Friday, June 23, 2017

Film Review: Wonder Woman

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I must admit from the outset that I have been a fanboy for the DCEU movies for a long time now.  I adore Man of Steel and think Batman v. Superman is genius (though I was lukewarm on Suicide Squad).  I say this at the beginning so that you know my prejudices up front when reviewing the latest entry into this cinematic universe:  Wonder Woman.

This story is told almost entirely in flashback.  Diana (Gal Godot) was raised on the mystical island of Themyscira by her mother Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons.  They are an all-female, ageless people created by the Greek gods.  Diana tells the young Diana (Lilly Aspell) that the god of war Ares destroyed the other gods, but was defeated in the process.  The Amazons stand watch should Ares ever return.  Hippolyta does not want Diana to fight, but the young girl insists on learning to be a hero and trains with her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) until adulthood.  Things change when WWI allied pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) lands on Themyscira and tells the isolated Amazons that the world is being consumed with war.  The allies are particularly being hounded by German leader Ludendorff (Danny Houston) and his evil scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya).  Diana steals away with Steve into the world of men.  They are sent on a mission to the front by Steve's boss Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) and form a motley crew of secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), actor Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), drunk sharpshooter Charlier (Ewen Bremner), and smuggler The Chief (Euguene Brave Rock).  Diana believes that if she can find the returned Ares and kill him, she can bring peace back tot he world of men.

Director Patty Jenkins has been given a lot of credit for telling a compelling origin story and she deserves it.  She said she took as her inspiration the original Richard Donner Superman, which shows in how she builds up the ancient and alien mythology before plunging Diana into the world of men.  There is even a nice homage to the "stopping the bullet" scene from Superman in Wonder Woman.  This is also evident in the way she allows Diana's quest to burn slowly.  It isn't until late in the movie that we see her in her full super hero costume.  But rather than feel like we were waiting to long, the moment feels like everything built to that moment.

The movie does something that all good movies should: it gets better as you watch it.  It is said that most people decide if they like a movie within the first ten minutes.  With this in mind, I would imagine many filmmakers frontload the beginnings of their films and struggle with the middles and the ends.  But Wonder Woman becomes more enjoyable as it goes.

The visuals of the film are fantastic.  Jenkins has been getting some flack for how desaturated and colorless she makes early 20th Century Europe look.  But this overlooks the visual themes she is working with.  Themyscira is so visually bright and arresting that it really does feel like Paradise Island.  It is some of my favorite design work since The Lord of the Rings.  The vividness of Diana's world is set up in such stark contrast to the bleak world of WWI.  This creates a strong emotional resonance, the way our innocent memories feel so vivid and our current world can seem so murky.

Her action style is also reminiscent of Zack Snyder's 300, which works well for this film and the ancient Greek aesthetic connects both.

The character of Diana feels unique in the pantheon of superheroes.  She comes off as innocent to the point of naiveté.  She is not motivated by revenge or guilt or glory.  She honestly comes off as someone who has a certain moral compass and cannot understand why others do not.  Her conviction that the world's problems can be solved by killing Ares works to highlight her biggest flaw and virtue: her belief in the inherent goodness of man.   It is her biggest flaw because she blinds herself to the complexities of the modern world.  But it is her strength because this belief is ultimately the only thing that can save us from war.  I found in this, as a Catholic, a similar struggle.  We are made in God's image, but we debase ourselves with sin.  We can make ourselves into monsters, but we can also make ourselves (with God's grace) into saints.  Setting the movie in WWI was a smart choice, because the audience knows that her quest to free men from war will fail.  This should take the wind out of the narrative sails, but instead it draws us in to find out how Diana will react when confronted with what is best and worst in man.

Gadot is great is Wonder Woman.  She is in every way feminine without feeling at all less powerful.  I am not someone who usually makes a big deal about the gender of a director, but I do think Jenkins brings a respectful version of womanhood here.  Diana is filmed as outrageously beautiful, but I never felt that the camera was objectifying her, unlike Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.  As one person on Twitter put it, "I'm sure Gal Gadot has a great [butt], but I'm just glad I didn't see it once in the movie."

Her portrayal as Wonder Woman is charismatic and at times funny.  Her innocence never makes her feel weak.  Her resolution always feels like it comes from a place of goodness.  Every scene she is in, she commands the attention of everyone.  When she does come into her own completely as a superhero, I felt like I was witnessing an iconic moment of an epic.  I love the thematic undertones as Wonder Woman crosses No Man's Land and gives her allies the courage to follow her towards righteous victory.

The chemistry she shares with Pine's Steve Trevor is the heart of the movie.  I was glad that they didn't reduce him to a caricature of machismo.  He is a man of his time, but I never felt like they used his masculinity as a negative foil to Diana.  Pine's performance was both funny and action-hero exciting.  The other bright standout was Lucy Davis as Etta Candy.  She hasn't lost any of her comedic timing from her days starring in The Office.

The movie is not perfect.  While they don't sexualize Diana, there is a scene where Steve is nearly completely naked on screen, covered only by his hand.  This movie also struggles in the same place most super hero movies struggle: the villain.  One of the reason I think people revere The Dark Knight is that it had a villain that was as memorable as the hero.  The bad guys in this movie are serviceable, but could have been better.  Also, the movie would make little modernist digs at the lack of advancement turn of the century man had in terms of race and gender relations.  These were the least subtle parts of the film and took me a bit out of the experience.  Thankfully, these were not constant drumbeats the way they are in many modern comic books today.

I found the movie incredibly enjoyable and I am probably going to see it again in theaters.  While this is a movie that is part of a large shared universe, Wonder Woman stands on its own.  And I cannot wait to see the next chapter in her story.

4 out of 5 stars.

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