Friday, June 9, 2017

Review - Wonder Woman

Short review: Diana grows up among the Amazons in Themyscira, but when World War I comes to their doorstep, she leaves the island to confront the war god Ares.

Amazon princess
Trained to be a warrior
Becomes a hero

Full review: Set mostly during World War I, and telling the story of how an Amazon princess came to the world of men to stop their horrific war, Wonder Woman is easily the best DC super-hero movie since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly the best since the 1978 Superman movie. It might not be as good as the best of the recent Marvel movies, but it definitely ranks up there with those in the very next tier down such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Ant-Man.

Diana turning into Wonder Woman
That said, this is a movie that, unfortunately, will never be as meaningful to me as it is to women like the redhead who have been waiting for a top-notch movie featuring a super-heroine for most of their lives. For me, Wonder Woman is a fantastic movie, but it is just one more fantastic super-hero movie in an era that has been full of fantastic super-hero movies. Since at least 2002 with the release of Spider-Man, fans of movies featuring comic book super-heroes have been blessed with a wealth of great movies to choose from. And yet none of those movies have featured a woman in the headlining role. There have been women in secondary roles: Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Storm, Jean Grey, and a few others in the X-Men movie series. Gal Gadot's brief appearance as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman. And so on. But none of these movies had a female hero in the feature role. Even team-oriented movies with storylines in which a female super-hero should have been the featured performer have had women take a backseat to the dudes around them: In X-3, which is ostensibly an effort to bring the Phoenix Saga to the big screen, Jean Grey more or less just turns into Magneto's sidekick for most of the movie. In Days of Future Past, Shadowcat's pivotal role in the story is handed over to Wolverine instead. Hollywood has kind of grudgingly accepted the idea that there could be female super-heroes, but seems to have tried to put them to the side as much as possible, apparently hoping that they could keep female fans satiated with the thin gruel that they were willing to provide.

With Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have, quite bluntly, changed the game. The excuses about female-led super-hero movies being unprofitable, or unappealing to movie-goers, or any of the other excuses that filmmakers have made simply won't hold water any more. Wonder Woman features a female hero and doesn't make any apologies for centering her in the narrative and making everyone else onscreen into a secondary character who is present solely to advance her story. From the first moments of the movie to the very last, this movie is unreservedly about Diana, and to have an action movie with such a focus feels like a breath of fresh air.

The movie opens with a scene set in the modern day in which Diana has apparently taken up a job working in or near the Louvre in Paris. A faded picture is delivered to her by armored car courtesy of Bruce Wayne, which sends Diana's thoughts to the past and allows the story itself to begin. To be perfectly honest, the modern day sequences were the worst part of the movie - not because anything particularly bad happened in them, but because they reminded one of the fact that this movie is connected to the wretched movies that make up the rest of the DC Expanded Universe series. These sections, at the beginning and end of the movie, are mercifully brief and the action moves pretty quickly to Themyscira and back in time to when Diana was a child to tell the story of where Wonder Woman came from.

Young Diana, played quite effectively first by Lilly Aspel and then by Emily Carey, is a headstrong little girl, fascinated by the hardened Amazon warriors who surround her and eager to learn how to fight like them. In many movies, the dialogue given to children feels forced, and artificial, putting words and patterns of speech suited to adults into the mouth of a child, but here, Diana's interactions with Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright) feel almost perfect. When her requests to train for combat are refused, Diana sets about negotiating exactly how far she can go, offering to be careful, and use no sharp edges. When Hippolyta offers to tell her a bedtime story, Diana grouses that her mother has told her that story before. Time and again, young Diana steals the scene she is in with the innocence of her dialogue and the skill of the actors playing her.

Diana and Hippolyta
Themyscira and the Amazons who inhabit it are stunning in the movie. The island is beautiful - and the only time in the movie in which the sky is blue and clear with the sun shining overhead. Every other part of the movie, including the scenes set in the modern day, are grey and overcast at the very least. Under the sun, the Amazons are shown hard at work, training for war in scenes of breathtaking beauty and power. Many of those cast in the roles of the Amazons are world-class female athletes, and Patty Jenkins uses their skills to full effect, with the women displaying feats of strength and agility in their training sequences that make it clear that Diana's training regimen is certain to have been unmatched in its rigor. More importantly, these scenes are framed in such a way that the women are allowed to display their abilities without also highlighting their sexuality. They are, in short, allowed to simply be athletes and warriors without the camera worrying about whether they are going to be sexy enough to satisfy the prurient interests of moviegoers interested in some tits and ass. This is something that runs through the entire movie - even when Diana unveils her Amazonian battle garb in no-man's land, the camera doesn't frame her in a sultry or salacious manner. Instead, she is shown simply as an action hero, without regard to how attractive a particular pose or maneuver might make her.

