Thursday, 1 June 2017

IN THEATRES: Wonder Woman

It's been 75 years in the making, but feminist/psychologist/S&M enthusiast William Moulton Marston's creation has finally made the leap to the big screen in her own adventure.

Ya'll know the gist. Sexy man Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on an island populated by Amazon warriors. The youngest of them, Diana, decides to return with him to Man's world to defeat Ares and end all wars.

Wonder Woman was the first of the new DC movies I've had any interest in seeing, and I was still worried it was going to be crap. On the one hand, the creative team are solid. Patty Jenkins is no Zack Snyder and the writers had solid pedigrees. Plus it has walking charm factory Chris Pine in it. And there's no denying the novelty of this being the character's first big screen movie. On the other hand, Gal Gadot has not yet proven her acting abilities, Jenkins hasn't made a feature since 2003 and the production woes of previous DC movies made me suspicious that we were being sold a bill of goods.

Well... the movie's good. Really good. I'll have to let it sit for awhile to see how if it sticks, but it's a heck of a lot better than the rest of the movies in this new DC stable.

Thanks to its period setting, the movie insulated from all the previous movies, and Patty Jenkins directs the movie with a completely different style and intent than Zack Snyder and David Ayer. You don't see many action movies where the emphasis is on the effects of the gunfire and explosions. While Wonder Woman is often referenced as being extremely empathetic and moral, Jenkins actually makes that empathy a part of her directorial perspective. Even when the movie is not from Diana's point of view, her sensitivity to human cruelty and weakness is filtered throughout the movie. Unlike Zack Snyder's sterile, pornographic focus on CG destruction, this is a diegesis where pain and death are acknowledged, and don't get pushed aside. Instead, they really are the focus.

First, lets talk  influences. There are two big ones: Superman: The Movie and the first Captain America. The narrative structure vaguely resembles the former - we start on Diana as a child, growing up in Themyscira and learning how to become a warrior. There is also a scene in an alley which echoes Clark Kent and Lois Lane's confrontation with the mugger. If you want to stretch, the film's focus on Diana recognising what her purpose is, is roughly equivalent to Superman's arc in the 1978 movie. 

Because of its period setting, Wonder Woman can't help but remind one of Captain America: The First Avenger. You have a world war, you have an earnest hero, you have German villains and schemes to perpetuate the war with super weapons. You even have a motley crew of soldiers who assist our heroes in foiling the bad guys' scheme; and a final sequence predicated on a major character sacrificing himself by destroying a plane carrying a super weapon.

However, as a movie, Wonder Woman is better constructed, and does not warp its story to fit into a broader narrative (the sequence which derails The First Avenger). While the top and tail narrator segments tie in to Batman versus Superman, the movie is not directly referenced, and there are no cameos from the other movies to call back (or forward) to other movies. It feels like a story with a beginning, middle and end.

One of the biggest surprises is Gadot in the title role. I found her incredibly wooden in the Fast and Furious movies, but here she is far more vibrant and well-rounded than I expected. Over-earnest but not stupid, knowledgable but with no real world experience, Gadot is really good as Diana. She is far more engaging than either of her BvS co-stars, and has the benefit of a solid script and strong direction that (I'm betting) minimised her weaknesses to make sure that her performance was up to par. Her supporting cast help share the load, but as the centre of this story, Gadot is terrific. I don't think she is as instantly winning as Chris Evan's Steve Rogers or Chris Reeve's Clark Kent, but she is really strong. More power to her.

If the movie has an MVP, it is Chris Pine - if he was not in the movie, I don't know if it would work as well. The movie is as much Steve Trevor's development as it is Diana's. Unlike her, he is a spy, someone who is willing to compromise and do what needs to be done to accomplish goals which might not even be that good. Over the course of the movie, as Diana learns about Man's world, Steve begins to view the world through her eyes, and he slowly rediscovers his own sense of right and wrong.

This kind of character arc is a strategy that DC movies should use more often. Unlike Marvel, DC's heroes are less human and more aspirational - they are mythic figures, more like gods than human beings. Outside of their origin stories, having an arc does not make sense for these characters. What Wonder Woman does is give an emotional arc to a human character who is affected by the hero/ine. Their relationship is the heart of the movie, and their shared evolution is what makes this movie as strong as it is, despite some flaws.

The most obvious is pretty cosmetic. While the action scenes work (and don't go on too long), I'm not a fan of speed-ramping. There's not too much of it, but it adds nothing to the viewing experience.

The main thing the movie is missing is an iconic musical score. I'm meh on the theme they introduced for her in BvS - it works fine as a stinger, but it's not strong enough to hang a movie on There is not enough of a melody to it, and it only works as a (brief) action cue. This score needed something more empathetic and, uh, heroic, ala John  Williams' Superman  theme or Alan Silvestri's underrated Captain America March. It just lacks soul.

I'm not even sure if this is a criticism (because I'm still debating it) is the villain. Taken purely as an antagonist, Ares is somewhat flawed. He is introduced extremely late, which means the conflict feels a little under-powered. The main problem is that there is no 'fall in hate' moment - you need a moment, either early or in Act Two, where the hero and villain meet. The movie is based on a concept rather than an antagonist and that is hard to pull off in a movie that requires violent resolution.

In the movie's favour, you could argue that Ares is ultimately is less important than Diana's realisation that the world is not based on an easy binary of 'good' and 'evil'. She has to recognise that ultimately he is not the source of humanity's destructive impulses, merely an agitator of them. In this respect - juxtaposing Diana's naive worldview against grim reality - her arc works far better than the stunted revisionism of the previous DC movies. Here, the movie's emphasis on collateral damage, and the movie's message, is the inverse of the previous Snyder-led movies.

While those movies seemed obsessed with destruction and the negative effects of having such powerful figures in the world, they did not have a strong central focus on their main characters: Superman remains a total blank, and we've had two movies with him already. Wonder Woman is rooted in its central character, her growth, and (most importantly) how that growth is catalysed. During the action sequences, the emphasis is not on visceral impact or making cool shots, it's on Diana's reactions to the violence and pain around her. The Western Front is the perfect setting for her arc, foregrounding human cruelty at its most mechanised and wide-scale.

While the literary Wonder Woman's first war was WW2, setting the movie during the Great War makes thematic sense, by testing her idealism and clearly drawn sense of morality against one of the most immoral repugnant periods in human history.

Those things aside, Wonder Woman is a really good movie that manages to heft some surprisingly meaty thematic content with action, humour and a welcome dollop of humanity. I couldn't give a toss about what this means for future comic book movies. This is a good movie that stands on its own, and incidentally gives one of pop culture's most iconic characters a solid cinematic showcase. 

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