Film Review: Wonder Woman

Of course there will be spoilers … just so that you are aware.

 

After so many false starts and misses with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, the DC Universe finally hit a home run, and in the process had an inside the park grand slam!  Wonder Woman is a film I would easily put on the shelf of great super hero films along with the likes of The Dark Knight as something that is genre re-defining.

The film opens in the present, as Diana walks to her job at the Louvre.  She appears to be a curator in charge of ancient armor and weapons.  A briefcase arrives from a Wayne Industries courier, and she opens it to find the original glass photograph of her and three soldiers taken in World War I that we saw in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  A note from Mr. Wayne says that he found the original, and wanted to pass it on to her, hoping that she will one day tell him the story.  As she stares into the photo, she remembers how it all began …

On a lovely (one could say, paradise … like) island, young Diana watches as the Amazon warriors train, led be her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright, better known for playing Buttercup in The Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump, as you have never seen her before!)  Diana wants to train as well, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta, is very reluctant.  As aunts will do, Antiope trains her in secret.  Hippolyta also tells young Diana stories about the origin of their people … that after Zeus created humanity, his son, Ares (god of war) corrupted the hearts of mankind.  Zeus created the Amazons to restore order and protect humanity and fight Ares, and while Ares almost won in defeating all of the gods except Zeus, Hippolyta led the Amazons to victory, and in Zeus’ dying moments of victory, he created their secret island, Themyscira, to protect the Amazons from Ares view, should he ever return, and also gifted to them a weapon that could kill Ares.  Diana asks to see the weapon, and mom shows her a magnificent sword stored with other weapons in a vault.  Diana’s mom eventually finds out she is being trained, and gives in, demanding that her sister train Diana to be the best.  Diana grows into a great warrior, much to the worry of her mother.

One day, Diana witnesses an airplane crash through the invisible shield around the island, and saves the pilot.  No sooner has she done this than German ships come through the shield, and land troops.  There is an awesome battle between German troops and Amazons, resulting in losses, but none moreso than Antiope who takes a bullet for a distracted Diana.

The pilot, under duress of the magical golden lasso of Hestia, is revealed to be Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, in a great performance), an American spy working for British Intelligence.  He was tasked to fly in to a secret German base to investigate one of their generals, Luddendorf, and his chemist, Dr. Maru, who has created the German chemical weapons program, and is working on a new gas that will destroy gas masks.  Trevor, against orders, steals her notebook, and was on the run when he was shot down.

While the Amazons are content to lay low, Diana is convinced by her years of listening to her mothers’ tales that Ares must be at work, and that it is the duty of the Amazons to complete their mission and defeat him.  When her mother refuses, she secretly helps herself to the weapons vault, including her own set of special armor, a shield, the lasso, and the god-killer sword.  She frees Trevor, and they attempt to leave.  Her mother stops her, finally giving in that she may lose her daughter in the process, but cannot stop her.  Before they part, mom gives Diana her aunt’s war tiara that she had worn when she fell in battle.

They arrive in London, and learn that an armistice is near.  Trevor is still concerned about the new gas being used before the treaty is signed, and Diana is convinced that the treaty will never be signed because Ares won’t allow it.  We meet Trevor’s boss, Sir Patrick, who secretly backs Trevor for a mission to Belgium to find the gas and end the threat, and Trevor gets a team together: an Arab wannabe actor who is an undercover specialist (Sameer), a Scottish sniper (Charlie), and a Native American trader who can get them to Belgium (the Chief).  They slip into Belgium, and enter the labyrinthine system of trenches.  There, they learn of a town across the no-man’s land where the Germans have been killing indiscriminately and enslaving the rest.  While Diana has been anxious to take action, she has felt restrained until now because of Steve, but can no longer take it.  She drops her cloak, and rushes across the no man’s land in a blaze of glory with the Entente soldiers following her all the way (this scene is pretty damn kick ass … and only the prelude to her more-or-less single-handedly liberating the town, which is even more kick-ass).  It is here, after the battle, where her picture is taken with Steve, Sameer, Charlie, and the Chief.