The sequences on Themyscira are also used to tell the backstory of the Amazons by means of a semi-animated book with illustrations done in a Baroque style. To sum up, the gods, led by Zeus, created men which made Ares very upset. Ares created dissent among men leading to war, and also set about killing his fellow gods. Zeus created the Amazons to fight Ares and died while wounding the war god and driving him into hiding. Since that era of myth eons ago, the Amazons have waited for Ares to return and prepared to fight him to protect mankind. Hippolyta also tells Diana that Zeus left a number of gifts, including Hestia's lariat and the God-Killer sword to be used to carry out that duty. This exposition also serves to explain why Diana is the only child on Themyscira, and though Hippolyta is technically Diana's mother, the story makes clear that she is essentially doted upon by every woman on the island. Themyscira itself is depicted quite matter-of-factly as a society run by and for women, and the movie makes very little comment upon this. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shows up, he accepts this feature of the island with little comment. Like the Amazonian warriors themselves, the movie simply lets Themyscira exist without the need to spend time explaining it - although there is a rather hilarious exchange that takes place between Diana and Steve about the nature of sex after the pair have left the island that puts some things into perspective in a rather pointed manner.

Antiope has had it with your shit
The idyllic tranquility of Themyscira is shattered when Steve Trevor literally crashes out of the sky pursued by a German naval ship. Before too long, the beach is swarming with German soldiers and the Amazons set out to do what they have trained for so many millennia to do: Go to battle. This scene is absolutely glorious, with some Amazons rappelling down the cliffs bows in hand, and others charging across the sand on horseback. Once again, the battle scenes with women are framed in such a way as to highlight them as warriors and not sexual objects. Shortly thereafter, Trevor tells the incredulous Amazons about the existence of World War I, a conflict that has engulfed dozens of nations and cost countless lives. Diana immediately identifies the cause of the war as Ares, but Hippolyta, fearing for her daughter's safety, forbids the Amazons to intervene. Trevor also reveals that he had been at a secret German weapons facility in Turkey where the chemist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), known to the "boys in the trenches" as Doctor Poison, had developed some deadly new chemical agents under the direction of German Chief of Staff Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Trevor had stolen Dr. Maru's notebook and was headed for England in an effort to find a way to stop her inventions from killing millions when he was shot down. This, of course, leads the headstrong Diana to disobey Hippolyta, grab hold of all of the gifts of the gods and head off with Trevor to kill Ares and stop the war. During this sequence there is a beautiful scene in which Diana discovers that she has a strength and power that she did not know she had, and her reaction is one of almost serene satisfaction. This becomes a running theme in the movie, as Diana sets out to do what she sees as the right thing to do, and along the way finds that she has more strength and skill than she knew.

Dr. Poison
Diana and Trevor sail off to the U.K., arriving in what seems to be an improbably short period of time. Some have criticized this sequence, but on the other hand, leaving out extraneous transitional material seems to be an intentional part of Jenkins' directorial style, and I can't really argue with it. After all, what would have really been gained by having some sort of sailing montage or other interlude to show the passage of time? The voyage between Themyscira to London is, for the most part, irrelevant to the story, and any screen time wasted on it would have only delayed getting on with the the real action. Once in London, we get a taste of what really makes Wonder Woman heroic: She notices people. While the other characters are going about their business with their eyes more or less on the plot, Diana sees and cares about the extras - the woman with a baby, the man who sells her ice cream, the soldiers who are returning from the war, the soldiers who don't even appear on screen that are offhandedly condemned to die with a shrug from a senior officer. Diana defends the weak because she sees the weak, and for most of its length, effectively no one else in the movie really does, not even Steve Trevor.

