Fourth try is the charm.
DIRECTOR: PATTY JENKINS
WRITER: ALLAN HEINBERG
STARRING: GAL GADOT, DAVID THEWLIS, CHRIS PINE, CONNIE NIELSEN, DANNY HUSTON
First up, a small prelude to the review. Perhaps five times in my life have I seen a comic book adaptation with substantial dignity, intelligence and grandeur. I have seen the beautiful Road To Perdition, the grizzly Logan, the delightful Spider-Man 2, the slickly inventive X-Men: First Class and the poignantly candid and complex The Dark Knight. Disregarding a handful of other adaptations (A History Of Violence, Sin City and perhaps even Captain America: Winter Soldier), the rest in the superhero genre have not been so impressive. In the fatigue of non-stop Marvel egg salad sandwiches, something more emotionally nutritious comes our way, something worthy of the bite.
What’s fantastic about Wonder Woman is how it isn’t a post-comic-book picture. Plenty of times modern comic book adaptations have had an unfair sentiment of mourning for their source material and medium. You can feel the pang of yearning in the film as it refuses to let go of its hold on the pages of it’s ancestry. It’s not a hard feeling to understand; I get it. However, you can’t recreate ink on film, motion pictures don’t work that way. It’s been said a million times before, and will be said a million times again, and studios will still not listen to a single word of it – unless this is about to change. Here, Wonder Woman’s awareness of its medium is emotive in a way beyond the basic means of post-comic-book production; this idea that a film is only the comic book in a new form. Logan had the integrity to be stylistic in the fashion of a western. Wonder Woman has the immensity of a true superhero movie. This one feels how I want being a superhero movie to feel like – to be a champion in a valorous battle against mighty powers, a brutality that you must survive to win; to fight with all your heart, and to have the whole screen express the ferocity of your might. Wonder Woman embodies the raging fire in the heart of a battle and the impact of a tremendous crushing force. Most of this is a created by a wonderful mixture of rib-cage trembling sound design and extravagant eye watering visual styles.
What comes to mind when thinking about particular scenes: Bombastic pictures, moving volumes of sympathy and empathy, a discovery of ones self and the nuance of good and evil in reality. I could list endlessly, but the point is that each moment is loaded with big ideas, truths, emotions and introspections. Not only is this a golden moment for grandiose action cinema, it’s a feast of thematically intelligent, rich and perceptive thoughts within the atmosphere of that time in human history – a broken society in the midst of the mindless, inhumane anarchy of the first world war. There’s a tapestry of inspirations behind the film, and it’s evident in how it gets you feeling exactly how Wonder Woman wants you to feel. Super heroic, a guardian.
There’s a bulky bombastic American style in the camera, none of the clichés of the standardised braggadocio contemporary cinematography; the blocking is nearly as chunky as Ludendorff’s jaw (Danny Huston), unless it’s making a break for the glorious superhero shots – you know the ones, yes, the admitted clichés – the slow motion rise from under the horizon; that pose Batman does atop the Chinese building in The Dark Knight, the contemplation of one’s journey; and a handful of a few others – oh, and the Jesus symbolism, of course (mind you, it’s fairly ungaudy in execution). Admittedly, the film isn’t without the staples of its genre.
Otherwise, we have texturally deep grains that progress the closer to war Diana (Gal Gadot) gets. As we’re introduced to Diana’s home island, Themyscira, the screen is rich with saturated greens and blues, hardly an impurity. Then, Britain, the colours drop. In the middle, the war, here the grain pops in (not too much, mind). The dirt and shrapnel of the wasteland stick to the frame. A miring pollution of subtle impurity. The perils of war are felt, the dirt is in your eyes, it is more than a backdrop for you to champion her heroism, it is a reality that begs for her heroism. Our sympathies are her sympathies; the trauma in the trenches stand to hurt you, then we can hope that our hero can fix it better. Her value is tangible.
