Wonder Woman (2017)
While the Marvel Universe has had its ups and downs, the DC Universe has largely languished in a series of awful, empty spectacle films. I have to admit I have largely avoided seeing many of their films just simply because I don't purposely seek out bad movies just to torture myself so I can write a snarky review. I honestly watch movies hoping that I will enjoy them, which is why so many of my reviews tend to the positive. I see no reason to slog through something like Suicide Squad to be the umpteenth person to verify that, yes, it's terrible.
Despite the poor quality of the other DC movies, Wonder Woman was hailed as the shining exception. Patty Jenkins's film got the MRA trolls all up in arms just simply because it existed, while the contingent of critics that thinks even the lightest of box office fluff must have some sort of progressive political content hailed it as if no movie in the last century had ever had a strong female lead.
Meanwhile, the truth is that Wonder Woman was not an epitome of feminist empowerment, nor was it an example of a society where men are being marginalized. Rather, it is a DC movie that, thankfully, can be enjoyed apart from the rest of the pack, as it is above average for superhero films in general. My only fear is that the character will be squandered in the ensemble films to the point where a true sequel to this movie will end up being a watered-down rehash.
Diana (Lilly Aspell) is the only child on the island of Themyscira, and is the daughter of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). The island is shielded from the rest of the world by thick fog and a magical barrier, and the Amazons themselves were created by Zeus and placed on the island in case his son Ares ever returned to plague mankind. It is implied that the island and the Amazons were the last of Zeus's creations before he died. The island itself hides a weapon, an ornate sword, that is rumored to be able to kill Ares if the need arises.
Hippolyta is reluctant to let Diana train in the Amazon tradition, but her daughter is persistent and enlist the aid of her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Hippolyta is angry at first, but agrees to let the now older Diana (Gal Gadot) train, with the caveat that she be trained harder than any other Amazon.
The peaceful life on Themyscira is shattered one day when an airplane crashes through the barrier and lands in the sea. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American working for British Intelligence, who is being pursued by the German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). The German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), also known as "Dr. Poison", is working under Ludendorff to develop a new form of poison gas that can penetrate the gas masks being used on the European front to protect against attacks. Steve has stolen one of her journals, and when the Germans show up right behind Trevor, Themyscira is soon brought into World War I.
While they are able to destroy the invading German forces, the Amazons, poorly prepared or equipped for modern warfare, take heavy casualties. Diana, during the battle, manages to rescue Trevor from his aircraft, and he aids them in the battle. Soon Diana also learns a bit of what is going on in the outside world, and the toll that the war has taken. Convinced that this is the return of Ares that has been prophesied, she decides to join Steve on his trip back to London. There she becomes frustrated when she hears the leaders talk and dither, especially when a chance of peace is on the table.
With the help of his secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) Steve tries to help Diana properly fit into Edwardian society, while he tries to convince Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) to allow him a small force to track down Maru's lab and destroy it before the gas can be manufactured. Diana, on the other hand, wants to hunt down and kill Ludendorff, who she is convinced is Ares in disguise. Trevor is denied his mission, but decides to do it himself, recruiting his mercenary friends Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Ewen Bremner). Sir Patrick, knowing that Steve might just try something of the sort, agrees to fund the expedition under the table.
Smuggled into Belgium, the group meets up with a guide known as The Chief (Eugene Brave Bock), a Native American working as an arms salesman. He gets them to the front, where Diana is appalled by the human suffering and Steve's insistence that no one can do anything about it. Taking matters into her own hands, she decides to single-handedly maker her way across no man's land and attack the German front herself. Emboldened by the fact she appears to be succeeding, Trevor and his band go over the top, soon followed by British forces. Not only do they manage to take the enemy trenches, but also liberate the town of Veld, which is a stone's throw away from where Maru's lab is rumored to be.
An upcoming gala in a nearby estate gives Trevor the chance to go in undercover to learn some info from Maru herself, but Diana decides it's also a great chance to take out Ludendorff. Both of their attempts fail, resulting in Ludendorff test-firing canisters filled with the gas on Veld as a proof of concept for the Kaiser. Horrified, Diana goes off on her own in pursuit of Ludendorff, finding him at a nearby airbase that also houses Maru's lab. Trevor and his group try to find a way of stopping a plane loaded with the gas that is headed off to target London, while Diana attempts to fulfill her destiny.
