Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) [Spoiler-Free]

Director: Patty Jenkins

It's not exactly the greatest movie you'll ever see, but Wonder Woman proves that the people behind DC's extended film universe might actually know how to allow a decent movie to be made.

Wonder Woman is the fourth in DC and Warner Brothers's "Extended Universe" (DCEU) of movies featuring characters from popular comic books. Anyone who has happened to read my reviews of the first three films - Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad - knows that I found all three of those films either mediocre or just plain bad. Arguably the worst of the three, Batman v. Superman, had very few saving graces, one of them being the introduction of Gal Gadot (pronounced "gah-dote," by the way) as Diana Prince, or Wonder Woman. Her screen time in that film was relatively limited, but memorable, and it seemed to present Gadot as a good casting choice for the Amazonian heroine.

The feature film gives us Diana's full back story, starting with her life as a young girl on the paradisical island Themyscira, a place populated by the warrior women Amazons. The Amazons all seem to have supernaturally long life and physical strength, owing to their heritage as descendents of the ancient Greek gods. They remain isolated and cloaked from the rest of the world, however, as they are meant to serve as a line of last defense against an ancient foe of humankind. By unfortunate coincidence, the outside world eventually encroaches on Themyscira, during the final days of World War I. Upon learning of the horrible war happening outside of her safe cocoon, Diana leaves her home in order to track down the ancient Greek god whom she believes is responsible for the massive carnage of "The War to End All Wars."

The movie does a nice job of weaving a classic origin story within a larger framework of commentary about mankind's predilections for violence. The presentation of "Paradise Island" is just as visually stunning as you would hope of a big-budget, summer blockbuster, and the unfolding of Diana's backstory is handled well enough, even if there is nothing especially novel about it. The warrior women of the Amazon are presented as a considerable force, without being too heavy handed, or particularly creative, about showing it. As it should be, the fact that they are women is mostly coincidental, and more emphasis is placed on their abilities and unique place in the larger world. Diana's transition into a grimy, real world in the grips of a brutal war is conveyed well, with the contrast in color tones and costumes accentuating her shift from her idyllic, vibrant, and isolated home island into the chaotic and stark real world. However, the movie avoids a glaring flaw of its predecessors...

A major problem with the previous DCEU movies has been an overly dark tone that overwhelms nearly everything else about the pictures. Especially in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, the grim seriousness sucked nearly every last ounce of fun out of the movies. Wonder Woman deftly avoids this issue. While it does include the deeper themes of war, violence, and human compassion, the movie never loses sight of the fact that it is a superhero fantasy, and that fantasies are meant to be more than a little fun. Striking the balance between having a serious message and providing some entertainment isn't easy, but director Patty Jenkins pulls it off admirably.

Diana looks on in horror and rising fury at the carnage of
the first World War. Gadot brings highly credible emotion to
the picture, making her arguably the one element of the
movie that is truly standout.
Then there's Gal Gadot. It is difficult to imagine a better person to have played the single most famous female superhero in comic book history than Gadot. Obviously, she's gorgeous. Let's just agree that stunning looks don't hurt. But even more than that, she strikes just the correct tones that the story requires. Diana Prince is meant to be innately tough, capable, and trained as a warrior. Gadot conveys all of these characteristics and skills very convincingly (it came as little surprise for my wife and I to learn that she was a combat instructor in the Israeli army for two years). Just as important is how she portrays Diana as an idealistic, compassionate defender of the weak. This could easily have devolved into sentimentality or sappiness in the movie, but it never does. Instead, it all feels about as organic as a superhero fantasy can feel. This leads to more than a few moving sequences wherein the action on screen bears some legitimate emotional heft, even if the action itself hardly every rises above being passably entertaining.

I've alluded to a few less-than-oustanding elements of the film, but I can't say that I found anything to be a serious flaw. No, the dialogue isn't as crisp or clever as it probably could have been, but it's fine, even offering some solid chuckles along the way. The action isn't as engaging or kinetic as what we've seen in Marvel's last two Captain America movies, but it's mildly captivating at points. The overall story does, while offering some thoughtful themes, essentially become a fairly standard mano-a-mano punchout between Wonder Woman and the main adversary. All of these aspects fell short of being excellent, but they also never sunk to the sometimes-laughable shortcomings of the first three DCEU movies.

For popcorn movies like this, I gauge my enjoyment of them by asking myself whether I will ever watch it again. For Wonder Woman, my answer is that I probably will, but most likely not in the theater. While I did really enjoy seeing it for the first time, I don't see it as being a movie that offers the same entertainment returns upon repeat viewings. Whatever the case, it's great to see an action/adventure movie about a female character done right and strike a real chord with audiences.