Experiencing Wonder Woman is to have your heart and the jaw pulled at the same time, one does not exist without the other. Every action piece is prefaced with sombre moments of contemplation and empathy; after then, Diana’s reaction in that moment determines what she feels is necessary to save the people, and thus the action ensues. It is not simply that the characters move from location to location slaying bad guys. They fight onward because this is their best response. Diana witnesses the bloody, severed men returning home from war; the look on her face expresses an infinite sympathy and sorrow for their pain. For Diana, she believes Ares is the god behind the violence; as a young girl she was told the story of Ares, God of War, and his bidding to start battles among the Gods, until one day he was struck down by Zeus, where he fled into hiding. As she goes deeper into the battlefield, her anger with Ares grows stronger with her sympathies for every wounded, fearful soldier that meets her gaze. The film is without restraint of harsh truths and reality. We see her simply looking at the terrors of war. The civilian fear, the cold eyes of soldiers nearing death, the cries of orphaned boys and the constant desolation of life and faith. It’s all there in front of Diana; and Gal Gadot gives a wonderful performance of a woman in this ongoing turmoil – she hopes to end the suffering, she knows she can, but she’s constantly being told to leave the victims to die for they are beyond help. True to her character, Diana doesn’t have any of it, she came here to help and that’s what she does. There’s hopeful justice within her. She’s not fighting “The Germans”, she’s fighting for the hope that the living have lost, she’s fighting to save the innocent people from what they do not deserve. She believes in fighting for their innocence.
One may call Diana naive, that she is in a position where she has a lot to learn. Mind you, this position doesn’t render her useless either. Having to learn something is not the same as stupidity. Script wise, her naivety is not in trade with her convictions; more so, this conviction to taking righteous action is the saviour of hundreds of soldiers lives and the lives of the town’s people. And perhaps I say that she is naive since cynicism is my default setting, maybe her naive understanding of how earth should be suggests to us the way things ought to be more often. She’s uncompromising in her will and badass in battle, yet funny, likeable and constantly wholesome. In fact, that’s what I’ll call Wonder Woman: enwholesomed badassery.
Firstly, this plays as two halves of a fish out of water story; after Steve Trevors (Chris Pine) discovers and then fights to protect her land, Themyscira, she protects his by way of killing the God of War, Ares. We see a fair amount of him coming to understand her world, and her coming to understand his, before we see how both put their sensibilities to the test in the great war. Right down to the tiniest bits of dialogue, everything Diana says tells you of who she is and what she believes. In a seemingly throwaway titbit of introductory dialogue, she asks what Trevors’ watch is, and after he explains that it tells the time, and that he does whatever he does by whatever time it is (wake up, eat breakfast, work), she laughs at the concept that a ticking clock tells you what to do. Diana doesn’t see the sense in waiting. She does what she feels is right, and that’s it. She simply does. A lot of the discussions about what to do in the war come down to waiting for ‘this’ and not doing ‘that’, and following ‘this’ protocol. She considers their approach impractical when trying to do good for the people, that actually fighting the enemy would serve more purpose (obviously not in the real war, this only applies to the context of a superhero being present on the battleground). Her notion of taking immediate action, and saving real lives now, is a noble cause indeed – and it is felt more so when the reality of the war surrounds the audience as we see through her eyes; as she sympathises, we feel an empathy, then the motivation behind the action delivers a greater potent shiver down your spine. Wonder Woman’s best asset is its feeling of raw, illustrious heroism – something a movie hasn’t really captured for me until perhaps Logan, and now this – it’s the sense of struggle and the worthiness of the battle. Simply put: it’s terrific dramatic action.
Furthermore, for all of the power delivered, as the audience’s spine collectively shivers with the satisfaction of mighty PG-13 violence, there’s plenty of time dedicated to this examination on the cost of human lives. It’s not too hard to imagine Come and See taking place too far away from here. Though the reality of Come and See is inescapable, as it moulds non-fiction with its production until the facade of story and storytelling becomes indistinguishable, Wonder Woman is a more audience friendly depiction – it’s somewhat comparable to if Richard Donner’s Superman and Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger took themselves seriously, and without compromising on levity in character.
