Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) - Heroes and Hi-jenks

I've come to enjoy the weirdness of the flow of time in DC's current film series. With 2013's Man of Steel, we see a young Clark Kent on his journey to become Superman interspersed with scenes of Clark's childhood and, later, a vision of an apocalyptic future ruled by Krypton's General Zod. Its 2016 follow up Batman v. Superman takes things further, with Bruce Wayne's past and present trauma and fear of the future blending together to form a film that's both literally and figuratively composed of dreams upon dreams, with objective reality often kept at arm's reach.

We're first introduced to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in a supporting role in BvS, playing a sort of dejected caretaker. She's disillusioned with the world of mankind, having witnessed a "century of horrors." Once everything goes nuts in the final act and the world's at risk, she steps back into the ring and rediscovers her inner strength, taking her place in what looks to be a pantheon of new gods: Truth (Wonder Woman), Justice (Superman), and the American Way (Batman, the insecure rich guy terrified of outsiders)

Patty Jenkin's 2017 Wonder Woman film is simultaneously a sequel and prequel to BvS. The film's framing narrative is set some time after BvS, with Bruce Wayne still sending Diana slightly sleazily written emails and showing us a woman whose love of this world has been rekindled. We then cut to her childhood on a secret island of Amazons, where we learn of a conflict between Zeus and God of War Ares that led to the downfall of the old gods. We see Diana grow up confident, hopeful, and strong, ready to sail from her island into the world to protect it from dark forces against the wishes of her more conservative royal mother (a plot that's effectively a mirror of last year's excellent Moana.)

It's the arrival of a crashed World War I plane piloted by Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) that really sets things in motion. Trevor tells the Amazons of the horrors of The Great War and Diana is convinced that it's being orchestrated by Ares. She sets off with Steve, intent on finding and killing the God of War and saving humanity.

There's a lot of fish out of water humor once Diana and Steve arrive in London. It's very playful, focused more on the humor of misunderstandings than on rapid quipping. Even once we get to the war and we meet the German army's campy villains, there remains a light undercurrent that feels more like an Indiana Jones film than a modern superhero film. It's silly, but never ironic; Diana uses her splashy neon Lasso of Truth to bind friend and foe alike and squeeze the truth of of them. There's no sense of embarrassment here, with the film embracing camp, romantic melodrama, and over the top action equally. Comparing it to modern comic book movies, there's a surprising amount of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in Wonder Woman's tonal sensibilities.

Much of the film focuses on Diana, Steve and a band of misfits infiltrating the front lines in search of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the wonderfully named Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) as they work on a chemical weapon that could change the course of the war in Germany's favor as a looming peace treaty approaches. We get some very personal action, some spycraft, and mixed moments of triumph and horror.

The action scenes are excellent, with the same clear focus, hard impact and slow motion/speed ramping techniques that Snyder uses in his own films. This is where Snyder's influence is most strongly felt. Once we leave Diana's island home, we see a similar use of color, with heavy contrast and some very deep saturation of reds and blues. I'm a big fan of Snyder's action, and it's fun seeing another solid director with their own take on his style. Jenkins absolutely has her own voice here, with her action focusing more on acrobatic, ballet violence over Snyder's heavy, brutal hits (Diana gets a few of those in too, though.)

Outside of action, Jenkins separates Wonder Woman from the other DC films by focusing on a more personal scale. There's no immediate world-ending threat here; Diana enters a war that's already nearing its end and fights to prevent it from being prolonged, but it would have ended eventually either way. The journey is more about Diana finding her own voice as a warrior and as an inspirational figure. Her selfless deeds inspire the talented but otherwise lukewarm Captain Trevor to pick himself up and be a real hero. While Steve gets a lot of screentime, this isn't his story, and all events are in service to Diana as a character. Steve experiences a spiritual awakening when he comes to terms with this woman's greatness, functioning as a stand-in for a male audience being told that it's time to throw off cowardice. This is all about Diana and her status as a woman in both her world and ours.

