Wednesday, June 14, 2017

'Wonder Woman' review

This really goes without saying, but it hasn't exactly been a smooth ride for the DC Extended Universe so far. While there are passionate defenders of every installment in the franchise, the response from the majority of fans and critics has been highly negative. It started in 2013 with Man of Steel, which was supposed to be the big kick-off for the series and the epic return of Superman to the big screen. The result was decidedly more divisive, with fans and critics split by Zack Snyder's brooding, hyper-violent vision of the classic American hero. Reactions to the next two DC films were significantly less divided, as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were almost universally panned. The latter ended up being a fairly strong box office hit for Warner Bros., but there's no question that Batman v Superman should have been a much bigger hit, even with a worldwide total that surpassed $873 million. With all kinds of poor buzz and controversy, many supposed that the DCEU could be dead before it even really began.

But Warner Bros. desperately needs a franchise like this, and they've put all their chips on this series of comic book films. That makes 2017 an incredibly important time for the studio, and DC has two new chapters in theaters this year- Wonder Woman and Justice League. There was almost an unfair amount of pressure on the first solo adventure for the most popular female superhero on the planet, but after a monumental opening weekend that broke records all over the globe, it's safe to say that Wonder Woman has temporarily saved the DCEU. While there's still no clear plan going forward beyond James Wan's Aquaman in late 2018, the fans and the critics have finally united behind a DC movie, and that is a huge step forward for this series. As someone who loves these characters and read the comics as a kid, this is immensely exciting for me. I was ecstatic when I saw that Wonder Woman was receiving positive reactions, and I hope that this represents the new normal for the DCEU.

There's only one question now- does Wonder Woman live up to the buzz? When those first reactions came out, it almost seemed too good to be true. After three movies that ranged from flawed to straight-up disastrous, could the team at DC really turn it around that quickly? The trailers weren't particularly strong for much of the marketing campaign, there were rumors of trouble behind the scenes, and I wasn't a huge fan of Gal Gadot's performance in Dawn of Justice. There was no way this movie could be THAT good, right? Thankfully, despite maintaining skepticism until the very end, I was completely bowled over by Wonder Woman. It is astonishing, thrilling, awe-inspiring superhero cinema, an origin story for the ages that manages to feel both epic and hopeful. It's emotional and touching, funny and clever, beautiful and thoughtful- simply put, it is everything that I have ever wanted from this franchise. Even as a Batman v Superman apologist, this is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the DCEU so far. Believe the hype- Wonder Woman blew me away.

Wonder Woman is the origin story of its titular heroine, telling the tale of how she became the fiercest warrior of the Amazons and fought in World War I. Born on the isolated island of Themiscyra, Diana (Gal Gadot) is trained to be a fearsome warrior from a young age, despite the concerns of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Diana's homeland is comprised entirely of female warriors, and her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), is instructed by Hippolya to train her harder than anyone else on the island. The Queen knows that Diana is destined for greater things, and that her worries are futile. By the time she's a young woman, Diana is strong and fierce, able to even take down Antiope in battle. She's the strongest of the Amazons, and she knows that there's something her mother is hiding.

But her whole world will be shaken by the arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for British intelligence who crash lands on Themiscyra. The German army is following Trevor, and after a fierce battle on the island, they interrogate Trevor about his true purpose. He informs them that the Germans are building a weapon that could devastate humanity and prolong the war, which Diana deduces must be the work of Ares, the god of war. She realizes that Ares must be stopped, making the decision to leave with Steve and fight on the front of the most brutal war in human history. With General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the woman known best as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) planning to unleash a weapon that will create insane havoc, Diana and Steve are forced to assemble a ragtag group of soldiers to fight the Germans. In a race against time, the fate of humanity and Diana's destiny hang in the balance of this monumental conflict.

It's kind of amazing that in a cinematic universe that features a Superman movie where an entire city is leveled and a film that unites two of the greatest heroes in American history, the most epic film is also the most straight-forward, old-fashioned origin story. Despite being a superhero film and part of a connected universe, Wonder Woman feels like the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't make anymore- or maybe they never made them at all. It's long and deliberately paced, grand and sweeping storytelling driven by a core cast of likable characters. And perhaps most importantly, Wonder Woman is led by a woman and directed by a woman, resulting in a film that full embraces its feminist message and the spirit of the character. It proves once and for all that representation is important in front of and behind the camera, and it also proves that you don't have to reinvent the wheel to make a great film.

