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WONDER WOMAN (2017) review

June 1, 2017

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written by: Allan Heinberg
produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder & Richard Suckle
directed by: Patty Jenkins
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content)
runtime: 141 min.
U.S. release date: June 2, 2017

 

It comes as no surprise that Gal Gadot carries “Wonder Woman”, the first time the iconic DC Comics character has headlined her very own movie. Appearing in the role in last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, Gadot delivered the strongest punch with her confident poise and memorable presence, offering the only real highlight in a movie which wound up being a cacophonous dirge. For years there were rumors of  who would star and direct the big-screen debut of the Amazonian warrior princess, but it looks like Gadot and director Patty Jenkins have a strength, confidence, sensitivity and grace, comparable to the seventy-five year-old character they both clearly have an affinity for. The bar may have been set low and despite some frustrating issues, “Wonder Woman” is indeed the best DC Extended Universe movie yet.

Outside of marketing and the need to expand, the only reason Wonder Woman appeared in “Dawn of Justice” was because she learned Lex Luthor had possession of an old photograph of her from World War I. She was going out of her way to retrieve it when Superman and Batman needed saving – men!  At least we got a rockin’ guitar-centric Wonder Woman theme from that movie, something that’s repeated to great effect here by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. But what was curious from all that was how this mysterious woman wanted no trace of her past discovered. We never found out why or how is it she’s over a hundred years old? Well, don’t expect this movie to answer those questions, since it leaves a handful of new ones unanswered as well.

That photograph does indeed pop up again in “Wonder Woman” though. This time the original is in her possession thanks to a not-so-secret admirer and the object serves as a storytelling catalyst, as we’re taken back to the waning days of WWI to learn of Wonder Woman’s history and how those soldiers stood alongside her in that picture.

 

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Before you roll your eyes at yet another superhero origin movie, stop and understand that her backstory isn’t known to all. She’s not the last of her kind narrowly escaping a doomed planet, nor did she witness the murder of her parents – her story is just as compelling, if not more. It’s actually quite fascinating and complex, steeped in Greek mythology and imbued with determination and resilience. She’s an ambassador of peace and love, yet fully equipped to kick-butt if there’s a need.

Princess Diana grew up as the bright-eyed and willful daughter (played at varying ages by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) to Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) on the island paradise of Themyscira, created by Zeus and inhabited solely by Amazon women. Diana longs to be trained as a warrior by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, excellent yet too brief) and despite her overprotective mother’s protests, she stubbornly trains in secret. Once Hippolyta finds out, she demands that Diana’s training is rigorous, so she can become the greatest Amazon warrior ever. As an adult, Diana (Gal Gadot) indeed is more powerful than imagined and on one unforgettable day she sees an object crash from the sky into her homeland’s secluded waters.

Uncertain what it is, but instinctively knowing someone is in need of help, she dives to the location and winds up rescuing a man. The first man she has ever seen. He is Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working undercover for the Brits as a World War I German pilot. On the run after his cover was blown, Trevor’s plane was shot down which miraculously led him to this island of women. Using the golden lasso of truth, Diana learns that the outside world is caught in an epic war and firmly believes Ares, the God of War is behind it all. Determined to do something, yet knowing she may never return to Themyscira, Diana dons armor and bears her shield and sword, setting out with a hesitant Steve Trevor to defeat the enemy.

 

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Upon arrival in London, Diana is a stranger in a stranger world, getting excited at the sight of her first baby, overwhelmed by her first taste of ice cream (she tells the vendor who handed her a cone, “You should be so proud” with all sincerity) and at the same time confused and repulsed at the ineptness of war room decision makers as she sees those around her suffering from the war. She may be out to kill a god, but she is taken aback by the horrors of war committed by man. If you’re not already sold on Gadot by the time this second act comes around, I don’t know what to tell you – her handling of Diana’s wonder and repulsion of man’s world during this period, should win you over. It’s not just familiar “fish out of water” or “man out of time” tropes on display here, through Diana’s perspective we get an unexpected observance of sexism and a woman’s “place in society” at the time, that comes when we meet Trevor’s secretary (Lucy Davis, providing the movie’s most overt comic relief), who is just as awestruck with Diana as any man who walks near her.

Diana being first and foremost a fighter, she becomes even more incensed and driven to do something about Ares, convinced he’s the source of the war, She not-so-subtly inspires Trevor to gather a diverse motley trio – consisting of former actor Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), sharpshooter Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and war profiteer The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – and together they pursue the evil German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who is overseeing the weaponization of a potentially fatal nerve gas engineered by Dr. Maru, aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya).  As the generals in charge sit on their hands despite intelligence Trevor provides that point to Ludendorff, Diana and her newfound comrades head off to the battlefield with the sole support of Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), in an effort to take down a key weapons stronghold.