London also begins the framing of Wonder Woman in a manner similar to the way male super-heroes have been framed in previous movies. Some sequences, such as a street fight in London, are presented in a way that explicitly reference this movie's antecedents, such as the 1978 Superman movie. Other scenes are presented in such a way as to merely allude to the action sequences of other super-hero movies, most notably movies featuring Captain America or Thor. Some criticisms have been leveled at these action sequences, more or less amounting to complaints that movie fans have "been there and seen that" already. These criticisms miss the point: We have seen male super-heroes put on screen in these sorts of sequences. Sometimes elements of a movie are necessary to include, not because of their importance to the plot, but because the movie has to tell the audience something via the meta-narrative. For example, The Force Awakens had to be very much like the original Star Wars: A New Hope to signal to fans of the franchise that Disney was going to shake off the accumulated ill-will engendered by the prequel movies and go back to the "old" style of Star Wars stories. In Wonder Woman, I contend that Jenkins presents Diana in a way that replicates the way male super-heroes have been portrayed specifically to demonstrate that Wonder Woman is "in the club" so to speak. Jenkins wants you to think of Christopher Reeve's Superman when Diana deflects a bullet in an alleyway. Jenkins wants you to think of Captain America when Wonder Woman breaks into a warehouse in Belgium and fights a collection of German soldiers while carrying a shield. And Jenkins wants you to think of Thor when Wonder Woman engages in an epic battle involving beings of god-like power. These call backs are not only intentional, they are necessary. This movie shows Wonder Woman, in all her glory, as no less a super-hero than any of her male counterparts, and in some ways, a far superior one.

After some twists and turns, Diana and Trevor end up in Belgium having acquired a collection of sidekicks - Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewan Bremner), and most importantly Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Sameer provides an interesting perspective and some relatively gentle humor, while Charlie, as a character who clearly has PTSD and refuses to accept any sympathy for it out of a sense of macho, offers a view into some of the hidden human costs of the war. It is the Native American character Chief, however, who features in what I consider to be one of the most pivotal scenes in the movie when, late at night by the campfire, when everyone else is asleep, he tells Diana of the losses his people have suffered - he has nothing left to fight for because everything was taken from his people. When Diana asks who took it from them, Chief simply points to Trevor and says "His people". This is a powerful moment in the movie, but it is also critical for establishing the underlying narrative as well. Trevor has, for the most part, been portrayed thus far as a heroic individual, fighting on the side of good against both the bureaucracy of the Allied leadership and the perfidy of the German war machine. But this movie isn't about heroic Americans fighting dastardly Germans - if it was, then shifting the classic Wonder Woman origin from World War II to World War I would not have made any real difference. This story is about how war, to a certain extent, makes villains of everyone it touches. Chief's simple, two word line says that the Germans are the villains now, but fifty years ago, Trevor's people, at least from Chief's perspective, were the villains. This resonates through to the climactic moments in the story where Trevor tells Diana that he can save today from the threat posed by the plots of Doctor Poison and Ludendorff, but that she has to be there to save the world. Trevor is on the right side right now, but Diana is a figure that needs to be on the right side for all time.

Diana in No-Man's Land
The centerpiece of the movie, and the clip seen in pretty much every trailer or advertisement for the film, is Wonder Woman's battle across no-man's land. There are later battles against the ostensible heavy-hitting bad guys of the story, but it is the moment when Diana steps out of the heavy cloak she is wearing and climbs the ladder out of the trench into the line of fine where the movie hits its high point. This moment is where Diana, Princess of Themyscira, becomes Wonder Woman (although no one ever actually calls her Wonder Woman in the movie). Once again, this scene drives home what makes Diana a hero, because her motivation is a conversation that she has with a refugee from the village on the other side of no-man's land. No one else - not Trevor, not Sameer or Charlie, not Chief, and not even the ordinary British soldiers in the trenches - pay any attention to these refugees. As they walk past, they look right through the wretched people huddled in the mud. Trevor even argues that they have to simply move on and ignore their plight so as to continue their mission. The war has brutalized everyone to such an extent that they don't see the suffering of the people right under their noses, but Diana does. Her refusal to simply accept this as an unavoidable cost of the war is what makes her moment heroic, especially since when she goes over the top she doesn't actually know that she will be successful. She only knows that the right thing to do is to try, and so she does.

The real Erich Ludendorff
I do have minor nitpick about the movie, and it involves the use of the German General Ludendorff as one of the primary villains. Erich Ludendorff was an actual general during World War I, and following von Falkenhayn's ouster as the Chief of the German General Staff in 1916 after the disastrous Battle of Verdun, Ludendorff was made Quartermaster General of the Army with the stipulation that he and the new Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, would exercise joint command. Ludendorff held this post until just before the war ended in 1918, and was the architect of most German strategy, including the operations that helped drive Russia out of the war and the successful but ultimately counterproductive Michael Offensive. One of the most important things about Ludendorff is that in reality he outlived the war, and didn't die until 1937, becoming a fairly important figure in right-wing German politics during the interwar period. Ludendorff's writings, for example, became some of the foundational elements of the "stab in the back" version of history that helped fuel the rise of the Nazi Party. (One has to wonder, given the way events play out in this movie, whether World War II actually happened in the DC Extended Universe). One of the other important things about Ludendorff is that he, along with Hindenburg, told the Kaiser that he had to sue for peace, which makes having Ludendorff be the "the war must go on" guy in the movie slightly odd.