Going back to the days of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, DC films have always been about something (with the exception of Suicide Squad, which isn't even a movie), which is their greatest asset and one of the major reasons why I defended Batman v Superman so much. They've tackled topics like 9/11, the idea of God vs. man, the burden of heroism, and so on, but none of the films in the DCEU have been able to successfully marry themes and entertainment value. Patty Jenkins changes that by making a film that uses its optimism as a weapon and finds its heroine basically fighting the idea of humanity's inherent evil. Wonder Woman does not have Diana view her power as some kind of tedious intergalactic responsibility, but instead as a choice, one that sees her viewing the best in people at all times. The characters fight for what they believe in, and even the ultimate villain has some good points- Wonder Woman manages to have surprisingly complex messages about ideology and worldview, and I love that about it. This is a film that has a lot to think about if you're looking for such subtext, but it never fails to be compelling and enjoyable. Optimism is good, guys. I'm glad Jenkins realizes this.

I wasn't a big fan of Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman. Everyone praised her appearance in the film, but I thought she was entirely superfluous to the plot and kinda disappointing. But from the very first moment that she appeared on screen in this film, I was sold. Gadot is noting short of sensational as Diana Prince, and her Wonder Woman is the first DC hero who actually seems like a genuinely good person. Gadot is a bright, lovable presence in every scene, a character you can empathize with whether she's kicking ass or engaging in a bit of uncomfortable banter with Steve Trevor. Diana's motivation is clear, and her desire to help people and save humanity is....well, heroic. She's fiercely independent, incredibly intelligent, deeply romantic, and consistently kind- in short, she's everything that Wonder Woman should be. She's the perfect role model, and I was in awe of Gadot's performance and this character.

Gadot is boosted by a terrific supporting crew that manages to have a surprising degree of depth, warmth, and charisma. There's no question that Wonder Woman is heavily influenced by Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, an origin story that made use of a historical setting (in that instance World War II) to introduce us to a modern hero. But while The First Avenger is stronger in some aspects, I would argue that the supporting cast in Wonder Woman is leagues more impressive. For starters, Chris Pine is tremendous as Steve Trevor. Pine has already demonstrated that he's an actor with a whole lot of range, but he's so damn impressive here and he creates such an admirable hero that audiences are going to simply adore. The affection that Trevor shows for Diana at every turn is wonderful, and Pine's spirited performance turns the character into an instant favorite. In addition, Diana's platoon, comprised of Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, is filled with very strong characters, each having been marginalized by society in some way, shape, or form and fully empathetic to Diana's fight. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright also crush it on Themiscyra, while Danny Huston and David Thewlis add a bit of prestige to the proceedings. It's just a great ensemble through and through.

But most importantly, Wonder Woman is an expertly crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment. It's well-acted and deals with some worthy themes, but the sheer craft of the filmmaking and the atmosphere of adventurous fun made me downright giddy. Jenkins is a genius behind the camera, creating a film that feels undoubtedly like the work of a true filmmaker, someone with a cinematic eye who can direct everything from dazzling action scenes to moments of romance and subtlety. The World War I scenes are nothing short of brilliant (you've probably already heard plenty about the No Man's Land battle), standing as some of the most distinctly memorable setpieces in recent memory, while even the predictably explosive climatic battle manages to impress in its own way. In addition, Themiscyra is a gorgeous paradise, improved upon by the terrific cinematography from Matthew Jensen. And there's a great score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, one that takes the theme created by Junkie XL and delivers something that matches the tone set by Jenkins. This is an excellent piece of blockbuster filmmaking, one that feels bold and beautiful in its own unique way.

Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie. It still has to deal with some of the pitfalls of the DCEU, and I can't say I'm much of a fan of the decision to blend superheroes with gods and ancient monsters. In addition, the first act is pretty heavy on the exposition, which gets a little tiresome after a while. But for all of its occasional choppiness, Wonder Woman is a dynamite blockbuster. It's heroic, gorgeous, and entertaining as hell, which is exactly what this cinematic universe should be. Led by the wonderful duo of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, Wonder Woman is a rollicking ride from start to finish, blending jaw-dropping action and thoughtful character work to great effect. It's another excellent superhero film in a year that has been very generous to the genre, and if it's any indication of the future direction of the DCEU, we finally have reason to hope again.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images: IMDB/WB

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