Friday, June 2, 2017

No Man's Land: WONDER WOMAN



Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is exactly what a big budget superhero spectacle should be. The film is so effortlessly crowd-pleasing you might wonder why others of its ilk make it look so difficult to accomplish so much less. It’s serious fun, a red-blooded adventure and fantastic light show, telling a complete story with no need for prior knowledge and no sense of burdensome teases for future installments. Best of all, it is fully aware and taking advantage of its hero’s iconography and bolsters the action by taking some consideration to the emotional weight of its violence. There’s fun to be had, but it also feels like a full and humane movie, driven by Wonder Woman’s inherent goodness and a sense that she and the ensemble around her are people and not mere action figures. It heightens the stakes, and it helps ground the inevitable swirls of effects. This is a movie about a god, the way all DC superheroes are totemic symbols, but here she is shown not through corrosively crass soulless cynicism, but the bright, pure light of virtue. She is a paragon of self-sacrifice, fighting for what’s right, what’s just, what’s true. All that and in a hugely entertaining popcorn entertainment, too? What a relief.

For Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the demigod Amazons, raised on a picturesque matriarchal Paradise Island by her Queen mother (Connie Nielsen) who preached pacifism and her pragmatic aunt (Robin Wright) who trained her to be prepared to fight, being good is not a burden. She is the most talented Amazon, capable with sword, shield, whip, and her superpowered strength. We see her first as a little girl, eager to learn the skillful athleticism of the women warriors. Then, as a young woman, she takes great enjoyment in her powers, grinning as she spars in scrimmage battles. She’s ready, although her mother still hopes war will not find them, praying the island will remain hidden from ominous threats from their Greek myth origins. Alas, beyond their magically shrouded hidden paradise, World War I rages. The outside world arrives when an American spy (Chris Pine) crash lands in their bay pursued by a German platoon. The women manage to fight off the invaders and remain hidden from the world. But the soldier’s tales of the War to End All Wars touch Diana’s heart and she must leave with him to save mankind from itself. “They do not deserve you,” her mother says as she bids her farewell. The film is sincere about Diana’s goodness, and does not view her earnestness with skepticism. It is her uncomplicated moral certitude that makes her wonderful, and the world’s broken, ugly combativeness the clear force for evil.

This is a movie about a heroine whose conflict is not the weary woe-is-me moping of recent superhero movies, but a stirring call to action. The problem isn’t an obligation to do what’s right, but a struggle to get others to see the elegant simplicity of righteousness and empathy. Gadot inhabits the role’s decency and determination, anchoring the fantastical backstory in a fully realized person who has an uncomplicatedly genuine sense of goodness and virtue. Upon arriving in the world of early-20th-century London, there is easy humor as the mythological woman is a fish-out-of-water, finding a ruffled dress and corset combo a puzzle. “How do women fight in this?” she wonders. Gadot and Pine play these scenes with unforced humor that neither tries too hard, nor deflates the tension of the picture. Adding in a funny side character (his plucky secretary (Lucy Davis), one of those rare supporting players who gets a laugh with every line) makes the film’s bright touch. So, too, how lightly Diana takes the sexism of a military made up of men (like David Thewlis) who refuse to even acknowledge her presence, let alone allow her to advise. She simply doesn’t understand why they behave so cowardly. Luckily her guide sees her strength and determination and helps her to the front lines. He’s investigating a dastardly German general (Danny Huston) and a mad scientist (Elena Anaya) who’re preparing a devastating new form of mustard gas that’ll kill thousands at a time, and will surely undermine the ongoing armistice talks. This evil must be stopped and the movie becomes a winning soldiers-on-a-mission movie.

As Diana leads a small group of men behind enemy lines in search of the new weapon and its villainous makers, the movie lights up with colorful action. It’s great fun, staged for maximum impact, impressive choreography and strategic splashes of slow-mo built to showcase glowing comic book panel images that pop in the flow of frenetic frames. See her knocking back machine gun bullets with a swing of her indestructible shield, or kicking an enemy combatant through a window while she leaps after him, or using her lasso to take a pack of attackers off their feet. But it’s always driven by her obvious moral outrage. She wants to save a village torn up by German invaders. She wants to protect a group of soldiers pinned down in a trench. She wants to help her new allies end the war. This is gripping retro-pulp fantasy in a sleek style. The action progresses in a logical escalating fashion, drawn from clear conflicts, sharply delineated motivations, and a crisp sense of place and space. A hurtling momentum of crisis nonetheless takes its time to build feeling for and take pleasure in the chemistry amongst its ensemble, allowing each new development in the plot to follow inexorably from the character’s decisions, personalities, and convictions. 

With a steady hand and a light touch, Jenkins directs a full-blooded movie here, wearing heroism sincerely and excitedly, and building full characters to care about. Inspired by over seven decades of comics, Allan Heinberg’s sturdy, clever screenplay allows for plenty of fluid visual fanfares of action, explosions in a vibrant color palate and a quick-paced serial cliffhanger adventure mode. Yet it never loses a sense of humanity, a decision as evident in its concern for the impact of every punch as it is in the lovely little character moments – sweet exchanges, prickly flirtations, charming misunderstandings. Best is how both assets work so perfectly together, like when Diana first arrives in the trenches and is told the soldiers have made no progress in months. The enemy is too heavily fortified behind a vast No Man’s Land. She shrugs off her coat to reveal her iconic battle armor, and steps out of the trench and onto the battlefield ready to fight. The movie need not speak the Homeric obvious, as she strides forward confidently wielding her shield and drawing her sword, the score swelling with the triumphant, moving, exciting anticipation of heroic acts. She is No Man.

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