As in “Dawn of Justice”, there will be unanswerable questions surrounding
“Wonder Woman”, most of which will be specifically tied to the enigmatic main character. There will also be frustrations as well, primarily connected to what the screenwriter is offering in the movie’s third act. Both are bound to occur, but in a movie this joyous and exciting, it is nevertheless kind of disappointing. Some may wonder why Diana is brunette, when her mother and aunt are blondes. She must get her dark curly locks from her father – nope, turns out Diana was made out of clay.  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this creation story. I recall learning of this back in 1987, thanks to George Perez, in which the writer/artist tied Diana’s lineage more closely with the Greek gods. I’m glad to see it here and quite impressed with how Jenkins portrayed it and how her art directors have envisioned the picturesque Themyscira, at times referred to as Paradise Island.

Besides certain superfluous questions, the first gnawing question that came to mind pertained to Trevor’s crash on Themyscira. As the movie established the island’s history in inevitable montages, we get a visually of an invisible dome that reaches over the entire island. What is a dome if not for protection – to keep people in and also keep people out. Then how is it a airplane can fly right through the dome and land in Themyscira waters? This is no small quibble. What happened there?

 

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It comes as no surprise that Jenkins used various locations in Italy for Diana’s island home. From the colors, to the Greco-Roman architecture and costume designs, I definitely found myself wanting to go to Italy now more than ever, as well as wishing more time was spent on Themyscira. Sure, there’s green screen CGI work, but it’s obvious these are physical locations, not just a sound stage. I definitely wanted more of Wright as Antiope (I’ve been a fan since “Santa Barbara”) and her interaction with her sister and her fellow sisters-in-arms. In fact an entire movie could’ve been situated right there – amongst brave, strong and intelligent woman, who live alongside each other in peace and harmony. I wanted to learn more, get to know the different personalities and understand the Amazonion way of life, but then man had to intervene.

My bet is that to it never occurred to Warner Brothers and DC Comics, to remain on Themyscira for most of the movie.  They had to connect it back to that photo from “Dawn of Justice” somehow in order to maintain their DCEU world-building (we’ll see more Wonder Woman this fall in “Justice League”), but I’d wager there was also this fear of a lack of men as well. Sure, they were finally getting a Wonder Woman movie made – directed by a female, no less (who hasn’t helmed a film since 2003’s “Monster”, for some baffling reason) – which is a feat in and of itself, but notice how often we see Pine’s Trevor in promos and trailers.

Heck, Pine even appeared alongside Gadot in a precorded “Hullo/Thank You/Enjoy the Movie” bit before the press-only screening I attended a week before its theatrical release. Pine’s presence in this perfunctory video is simply for audience familiarity, but it’s unnecessary since it’s Gadot’s movie to carry – something she does, ahem, wondrously.

The screenplay is written by Allan Heinberg (DCEU helmsman Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs also worked on the story), who’s no stranger to Diana, having written a great Wonder Woman comic book run ten years ago. For once, someone familair with writing superhero comics has gotten involved in the screenwriting process for a superhero movie. That should boost your confidence, right? Well, that’s why it’s quite strange to have Heinberg’s screenplay ignoring key aspects such as the function of an invisible dome over a secluded island, but most egregious is the handling of the movie’s antagonists.

 

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Considering Heinberg’s experience, knowing how to build and flesh out a worthy villain, I’m left dumbfounded with what we’re given in “Wonder Woman”. There is mention of Ares early on and we do eventually get to him, but first we have to endure several red herrings directed toward General Ludendorff and Dr. Poison, allusions that never truly pay off.  Oh, the two are indeed a threat, but they could’ve been something more, especially Anya’s Poison, who is an interesting albeit wasted character. Unfortunately, both are kind of too predictable and bland to allow for any pulp sensibilities to come alive. Heinberg knows how to weave a story and with the sheer amount of superhero movies to learn from, there’s no valid excuse for the Ares we’re given here (I’m not going to give a whole lot away, it’s too frustrating) – the character could’ve been the Loki of the DCEU, after all. The result is an atypical physical smackdown amid a barage of whizbang CGI during the third act that feels like Gadot is trapped in a video game she didn’t sign up for.

It’s that third act where “Wonder Woman” loses its hold on a different approach to the superhero subgenre of comic book movies and falls victim to genre trappings. Oh sure, throughout the movie one can’t help but to think of two other superhero movies – “Thor” with its world of mighty gods set apart from ours and Captain America: The First Avenger” with its origin story of an earnest and determined kid from Brooklyn set during WWII – but the resemblances to those two movies are moreso coincidental (and quite logical, actually) then intentional. Considering those are two of my favorite Marvel movies, I’m not at all upset at the resemblance here.

My favorite moments in “Wonder Woman” aren’t necessarily the sparking chemistry between Gadot and Pine, or the kinetic action sequences, it’s the moments when Jenkins and cinematographer Matthew Jensen fixate on Gadot’s expressions. Whether Diana is studying her surroundings with a curious naivete, smirking during battle or taking in the pain and hardship of the mortals around her, Gadot subtly broadcasts a respect and love for life, her own and those around her.

Jenkins has stated that she got involved with the project due to her love for the character and wanted to give girls in the audience a movie they can connect with and get inspired by. Mission: Accomplished. For that matter, such a response shouldn’t be gender-specific. “Wonder Woman” can be enjoyed by women, boys and men, thank to a truly outstanding performance from Gadot and a steady resolve and understanding of the character from the movie’s director. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited for a superhero sequel.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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