In spite of her great deeds, we see little acknowledgement of Diana as the Wonder Woman, outside of Steve's love (a love both romantic and religious in its own way.) While everything Superman does becomes an international incident discussed 24/7 on cable news, Wonder Woman flings tanks, topples buildings, and dispatches dozens of heavily armed enemies with her close quarter skills and is celebrated simply as one of many helpful soldiers. She liberates an occupied village, but no one falls to their knees at the sight of this walking god. Her comrades certainly respect her strength, but Steve is more concerned with helping her blend in for the first part of the film. My wife pointed out correctly that characters in the film spend more time criticizing her fashion and her public decorum than praising her victories. In the end, she fades into the crowd as just another soldier. She is largely responsible for this war ending when it does, but no gaudy statues are erected like the one celebrating Superman after the defeat of General Zod.

This gives the film a bitter edge, though it remains powerfully optimistic. Jenkins, smartly, does not claim that all problems can be solved with a fist, and knows that real heroes often go unacknowledged, especially when they don't conform to society's expectations. Diana is an unambiguous force of good as much as Clark Kent (the film even draws a direct comparison between them early on) but while he becomes a topic of international intrigue, she is forgotten by the world by the time Batman v. Superman takes place. Of course, Diana lived in a different time than Clark; there's something to be said about the pros and cons of 24 hour global news coverage.

Bringing it all back to my comment on time, I expected this film to be a prequel that showed Wonder Woman discovering the horrors of war and losing her faith in humanity, given where she was at the beginning of BvS. Instead, both the period piece and framing narrative end with her hopeful and strong, eager to protect the goodness of the world. It feels strange, but it sort of fits the fluid nature of time in DC's films; of course Wonder Woman is proud and strong, she got her groove back at the end of BvS. This may largely be a prequel, but it's still a sequel too, and this film completes her arc in a similar way that BvS itself completes Clark's journey that began in Man of Steel. 

Wonder Woman isn't as bombastically grand a film as Batman v. Superman, but it is a very solid, smaller story that's more likely to please and much more evenly paced. It's also leagues above the sloppy, horrendously edited Suicide Squad. Gal Gadot plays her title role wonderfully, and I look forward to seeing where they take her in the next installments, hopefully with Jenkins remaining in charge.

Some spoilers below. Read on at your own discretion.

In spite of my praise, I do think this film falters a few times and could stand to be bolder. At one point, Steve tells Diana that maybe she's been chasing a phantom, that Ares may not be a man, but instead the Evil That Men Do. Diana believes General Ludendorff is the incarnation of Ares; after killing him, the war goes on regardless, to her dismay. It's a lesson on how evil is greater than just one of us, and that we're all part of a system that enables it to spread like poison. I think this is great, bittersweet moment to end on, but the film throws the real Ares (David Thewlis) at us just in time for an uninspiring energy beam battle. When Diana takes out the real Ares, troops on both sides look like they just woke up, and German and British soldiers embrace. Cut to the war ending.

There's a twist towards the end where we learn that Diana wasn't created by the Amazon Hippolyta and then given life by Zeus as she believes; instead, she was created by Zeus and raised by Hippolyta as a potential weapon against Ares. This information is presented as a twist, but no one, not the audience and not Diana, really cares. It doesn't matter thematically or narratively.

Another oddity is the way the film treats the historical atrocities of the British/Americans. There's some brief lip-service to it when, while sitting around a campfire, a Native American mercenary (Eugene Brave Rock) tells Diana that he lost his people to Steve's people. Diana has a brief moment of shock, but the film moves on very quickly.

This feels far too simple for the rest of the film's thesis, and we know that World War II is just around the corner even without an Ares to whisper destructive words into our ears. Killing Ares really DOESN'T save the world, though the event is framed at the moment as if it does. It feels like a weaker version of the Superman/Zod conflict at the end of Man of Steel, with Diana killing off Ares, the last true god, much as Clark kills Zod, the last true Kryptonian. In both cases, it's a final, painful shedding of our hero's inner darkness and a true embrace of the world of mankind. I like the sentiment, but it feels odd when it involves ending an actual, real-world war. I do appreciate that in this series, Wonder Woman and Superman both shatter their dark mirrors, while Bruce Wayne fully embraces The Bat. That dude's got issues.

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