My problem with the Marvel movies is that, every time a new character is introduced, it often feels like I'm watching the same movie again and again. A successful, happy person encounters a tragedy which changes them and makes them the hero of the moment, defeating another generic all-powerful villain. Sure, Ant-Man was slightly different, with a "lovable miscreant" discovering something more in his life, but that was also done (and much better) in Deadpool. The only one that really deviated from the formula was Captain America: The First Avenger, and in some superficial ways Wonder Woman is similar. Still, it was refreshing to see a different origin story. And, no, Themiscyra is not some ultra-feminist manhating sapphic paradise. They didn't decide they could do without men, but rather they perpetually exist apart from the world.
The other thing Wonder Woman does best, at least for the majority of the movie, is not giving us another cookie-cutter villain. Ludendorff is based on an actual historic figure, responsible for promoting the production and use of mustard gas during WWI, thus creating a chemical arms race at the time that resulted in millions more dead and permanently disabled than what would have been possible with what, up to that time, had been conventional warfare. There is a reason that the use of such chemical agents are considered crimes against humanity and banned by treaty from use in modern warfare. Maru is fictional, but can serve as a composite for those on all sides who participated in the creation and perpetuation of such agents. The major enemy that Diana faces is not some embodiment of evil, but the amorphous, confounding evil that humanity inflicts upon itself. The effect it has upon her and her belief system is much better than having a sneering villain pop up and do something bad throughout just to remind us that he's there.
That is why Wonder Woman was quite refreshing. She has an interesting origin, a good portion of the film is a fish-out-of-water scenario, while another hefty portion is what most of us have gone through in adulthood: going from idealistic inspiration to cynical acceptance that there is no magical bullet and, in truth, no one person that can be erased and make everything better. Gal Gadot was a good choice because she looks athletic enough to pull off the part while also being a natural actor. For those who go into this thinking it is some sort of feminist manifesto, Chris Pine's portrayal of Steve Trevor is not played as being a second fiddle, but rather as someone who has been down in the metaphorical and literal trenches long enough that whatever idealism he had was burned away a long time ago - although it is rekindled when he decides to steal the journal. Rather than merely going the lazy route of making him a simple gender opposite, Steve Trevor is in many ways the ideological opposite of Diana.
While Ludendorff is teased as the big bad guy, he eventually is no match for Diana. Danny Huston does the sneering bad guy well, which is no surprise. I mainly remember him as the axe murderer from the third season of American Horror Story. Elena Anaya portrays Maru as delighting in every bit of suffering she can cause, although she is also not the big, unconquerable bad guy either. In fact, the movie could have gone without the big reveal, and still had the same general ending and emotional impact - perhaps even more so.
But, it's Hollywood, and things always have to be bigger, not necessarily better. The movie had plenty of emotional heft, but Ares has to show up, and it feels about as appropriate as the title creature in Night of the Demon. Whether Ares was out there manipulating things could have been left as an open question. Yes, we do get one of the better battle scenes in either the Marvel or DC universes, but it feels completely unnecessary. There is still much credence given to the fact that the choices to act upon Ares's manipulations are through personal choices made by the people in power, but it feels like a sad compromise to studio heads rather than something essential to the story.
The film isn't without other problems. I like most of Patty Jenkins's direction choices, including the way the story of the how the Amazons came to be looking like Greek frescoes come to life. Unfortunately, there are way too many other choices here that are just distracting. All the CGI effects look cartoonish, which is a complaint I have with all these movies. I don't mean cartoon as in comic book, but rather as in Looney Toons. The charge Diana leads against the Germans suffers from this, especially with the use of a muddy brown filter that seems to permeate a good portion of the film. This overuse of filters and effects is slowly, and predictably, running into backlash, but for now this muddy look seems to be a hallmark of DC films. It is a tribute to Gadot, Pine and the rest of the cast that they are able to distract us from what seem constant attempts to remove us from the immersive experience needed to enjoy fantasy films.
When it comes to superhero films, Wonder Woman is still something fresh despite all of its flaws and frustrating attempts to shoehorn story elements that were unnecessary. It is definitely worth seeing and, although there is a wraparound meant to connect it to the other films in the series, it isn't too heavy-handed, allowing casual viewers to enjoy the movie without having to worry about any back story other than Diana's. As for those on both sides looking to make points about your pet causes, I hate to disappoint you. It's just a really above-average superhero film, and it's the 21st century: strong female characters have long since stopped being the exception. I do think the difference is that Gal Gadot's portrayal doesn't haul the fact around like a protest sign the entire film despite what many would like to think.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Time: 141 minutes
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya
Director: Patty Jenkins