Friday, June 02, 2017

Zaki's Review: Wonder Woman

Despite being one of the most iconic heroes in the DC Comics stable, Wonder Woman made her cinematic entree under less than ideal circumstances when she bounded into the already-overstuffed climax of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder. As played by Gal Gadot, the character provided one of the few moments of genuine uplift in that dour spectacle, but while her extended cameo was meant to prime the pump for her this week’s Wonder Woman solo feature, directed by Patty Jenkins, still I couldn’t help feeling a bit wary.

As I said at the time, the movie felt like, "a nightmare, mirror-image version of the one in the comics," making me question in advance my ability or desire to sit through several more of these things. I'm someone who genuinely liked 2013's Man of Steel, but if your big idea as a studio is to culminate your big Superman reboot by having him snap a baddie’s neck (no matter how badly he feels afterwards), what would the celluloid spin on one of his classic contemporaries end up looking like? That was my foremost concern as we geared up for the very first silver screen appearance of the first (and most famous) female superhero in comic book history.

Well, it turns out -- at least for this one pic thus far -- I needn’t have worried. With an eye toward the character’s symbolic value and a clear sense of following the footsteps first trod by Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie and its “Think verisimilitude!” marching orders, Jenkins has made a Wonder Woman that not only neatly establishes the character as a worthy anchor for a film franchise all her own (hopefully, finally, putting a fork in the tired chestnut that there's no audience for a female superhero), but which could also very well be the pivot from which other impending DC movies might finally move in a more aspirational direction.

As the story (by one-time Wonder Woman comic scribe Allan Heinberg, Snyder, and Jason Fuchs) begins, we’re in a framing sequence (a la Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger) set in the present day, as Diana Prince receives a package from her new friend Bruce Wayne. Said package provides the gateway into the bulk of the story, which is set during World War I. From there, we learn how young Diana, Princess of Themyscira, grew up the lone child on an island of warrior women (among them Connie Nielsen as queen mum Hippolyta, and Robin Wright as auntie Antiope).

With the island protected for centuries stretching back to the time of the Ancient Greeks from the prying eyes of the outside world by a mystical wall of unmoving fog, Diana’s first encounter with man comes when daring American pilot Steve Trevor pierces the veil and crashes on the island while trying to escape German soldiers in pursuit. With Trevor warning of a terrible war that will eventually engulf the island as well, Diana is driven both by her curiosity about this man and her desire help end the war to leave Themyscira and venture for the first time into Man’s World, armed with mystic artifacts from her home to aid in her quest.

Although she first appeared in the comic books in 1941 (not too long after Superman and Batman made their four-color debuts), Wonder Woman has largely been spared the persistent recasting and rebooting that’s accompanied her superhero peers. Other than the Lynda Carter-led TV series from the mid-to-late ‘70s (let’s ignore the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie for the sake of this conversation), no other onscreen incarnation of Diana has had much staying power in live action, and animated versions have been mostly confined to team shows like Super Friends in the '70s and '80s and Justice League in the 2000s.

As such, Jenkins takes full advantage of the character’s undeniable iconography while constructing a version of her origin that isn’t tasked with competing with an armload of beloved tellings of the same story. This is largely untilled soil, and so has the benefit of feeling relatively fresh and new -- something that’s in increasingly short supply the longer the list gets of comic book heroes translated to the big screen. Also working in the film’s favor is how it doesn’t strive to reinvent Wonder Woman as she has existed for decades. This is very much the Diana of the comics: Poised and powerful, determined and devoted.

It’s also a star-making turn for Gal Gadot, who's bounced around Hollywood for a few years (notably in two installments of Universal's Fast & Furious franchise) without making much of a mark. Here, she claims ownership of a character who's proven notoriously difficult to translate in the past (Lynda Carter notwithstanding). When Gadot steps onto the battlefield of the German-English “No Man’s Land” in full red, blue, and gold regalia for the first time, it's a great screen moment that’s made all the more remarkable when you consider that this is two pictures in a row that Wonder Woman has gotten a showstopper of an entrance.

While Diana’s quest for Ares, the God of War who she believes is behind the German push for genocidal weapons (led by Danny Huston as the evil General Ludendorff), is the narrative framework that we follow, the story’s heart comes from her growing relationship with Trevor (who actually made his comic debut right alongside Wonder Woman in her first appearance). I’ve liked Pine in just about everything I’ve seen him in, but while he’s been a star for years now, this somehow manages to feel like a breakout turn for him as well, blissfully unencumbered by being, in essence, the “damsel in distress” for the hero to rescue.

Unfortunately, by the time we get to the third act, things do kind of fall over into the trap that befalls far too many entries in this genre, with the action swallowed up by elaborate computer-generated sound and fury that, while impressive, ends up signifying very little. However, the build-up to and lead-out from this CGI smackdown is effective enough that it doesn’t grind things to a halt while we watch various super-beings tossing each other around digital landscapes. There’s an actual emotional dimension that makes the whole thing work better than similar such efforts (I’m looking at you again, Man of Steel).

Despite those issues and an occasionally saggy midsection, Wonder Woman is undeniably the strongest entry in the ever-expanding DC Extended Universe. While I don’t know that it reaches the heights of the very best superhero pictures ever made, it’s the solid debut that one of DC Comics' crown jewels richly deserves, and a solid win that Warner Bros. desperately needs. The next time Diana appears will be in November’s Justice League, which teams DC’s biggest guns on the big screen for the first time. It’s a project I remain trepid about, but if Wonder Woman is anything to go by, maybe there’s still room for hope after all. B+

For more movie talk, including more Pirates talk, in-depth thoughts on Alien: Covenant, and an interview with Lethal Weapon TV star Clayne Crawford, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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