“Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
There is so much advantage to setting the pace rather than being forced to keep up. Charitably speaking, the D.C. Cinematic Universe (DCU) – D.C. Comics’ staccato, end around attempt to approximate the wildly successful, expansive sandbox (known colloquially as the MCU) in which Marvel Comics’ roster of movie superheroes has spent its increasingly lucrative summer tourist months of late – has so far been something of a bumpy ride. Its most recent offering, the theoretically anarchic and even more theoretically fun Suicide Squad, in which a motley crew of Rogues Gallery castoffs (plus “The Joker” in a glorified cameo) are recruited as wise-cracking, angst-ridden expendables and flung at/fed to the latest in what, for D.C., is already becoming a long and tiresome line of impossibly powerful final boss demigods, was a mercenary garbage fire that lacked the spine to make its protagonists truly bad guys despite that kind of being the entire point. Squad’s painfully micromanaged attempted irreverence is but the latest example of the overarching heavy-handedness with which D.C. has crafted its universe. That weight, in mood, in tone, in expectations simultaneously burdensome and unmet, translates, and is palpable to viewers. With its lot already cast in underwhelming fashion as concerns cornerstone megastars Batman, Superman, and The Joker, it could be said that Wonder Woman is the company’s last truly meaningful card to play, which is fortuitous for once. This Amazonian princess isn’t merely a high profile queen plucked from an otherwise problematic deck; she’s its ace in the hole.
Growing up, Wonder Woman was never among the top half of comic book characters I enjoyed. This probably had less to do with her being a woman, and therefore stereotypically unrelatable or uninteresting to, say, an eleven-year-old boy, than it did with the fact that, as a woman, she was subject to the sort of rampant, societally sanctioned discrimination that, subtly and not, devalued her in the marketplace as a matter of course. In between the iconic Lynda Carter television portrayal of the mid-late Seventies and the character’s reemergence as the saving grace of 2016’s overstuffed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – a period that saw five separate takes on the Man of Steel (three filmed, two televised) and five different actors playing the Caped Crusader across three non-animated cinematic reboots – you’d be hard-pressed to find mention of Wonder Woman in anything beyond a strictly supporting, often two-dimensional (literally and figuratively, as in D.C.’s erratic but occasionally excellent Justice League cartoon series) role. The film’s immediate, explosive, and, as of this writing, sustained box office success therefore has to be edifying to the legions of little girls (and little girls at heart) who either grew up idealizing Wonder Woman or gravitated to her naturally as a proxy for a century’s worth of heroines conspicuous in their absence from greater pop culture.
With the benefit of hindsight, any Wonder Woman film, if smartly and capably made following so long a wait, with D.C.’s full arsenal of resources at its disposal, was going to be a no-brainer blockbuster cum self-fulfilling prophecy just counting the days ‘til release, though it’s easy enough to imagine the chauvinistic logic that made studio execs and insiders alike waffle-sweat. This Wonder Woman, directed by steady but choosy thematic stylist Patty Jenkins (Monster), wisely and necessarily consigns such thinking back to the figurative garbage from whence it came. We are introduced at the tenuous intersection of myth and reality to the luminescent realm of Themyscira, a magical, pseudo-Mediterranean island populated exclusively by warrior women and hidden away in undisclosed waters on the periphery of then-raging World War I. Blind to the greater world yet (somehow) bound to its protection, the Themyscirans exist in perpetual preparation for a war they seem to have no real wish to engage, lorded over by the fretful Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her badass sister-at-arms Antiope (who, played by Robin Wright of Princess Bride fame, my girlfriend and I immediately dubbed “General Buttercup”). The island’s only child is the fiery, idealistic Diana, the daughter Hippolyta “fashioned out of clay” as part of a convoluted custody arrangement with Zeus and now zealously shields from any activity (asking questions, picking up a sword, etc.) that might lead to the discovery of her epic destiny.
Years of fierce, impossibly gymnastic training forge the precocious pixie Diana into a grown-up incarnation played by Israeli model turned actress Gal Gadot, which would be a spectacular consolation prize even if she did not also possess a titan’s strength, preternatural reflexes, and enough celestial armor and enchanted hardware (including the legendary, and charmingly named, sword, “Godkiller”) to tip the scales right over at any superheroes game night. Following an afternoon sparring session in which she decimates the competition even more comprehensively than usual, a rattled Diana rushes off to an oceanside cliff in search of reflection. To her surprise and ours, she sees a wounded German plane simply materialize off the coast and crash into the surf. In what must qualify as one of the most extreme meet-cutes since Kathy Bates first uncovered James Caan in Misery, Diana extricates bloody Yank turned dashing British spy Steve Trevor (an appealing Chris Pine, underplaying for a change) from the sinking wreckage and pulls him to momentary safety on the beach. Their eyes flash, their hearts flutter, as, off in the distance, there suddenly appears a German naval detachment hot on his trail. The extended, 360-degree mayhem that ensues, as dogged, bow-wielding Amazon defenders engage waves of encroaching gunmen from horseback, is the movie’s first of several solid action set pieces, though, as with so many similar sequences in competing films, it is, counterintuitively, so kinetic, borderline balletic, that it comes off a bit ordinary.*
*Movie action is so heavily storyboarded and computer enhanced anymore that the scenes seem to almost eschew authorial oversight and direct themselves. If nothing else, the proliferation of superhero movies in recent years has given lie to the notion of “action director” as some sort of specialist job description or exclusive club. You’ll recall the MCU has already hitched its expensive wagon to, among others, an everyman schlub (Jon Favreau [“Iron Man”]), a Shakespearian show pony (Kenneth Branagh [“Thor”]), and two unproven sitcom producers (the Russo Brothers [“Winter Soldier”]), all to pretty outstanding effect.
