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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

DAMN Good Movies -- WONDER WOMAN


That's right, it's time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on the film Wonder Woman, the fourth film in the DC Extended Universe.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...To the war!

It's only taken 76 years since her creation, but Wonder Woman has finally made it to the big screen. Okay, okay, more like 21 years, ever since development began in 1996 with Ghostbusters' Ivan Reitman attached as producer and hopes that Sandra Bullock would star.  In 2005, Joss Whedon was announced as the new writer and director, but after two years, Whedon never managed to write a finished draft and left the project to direct a little movie you may have heard of called The Avengers.  After a couple of script revisions that moved the setting of the project from World War II to modern times, the project officially kicked off in 2015 when Patty Jenkins signed on as director, with a screenplay from Allan Heinberg.

The pressure to get Wonder Woman right was considerable, especially after less-than-super movies such as Supergirl, Elektra, and the unholy abomination of Halle Berry's Catwoman. And while the new DC Extended Universe has never had a box office bomb (quite the opposite in fact), DC's shared film universe was in desperate need of something resembling critical acclaim.  Comics fans and film critics derided Man of Steel for director Zack Snyder's disturbing fetish for destruction porn and for having Superman snap General Zod's neck, then turned the internet hate machine up to eleven with Suicide Squad and Snyder's follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That film was a bleak and depressing nightmare for DC Comics fans, darkened with drab, grey and brown filters, and riddled with unnecessary angst simply to make Batman and Superman fight.  The single bright ray of hope in the darkness?  You guessed it, the introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, which leads us to her solo movie.

We open in modern-day Paris, with Diana still working in the Louvre's antiquities department as we saw in Batman v Superman.  She receives the familiar photographic plate from her time in World War I from Bruce Wayne, which triggers a long origin flashback.  Diehard Wonder Woman fans are immediately rewarded with the breathtaking sight of Themyscira, the island of paradise that's home to the Amazons and was created by the Greek gods to protect humanity against Ares, the god of war.  (Two guesses who the film's Big Bad is and the first one doesn't count.)

We're introduced to young Diana, all of eight years old and played as all kinds of precocious by Lilly Aspel.  Diana, it seems, wants to train as an Amazon, but her helicopter parent mom, Queen Hippolyta, forbids it.  Fortunately for Diana (and us), her aunt Antiope helps her disobey and train in secret.  Of course, the two are soon found out, but Hippolyta shrugs and finally gives in, because there's just no way against a kid fixated on a sword called The Godkiller.  As Diana reaches the age where Gal Gadot can finally step back into the role, she discovers that crossing her gauntlets in battle creates a finishing-move shockwave, hinting that there's more to her genesis than simply being formed from clay by her mom.

To the surprise of no one, paradise is quickly ruined by the arrival of man, or specifically, a pilot named Steve Trevor.  Steve's plane crashes just off the coast, which forces Diana to execute a perfect cliff dive so she can rescue him.  After Steve is brought ashore, Themyscira is soon invaded by German soldiers (Not Nazis, this is just World War I, remember) who were chasing Steve.  Attacking an island filled with warriors...Great plan, Germans.  So yes, we get a solid action sequence where the better-armed Germans start fighting the better-at-everything-else Amazons and quickly get their Deutschland asses handed to them. Unfortunately though, Antiope becomes the film's Uncle Ben and is killed off while protecting Diana.  

With great magic lassos come great responsibility, so Steve is interrogated using the Lasso of Truth.  It turns out Steve is a spy for the Allies, and he gives Diana and the Amazons the 411 that outside their perfect paradise, "The War to End All Wars" is going on and innocent people are dying.  A notebook stolen from German scientist Doctor Poison reveals the Doc has been researching a deadlier form of mustard gas for an ambitious general named Ludendorff.  Having been brought up hearing that Ares is the worst thing ever all her life, Diana naturally assumes it's all his fault and she leaves Themyscira with Steve to take Ares out, ending the war. 

Off to London we go, where Gadot and Chris Pine show some terrific on-screen chemistry together.  Diana is introduced to Steve's comic-relief secretary Etta Candy, constrictive frilly dresses, and the joy of vanilla ice cream, giving the movie some welcome humor.  One particular highlight is a great homage to Richard Donner's Superman, where the gender roles are reversed as Diana protects Steve from an assassin's bullet in an alleyway.  We're also introduced to a character named Sir Patrick Morgan, a bushy-mustached bureaucrat who serves as one of Steve's superiors and helps Diana and Steve infiltrate the Western Front in Belgium. Once there, Steve recruits some help from local mercenaries Sameer, Charlie and Chief, and Diana ends up witnessing the horrific toll on war refugees.

War, and its tragic price, becomes the film's central theme in a way that Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger never captured.  Raised in a peaceful society, Diana is outraged by the Allied bureaucrats' inability to end the war, and she hits her breaking point upon finding a "No Man's Land" battlefield stalemate where neither side has been able to gain any ground for months.  A powerful sequence follows, where Diana, garbed in her battle gear of primary colors, plows her way across the battlefield toward enemy lines and ends this particular conflict once and for all.  