Trevor learns that the gas facility is not far, and the team gets to a castle where there is to be a gala that night (the gala had been to celebrate the coming peace, but after Luddendorf tested Maru’s new gas on the German high command, peace doesn’t appear to be near).  Steve and Diana separately infiltrate the gala, and learn to their horror that the height of the celebration is an artillery firing of the gas onto the recently liberated town.  Diana and Steve speed back to the town, and find the population dead.  She is enraged at Steve for delaying her the whole time, realizing that if she had just killed Luddendorf/Ares when she wanted, this would have never happened … because without his corrupting influence, the war would end.  She speeds back to the castle and its gas production factory, and goes medieval on the soldiers until she finally corners Luddendorf.  After a brief confrontation, she kills him with the god-killer … but is shocked to see that soldiers are loading the gas bombs onto a large aircraft.  She can’t understand why the war continues.  Trevor tries to convince her that maybe this isn’t Ares, or maybe there is an inherent corruptness to some of humanity, but he still needs to act to save lives.  She gives up.  Trevor leaves her to go after the plane.  At that moment … Sir Patrick appears before Diana … yes, he was Ares and not Luddendorf.  Ares explains that after humanity was created, he saw their flaws and tried to warn the gods to no avail, and has sought to stamp out the mistake ever since … not by actively involving himself in human affairs, but by using his power to suggest ways that man could destroy themselves.  Diana and Ares fight for a bit, and is shocked when her attempt to run the god-killer though him, results in the sword being reduced to ash … During a lull in the fighting, Trevor gives Diana his father’s stop watch, telling her that he wished they had more time, and  that he loved her.  Trevor fights his way onto the plane.

Ares, now in his true form, tells Diana that he doesn’t want to fight her, and hopes she has come to the realization that he did a long time ago, that with mankind out of the way, Earth will finally be a paradise that it was supposed to be, and can be, and now that she knows how evil men (and women) can be, she should join with him … given as they are brother and sister.  Ares also informs Diana that the sword was never the god-killer that Zeus gave the Amazons, that he gave them one other gift … herself.  She is the god-killer.

Trevor realizes that he cannot crash the plane anywhere without killing everyone around the crash with the gas, and as Diana watches, he blows up the plane.  In a fit of rage, she and Ares continue their fight, but then comes to the realization that the only way to win is not through Ares’ hatred, but through love and compassion. She rebuffs Ares’ invitation to kill Maru, and instead defeats Ares in battle.  With Ares gone, the soldiers, many of them young boys, pull of their helmets, and the fighting ends.  Back in London, the team briefly reunites before parting as celebrations of the war ending are going on, but not before pausing to see a picture of younger Steve on a bulletin board of those who fell.

Back in the present, Diana sends Bruce Wayne an e-mail, thanking him for returning Steve to her.  She reflects that mankind, for all of its faults and darkness, is still worth saving, and that she has been reminded of her duty.

 

 

Right off the bat, the production team (director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg), had to be careful of a few things: make damn sure that we don’t forget that Wonder Woman is in fact a woman, make sure that she is not presented as window dressing with bullet proof bracelets and the ability to jump really far (see televised version of Wonder Woman), and then make sure that she is presented as a fully human character.  That last part in particular has been difficult for the DC franchise of late (Superman and Batman are both really depressing characters in this iteration of the DC universe).  They got it damn near perfect here.  Gal Gadot is certainly a good looking lady, but at no point is there even a hint of the character as a sex symbol.  Compare this to Black Widow showing up in any number of “butt-centric poses” … there is nothing at all “cheesecake” about this Wonder Woman.  Most of the time she wears a ground-length cloak, and when she is in her iconic costume, it is not a costume to show off her figure … it is the armor of a soldier … a real warrior, and at no point are you allowed to forget that you have an intelligent, highly trained, highly skilled warrior who is very capable of using lethal force.  That was so important for this film to succeed, and that was pulled off well.

