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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

I'll admit I was a little trepid about seeing Wonder Woman: as I seem to mention all the time, I'm a little fatigued by the overload of superhero movies, not to mention prequels and origin stories. Wonder Woman is all three, and though I desperately wanted it to be good, I had my reservations.
But it turns out those early reviews were correct: Patty Jenkins has given us a film that's joyous, poignant, exciting, colourful and even thought-provoking at times. Despite the fact there's nothing hugely surprising or original in terms of the plot (I foresaw every beat), it's told with such clarity of purpose and reverence for its lead character that it's impossible not to be drawn in.
SPOILERS
Is there any point providing a synopsis? Everyone should know Diana's backstory by now: she's a princess raised by her mother Queen Hippolyta on the island of Themiscyra, trained by the Amazons in the art of battle. The island is hidden from the rest of the world, populated entirely by women, and is a beautiful paradise of knowledge and learning.
It was Zeus who created the Amazons in order to protect humanity from the malignant influence of Ares, the God of War. After his defeat (and the deaths of all the other gods), the Amazons retreated from the world: disillusioned by the cruelty of mankind, but also aware that Ares might return one day.
To this end, they have a tower full of powerful weapons: bullet-deflecting gauntlets, a lasso that compels the truth from anyone held in its grip, a sword called the God-Killer (whose powers are pretty self-evident), and an invisible jet (which is missing from this particular adaptation – somewhat reasonably).
These are the stories that young Diana is raised with, though her mother Hippolyta is reluctant to indulge her child's interest in warfare. So it is in secret that Diana trains with her aunt Antiope, soon becoming the most powerful warrior upon the island.
Then a man appears: Steve Trevor, pursued by Germans and in possession of a journal that could change the course of the Great War. On hearing his story, Diana hears echoes of the destiny she's been waiting for. A terrible war? Millions dead? Endless suffering? It must be the work of Ares. She allies herself with Steve, takes the God-Killer from its repository, and leaves for man's world. Her self-appointed mission is to find and kill Ares, thereby freeing mankind from his behind-the-scenes warmongering.
First, let's get the plot out of the way, as it's possibly the least interesting thing about the film. It's standard procedure for character development and plot-related twists to have a main character who starts her story believing in a lie, one she eventually has to recognize as a lie in order to grow as a person. In The Force Awakens, Rey believes her family will return to Jakku. In Ghostbusters, Erin believes she's wasted her younger years by advocating for the existence of ghosts.
In this case, it seemed logical that Diana would eventually realize there was no Ares; that all the suffering and pain she'd witnessed was brought on by humanity itself. Surely the twist would be that human beings were solely responsible for the destruction being wrought upon the world. Not only would this account for her more jaded attitude in Batman vs Superman, but also make the heroism of Wonder Woman and her compatriots shine all the more brightly.
(It's also an underlying theme of the whole movie that the world does not deserve Diana's goodness and strength of character, as said by Hippolyta in her most memorable trailer line).
That all makes for a logical revelation, right? Well... wrong. It turns out that Diana was 100% correct about Ares's dark influence being the cause of WWI. The twist is that she gets his identity wrong, believing it's German Commander Erich Ludendorff, when in fact it's British Sir Patrick Morgan (the latter was played by David Thewlis, which should have tipped her off).
So it's a rather bizarre premise when you think about it: a Greek god is the cause of WWI, and only with his death can soldiers and generals alike be freed of his control. It's a little unsatisfying to imagine that all that death and suffering was the work of forces entirely beyond mankind's control.
Of course, the movie tries to have it both ways by having Ares inform Diana that he can only whisper in the ears of mortals; everything they've done has been their responsibility – but then the film promptly contradicts this sentiment. In the moments following Diana's triumph over Ares, a number of young German soldiers take off their gasmasks, looking dazed and relieved as though they've just woken up from a terrible dream.
I can't help but feel the film would have been better of it had jettisoned all this Ares stuff (including the CGI slug-fest that weakens the climax of the film) and instead had Diana realize that she was looking for a scapegoat when there was none. The ending could have involved her ensuring that human aggressors did nothing to sabotage the approaching armistice, even in the face of her grief over Steve's death, demonstrating her role as a peacemaker even more so than a warrior.
As it is, the film writes itself into a bit of a corner, as it's already laid the seeds for the story's other big twist: that the sword is not the God-Killer at all: Diana is, created as such by Zeus to eventually seek out and destroy Ares. This explains her demigod powers and her mother's reluctance to train her in battle – and perhaps even Diana's innate need to go out into the world and defend innocent people.
