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Wonder Woman
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Wonder Woman leaps confidently onto screens as the first major superhero blockbuster franchise picture with a female lead and a female director. Patty Jenkins, whose impressive true-crime art-house hit Monster (2003) made Charlize Theron an Oscar winning A-list star, brings a fresh perspective to the insufferably bland and formulaic comic-book superhero genre that has all but taken over mainstream studio output. Wonder Woman can’t claim to transcend the rigid narrative templates and generic cinematic tropes to which fans and studios cling (and have caused certain film lovers to swear off these movies).  But Jenkins’ picture succeeds simply by downplaying the weakest aspects of the genre while adding in a few new, or long-missing, elements to enrich the experience.

Like most modern takes on superhero origin stories created in the early to mid 20th century, Wonder Woman uses as much of the comic book source material as possible, updating it for contemporary values, fashions, concerns, and expectations. After a brief teaser connecting this movie to the previous year’s entry in the DC Film Universe (Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice) the picture begins with the title character as a little girl named Princess Diana.  Young Diana grows up on the island of Themyscira, home to a race of Amazonian warrior women created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind against the god of war. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, refuses to allow the young princess to train for combat. So Diana’s aunt, General Antiope, trains her in secret. The grown up Diana soon learns about an active war—World War I—when she rescues an American spy whose stolen German plane crashes offshore. Against her mother’s wishes, Diana decides to leave her home in order to fulfill her destiny of ending all war.

As with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978)—the original comic-book superhero blockbuster and still the gold standard for movies of this ilk—Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg devote a hefty amount of screen time to early scenes of the protagonists’ home world and young-adulthood. It’s an admirable attempt to fully create and inhabit the place where the main character grows up, before sending her out into the "real world.” Unfortunately, we never get any tangible understanding of what it’s like to reside in Themyscira. Instead we’re given a sense of the place the way a promotional video gives us a glossy representation of what a vacation resort, summer camp, or a theme park might be like. “Here we see the beautiful cascading waterfalls, here is where we ride our horses and practice our archery, here’s the gallery of precious historical artifacts,” etc.  But nothing about this Amazonian paradise feels authentically lived-in.  

The cliché conflicts in this early chapter and the absurd way they are resolved are also typical of the genre. Princes Diana is special. She is told by her mother that she is not to learn to fight, but she learns anyway. The filmmakers and actors are then tasked with an impossible scene in which General Antiope must change Queen Hippolyta’s mind with a dramatic sentence or two. Antiope uses the same logic and words we imagine she’s been using for years, yet somehow on this day the Queen suddenly listens to reason. No time is spent coming up with a credible way to win over the Queen’s thinking, and we even question how she thought she could keep Diana from learning to fight in the first place—in this society it would be like forbidding someone to breath. Viewers are not suppose to think about logic issues like these in comic book superhero movies, but they are critical for to establishing the internal reality and stakes for the story. And it’s difficult for our minds not to wander and ponder these questions, because of all the verbal exposition crammed into this first act. Origin stories should not get bogged down by extensive exposition because they ARE exposition themselves. Yet this film, like so many of its type, shamelessly indulges in characters telling longwinded stories about what came before, often illustrated with clunky visuals. 

It doesn’t help that the acting on display in this first section of the movie is so problematic. Connie Nielsen can’t breathe much life into the emotionally limited role of Queen Hippolyta. And young Lilly Aspel and Emily Carey, who portray Diana at ages 8 and 12, give us some pretty wooden line readings. As General Antiope, the fine actress Robin Wright looks and sounds ridiculous in her goofy headdress, speaking with the assertive, quasi-Israeli accent most of the Amazonians seem to have. Similarly, when we leave Themyscira and enter the real world for the bulk of this adventure, we're introduced to a lame Danny Huston as General Erich Ludendorff. This ambitious and deviant rogue leader of the German Army is yet another pumped up but ultimately inconsequential villain for Huston to add to his growing resume of forgettable roles.

Fortunately, we don’t spend the bulk of this movie with those actors; we spend it with the leads. Gal Gadot stars as Wonder Woman (AKA Diana Prince) and Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, the United States Airman Diana rescues who becomes her comical sidekick, love interest, and guide to the outside world. Clearly there is something about the way actors in their mid-thirties have come up these days that makes them feel at home and look natural in artificial, CGI-driven pictures, whereas older actors like Wright and Huston look awkward and out of place in movies like this.  Gadot, an Israeli actress and fashion model with limited screen-acting experience, delivers a perfectly pitched performance in the titular role. Unlike many comic book protagonists, Wonder Woman is a fish-out-of-water who gets no time to acclimate to the earthly world before having to fulfill her destiny as a fully developed superhero. This presents many opportunities for comical sequences, which could have backfired badly by presenting Diana as dumb or overly naïve. But Gadot and Jenkins are able to strike a tone that allows the scenes and characters around Diana to play as funny, without the jokes ever coming at her expense.  

Most importantly she makes the outfit work!  Just like Christopher Reeve forty years earlier, Gadot is able to don her iconic, but potentially silly looking and impractical, superhero costume without any sense of camp, irony, discomfort, or unintended humor. In fact she looks more at home in her Wonder Woman garb than in any of the many other clothes she wears during this adventure. Her incarnation doesn’t boast the “satin tights” of Linda Carter’s 1970s TV show version—and her traditional red, white and blue colors have been muted beyond recognition—but this is still an ensemble that would look pretty ridiculous on most movie stars.  

