Monday, June 5, 2017

WONDER WOMAN takes its place among the best comic book movies ever

WONDER WOMAN is the best film in the current DC comics film universe.

It occurs to me that this statement could be taken as a backhanded compliment. I really enjoyed MAN OF STEEL, but I know many did not. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was a disappointment in both its theatrical and Ultimate Cuts, and SUICIDE SQUAD was almost unwatchable. So to fully express how good WONDER WOMAN is, I'll put it this way: Patty Jenkins's feature is up there with Richard Donner's 1978 SUPERMAN, and Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT and BATMAN BEGINS as some of the best that the DC canon has to offer.

Wonder Woman herself is a hard character to get right even if you discount any extra hurdle in getting an audience to the theater. At various times in the comics, she's treated as a warrior, an ambassador, a naive innocent new to the ways of Man's World, and a female Superman. She's part-Little Mermaid, part-Xena, and if you lean too hard in one direction it utterly shatters the balance.

Patty Jenkins, star Gal Gadot and screenwriters Allen Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder make it look effortless. Having grown up in isolation with the Amazons on their secluded island, Diana is naive about many aspects of the outside world, but she's never played too child-like in that regard. She's curious about babies and ice cream, but fully capable of standing up for herself in a room full of men ready to disregard her opinion. The script wisely doesn't turn her into ENCHANTED's Princess Giselle, wide-eyed at everything that doesn't match her view of the world. It's a perfect example of pointing not just that Diana would come into conflict with the world around her, but the tone of that reaction as well.

Diana's first encounter with a man comes when Chris Pine's Steve Trevor crashes near the island and draws the attention of the German army. After an awesome action sequence where the Amazons completely annihilate their attackers (the only way this could be more awesome is if it were Nazis that the warriors devastated,) Trevor reveals he's a spy who has to get critical information to London in order to end "the war to end all wars."

Diana helps him escape back to the outside world, convinced that the war has been masterminded by Ares, the last of the Gods left after a battle that sent the Amazons into seclusion with "the God Killer," a weapon forged by Zeus before his own untimely passing. Convinced that the war will end when she kills Ares and frees man from his influence, Diana is determined to get to the front. Steve, takes a darker view of the situation, believing that the war is entirely of man's making. However, their goals align and soon they're headed behind enemy lines to stop German weapons and poison development.

WONDER WOMAN is aided by a fairly straightforward plot. Frankly, it's a model of efficiency. We know what Steve's trying to accomplish, we know what Diana's out to do, and the script puts obstacles in front of those paths rather than trying to throw in a 90 degree twist every fifteen minutes. A lot of superhero movies of late have come off as over-plotted, but WONDER WOMAN shows the value of simplicity - particularly when it allows character interaction to take center stage.

The Gal Gadot/Chris Pine love story is what propels the film, and it proves to be one of the best romances in modern superhero films. The actors have great chemistry together and it's supported by a script that makes their affection credible and developing throughout. It never feels like they fall in love just because she's "the girl" and he's "the guy." We see them earning the respect and admiration of the other throughout.

Pine is really good at playing shock and bemusement every thing Diana does something beyond mortal abilities. In the comics of various eras, I've often seen Steve Trevor as something of a boring stiff. Pine's version seems to owe a little bit to Nathan Fillion's Trevor from the WONDER WOMAN animated movie, with perhaps a little less overt swagger. He's positioned as the straight man against Diana and Pine's comic timing is able to get some sparks flying we wouldn't see if this role was filled with a charisma vacuum like Jai Courtney.

Outside of BvS, I've seen Gadot in the FAST & FURIOUS movies and KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES. For the most part, those films didn't demand much of her than handling action/stunt training and looking great. In WONDER WOMAN, Gadot gives Diana so many more dimensions than her previous roles have allowed and there's never a moment where we don't look at her and aren't believing in Wonder Woman.

It's impossible to give too much praise to Jenkins's action scenes. All of the combat is staged so well that we're completely convinced that it's Gadot we're seeing with every punch and spin-kick. There are none of the obvious digital doubles that Zack Snyder's films favor. (I'm sure they're there, but they don't announce themselves as they do in the Snyder films. The effect that we're seeing Gadot (or a well-concealed fight double) pull off everything with the aid of wirework and good blocking is entirely convincing.

I have to think that a lot of this is helped by the fact Jenkins doesn't use many shots that feel physically impossible to obtain. The camera obeys real physics and is treated like it's moving through real space with the help of rigs and cranes. There's nothing to pull us out and remind us that we're seeing an illusion. The No Man's Land sequence is one of the best superhero action sequences of the last ten years. It's kinetic, crowd-pleasing and not a moment of it is lost in a flurry of cuts or CGI orgy.

Ares proves to be a less interesting villain than The Joker, or even either iteration of Zod. That said, he's miles ahead of The Enchantress because he has an actual motivation and a characterization that goes beyond one-dimensional evil. The backstory is that after Zeus created man, Ares, the God of War, was convinced that man would be the ruin of earth. He used his power to set mankind against each other and was only defeated after a clash that claimed the lives of all the other gods.

[Spoilers for the climax ahead. Last chance to bail now]

When Ares is revealed, it's exposed that he did NOT control the men involved in this war. His influence was limited to essentially whispering weapons and poison designs in their ears. They were the ones who decided to escalate their conflicts to a global level. His plan: Basically let the humans destroy each other and then he can remake Earth as the paradise it once was.

He confesses this while under the influence of the golden lasso, so we know he's totally sincere in it - including the part where he sees his actions as righteous. In a bit of a Darth Vader moment, he invites Diana to join him, and the offer is extended at a time where she might credibly take it. Through the entire film, Diana's insisted that the war happens only because Ares is controlling the armies. When she's confronted with the fact that it's in man's nature to do horrible things to each other all on their own, it shatters her faith.

But she finds the strength to oppose Ares, and that gives their battle actual resonance because it's a clash of ideals as much as it's a clash of titans. Ares represents the ideology that all men are evil and should be wiped out, whereas Diana's optimism wants to believe in the capacity of mankind to choose peace. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN came close to using its heroes as avatars for different world views, but thematically it falls apart because of how they're manipulated into that fight. It's not perfectly executed here either, but emotionally it feels right because Diana's participation in the battle is linked to her emotional arc and beliefs.

Or to put it another way, she needs something to fight FOR.

At this point, I'm more hyped for any WONDER WOMAN sequel than I am for JUSTICE LEAGUE, which is only about six months away. Among the many things I love about this film is that it puts character first. Hopefully future DC films will learn from this example and this had better not be the last DC movie directed by Patty Jenkins.

I understand MAN OF STEEL 2 needs a director, for one.

1 comment:

  1. Patty Jenkins directing MOS II would work a little too well.