Wonder Woman (****1/2): It’s about what you believe

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Wonder Woman – 2017

Director Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis

It’s a miracle that it took 4 movies for the DC Extended Universe to finally find a gem upon which to place its foundation.  This is the film that should shape the rest of the series if they want to find their way out of the muck and mire of the previous entries. There has been much film making talent exhibited, but no one has told a half-way decent story until Patty Jenkins and Allen Heinberg shepherded the story of one of the archetypal heroes of the last 100 years into an approachably human tale of horror, frailty, heroism and the power that compels the best in all of us: love.

The story in brief is a flashback to the events in and around WWI, where a spy (Pine) is shot down over a mystical island sanctuary of Amazon warriors, lead by a Queen (Nielsen) and her supreme General sister (Wright). The Queen’s daughter, Diana, formed out of clay and given life by the dying light of Zeus, has been groomed as a defender of the planet by her aunt, and somewhat hidden by her mother. The presence of the spy changes everything, and sets Diana off on a mission to end the war to end all wars by taking on Aries, the God of War.

The strengths in this film are many. The casting of Gadot by team Snyder might be the best thing they’ve brought to the DCEU. She is one of the brightest lights of BvS, and this story allows us to find the motivation behind her mysterious debut in that film. We see every side of her here and Gadot hits every destination in the path on the super hero journey. She shows more range than most are allowed when they wear ridiculous outfits. Hers is a fully fleshed and feeling character that uses the emotions on her sleeve as a strength of her character. She acts as a passenger of the story when necessary, but when action is required, she literally steps onto the field and changes fate, rather than surrender to it.

This is a film I am glad I saw with my girls, because while I wanted to show them women could be heroes too. When I left, I realized that I had been duped. Instead of seeing a film in which a girl acted more powerful than men, we all saw a hero that did the things in ways and for reasons that only women would do. In the end, Gadot allows herself to learn lessons without condemning herself for what might be conceived as mistakes. Everything she does is with a soft nature that is simultaneously lethal. She is here to punish the punishers, but she’s also here to gaze with wonder at the beauty of living. This is such an intricate balance to achieve, I am astounded at the performance. It’s truly a star making role that in my estimation is worthy of a nomination for an Oscar as any comic based film ever has seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

This says nothing about the exceptional physicality that Gadot expresses as the Wonder Woman of the title. It is obvious that her training as a member of the Israeli military. She is a physical specimen and is enjoyable to watch as a believable warrior. There are only a few times where they make her look goofy (long jumps especially). Her actions in going house to house saving the small town are delightful and epic as any super deserves.

Having the right kind of character to counter a super is essential. As Steve Trevor, Pine has found his second great role. He is a dedicated warrior and he plays as good a mentor for the human race as Diana of Themyscira could ever want. When he breaks through the mystical barrier (somewhat weakened by Diana’s discovery of her powers, presumably) he sets off a series of events that forever changes the future of the Amazon princess, and humanity. His dedication to mission parallel’s Diana’s own, even if they are not going after the same target. It’s the difference in target that allows his character to be more than Wonder Woman’s rib, to cross reference with the Bible. Along the way, they are somewhat equal but with different roles to play.

Pine has the right kind of assured persona to play a unique second fiddle. He is not a super power, but he’s got pluck and genuine feelings for Diana, that she learns to appreciate and reciprocate. Jenkins is a pro when it comes to the development of their relationship. We see it for a romance, not for a function of plot. It’s hard to disguise something you’ve seen 1000 times and make it feel fresh. And it takes a supreme confidence to make a passionate climax to said relationship and have it shown as a light in the window on a cold night.

Jenkins’ touch is exquisitely ornate. We get a real sense of the human tragedy in such a gruesome war with a minimal amount of blood and carnage. She shows herself  and cinematographer Matthew Jensen as masters of camera placement. There is no better example of this than when Diana rushes headlong into a town that has been bombed with poison gas. We get only the barest hint of the wasted lives but the full effect of horror just by watching the consuming grief on Gadot’s face. It’s a misery worthy of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

Just as effective is the sequence towards the end when we see what it means to sacrifice with no chance at escape. The effect of the decision of both leads could not have been more effectively exhibited or embraced by the camera.

The rest of the cast is as well-chosen as played. Robin Wright is never onscreen enough. I found myself as fascinated by her scar ridden beauty as I was Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos in Jenkins’ other masterpiece, Monster. Jenkins and Wright know as much about telling us the story that took place off-screen as the one that took place in front of us.

Where the heck has Neilsen been?  I am happy for her inclusion, as I thought we’d never stop seeing her after her breakthrough performance in Gladiator. Then we stopped seeing her. She did very little between 2006 through 2014, but she’s getting a lot of work lately. She will be in the upcoming Justice League film and hopefully subsequent Wonder Woman sequels.

Pine’s rag-tag United Nations team is interesting if for no other reason they provide things besides muscle and firepower. Giving one of them PTSD and how Diana helps the character find a use beyond it is a refreshing departure from the stereotype.

Danny Huston hits the right note as General Erich Ludendorff, a vile and despicable real life predecessor of the Nazi movement. His work with the fictional Isabel Maru (Anaya) succinctly represents the horror that emanates from that part of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. Huston is often the best thing in bad films. This time he is a good thing in a great film.

One of the big strengths of the film is the writing of Heinberg. He really understands the journey a hero has to take to be developed into an interesting character involves more than figuring out how the weapons and the outfit works. In blending the bad characters within the framework of actual events, he is able to give strength without having to go too far to find examples of how evil works its mechanations on us mere mortals. Giving us a devil hiding in plain sight as a whisperer is a stroke of genius. Too bad they didn’t let that impulse ride to a better showdown.

The film is nearly a masterpiece, were it not for some unfortunate computer animation choices towards the end. Making the final combat a collection of big, bigger and biggest strikes is a little too close to BvS territory, when a battle of wits would have more effectively matched the tone of seduction that was being applied. It’s almost someone in the producer’s office said “Yeah, that’s nice. But more explosions would be better.”

It’s not always better. In fact, it never is anymore. If we follow the feeling that Jenkins took time to formulate and sculpt in the future, this could show the redemptive force of a woman that comic book movies could really use.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (**) – Why build a miracle at all?

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – 2016

Director Zack Snyder
Screenplay Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

“What goes up must come down.
What must rise must fall…
And what goes on in your life
Is writing on the wall!
If all things must fall,
Why build a miracle at all?…”

Alan Parsons Project, 1978

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not the colossal failure everyone wants to proclaim. It’s about as cumbersome as Batman’s suit during their second meeting with the weight of its self-importance. It forgets that there are two characters in the title. In terms of story, it unwinds like more a math problem. It feels like they tried to set up D.C.’s version of The Avengers in one big bloated carcass of a movie. Still, with all of that going against it, I believe it squeaks by as a film that is a passable, if not all that likable building block to a franchise. If this is The Phantom Menace, let’s hope The Justice League is not Attack of the Clones.

The thing about Zack Snyder is that I generally enjoy his view on the cinematic world. His movies are usually visual masterpieces that, while not perfect, are at least memorable. The Watchmen, still his best work, actually improved upon the comic for me by making the ending an existential question. His version of Dawn of the Dead is still the best zombie movie I have ever seen. Man of Steel is, until the last act, perhaps the best Superman film. Somehow he forgot that Kal El is supposed to lead the carnage away from civilization…and that smile on Clark Kent’s face just doesn’t jibe with so many people dead.

They barely let the credits roll when the decision was made to contort the sequel into this grab bag of scenes and pulpy carnage in Snyder’s estimation of the modern version of a D.C. story line. They conscientiously moved away from the reliable but admittedly routine chuckle a minute Marvel formula. They also moved away from moments of wonder that are best fed in moderation.

After yet another young Bruce Wayne tragic awakening scene, we get a segue into the climax of Man of Steel, with the big ship falling into the sky and Superman (Cavill) working over Zod’s soon to be corpse in the background. Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has decided to fly into Metropolis as…Bruce Wayne. In a helicopter. Even with those means, he lands the copter several blocks away and drives in, until the roads are, soon enough, impassible. Then he runs. Again, as Bruce Wayne. Why does he do this?  Because Batman might have gotten there and actually helped more people maybe?  Well probably not. The Earth itself is knocked all to hell. How is Batman going to do anything about that?  Don’t think too hard about it. They didn’t.

So Bruce Wayne lost some employees and one friend we never really get to know. That’s alright for this story, though. We lose Jimmy Olsen a few minutes later when he’s going undercover during a Lois Lane interview with a bad guy.  Superman kills the bad guy after he holds Lane hostage, but back in Gotham/Metropolis, Bruce/Batman is stewing. The world has mixed feelings about Batman, who has been operating for years. He’s taken to branding his victims lately. They also don’t know what to make of Superman. This means the two heroes find one another on the opposite side of the justice spectrum.

The writers go to some lengths to establish these feelings, but the inclusion of Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor makes a jumble of it. Luthor likely knows the identity of both when he brings them together at a party. Also at this party is Diana Prince (Gadot). We know who she is, but Bruce and Clark will not until they need her, later in the film.

Anyone who has seen even the second commercial knows what happens from this point, which made seeing it somewhat redundant. There are angles that work (Batman), some that are forced (Luthor) and some that rely too much on Lois being an investigator and not enough on her boyfriend.

For what is supposed to be a sequel, it feels more like Batman with a bunch of Superman’s supporting cast. The reason for them to battle (even in the comic) has always been a little too counter-intuitive to their supposed intelligence. Still, the fact that we do not spend more than a few frames contemplating alternate identities is a plus.

As before, Snyder puts way too much into the last act. They make some overt attempts to intimate that the battles are taking place away from populated areas, but…come on. These folks do more damage than Godzilla meeting King Kong. In the midst of this, we do get a nice, somewhat nuanced subplot with Wonder Woman that makes her upcoming movie feel more interesting than Captain America’s.

We get to see a a video collection of other “Meta humans” who have been tracked down in a method convenient to the Justice League plot, but nowhere near any sort of canon. Even more, the titular battle is halted for a reason that makes no sense. Perhaps though it is commonplace in the dark D.C. Universe for people to refer to a parent by their first name.

The film is dark. Oh Lord is it dark. It feels like we have a giant boot to the neck for most of the 2.5 hour running time. If they were going for serious, the settled for constant heart attack inducing stress. Why do we have to make this world so dark?  It’s okay to see amazing things without seeing several caskets roll by throughout the film.

Who do we blame?  Most of it belongs to Charles Roven and Team Snyder. This whole format is in their guiding hands for now. The story provided by Goyer and altered by Terrio feels piecemeal. Goyer is on the hook for the two Justice League films. The franchise feels like a deeper hole than even they were anticipating. Word has it that there are a series of re-shoots even this late in the game to Suicide Squad in order to brighten the tone, even just a little.

It’s not that I hate this film. It’s got some good, albeit disconnected moments. The task of entering the DC Universe mid-step means it will necessarily be different than the origin story heavy Marvel Universe. A used universe is fine with this reviewer. It just shouldn’t have to require one to watch Blade Runner to lighten the mood afterword.

(** out of *****)