This is sort of a long-winded way of saying that the Ludendorff we see in Wonder Woman is an alternate history version, and was kind of an odd choice to boot. For one thing, a General in the position Ludendorff held in reality and which the movie ascribes to him wouldn't need to do even the limited amount of political maneuvering that he does in the movie in order to get his way - effectively, Ludendorff controlled the entire German economy and military by the end of the war, to such an extent that when there was a large scale strike in 1918, he had a million striking workers rounded up and sent to the front. This is not to say that these sequences in the movie are not interesting elements to the plot, but rather choosing to have Ludendorff be the individual implementing them is a strange choice. Using an actual historical figure for this sort of role will always raise a collection of questions, especially if the story uses that figure in a strange way as was done in this movie. There isn't any other notable character based on a historical figure in the movie - Doctor Maru wasn't a real person; Steve Trevor wasn't a real person; Sir Patrick Morgan wasn't a real person; and so on. So why use Ludendorff and not some invented general whose story one could craft from whole cloth? Or, if one is bound and determined to use an actual German general in the story, why not one of the seventy generals who actually died in the war? Given the way that Ludendorff's story plays out in the movie, one has to wonder if German post-war politics would have given rise to the Nazi Party at all, and if not, whether World War II would have actually happened in the DC Extended Universe. As I said before, this is just a nitpick, but there was really no reason for it, and it irks the history-lover in me to see a character like Ludendorff used in this way.

Trevor and Diana
This is, however, just a niggling detail in the overall scheme of things. There are a few other minor missteps in the movie. Sameer's character could have been fleshed out more and he could have been used more in situations that were not intended as mildly salacious comic relief. The portrayal of Chief was for the most part well done, but he could have been given an actual name, and one particularly cringe-worthy scene relying upon a Native American stereotype could have been omitted. The Amazons played by women of color could have had more substantial roles in the movie. These are, overall, relatively small blemishes on an otherwise excellent tapestry, although they are real concerns that one would hope are dealt with better in the future. On the whole, comic book based movies have not had a good track record with respect to either women or people of color, and while Wonder Woman is a vast improvement on one front, it makes clear that there is still a long way to go on both fronts - although much further on one than the other. Despite the fact that Wonder Woman is fantastic in so many ways, the genre of super-hero movies can do better, and should aspire to do better.

Wonder Woman
After the battle across no-man's land and beyond, the movie pauses for a moment, as if gathering itself for the final push. There's a bit of intrigue which mostly seems to exist so that Diana can put on a ball gown and get mad at Steve Trevor before everything proceeds to the "punch everything" part of the story. From this point forward, the movie powers through its remaining minutes, slowing down only briefly enough to explain what is going on now and again. Diana gets angry, dukes it out with a super-villain, there's a fairly predictable plot twist, there's a fairly predictable (albeit very well-done) attempted seduction of evil, there's a fairly predictable complication, there's a fairly predictable sacrifice, and there's a fairly predictable battle against the really big bad villain. This part of the movie is flashy, spectacular, and filled with lots of action, but compared to everything that went before, it feels somehow less important. It is a given that super-hero movies have to have an epic confrontation at the end, and the battle is exciting and suspenseful and a little bit tragic, but it seems almost anticlimactic by the time the film gets there.On the one hand, it is exhilarating to see Diana gaining confidence in her abilities while she sheds her props one by one and relies upon her own inner resources, and it is great to see her framed in a massive confrontation with evil in a manner akin to the way other superheroes have been framed, but on the other hand, the movie doesn't really feel like it needs this denouement. It still gets it, in all of its high-powered, over-the-top glory, and the whole resolution feels (pardon the pun) wonderful.

Wonder Woman is, quite simply, a fantastic super-hero movie. It is almost everything that everyone who loves the character had hoped it would be, and then some. The concerns, quite frankly well-founded, that this movie would be yet another disappointing entry in the recent string of bad DC-based movies have turned out not to have come to fruition. Instead, what we have gotten on the screen is a movie worthy of the character, and worthy of her legions of adoring fans that stands head and shoulders above anything else in the DC Expanded Universe, and among the upper tiers of all super-heroic movies.

2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Arrival
2019 Hugo Award Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

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