(Another twist gone awry: I assumed Ares would turn out to be Diana's father, thereby explaining all the secrecy surrounding her birth; instead it was Zeus, with Ares as her half-brother).
So the story and its resolution is a little wonky. It puts the blame of WWI on Ares, then takes it away, and then puts it back again. The twists weren't hugely shocking and the two character deaths not remotely surprising – instead the film's strengths are in its characters: how they exist in the story itself, and how they're treated by the cast and filmmakers.  
And let's not pretend a lot wasn't riding on the success of Wonder Woman: not only for female-led superhero films (alas SupergirlCatwoman and Elektra) but also the DC cinematic universe. Where things have gone wrong is the fundamental mishandling of the Superman and Batman characters: the former is hardly a beacon of light and justice, and the latter now kills people and brands his enemies.
Personally I don't have any deep emotional connection to the DC superhero line-up, so I wasn't as upset as other viewers with the changes made to their characters – but here at least, DC seems to have learned their lesson. Diana is treated with nothing less than reverence throughout the entire film. Sure she makes mistakes and is dangerously naïve at times, but there's nothing but love for her as a person and a character.
You could say the same for ALL these characters.
As it happens, I initially wasn't completely sold on Gal Gadot as Diana, even as she was touted as the best part of Batman vs Superman. In that film some of her acting felt a little affected – but after her solo movie, she's proven herself tenfold. In fact, her first outing is even more impressive in retrospect, as you can see the difference between this earlier, younger Diana, and the worldly and more cynical one of the present day.
Gadot infuses Diana with conviction and empathy, wisdom and innocence, strength and gentleness – an unusual blend of characteristics, but one that makes her as appealing as she is unique. She's innocent in the ways of the world (trying to hold Steve's hand after he tells her that's what people who are "together" do) but not childishly naïve.
The balance is struck best when she reveals to Steve she knows all about "reproductive biology" ... because she's read all twelve of Clio's books on the subject. She's also pretty blasé when she happens upon a naked Steve in the bath, and it's later implied they spend the night together. (Or perhaps they just kiss in a darkened room – it's up to you to decide).
This is a woman who bursts through windows to effortlessly take down scores of armed guards, but who also coos at babies and delights at ice-cream. She's a gift.
***
It was also a good movie for Chris Pine's Steve Trevor. Though some of my mutual followers on Tumblr would be horrified to hear this, I was never a huge fan of Pine – though this is certainly the most I've ever liked him.
I have a pet-peeve with female-empowerment stories that paint all men surrounding the female protagonist as buffoons or brutes (*cough*Mists of Avalon*cough*). To do so is insulting to men for obvious reasons, but also to women by implying that we can only be strong and successful because men are stupid – which clearly isn't the case in the real world.
And thankfully wasn't the case here either. Steve Trevor is brave and heroic, a little war-weary but certainly not bereft of humour or optimism. His relationship with Diana wouldn't have worked at all if he'd been in any way embittered or gutted by war. Despite her power and strength and purity of spirit, he has to be worthy of her, or else the whole story would lose its integrity.
The ultimate point of gender equality is not to reverse the gender roles, but to make us equal in our accomplishments. Granted, the current outlook is still tipped in man's favour (it's safe to say Warner Brothers would not have been as worried about Lois Lane coming across as a damsel as risking Chris Pine appearing emasculated) but sometimes you have to write the world as it should be, not what it is.
When you fix your eyes on the horizon, the relationship of mutual respect, understanding and inspiration that exists between Diana and Steve is the type of relationship you hope will one day become the norm.
***
I was a little disappointed that Themiscyra and the Amazons only appear in the film's first act: it's such a beautifully rendered society, filled with so many beautiful and intriguing-looking characters. Alas, we only get to spend a short time with them, and many only get a couple of lines.
Connie Nielson brings dignity, authority and a subtle air of tragedy to Queen Hippolyta, while Robin Wright's General Antiope is truly a sight to behold. I think her role can best be summed up with this:
The only issue is her rather clichéd death scene: of course she dies Taking the Bullet for Diana, and aside from a few mentions of her afterwards (and Diana inheriting her headgear) her passing doesn't have any particularly strong impact on the plot. Though that may be a moot point, since apparently she's signed up for Justice League.
The trio of Charlie, Sameer and Chief – a sniper, secret agent and smuggler respectively, who join Steve and Diana on their mission behind enemy lines – are perhaps a little stereotypical, but each get a moment that fleshes out their character: Charlie's PTSD, Sameer's futile dream to become an actor, and Chief's sad acknowledgement that his people have been all but wiped out by Steve's people.
