Saturday, June 3, 2017

Ballistic But Balanced - Wonder Woman, Reviewed

Adaptations are a tricky business; oft times the work being adapted is from a different time, perhaps with an ethos or morality which has shifted or become unpopular over the years. Or maybe there is a political subtext needs to either be incorporated or disregarded, or a Balkanized fanbase that can't stop arguing with itself long enough to determine what it really wants from an adaptation.

Wonder Woman is all that and more; for all the character's longevity, visual cachet and comic-book idealism, transforming her into a summer tentpole blockbuster has been a challenge that has thwarted some of Hollywood's best. Consider, for instance, that the character was created by a polyamorous psychologist with a keen understanding and interest in B&D nearly three quarters of a century ago, and how her brand now has to incorporate a staggering amount of comic continuity, a campy but beloved 1970s tv show, and an invisible jet even though she is an Amazon who can fly. Well, maybe it isn't all that surprising that this adaptation took over a decade to come to fruition, but this Wonder Woman was definitely worth the wait.

Back in 2005, Patty Jenkins was winning accolades for writing and directing Monster, which garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar win for actress in a leading role. She was approached to make a Wonder Woman movie, but became pregnant and had to step down. Joss Whedon was brought in as a writer/director, but some time later had to step away as well, unable to come up with a story that appeased both his inner vision and the commercial needs of Warner Bros.

Getting a woman in the driver's seat has seemed long overdue for this genre, and Michelle Mclaren, with producer credits for both The X-Files and Breaking Bad was brought in, but left over creative differences. Intriguingly enough, the wheel came to a stop back on Patty Jenkins, who had been short-listed for the Thor sequel, which would have been her first feature film since Monster. Given the demands and expectations put upon her by millions of demanding fans, an anxious studio, and the need to play within the continuity being drawn out by the architect of the DC Extended Universe, Zack Snyder, I'm astonished she took the gig, but incredibly grateful she did.

Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg have tied together an entrancing story with one foot set in the classical world of Greek mythology and another in the brutal trenches of First World War Europe. Her direction is solid, taking equal joy in the peacefully martial society of the Amazons of Themyscira and the dazzling action scenes on the battlefield.

Comic history and fan service is woven throughout, but never to the point where a newcomer would feel left out. Diana's comic origins of being sculpted from clay and given life by Zeus is still here, but in the form of a bedtime story told to pacify a little girl who is so much more than she is being told. The origins of the Amazons themselves is told as a bedtime story, with animated illustrations which take their cues in layout from Neal Adams and George Perez, but their execution in the style of Titian or Botticelli. This style gets references time and again during the film, and in the inevitable and anticipated Reveal that all good comic movies have, I couldn't help but think of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Gal Gadot is one reason why, and is undoubtedly the best casting coup DC and WB have made in building their own cinematic universe. In addition to being gorgeous (she competed in the 2004 Miss Universe pageant as Miss Israel at age 18), she radiates strength, confidence and animus in her fight scenes (she began her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces at age 20). Her fearsome aspect is almost terrifying to behold, but watching her amazement at hearing a baby on the streets of London or her delight at trying ice cream for the first time is completely beguiling.

Her male counterpart and foil, Steve Trevor, is ably handled by Chris Pine, in his, what, 4th potential franchise now? (Princess Diaries, Rise of the Guardians, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, and of course, James T. Kirk in Star Trek). Now, I like Chris Pine but he is one of those actors who is almost too good looking to take seriously, and seems suited to bigger than life roles like Kirk and Trevor, but he imbues the character with a well calibrated mix of swagger and humility, of belief and skepticism. He gets a chance to display both action and comedic chops, and he never forgets that despite being a good-looking pilot, soldier, spy and adventurer, he is not the star of the movie.

The film really ticks along and does not drag out its 141 minutes. Part of this is due to great pacing, and quiet scenes that keep you involved and develop characters instead of spelling out exposition (the one where Diana explains that the conclusion of the 12-volume treatise she read on physical pleasure was that men are necessary for reproduction but superfluous for gratification was tremendously welldone), but I think a lot of it is also due to the filmmakers craftily balancing a number of disparate elements.

Before you get bored of the marble of Themyscira ('Paradise Island as Trevor calls it, another great little nod to the comics), we move to the grit of London and thence to the trenches. The gloom of humanity's first global and mechanized war is offset by genuine humour and camaraderie, especially amongst the intercultural dogs of war that end up accompanying Diana and Trevor in their quests to stop both a devastating chemical weapon and Ares, the god of war. Optimism and cynicism are balanced out as well.

It was a great time, and the three ladies that I saw it with all loved the film, as well as the fact that there is, at long last, a female-starring superhero film, directed by a woman. If you have a daughter older than 12, you really need to take her to this film. The film's focus on fighting for what is important but the importance of doing so with love really resonated with me, and is a fantastic antidote to the cynical isolationism and populism we see playing out in the news of the world.

It is by no means a perfect movie, with a couple of missteps and some instances of rough looking CGI that permeate this kind of event picture, but in the end, Wonder Woman is a good story, well told, that looks, well, wonderful.

And it seems I am not the only one who thinks so. After playing second fiddle to Marvel ever since Christopher Nolan wrapped up his Batman trilogy, DC and Warner Bros. can finally hold their heads up high, with both a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and early signs of a fantastic opening weekend. A sequel, helmed again by Patty Jenkins, seems all but certain.

Can they sustain this current swell of goodwill through Wonder Woman's next appearance in this November's Justice League? Who can say? Zack Snyder is a gifted visual storyteller who simply has a drastically different view of heroism than I do, but he has left JL following the recent and tragic suicide of his adult daughter. Joss Whedon, currently working on a screenplay for a Batgirl movie he will direct, has stepped in to finish off the film, finally getting a chance to work on the character he had such high hopes for a decade ago.

I am bound to go and see it, of course, and I am bit apprehensive, but Wonder Woman (the movie, not the character; she only goes by Diana in the film) has done what she should always do: she has given me hope for the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment