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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Wonder Woman

Is this the film to finally fix the heretofore atrocious DCEU (DC Comics Extended Universe)? Read on to find out - though if you've seen the rating, you can probably already guess the answer.

OK, that was my original intro. I had hoped to have gotten this review out before the film came out but paid work got slightly in the way. On the plus side, I have now seen the film twice and for all that I liked it the first time round, I loved it a whole lot more after seeing it again.

As it has been out for a while, I'm also going to get into a few spoilers towards the end of the review. Don't worry if you haven't seen it yet, though, all spoilers will be contained to the bit that's been marked as such.


Wonder Woman is a really, really terrific superhero film that not only course corrects the previously disastrous DC Extended Universe, but is a genuine standout in the overall superhero landscape. It is not, to be very clear about this, a film without its flaws but they're never enough to take away from all that works about the first major female-led superhero film and on my second viewing of the film, it's hard to think of most of them as anything but nitpicks. Yes, the film is overly long and it's slightly wonky in terms of pacing but that only means getting to spend more time with these terrific characters. Sure, its villains aren't massively memorable on the whole but it's hardly their film and - that's actually about all I can say without getting into spoiler territory. It also does have some surprisingly unconvincing CGI during some of the action scenes but, even here, they don't detract much from the general effectiveness of the film's action set pieces. Things only really become a genuine problem in the film's final twenty minutes where the CGI bombast gets totally out of hand - but even this doesn't overshadow the thematic and character-driven moments that really defines this final confrontation.

Enough about the film's relatively few shortcomings. They're mostly pretty minor and pale in comparison to all the many, many things that work about it.

First and, this really shouldn't be overlooked: the way that Wonder Woman has resonated with girls and women of all ages has been pretty wonderful to behold. Now, the idea that it is the first major movie or television property to star a character that young girls can really call their own is an insult to the likes of Ripley, Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen that presented powerful, strong, human and likable female characters that were front and centre of their respective franchises. Even in terms of live-action representations of DC Comics superheroines, only a fool would take away from the sterling work that Melissa Benoist has been doing on our TV screens for a couple of years now as Supergirl. And, of course, this is to say nothing of the female-led superhero comics that kicked off with the first appearance of Wonder Woman some seventy-five years ago.

All that said, though, there is clearly something about Wonder Woman that is making a fairly profound impact on female audiences. With all due respect to Black Widow, Storm or Gamora, never mind those abortive takes on classic characters like Electra and Halle Berry's Catwoman, Wonder Woman really does feel like the first major superhero film out of dozens that both puts its female character front and centre AND is aimed first and foremost at female audiences - though, of course, being every bit as appealing to male audiences too. Or, honestly, it might just be that for all that, like Superman, she is a notoriously difficult character to get right, Wonder Woman simply resonates with women and girls in a way that few other DC or Marvel characters do. There's a reason why she is basically seen as the female version of Superman, after all.

For all that Wonder Woman works so beautifully for girls and women of all ages, though, it is the success that it is because it still manages to appeal to boys and men too - and not in spite of its feminist angle but, I truly believe, specifically because of it. Wonder Woman could so easily just be written off as little more than a knock-off of Captain America: The First Avenger and, most especially, Superman: The Movie but its unapologetic, though anything but hamfisted, femininity gives the film a real sense of freshness and originality.

It also, of course, rather helps that original or not, feminine or not, Wonder Woman is simply - those small flaws aside - a brilliantly acted, directed, written and produced Hollywood Blockbuster that reminds us why that phrase can be something to be celebrated rather than derided.

Scriptwriter, Allan Heinberg, working off a story he developed with Jason Fuchs and, gulp, Zack Snyder, is hardly a stranger to Wonder Woman as he wrote a small, best-selling but highly controversial arc of her comic book over a decade ago. His comics work with the character wasn't terrible, per say, but between its interrupting Greg Rucka's highly acclaimed and lengthy run and the fact that his five issues took something like two years to come out, there's a reason why it is hated by so many fans. Even the biggest haters of his Wonder Woman comics, though, would have to admit that his work here more than makes up for it.

After the humourless, dire, misjudged and heavy-handed one-two punch of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, as well as the sheer embarrassing crappiness of Suicide Squad, Heinberg's sharp, funny script is a true wonder to behold. It's funny when it needs to be, moving in its more dramatic moments and seldom anything less than highly, rollickingly entertaining - and, perhaps most importantly, really captures the inspiration and beauty of Diana's heroism.

The shift in quality in writing is easily matched by Patty Jenkins' assured direction. Despite not having made a feature film since Monster in 2003, her years working in prime-time TV have clearly allowed her to further harness her craft. It's astonishing to contrast her work with Zack Snyder's leaden direction in his two Superman films, as she has corrected all but one of his many failings and made the first film in the DC cinematic universe that does justice to these enduring characters.

Her storytelling is crisp and effective, moving between location, tone, and genre with seemingly effortless skill. This is a script that moves from the fantasy epic of the Amazons and Wonder Woman's origin to fish-out-of-water comedy in its London-based midsections to the mix of superhero action and relatively grounded war story - and not only does Jenkins never allow the shifts in tone to derail the movie, she ensures that the film never loses either its humour or its sense of inspiring heroism along the way. Indeed, they only increase as Wonder Woman turns exactly into the kind of character that has inspired dozen, if not hundreds, of similar strong female heroes across every storytelling medium there is, over three-quarters of a century.      

