Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Movie Review: "Wonder Woman" (2017)

New Girl.

Maybe I should have subtitled this review "I believe in miracles since you came along" since - contrary to all past experience and every expectation - DC finally managed to make a superhero movie that isn't awful! In fact, the "miracles" part comes from the stunning realization that this movie not only doesn't make you hate yourself for watching it (à la predecessor 1 and 2 whose titles I shall not type again to defile my keyboard), but it is by any practical Hollywood mea$urement an unqualified $ucce$$ (currently sitting pretty on a global box office figure of $650 million and climbing still). Even more shocking given DC's track record, Wonder Woman works as an engaging story in itself: it is a masterful blend of action, character development, charm, and actual human connection directed by Patty Jenkins and anchored by Gal Gadot (Gisele from the Fast and Furious franchise) as Diana of Themyscira and by Chris Pine (Captain Kirk of the new Star Trek) in his supporting role as WWI pilot Steve Trevor.

I had walked into the theatre expecting more of DC's glum anti-heroic moral murkiness and muddy, ashen color palette that has plagued its other films, only this time I also expected it all to be even more joyless and the entire Amazon plotline to be a monument to movie misandry when it wasn't being a humorless, lumbering mess of pixel-maniacal CGI fighting that was all sound and fury signifying nothing. I really expected this flick to be a disappointment on the scale of Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005), utterly deplorable films that took decent characters and well-loved (and otherwise talented!) actresses and completely destroyed them all in embarrassing fashion. I am so happy to be so wrong.

The Premise and Plot:
Let's start with the basics: the idea of a superheroic origin story set in a period war piece will inevitably evoke comparisons with Marvel's (excellent, by the way) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), set during WWII. Wonder Woman is framed as an extended flashback as Diana Prince, currently a curator at the Louvre, receives a photo from her past:

The movie then unrolls as an extended memory of that photo and how it came to be. 

Other critics have complained about the amount of time the movie takes with Diana's personal history, but I rather enjoyed it myself, and I thought it was necessary in characterizing her and understanding her motivations and eventual arc. When pilot Steve Trevor crashes in the sea off the Amazon island of Themyscira, one has to understand why Diana saves him and then decides to go to the outside world with him to try to end the war. That effort, soon acquiring a knot of companions, becomes the core of the narrative.

The Cast:
Overall, what a lovely roster! Gal Gadot is absolutely riveting with charisma to burn (not to mention utterly charming and in possession of comedic chops I never realized that she had), and Chris Pine cuts a figure both heroic and funny; the two together work with a chemistry perfect for screwball comedy as much as epic action. The Cine-Sib and I, already fans of Gadot from the Fast and Furious flicks, are delighted to see her explode into an international superstar. The supporting cast is likewise very good, and I would like to give a shout-out especially to Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, Trevor's secretary who is more than just comic relief. The casting of female professional athletes as Amazons is a very nice touch, and I was also pleased to see 50-something actresses Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright command the screen as Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope. Hollywood's full of dewy starlets, but these two offer another perspective. Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru, willingly in league with the wicked German General Ludendorff, offers another angle still, a reminder that women as well as men make choices for good and evil.

Tsk Tsk:
The movie does have a few flaws. I have to chalk up some demerits especially for the third act, mainly the climactic action scene. Part of it disintegrated into the predictable CGI slugfest, though I suppose I must also give credit that this one had no beam of light shooting into the sky among floating rubbish heaps and a faceless, undifferentiated, spawning army of boring CGI clones. There is that. Still, it's a little disappointing when the entire movie up to this point has been so good with smaller scale action and the human element, but here we go again spending far too much time smashing stuff up in ways that don't matter because the smasher and the smashee are both pretty much impervious to the smashing. Who let Michael Bay in here?

Related Thoughts:
I've gotten into a few - I don't want to say arguments, so let's say, ah - discussions of differing opinions about this movie not in itself but in ancillary things. One was about how the film was banned or suspended in Algeria, Lebanon, and Tunisia (and almost but ultimately not banned in Jordan) because Gal Gadot is Israeli, had served in the IDF, and expressed support for Israel's military actions. Somebody pretty much accused me of being an propagandist for Israel because I liked the actress and movie, something something, and I thought film bans were censorship acts that were bad for art, something something. *Insert eye roll here.* Whatever. Another ... ah, discussion ... was about how some people were reacting to this movie. This flick has made a zillion dollars, presented a glorious protagonist, and changed the entire conversation about female leads in superhero franchises (a pop culture issue with international ramifications), but apparently that's still not good enough for some self-proclaimed feminists who have - I kid you not - complained about the Amazon princess's underarms. Who's being petty now and fixated on personal appearance? Anyway, all I could think of was how Ayaan Hirsi Ali slammed modern Western feminism for being obsessed with (and I quote) "trivial bullsh*t." Then Alessandra rolled her eyes and said that some people won't be happy unless they have something to complain about.

One more thing: in some reviews and conversations, some people are behaving as if Diana Prince is the first smart, complex, butt-kicking female character to come along in the sci fi/fantasy/comic book genre. Where have these people been? Do they not know the genre on even a rudimentary level? Butt-kicking women have been a feature of the genre for decades. Remember Ellen Ripley of Alien back in 1979? Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise?  Look what happened to the fool who dared to mess with Mrs. Weasley at the Battle of Hogwarts. More recently in the Star Wars universe we saw General Organa, Rey, and Jyn Erso. That's just for starters and on the big screen. That's not even talking about the small screen and people like Xena, Buffy Summers, the ladies of all the Star Treks, Zoe Washburne, female demon hunters of Supernatural, and Supergirl. (If we want to branch out the conversation, we can include formidable figures like Alias' Sydney Bristow, Burn Notice's Fiona Glenanne, and Ilsa Faust in the latest Mission: Impossible movie.)  This isn't to diminish Gal Gadot's Diana Prince at all, but I want to set her in the much bigger context.

The Verdict:
Overall, Wonder Woman delivers a great time at the movies. Full of heart, humor, and humanity in 2 hours of action and adventure, it is a marvel of DC resurrection. Mad Minerva gives Wonder Woman a grade of A+. Kudos for pulling this off, DC, and more kudos still for presenting a woman as the action protagonist for all without resorting to cheap you-go-girl jingoism or even cheaper male-bashing or reductive, simplistic, tedious preaching (its light touch is one of the most engaging things about it). Above all, it is a movie about compassion, unironic heroism, moral clarity (!), and the complexity of human beings who in their flaws and foibles still try to do the right thing in a complicated and dangerous world ... a complexity that extends to Amazon princesses too on the temptation to power and the idea of mercy and compassion as an active choice. It's inspirational, heartening, encouraging, and empowering for everybody in the audience. I gave the A+ also in part because this movie reinvigorated the entire DCEU project and even made me do something I've never done: actually look forward to the next DC movie. (Don't screw it up, Justice League!) It also did something that made me laugh: a normally staid, bookish guy friend of mine (who usually doesn't like superhero flicks) saw it and rushed up to me afterwards, a huge grin on his face, and shouted with delight, "She kicks @$$!" Now that's worth an A+ right there.

RottenTomatoes gives Wonder Woman the bona fide Fresh rating of 92%.

Wonder Woman runs 141 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and a bit of suggestive content.

Here is the trailer:

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