Famous actors like Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck might be able to look cool in the jet black armor and signature cowl of Batman, but the way most superheroes were originally drawn all but requires unknown actors to personify them in live action movies, because familiar faces with established personas evoke more laughter than awe when dressed up in tightfitting spandex. Like Reeve, Gadot manages to look sexy, serious, credible, and formidable in her heroic attire. And surprisingly, the skimpiness of this particular getup actually makes her seem stronger, tougher, and freer to move in the action scenes, rather than looking exposed or vulnerable. The way these DC fight scenes are staged and shot—with the heroes often leaping and flipping around in Matrix-style slow motion so that viewers can scrutinize every detail of how a move is executed—also works far better with Wonder Woman’s loose pseudo-skirt and long brunette locks than it does with the formfitting bodysuits, capes, and short haircuts or helmets of most male superheroes.  

Equally deserving of praise is Pine, who plays a cool and comfortable second banana to Gadot without sacrificing any of his well-established leading-man charisma. In over-the-top roles like Captain Kirk in J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek series, Pine has proven himself able to bring a human touch to special effects driven franchises. In more serious roles, like the previous year’s Hell or High Water, he’s demonstrated a gift for solid, understated dramatic acting. From the moment Pine enters the story, he and Gadot develop a palpable on-screen chemistry. While the actual romance between their characters is minimal, the connection between them feels genuine. The pair has a refreshing 1930s screwball quality that fits well within the picture’s period setting.  Pine does double-duty in the humor department as both a Harrison-Ford / Cary Grant wisecracker and the butt of jokes made by other characters and the filmmakers.  Of course, we get the expected gang of wacky sidekicks, played here by Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, but the canned comic relief of these subordinates is mercifully minimal because Pine is already there providing plenty of unforced laughs.

Two more things prevent this movie from playing like so many interchangeable entries in modern comic book franchises. First and foremost there is its light but earnest approach to the character and storytelling. Rather than depict Wonder Woman as a brooding, tormented soul—the fashion for most recent superhero movies—or as a goofy, cartoonish clown—as in most other comic book adaptations— Jenkins strikes a nice balance of tone that feels correct for a popcorn picture that’s trying to do slightly more than merely entertain for two+ hours.  Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is more akin to Richard Donner’s rousing Superman than Zack Snyder’s repugnant Man of SteelThe film lacks the ponderous pretentions of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but doesn’t incessantly wink and mug for the audience like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

The other key ingredient to this films success is its setting. I can’t think of another superhero movie set during World War I (there are precious few contemporary films of any kind set during this era). The conflict provides little more than a backdrop—we don’t get any kind of history lesson on why The War to End All Wars was fought and settled—but the backdrop helps contain the story, which plays out on a relatively small and manageable canvas.  Once Diana leaves Themyscira, the movie transpires entirely in London and on the Western Front in Belgium, rather than being spread out over dozens of exotic locations. That both Wonder Woman and Diana look completely out of place in these 1910s settings works for the fish-out-of-water humor and for the picture’s feminist subtext. 

The movie’s themes are a bit more complex than “war is bad” and “love conquers all.” The story embraces the violent elements all superhero narratives contain, rather than trying to outwit the impossible paradox of peddling anti-violent morals with ultra-violent material. Wonder Woman goes through most of this adventure believing that evil is a simple thing she can vanquish if she just sticks her big sword through the right dude’s chest, but she comes to learn that man’s inhumanity to man is far more complicated. This is not to say Wonder Woman is the next Unforgiven, but it is an enjoyably violent picture that occasionally stops to ask pertinent questions about why we seem to love violence so much.

These questions even come up during the requisite, interminable, big-dumb-loud action climax, but here they feel out of place. It was too much to hope that Jenkins would discover an original way to bring this picture to a close other than with the inescapable sequence of indestructible characters pointlessly throwing each other around for twenty minutes. I guess the odds of getting a comic book superhero movie that doesn’t end with a dull and meaningless CGI fight seems as remote as getting a new Star Wars movie that doesn’t end with an epic space battle occurring simultaneously to a smaller scale mission on the planet beneath. Building to a climax where a film’s intriguing thematic questions feel less grafted on and more germane to the action may be as difficult as creating an opening act that doesn’t feature endless voiceover exposition, but it’s really not too much to ask. All the frustrating generic elements make this Wonder Woman far less special or significant that I might have hoped, but I did not regret breaking my no-more-superhero-movies pledge for Jenkins’ film. There’s no chance I’ll return to see Gadot do her thing for a couple of sequences in the next over-crowded DC release (Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which will arrive in just a few months) but I’ll probably take a risk and see the inevitable Wonder Woman II.

Twitter Capsule:
Refreshes the insufferably bland modern superhero template with a few important new, or long-forgotten, elements. 

Directed by Patty Jenkins
Produced by Zack Snyder, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, and Richard Suckle

Screenplay by Allan Heinberg
Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs
Based on characters created by William Moulton Marston

With: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, and Elena Anaya

Cinematography: Matthew Jensen
Editing: Martin Walsh
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams

Runtime: 141 min
Release Date: 02 June 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color