Where a director can shine in this new assembly line mega-blockbuster era is in terms of performance and overall vision, and in these two aspects Jenkins acquits herself splendidly. Themyscira, like Thor’s Asgard in the MCU, is exotic enough by comparison to the midnight blues and industrial gray hues traditionally favored by the DCU that its exploration can’t help but be a highlight. When the action shifts to London for some light, well-mannered political intrigue, and, later, to the trenches of World War I, Jenkins adjusts her color palette accordingly while retaining as much of the film’s initial buoyancy as she can manage. Gadot never lets the proceedings grow beyond her and, though grounded, maintains an innate radiance, with a face that, for the DCU at least, runs the closest yet to a full gamut of expressions, reflecting child-like wonder, impatience, anger, joy, confusion, loss, and unyielding resolve in believable succession. With her hair tied back in the film’s latter stages, Gadot also looks so much like Lynda Carter that at times it’s downright eerie. Pine, already a name (if, perhaps, not a household one) from his turn as cocksure young Jim Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboots, is allowed to play directly to his strengths as a preening being of pure charisma. The middle stanzas of Wonder Woman, as Diana and Steve traverse London in circular attempts to convince the straight-laced English authorities to recognize the threat posed by Danny Huston’s comically duplicitous Germans**, constitute a fairly by-the-numbers Edwardian fish-out-of-water tale, offset by a minor key, though ultimately touching, love story. Diana, the displaced martial bumpkin so free of nuance or real world context that she believes herself to be at war with the god Ares instead of the Kaiser’s hordes, slowly finds her footing in an alien landscape while spurring on her company to be their best selves. Some of this dialogue skirts motivational poster faux-profundity, and the movie teeters on the edge of triteness throughout, without ever quite overstepping.
**Huston’s character is called Ludendorff – presumably after the real life German commander, military strategist, and war hero Erich Ludendorff – for probably arbitrary reasons I’m loath to understand. In case that odd connection cuts a little close for all you suspenders of disbelief, there’s also his infamous chemist (Elena Anaya), who, her face ravaged by experimental setbacks at work, wears Phantom-esque facial appliances and the understated moniker “Doctor Poison”. History comes alive, I swear.
Each of the film’s thirds – Themyscira, London, the battlefront – has its ups and downs, and contributes to an overall minute but stubborn clunkiness that lingers in the memory at inopportune moments. There’s also no getting around the fact that, unless you’re simply enthralled, Wonder Woman is, at 140 minutes, a fairly long movie (though origin stories often are). These deficits are offset by Jenkins’ steady hand, fine character work on the parts of Gadot and Pine, and, despite the film’s generally workmanlike visual approach – sweeping and sun-dappled on the island, overcast and dingy in town, ground-level and guttural on the battlefield – a few truly spectacular individual sequences. The moment when Wonder Woman erupts out of a trench and fearlessly runs across no man’s land to liberate a starving village is just sublime, and stirring on an elemental level. Through the grim mire she cuts her path, pushing ever forward, dodging and deflecting bullets by the hundred, dismantling bystanding gunmen before they even know what’s hit them. When the tables abruptly turn, and she’s pinned down, absorbing such a deluge of triangulated crossfire that you wonder how a shield so small can possibly protect her, it only looks, albeit convincingly, like the end. This sequence, set up by over an hour of waiting for Wonder Woman’s proper, costumed coming out, is a headlong rush, far and away the best thing in the movie, and almost certainly my single favorite memory of the DCU so far. It’s a near-perfect, fully, beautifully earned, wonderfully emotional climax. The film unfortunately falls into first platitude and then CGI-filled semi-coherence soon thereafter, and spends much of its remaining hour trying in vain to approach and/or duplicate it.
I’ve been known to watch a little Game Show Network while on vacation, and am consistently taken aback, if not stunned outright, by the casual sexism I notice oozing, barely contained, out of turn-of-the-1980s artifacts like Card Sharks and $25,000 Pyramid. Though I wasn’t cognizant of such at the time, I am old enough to just barely remember those shows when they were in first and second-run syndication rather than fortieth, and shudder to think how much discriminatory rhetoric, however innocently intended or ignorantly presented, I internalized as a kid. Given the prevailing climate, it’s a minor miracle that the Carter iteration of Wonder Woman was able to find a primetime home for three seasons. Despite the uncomfortable fact that modern society still reserves ample room for sexism, whether blatant or back channel, 2017’s Wonder Woman has too much on its plate to linger on gender inequity inordinately, instead presenting it as a stark, embarrassing wrong – as when Diana eavesdrops in plain sight on a prim but aghast all-male meeting of the British War Council – and foregoing much further comment. Diana is such an indomitable force with which to reckon, and sees discrimination with such flustered, clear-eyed contempt, that social enemies tend to redirect and wither before her advances in much the same way physical ones do. Part of me reflexively quibbles over the lack of realism inherent in how, yes, this basically immortal Amazonian warrior-goddess handles all the obstacles 1918 could throw at her (and then some), or would, if another part wasn’t so busy applauding her example. The DCU has far too many ills for Wonder Woman to cure singlehandedly, but she does conclusively, and gracefully, stop the bleeding.
“Wonder Woman” (2017) 3/4 stars