The film heads into the Third Act with the "What a twist!" revelation that Ares wasn't posing as General Ludendorff, he was posing as the benign Sir Patrick all along.  Ares pins the blame for the carnage squarely on human nature, saying that humanity is corrupt and all he did was point them in the right direction.  Steve proves him wrong, though, by hijacking the bomber carrying Doctor Poison's deadly gas and taking himself off the board to save others. Inspired by the selfless act, Diana recreates the shockwave from early in the movie and toasts Ares, which ends World War I as promised.  We then jump back to the present, where Diana thanks Bruce for the photographic plate and sets up her return in Justice League.

A solid film, with most of the cast being given at least one good moment to shine. Here are some of the things that stood out:

WONDER WOMAN/DIANA PRINCE -- Gal Gadot was pretty much the best thing in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and it's no surprise she's the best thing in her own movie. Her Diana is everything a Wonder Woman fan could want -- formidable, charming, adventurous, and loving.  She also has a bit of a humorous streak at times, which makes her far more relatable than in her Batman v Superman debut.  I'm guessing a lot of people are suddenly calling themselves Wonder Woman fans who weren't before, and most of the credit rightfully goes to Gadot.

STEVE TREVOR -- As Diana's love interest, Chris Pine brings some of his time as James T. Kirk into the role of Steve.  He's cocky and a little headstrong, but never arrogant or chauvinistic and complements Gadot's Wonder Woman perfectly.  Instead of Steve being the dude in distress for Diana to constantly rescue, he and Diana are a partnership, with each watching out for the other.  I was surprised to see him killed off, but it needed done to move Diana along to a contemporary setting, just like Steve Rogers being separated from Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger.

ARES/SIR PATRICK MORGAN -- If there's one misfire in this movie, I think it had to be David Thewlis as Ares.  Ares, at least the way I see him, needs to be intimidating and Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films is a long way away from that.  In an attempt to address this, Thewlis is covered up in CGI-enhanced armor for the climactic showdown sequence, but the decision to leave his bushy Sir Patrick mustache during close-ups is a head shaker.  

DOCTOR POISON/DR. ISABEL MARU -- One character I wanted to see more of was Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison.  With her face covering giving off a serious Phantom of the Opera vibe, Doctor Poison was enigmatic and surprisingly vulnerable when Steve attempted to work some information out of her.  Hopefully, Doctor Poison invents a formula that preserves her for a rematch with Wonder Woman in the 21st century.

QUEEN HIPPOLYTA -- Connie Nielsen was an interesting choice for Hippolyta, especially after Nicole Kidman dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.  Hippolyta was understandably frustrating early on to give Young Diana an obstacle to overcome, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed when her cynical parting words to Diana were "They don't deserve you."  Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent, anyone?

GENERAL ANTIOPE -- Continuing a strange career path, Robin Wright has gone from Princess Buttercup to Claire Underwood to general of the Amazon army.  She really seems to relish the chance to have a heavy physical role, and you can pretty much feel her smiling to herself as she does so.  Ultimately though, as a mentor to a superhero, Antiope has to give her life to provide motivation, but it was fun watching her while it lasted.

ETTA CANDY -- Another character that would've benefited from more screen time, Lucy Davis' Etta Candy is a great foil for Diana as she adjusts to life outside Themyscira.  Davis first hit my radar when she played Dianne in Shaun of the Dead, so I knew she had the comedic skills to pull off Etta.  Part of me though, would've liked at least one use of Etta's Golden Age catchphrase "Woo-Woo!" to come out at a really inappropriate moment.

GENERAL ERICH LUDENDORFF -- As fans of American Horror Story know, Danny Huston was a great pick to throw everyone off about who Ares was disguising himself.  Huston can turn on a very sinister vibe when he wants to, and the scenes of Ludendorff juicing up with roid rage played into the deception well.  Given the choice though, Huston would've been a much more effective Ares than Thewlis, IMHO.

SAMEER -- Saïd Taghmaoui deserves a shoutout as the lead mercenary that helps Steve and Diana in Belgium.  His Sameer is an admitted showman, turning on the charm as needed, and brings much-needed life to the dark war-torn surroundings.  He's also the only one of the mercenaries that actually feels like more than just a one-note character.

All in all, Wonder Woman is the Wonder Woman movie we've wanted for far too long.  What makes this film special isn't that it features a female superhero, because we've had those, it's that it's a good movie featuring a female superhero that's about something.  And yes, it's worth noting that this is the first DC Extended Universe film that manages to stick the Third Act landing, so I guess fourth time's the charm.  I'm not yet convinced that Justice League will do the same, but if nothing else, at least I'm looking forward to seeing Wonder Woman in action again.

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)

3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Logan (2017)
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
7. Man of Steel (2013)
8. Doctor Strange (2016)
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
10. Wonder Woman (2017)
11. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
12. Spider-Man (2002)
13. Iron Man (2008)
14. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
15. Watchmen (2009)
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
17. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
19. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
20. X-Men: First Class (2011)

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