In a surprise delight, for a movie so heavy in theme and tone, there’s a complete range of humours, most with insightful purpose. As discussed, there’s the ridiculing of the watch and how we humans live lives by the arbitrary measurement of time. In addition, in the first 40 minutes, there’s a plentiful amount of gags straight out a comedy of errors, mainly Diana in London cooing over babies or divulging to Steve about the evidences that men are irrelevant to the pleasures of sex (perhaps a bad choice of film to watch with my partner). My favourite kind to see was the humour of comfort. Steve would often tell jokes to cheer things up in darkened times – bright smiles in dark places. In Steve, at all times, is a sense of trying to do good. Though Wonder Woman technically outshines him in the capabilities of fighting, Steve never feels defeated or frustrated by her power, instead he takes her opportunity to do good. And whenever possible, he is by her side to share his warm heart and comfort. Unlike Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, where men are belittled and condemned to stereotype; this is a story about how Wonder Woman did great things by her own determination, to offer help for those whose lives are ruined by the God of War. Nothing here is about belittling, or making any overt statement to feminism, that “women are better than men”. To the audience (of either gender, though more prominently to females), it’s empowering for sure, and the film itself is never critical or antagonistic against either gender, there is simply a positive focus on demonstrating the mighty power of Wonder Woman. There is no statement within the film, only one of the film. Empowerment by way of watching powerful women, not by way of bullying the audience.
Spoilers ahead. Only read on if you have seen the film or want to ruin it for yourself, but you’re not a cretin, so why would you do that? Otherwise, skip to the last paragraph for the conclusion.
Now, there are a few minor gripes I have with the film – they’re not crushing, but I feel like I owe it to you to be as outright as possible. Here goes: Someone explain to me why Ares is shooting lightening out his fingers. He is not Zeus; what’s he doing with his powers? Why the costume reveal for Wonder Woman in No Man’s Land? We’ve seen her costume in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, we know what it looks like. Perhaps Patty Jenkins (director) was determined to treat this like a stand alone film and we’re to pretend that BvS:DoJ doesn’t exist – possibly, but for anyone familiar with Dawn of Justice, this was a pointless reveal (except for that it’s still badass). That said, this reveal does address some attention to her agency as the hero. By indulging in this sequence, her moment of stepping into action by her own initiative associates her costume to the initiation of her as a fully realised superhero. She is Wonder Woman, her actions say so, and therefore so does her costume. It’s like seeing the crown of the Pope and knowing he’s a catholic; you see the gauntlets of Wonder Woman and you know she’s here to save the day. To another note, the moment is greater for having Wonder Woman realise herself as a warrior again. After being masked and clothed in traditional English women’s attire for several, long periods of time, here she rejects the normalcy that has been put upon her, opting instead to do as she pleases, however she sees fit. The last place she fought was Themyscira, now she regains her sense of origin. This isn’t hyperbolic symbolism for feminism, it’s simply the moment where Peter Parker accepts the responsibility to become Spider-man, or when Clark Kent endeavours to apprehend the criminals of Metropolis and quickly changes into the iconic Superman costume, Wonder Woman’s scene is becoming of the equal glory of those other films.
