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Wonder Woman

“Besides [Wonder Woman’s] great origin story, there’s nothing from the comics that felt right 100 percent, no iconic canon story that must be told. Batman has it made – he’s got the greatest rogues gallery ever, he’s got Gotham City. The Bat writes himself. With Wonder Woman, you’re writing from whole cloth, but trying to make it feel like you didn’t. To make it feel like it’s existed for 60 years, even though you’re making it up as you go along.” –Joss Whedon

That quotation regards a time when Whedon had his turn to try and make a Wonder Woman film happen. He was far from the only one to make an attempt over the decades that this picture spent in development hell. Maybe it’s because of institutional sexism, maybe it’s because the effects and the budget weren’t there, maybe it’s because the filmmakers involved were too trigger-shy on making a film about such a powerful feminist icon, or maybe — to paraphrase Whedon’s remarks above — it’s because the mainstream knows virtually nothing about Wonder Woman aside from her image.

Seriously, among the people out there who don’t read comics, how many of them could name a single Wonder Woman villain? How many of them could recount her canonical origin story? Trick question: Her origin story has been retconned and retold quite a few times. Diana Prince has seen some terribly uneven treatment in the comics, and she doesn’t have any huge landmark storylines like the X-Men (Days of Future Past, Dark Phoenix, etc.), Batman (The Killing Joke, Knightfall, etc.) or the Avengers (The Infinity Gauntlet, Age of Ultron, etc.). This certainly didn’t help her big-screen prospects.

And given how things played out, this long delay could’ve been for the better.

Obviously, special effects have never been more advanced and sexual equality has never been more relevant. These are both highly significant factors for obvious reasons. But there’s also the fact that comics fans have been dying for DC to make the kind of massively interconnected superhero cinematic universe that nobody ever dared to ask for until Marvel proved it possible. And so far, to put it bluntly, things haven’t been working out well in DC’s favor.

Something needed to come along and change the game. We had to have something fresh, exciting, and empowering, to remind us all (and perhaps the filmmakers themselves) why we loved DC so much to begin with. What better to fit the bill than an inspirational icon whom we’ve never before seen on the big screen, no matter how many times we clamored for it?

So far, the critical response seems to say that Wonder Woman is indeed the cinematic depiction of Diana Prince we’ve all been waiting for. And it certainly is that, even if it’s not much else.

The origin story has been tweaked in a couple of notable ways, one of which is so relatively minor and so hugely spoilerish that I won’t comment on it here. The bigger change is that there’s no huge contest between the Amazons over who gets to serve as Themyscira’s ambassador to the outside world. But let’s be honest, that part was always kinda stupid and unnecessary to begin with. Oh, and the Amazons are able to speak every language on Earth because Themyscira is magic or some shit like that. I don’t know and I’m not going to pretend it makes sense so let’s just accept the hand-waving and move on.

It’s also worth noting that this origin story takes place in World War I, as opposed to World War II. A welcome choice, given how WWI has been given featured in relatively few movies compared to its ubiquitous successor. Moreover, the whole plot hinges on the notion that this is global warfare and indiscriminate mass murder on a scale previously thought impossible, which makes a lot more sense with regards to the Great War. I mean, extermination camps and nuclear bombs are terrible and all, but try telling that to someone who’s still suffering from mustard gas exposure in the trenches. Last but not least, this is a movie all about the naive and pure-hearted Diana Prince (Gal Godot, reprising her star-making turn) coming to grips with the complexities and moral ambiguities of humanity, and moral nuance is borderline impossible where Nazis are involved.

This brings us to Wonder Woman herself. Put simply, the filmmakers had her nailed pretty much from the outset. She’s very well-versed in ancient literature, so she knows all about the existence and *ahem* biological differences of the two different genders, but her knowledge of modern social cues is of course nonexistent. Additionally, while she may be a nobody in the outside world, she’s a highly trained bona fide goddamn warrior princess on Themyscira. So while she may be ignorant in many ways, she’s still the smartest person in any given room. Even more so, given how everybody underestimates her at first. Far more importantly, she’s honest and compassionate to a fault. If she sees something as morally wrong, she’s going to call someone out on it.

But where the character of Wonder Woman truly crystallizes is in the iconic “No Man’s Land” scene. To put it simply, she’s walking through a trench outside a war-torn village, and she sees various people suffering in different horrible ways. She wants to help each individual person, only to be told that there’s no time and the war is so much bigger than any one person. And then — to put this as spoiler-free as I can — the action happens, and everything clicks.

Diana’s most painful lesson is in learning that she can’t solve all the problems of the world single-handedly. And her most divine revelation is in learning that if she leads by example, she doesn’t have to. All she has to do is break the ice, inspiring those around her to find their courage, giving good men the means to fix whatever problems they find in whatever way they can, and the bigger more systemic issue will take care of itself.

Also, the No Man’s Land scene is where we finally get the full badass reveal of Wonder Woman in full costume, after a series of clever and well-paced teases.

Then we have Steve Trevor, here played by Chris Pine. The chemistry between the two leads is on point, largely due to Pine’s wonderful comic timing. Seriously, meshing the comic relief and the male love interest into one character is pretty much the best possible use of Chris Pine. But what’s far more important is in how Steve and Diana work with and against each other.

Diana is brutally honest and laser-focused on her mission, seemingly incapable of subterfuge or long-term planning. Steve, however, is a professional spy — sneaking around, manipulating people, and playing the long con is what he does. But even though their methods differ, Steve and Diana are both equally incapable of inaction in the face of evil. Steve is a liar, a thief, and a murderer — and he freely admits as much — yet he’s still a good man. As such, he perfectly serves as Diana’s example for humanity as a whole: Deeply flawed, but still worth helping.