They also had to show Diana as human.  Quite a few super hero films inject humor or cheese to distract from genuine drama.  As I noted, they have failed with this so far with Superman and Batman, but even the Marvel films have had a problem fighting this at times.  Superman is shown to be kind of angtsy and using a lot of power without much thought.  Batman is just a brooding, broken vigilante.  Diana is shown as having a fuller growth to her character.  Because the character is written with such genuine conviction, she has a moment when her convictions are shaken that she freezes.  She is convinced from the start that she has the facts about who Ares is and that she will end this war with his death, and her faith is shaken not once (when she kills the wrong man), but twice (when Ares so easily destroys the god-killer sword), and in both cases, she is genuinely paralyzed for a time.  Some would see this as a weakness of story telling, but I see this as an almost unheard of maturity in writing and execution.  The real maturing into a hero is not her blazing across battle fields, but in the realization that power must be tempered with mercy and compassion (love, if you will).  This is when she becomes a real hero.  Superman never had a moment like this, and neither did Batman.  Perhaps moments like that could never be shown because those were male characters … but it is a wonderful change of pace in the world of superheroes to see that real GROWTH as a person into a hero.

Let me talk about feminism for a moment.  Its hard not to bring this up with one of the oldest female superheroes, one who long ago became a feminist icon.  When I went and saw this movie last night, its third week out, the small theater was quite full, and there were quite a few older women there who I suspect are not the usual viewers of comic book films.  Clearly, the film has struck a chord in an era where the value of women is under attack.  I was also shocked to see some feminists attacking the film for not allowing Diana to be the hero at times.  I think these folks have missed the artistic points.  One scene sees Steve and Diana trapped in an alley by German spies.  Steve initiates the fight, and Diana proceeds to wipe the proverbial floor with them, with Steve punching the final spy out.  This scene was attacked because it “showed Diana couldn’t finish the job herself, and needed a man to finish it for her”. That is ludicrous!  In fact, I would compare the scene very favorably to the first time we see the Black Widow in battle in the film Iron Man 2:

The fact that Happy got the first and last punches in was in no way there to say that Black Widow needed help … it was there to make Happy the comic foil and show that the only person in charge was Black Widow … as goes the scene with Diana.

In fact, feminism is not largely brought up, and is certainly not something that is hammered over the head (I think the production team realized that their story and actors were going to do that on its own).  In fact, part of Diana’s education is learning how complicated our world is.  At one point, she seems to scold the Chief for not taking sides and involving himself in the fighting. The Chief tells her that his people have done a lot of fighting, and it didn’t end well, and that he feels he has found freedom away from his home.  Diana inquires whose people stole his home, and is a bit surprised when he points to Steve.

One thing that they also got just right was the requisite “fish out of water” scenes.  Good drama requires small comic interludes to permit the ebb and flow of emotion, and again, they got his 100% right.  Certainly there is a woman, who is foreign to the world of men, and that will lead to questions and situations.  You might have made an entire comedy out of this, but the production team kept the comedy strategic, and was probably smart to put a lot of it in the trailers to further defuse it a bit.  One particular scene that got a lot of laughs form the women in the audience takes place on the boat trip from Themyscira to London, where Steve and Diana discuss biological reproduction, and how Diana has read a great deal about this, but doesn’t see that big a deal, since men aren’t necessary for the pleasurable parts of it.  Like I said, the women laughed.

Another aspect of the film that really was done well was the music.  In Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman’s theme was introduced, and it is a driving, emotional Hans Zimmer composed rhythm that reminds you that this music represents a passionate warrior.  I came across a neat video that explained a bit about this music (linked here), which mixed some dissonant tones with resolved tones to create a sense of conflict.  The video notes that this was used in “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and was meant to invoke the idea of a banshee.  Upon some reflection, I think this also reminded me of another piece of theme music I had heard … used to evoke much the same ideas of conflicted warriors fighting complex, emotional battles.  In fact, if you saw that video of music from Battlestar Galactica, you may have noticed an Asian gal playing something that looks like a Klingon cello.  That is Tina Guo, and she is also one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman’s theme.  In fact, she helped Zimmer compose the theme, and played it on her electric cello, and here is her music video:

Interestingly, you don’t hear this theme until well into the film, and that is not until she does battle for the first time … in a sense, she needs to “earn” the theme.  It is a nice touch.

Forgetting that this is a super hero, comic book film, this is simply a good film, and I think the critical and box office acclaim it has gotten are so well deserved.  While I would hope a lot of younger girls get to see this film, I hope a lot of younger boys get to see this film, too … they should learn that yes, woman can have exciting, complex, and exciting stories that are worthy to be told and listened to.

 

 

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