I found it interesting that Wonder Woman doesn’t embody ideology like other superheroes do. Where Captain America was created as pro-American propaganda during the war, to which he arguably still perpetuates that same propaganda, and as Superman upholds the law and order of Metropolis, Wonder Woman stands to tackle something far greater than upholding a country’s ideological values; Wonder Woman fights the philosophy of human nature – almost literally in the final showdown. Remarkably, the film deters from blaming “The Germans” entirely, it’s paints with themes with a much broader brush. Diana believes that all humans are under the mercy of Ares, that he controls their violent self-destruction. In the final reveal, she was wrong, Ares simply gave them the rope to hang themselves, and they jumped at the opportunity to do so. Now, discussing the complexity of Ares’ plan is a discussion in need of a much larger space (perhaps for a later date). For the time being, I found his philosophy of action quite morally complex, especially so for a superhero film. Most villains of a franchise tend to be obviously flat in the way that Red Skull wants to kill all people by blowing them up, or that Ultron wanted to kill all people by blowing them up, or that Loki wanted to kill all people by blowing them up, or that Enchantress wanted to kill all people by… you get the point. Here we have someone who has not manipulated or outright attacked anyone on the human race; he allowed them to prove who they really are – a species that will easier destroy than make peace. Ares is a surprising breath of fresh air – and to boot, the fight between him and Wonder Woman was evocative of strong sweat inducing fist clenching. I mimicked every punch and knock landed, I adored the vibrancy of the action.
In a true albeit sad way, Ares’ point isn’t hard to argue for (as is the case with good villains), some may defend and agree with his reasoning – admittedly, I was considering it. To my initial observation, this is the first superhero movie that seemingly lacks in a fascist antagonist (for the most part; all debates around hierarchal dictatorship are a rabbit hole). Other than how Batman imposes his law, and the law of America, upon the criminals of Gotham – by “imposing” I mean straight up murdering them in BvS:DoJ – the rest of the genre is full of them (see quotes: “kill all people by blowing them up”); to some credit, Captain America: Civil War does bring attention to the idea that The Avengers’ potential perception of they being fascists is plausible (yet, sadly this comes to no intelligent debate and instead triggers a round of fisticuffs between a pouting couple who take no consideration to their position into account when fighting their counter-protagonist). Needless to say, when Ares gives all the power to the people, he’s defies the archetypal role of dictator as villain. Elsewhere in the superhero genre, the villainy of conventional evil typically lies upon the villain itself; the villainy of Wonder Woman mostly lies on us, the humans, the most dangerous and self-destructive animals of earth. This creates a far more interesting dialogue between the film and the audience – Wonder Woman showcases a model of ourselves, where we can observe our own behaviour. However, the battle of good is still in Diana’s court; Ares is too simplistic in his understanding of humans. In reality the war did stop, without Wonder Woman or Ares, and sure we had another, bigger world war – and who knows where we’re headed now – but Ares was ultimately wrong. We did stop fighting. And having Wonder Woman fight for that, makes for a worthy showdown in the end. Of course humanity is worth fighting for, we know because we’re still alive – and there’s so much more to us than war. This is an idea worth remembering more often today. Maybe this is why I was so passionately embraced the final fight. It’s a fight for the philosophy of our nature, one who stands for all our evil and one who stands for all our good.
So, to conclude (finally) this massive, slightly admittedly rambly review. I found Wonder Woman to be a feisty yet compassionate superhero movie made richer by the complexity of its story’s ideas and Wonder Woman’s muscular, taut, corporeal fighting style that blows the feeble excuse for punchy-punchy-ouch-ouch in contemporary actions films. Wonder Woman fights like a blend of John Wick on a handful of hallucinogenic steroids. For those privy to complaining about the CGI overload, I got one thing to say, tell me you’ve experienced action one tenth as incredible as that. There’s a fair littering of CG throughout the movie, partially in all action scenes, but the heaviest freight comes at the end. Until the dial is turned to eleven out of ten, it’s used lightly enough, the illusion maintains, then comes Ares and the screen turns from a dark knight to searing orange. There are moments that will kill you come the finale, and how Patty Jenkins and cinematographer Matthew Jensen express Diana’s pure agony is excruciatingly excoriating; everything on screen screams for Diana fury; I’ve never seen aggression look this real (except for Whiplash and Mad Max: Fury Road). Having a director this capable of discharging a collective of soulful emotions throughout the frame, atmosphere and aesthetic is what makes film and film-making so extraordinary to enjoy on the big screen. I can’t endorse Wonder Woman highly enough.
Thank you for reading.
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