Even the supporting cast is better than expected in places, even if the roles are mostly thankless. The best example concerns Steve’s trio of misfit comrades-in-arms — this movie’s disposable answer to The Howling Commandos of Captain America: The First Avenger — but each of them does actually bring something to the table. There’s Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), the wannabe actor who couldn’t catch a break because of his color. We’ve got Charlie (Spud himself, Ewan Bremner), the crackshot struggling with alcoholism and PTSD. Last but not least is the Native American smuggler (“Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock), serving as a harsh (yet subtle) reminder that Steve and his white Anglo-Saxon brethren are just as capable of committing atrocities as preventing them. These three actors serve as a frankly ingenious way to show Diana more about the ills of society, and how she has the power to help broken people overcome their own baggage.

Elsewhere, the female supporting characters don’t fare quite as well. Lucy Davis is okay as Etta, but ultimately doesn’t do enough to justify her presence. Connie Nielsen is sadly flat as Diana’s mother, though Robin Wright Penn does a decent job as Diana’s aunt and mentor.

Then we have the villains — cast with such actors as Danny Huston, David Thewlis, and Elena Anaya — all of whom are quite notably played to the cheap seats. The big bad here is Ares, the god of war himself, who’s supposedly orchestrating this whole war from behind the scenes. I’m not going to spoil exactly whom Ares turns out to be disguised as, even if the film practically spoils itself by making his true identity so blindingly obvious.

The salient point is that Ares is played ridiculously, laughably broad. Which is understandable to a certain extent — how could anyone bring nuance to the motherfucking god of war? Still, there’s a line between an arch character and bad writing. And the classic trope of “I’m going to keep you alive and tell you my plan so you’ll join me and we can rule the world together” toes right up against that line. Still, Wonder Woman’s conflict with Ares perfectly matches her own inner conflict about whether humanity is flawed enough to be worth extinction, and that’s not insignificant.

This brings us to the action, which is quite solid on the whole. The editing was perhaps a bit fast for my liking, but there’s some ingenious use of speed-ramping and quite a few spectacular stunts. We have a movie in which a bunch of women with bows and arrows are able to plausibly beat a cadre of men armed with guns, and that’s no small feat.

Even so, while Wonder Woman does occasionally use her sword and her signature Lasso of Truth (which looks fucking awesome, by the way), she’s far more partial to her shield and her bracers. She fights defensively in a way that draws yet another comparison to Captain America — especially given the period setting — but that’s hardly much of a complaint for how well it suits the character. Likewise, Wonder Woman doesn’t really defeat the bad guy through brute force or quick wit so much as love and belief manifesting as a deus ex machina, but it still works because it suits the character and it symbolizes her decision that mankind is worth saving. William Moulton Marston very explicitly created the character as a hero who would defeat evil with love rather than fists or firepower, and this portrayal fits that ideal to a T.

Regarding miscellaneous notes, I thought the filmmakers were far too fond of extreme close-up shots for their own good. This is most especially obvious in the first act, when I was counting the pores on Godot’s face when I could’ve been taking in the background details of Themyscira. Seriously, I was disappointed for how little time and effort got put into exploring Themyscira and the Amazonian culture for how fascinating all of it looked on the surface.

The pacing is also pretty clumsy early on. I can deal with a flashback to explain the origin of Themyscira. I can even deal with a training montage for 8-year-old Diana (newcomer Lilly Aspell). But cutting from one to the other and back again, getting them both out of the way at the same time even though they have nothing to do with each other, was a step too far. It was way too jarring to follow along with two radically different time periods and unrelated stories at once, especially after we just flashed back from the framing device of Diana in the present day.

Last but not least, Rupert Gregson-Williams deserves a lot of credit for the score, expertly weaving in the character theme previously written by Hans Zimmer. Gregson-Williams also takes a page from Zimmer for the London-based scenes, taking a page from Sherlock Holmes (2009). All of that having said, there are certainly worse composers to crib from than Zimmer, and the score still stands perfectly well on its own merit. Additionally, I applaud the DC Cinematic Universe for giving the characters consistent musical identities across the disparate films and franchises — I’m continuously disappointed that Marvel hasn’t done a better job with that.

When I first reviewed Batman v. Superman (my opinion changed quite a bit over the umpteen zillion online debates in subsequent months), I said that it was “so focused on getting the big things right that it gets the minor details catastrophically wrong.” My first impression of this movie is something similar. The difference is that while this film does have some pretty glaring flaws, none of them amount to dealbreakers like those of BvS. Additionally, while BvS did an elegant job of portraying the ideological differences between Superman and Batman, we really didn’t need a superhero deconstruction of how power must be held accountable, especially not with Captain America: Civil War on the horizon. Compare that to this film’s many beautiful statements about who Wonder Woman is, what she stands for, and why she deserves to be held up as an inspirational figure all these decades later. All of which is stuff we could absolutely use right now.

Wonder Woman does what it needed to accomplish, and that’s a huge feat in itself. It sets a new and more inspiring tone for the DCCU, it pays tribute to so many decades of Wonder Woman as a powerful feminist icon, and it gives a solid canonical origin story for the character. Far more importantly, it firmly establishes what the character stands for and why we need her, doing so in a way that will surely resonate with feminists and women of all ages.

All of that said, this is not a game-changer. This isn’t on par with Spider-Man (2001) or Superman (1978), and I don’t agree that this is comparable with The Dark Knight. It would be more accurate comparing this to any of Marvel’s Phase I movies, which is more than good enough to get the job done.

I’d absolutely recommend seeing it, but don’t bother with the premiums. The stunts are just as effective in 2D, and I’d give all the extreme close-up shots in 3D a hard pass.

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