Janus Film Review Presents: Wonder Woman (2017)

as reviewed by Dan.

Format Reviewed: Blu Ray/Warner Home Video (2017).

Attempts to mount a serious, big-budget Wonder Woman movie have come and gone repeatedly over the last thirty years; all doomed to failure by a combination of evolving consumer appetites, and the burdensome weight of political necessity. You see, having a female superhero, in a club populated by a massive male majority, rendered the idea of a Wonder Woman adaptation less of a movie concept, and more of a pseudo-feminist manifesto. Simply being a good story wasn’t enough: Wonder Woman needed to preach as well as punch, and show us all the error of our unenlightened ways. For the record, I have absolutely no problem with a commercial film celebrating its social value and leading by example, but the first and primary job of any mass market movie is to entertain its audience. Let such icons of celluloid, crayon and spandex inform, ponder, consider and explore as they see fit, but the entertainment aspect should always be non-negotiable. It is this truth that underpins everything Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) sets out to accomplish, and is the reason the film succeeds so handsomely.

Wonder Woman is an accessible story that blends a lick of mythology with a loose taste for the historical, and in the process crafts a convincing yarn. We are introduced to Diana, scion of Queen Hippolyta and daughter of the Amazons: an ancient female warrior race created by Zeus to defend humanity. They dwell in secret on the island of Themyscira, awaiting the inevitable return of Ares, son of Zeus and god of war, and sworn enemy of humanity. Through a series of short and sharp sequences, we witness Diana transitioning from precocious child to formidable warrior, under the stewardship of her aunt General Antiope. It is made clear that instead of waiting, Diana wishes to take a more proactive approach to the threat of Ares, and fate intervenes when a downed aircraft, containing an American spy, breaches the barrier of Themyscira, and the island is attacked by a pursuing force of German soldiers. We are in the midst of the Great War, and here, the juxtaposition of mythology and history becomes quite literal, as Diana is made all-too-painfully aware of the scale of humanity’s military endeavour, and believing Ares to be ultimately responsible, resolves to intervene.

Director Jenkins does a fabulous job of quickly establishing Amazonian culture and its enduring power, and in introducing us to the character of Diana (or ‘Diana Prince’). Much has been made of Gal Gadot’s turn as Diana, and rightly so, for she is magnificent. Not since the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark has a real world persona so suited a comic book character. She is beautiful to an almost otherworldly extent - as befits the character - yet is unequivocally convincing in the role of an immortal goddess of ass-kicking renown. She still wants for seasoning as an actor, but in Jenkins’ capable hands she is sufficiently empathetic, and portrays the character as unencumbered by the burden of human reality. Her initial concept of ‘evil’ is decidedly abstract, and her shock and distress at the sight of a proper war is haunting and genuinely moving. The aforementioned roles of Hippolyta and Antiope are relatively minor, but necessary in establishing both the fear and duty of the Amazons. To this end, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright bring their collective prowess and enthusiasm to their respective roles, and together they convey the pride and sadness of a family (and people) bound to an ancient and unhappy responsibility.

Despite both the superhuman and political qualities of the eponymous character, Wonder Woman is a pleasingly intimate film. Given its very specific period setting, the temptation was obviously there to retrospectively judge the roles and conduct of those involved. The film avoids such drudgery by focussing on the merits of character, rather than the folly of history. Ewen Bremner is affecting in the role of Charlie: a one-time sharpshooter, now addled by shell-shock and soothed by song. Alongside him stands Saïd Taghmaoui as the worldweary Sameer, and the ever-likeable Chris Pine as Captain Steve Trevor. It is the crashing of his plane that serves as catalyst for the story. Trevor is earnest and determined, making him an enjoyable contrast to Diana’s heroic naiveté, and the chemistry between them is superb. Pine is a brilliant foil; dashing yet modest, with a real flair for comedic interplay and with charisma to spare. In one scene, Jenkins provides a joyously ironic wink at the audience, as a naked and utterly abashed Trevor is ‘interrogated’ by a curious, blessedly oblivious Diana. When the subject of sex is eventually raised, Diana calmly asserts that she’s read all about it, and is doubtless highly skilled! Their romance by definition subverts expectations, yet it feels both sincere and authentic.

It is this warmth, and capacity for winning charm, that sees Wonder Woman stand in stark contrast to its brethren within the DCEU, and marks it out as a film in full control of itself. The plot is fundamentally familiar, being a love story amidst a time of war, with able supporting players, just the right mix of heroism and tragedy, and an antagonist hand-wrought from finest cardboard (Danny Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, who is ironically based on a very real person of highly contentious historical standing; however his depiction within this film is very much a work of fiction). The story rather capably pivots on the morally dubious character of Patrick Morgan, as played by a cool-as-a-cucumber David Thewlis. Though far from subtle, the nature of this character further complicates Diana’s binary sense of morality. It is a clever pretence, and though it is somewhat undermined by its ultimate predictability, the final parting of Diana and Steve Trevor represents perfectly gauged storytelling. It is a shame though, that after all the exquisite location work and practical guile featured throughout, the film’s finale defaults to a rather soulless exhibition of green screen, but then this is supposed to be a DC superhero film.

Some have contended that Wonder Woman represents the beginning of a new, more socially aware paradigm. The emergence of a female directed, female-centric superhero film was unquestionably important, and captured the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment. It also served to telegraph the progressive mood that would transform Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) into a billion dollar, pop culture phenomenon. In truth though, I like and appreciate this film because quite simply, it works. It is smart and endearing, with a finely honed streak of humanity, and is buffed to a high visual sheen. Channeled through Gal Gadot, the character of Diana Prince is strong, sexy and possessed of individual will, and the film bearing her name acknowledges the physical characteristics of its heroine without ever becoming gratuitous. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is proof of an old adage: It’s not what you say, but what you do that counts. Amidst the wreckage of Zack Snyder’s insatiable, ‘Martha’-shaped hubris, Wonder Woman came blasting onto our screens - accompanied by a thunderous, soon-to-be iconic leitmotif - and brought a momentary dash of colour to an otherwise mirthless cinematic backdrop. That initial momentum has been successfully channelled into an entertaining film, that gives us an action hero audiences can admire and root for - gender be damned - and it gave DC and Warner Bros a successful film when they most dearly needed it. To this writer’s way of thinking, that is mission: accomplished.

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