Along with her expert direction, Jenkins has a crack team of technical filmmakers behind her to ensure that the film never looks less than beautiful (though the 3D does detract somewhat) and that the fight scenes make use of those well-worn slow-motion, "bullet-time" effects to incredible effect, giving us a real feel of the power and grace of Wonder Woman and her Amazonian sisters in battle. Yes, some of the CGI is occasionally dodgy but never enough to really detract from the effectiveness of the fight scenes. As for the score by Rupert Gregson-Wagner, which builds off that instantly recognizable electric cello line that introduced the character in BVS, is easily one of the best in modern superhero movies.  

And then there is Gal Gadot. Wonder Woman is a film filled with loads of wonderful characters portrayed by a top-drawer cast but for all that a lesser film might draw attention away from its central heroine towards Chris Pine's incredibly charming and funny Steve Trevor or Ewan Bremner's quietly touching and, again, funny turn as a crack sniper with PTSD, Wonder Woman is never less than the shining star of her own movie. Thank both Allan Heinberg and Patty Jenkins for that, of course, but man oh man, does Gal Gadot totally own this movie.

Aside from actually living up to Etta Candy's (Lucy Davis in another of the film's many standout performances) description of her as the "most beautiful woman in the world"  - and, to its massive credit, the film doesn't shy away from her beauty or sex appeal but never, ever objectifies her in the process - Gadot simply nails the character in a way that brings to mind Christopher Reeve's unmatched turn as Superman - and I could hardly think of higher praise.

(On a side note, we need a team up with Gadot and Melissa Benoist's Supergirl, like, STAT!)

The (as you may have heard) Israeli model-turned-actress brings both her "foreign" Meditteranean accent and Israeli army training to give the character a ring of authenticity but the real heavy lifting comes down to both her genuine natural charm and charisma and her insofar undiscovered acting chops. Wonder Woman is a character built on the contradiction of her being a deadly warrior and a thoroughly good ambassador of peace, love and understanding and Gadot encapsulates that perfectly. Her naivety in the face of "man's world" comes across as wondrous, rather than condescending, and her incredulity towards the decidedly un-feminist norms of 1910s London is played with a perfect mixture of grace and stubborn assertiveness.

The fact that Gadot was able to rise above the ghastliness of the material with which she was given to work in Batman V Superman already says a lot about how good she is in the role, but here, teamed up with great writing and direction, she is simply astounding. Whether she can put on a convincing American accent might affect where her career goes from here, but her work here as - with all due respect to the great Lynda Carter - as the definitive female superhero has already earned her a place in cinematic history.

SPOILER SECTION

Now, before I can just give Wonder Woman an unmitigated stamp of approval and declare it the masterpiece that it comes incredibly close to being, the film does have a very unfortunate single flaw that stops it from soaring even higher. After barely putting a foot wrong for the vast majority of its running time, the film does undeniably falter with the unveiling of the film's true villain, Ares. That he's played by David Thewlis, the wonderful British character who is very, very good at playing fairly insidious characters but is not exactly known for his intimidating physical presence, is in and of itself not a problem. Indeed, it's a very smart twist that, by showing that the god of war is simply a being that plays on humanity's bloodlust, allows Wonder Woman's belief in the Greek pantheon to pay off, while not undermining the message that human beings are every bit as capable of being evil as they are of being good.

The problem, though, is that this revelation is followed by a showdown between this scrawny Ares figure and Wonder Woman and, though the strong characterization and thematic richness do, in fact, remain very much in place, they are surrounded by an interminably long "battle scene" that mostly involves a now-armoured but no more imposing Ares throwing all sorts of debris at our hero, while she tries to figure out who she is and what she stands for. It's only when Steve Trevor sacrifices himself for the greater good that Diana snaps out of it and the battle finally reaches its climax by her calling down a Thor-like burst of heavenly power and quite solidly roasts her opponent. Again, the actual ideological battle between the two characters is nicely done and fits in perfectly with everything that came before but by couching this as little more than a very ineffective brawl, at least some its power is deflated.

The fact that this sort of now far too familiar battle scene is typical of superhero films only makes it worse as this particular showdown should have brought something new to the table: a different kind of final conflict that uses less CGI and more of a battle of wills would have gone a long way toward making this final confrontation the cherry on top of an already tasty confection, rather than a slightly stale aftertaste.

Sure, you might quibble with, say, the fact that some of the Amazons are older than they should be (one of the key benefits of being an Amazon has always been that they eternally remained at the prime of their life) or that this version of Wonder Woman lacks the trial games whereby Diana proves herself to be the greatest of the Amazons but ultimately none of these weaknesses take away from the film in the way its final twenty minutes do. But then, not even that final misstep has really taken away from all that's great about Wonder Woman - as my extremely high rating may attest - but just imagine how untouchable it would have been with just a slight alteration or two to its final act.


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