They're nice moments for each character, and also help Diana realize the world is much more complicated than she's been led to believe. It seems a shame their debut is (presumably) also their swansong, though the black-and-white photograph first introduced in Batman vs Superman (and featured in the framing device here) serves as a tribute to them just as much as it does Diana and Steve.
That leaves Lucy Davis as Etta Candy and Elena Anaya as Isabel "Doctor Poison" Maru: both extremely effective, but sadly underused, with minimal interaction with Diana. I hope we get a chance to see them both again, as there's plenty of potential to be mined from both characters. If the Wonder Woman sequel takes place before Justice League, that certainly leaves a door open for their return – otherwise a little magical handwaving could have Etta installed in the Louvre as a very aged secretary to Diana. We'll have to wait and see.
In any case Lucy Davis was adorable (I haven't seen her since The Office), and Doctor Poison just begs for supplementary material to flesh out her backstory. How'd she join up with Ludendorff? What happened to her face? Where'd she go after Diana spared her? What challenges did she face as a "lady scientist" and did it have a bearing on her homicidal tendencies?
***
In a nutshell, it was a good movie. It was exciting and joyful and poignant – everything you want from an entertaining big-budget spectacular. The twists weren't hugely shocking and the two character deaths not remotely surprising, but there's an energy and freshness to the film that not only elevates the DC extended universe, but comes as a relief amidst the other Hollywood blockbusters currently on offer.
In many ways Wonder Woman needed to be a hit, and in many ways she's still an anomaly. Among the other superheroines in the DC roster, she's the only "big name" not derived from a male predecessor (I love Supergirl and Batgirl, but their existence is contingent on the men they're named after). Likewise, there's something striking about the fact that Diana is Wonder Woman amidst a sea of girls: Supergirl, Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Stargirl, Power Girl, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, and so on.
So despite Marvel having all the time and opportunity in the world to give Black Widow her long-awaited solo movie, Wonder Woman now stands as the first modern superheroine to get her own franchise. It's fitting.
Miscellaneous Observations:
The world-building of the film is a little iffy. We're told that the Olympian Gods created mankind, only for Ares to destroy all of them. Really? They're all dead? So who was Hippolyta praying to in that scene where she gives thanks to the gods? And how does that mesh with the presence of other religions (namely Christianity) that are depicted on-screen? Are we really meant to believe that Zeus literally created humanity and that he's now dead?
Especially strange is that Zeus and Ares are very much portrayed with Christian imagery, as God and Lucifer respectively. It's seldom a good idea to mix pantheons (even American Gods is struggling in the attempt to place their assortment of Christs alongside the old pagan gods) and it would have made for a simpler conceit to just go with my idea that Diana was wrong in her theory that Ares was causing all the behind-the-scenes warmongering.
I expect the shift from WWII to WWI was not only to distance this film from Captain America, but to utilize the threat of chemical weapons. All things considered, it worked out rather well.
It's fascinating to see how much the male gaze is blunted when a woman like Diana is being shot by a female director. Despite spending a significant amount of screen-time in a strapless armoured corset and a short leather skirt, the male gaze is simply not catered to. At all. No butt shots, no boob angles. I like the line from this review, which points out that after Steve arrives on Themyscira he sees: "their world, not his fantasy."
Every time I go to a movie, two things are bound to happen: a) I get irritated by someone mucking around on their phone, and b) a kid says or does something cute. Well, I'm happy to report that a. didn't happen, and b. was a five or six year old boy who leaned over to his father and said in a stage whisper: "this movie is COOL."

2 comments:

  1. I pretty much agree with everything you said, I found myself thinking the plot left much to be desired since it was basically a cross between the first Captain America and Thor films, and also expected the twist to be that Ares didn't exist/was dead, and the presence David Thewlis should have tipped me off otherwise too (since one does not cast David Thewlis in a throwaway role, although I expected his contribution to be a well-meaning sabotage of Diana's mission in favour of keeping the Armistance on track). I thought Ares might turn out to be Dr Poison if anyone, but alas.

    But I very much enjoyed it and am so relieved it's done well and has been embraced by a wide audience. At my screening were old ladies, young men, parents with kids, all possible demographics and that can only be a good sign.

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    1. Yeah, the plot left a lot to be desired (and had an obvious solution to its problem: the "no Ares after all" twist), but all things considered I'd rather see great characters in a weak plot than weak characters in a great plot.

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