters. It takes itself seriously but also has fun with its concepts, and yet it also finds moments that may leave you holding back tears. Seriously, anyone can and should find something to like and be inspired by with Wonder Woman.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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