'Wonder Woman' - Review - Chris at the Pictures

Friday, 2 June 2017

'Wonder Woman' - Review

★ ★ ★ ★ 

Wonder’s the word, alright. Patty Jenkins brings a pop-culture icon to the screen in grin-broadening fashion with this electrifying and earnest superhero film that aims to expand the DC cinematic universe. Thankfully, Wonder Woman’s part in building the latter is small, taking a step away from the stodgy forward-planning of films past to tell a singular, self-contained story (imagine that!). Its larger and more important contribution to the world is to finally deliver a female-led, female-directed megabudget film that puts to rest both the nightmare of Catwoman or Elektra, and the pig-headed mindset that audiences don’t want to see films made by, for, and starring women.

Gal Gadot (returning from her brief appearance in Batman V Superman) plays our heroine, Diana, an Amazonian warrior of the all-female utopia, Themyscira. Their peace is shattered when pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) takes a tailspin into their paradise, explaining that the wider world is engulfed in the Great War. Believing the God Aires has poisoned the minds of humanity into committing such atrocities, Diana decides to leave her home, despite the express wishes of her mother, Hippolyta (a fiercely tiaraed Connie Nielsen). Nevertheless, she persists, taking command of her people’s most powerful weapons and following Steve back to the pointedly termed “world of men”.

Her values are soon challenged by the prejudices and practices of 20th century London, as well as the sinister plotting of German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, wearing his best sneer) and his scientist accomplice, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya). They plan to unleash a new form of gas to scupper the oncoming armistice, so – after some smartly funny fish-out-of-water escapades in London – Diana, Steve and his hand-picked gang set off to the Western front. At this point, the film threatens to stick Diana in the backseat while Steve and the trio (engagingly played by Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock and Saïd Taghmaoui) momentarily take centre stage. This is one of few points where the pace limps somewhat, but how refreshing that it’s in service of character building rather than crash-bang-wallop.

Other pitfalls (due to genre and period) can’t quite be avoided. The special effects occasionally overwhelm and comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger are in abundance, but they’re momentary setbacks that can’t harm the film’s feminist message. No matter how broad the strokes, the statement feels genuine and direct, and the moment when Diana climbs into No Man’s Land is unspeakably powerful. It’s a set piece that feels long overdue, delivering on a spectacular and emotional level that no amount of trailer footage can spoil. If Gadot batting away bullets can bring a tear to my eye, I can only imagine what it’ll mean to an entire generation of young girls.

Jenkins proves a confident action director in these sparse but thrilling sequences of derring-do, shedding the gawping male gaze and murky composition of her contemporaries. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen streamlines the Snyder aesthetic into something appropriate (it’s several shades brighter, but doesn’t let up on the speed-ramps and slow-mo), and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams proves me right about that signature guitar riff: it's a killer cue, and works incredibly well when embraced by a full score.

Tom Holkenborg’s leitmotif is the only hanger-on from the wider cinematic universe: the film spends less than a minute tying itself to the DC web, managing subplots you can count on one hand and connect without the assistance of Wikipedia. Given time to develop a single central character as opposed to the lead, their partner, their nemeses and – lest we forget – Granny’s Peach Tea, Wonder Woman builds to a satisfying series of emotional payoffs that are all to do with rooting for real heroes, not a brooding bulk or snarky pretty boy (Pine easily deflects any Kirk comparisons).

For Diana is not one of the boys, nor is she a damsel. Her quest for peace is taken utterly on her own terms and speaks to something often spoken but rarely felt in this genre: optimism. Not the staunchly-defended principles of Captain America or Batman’s misguided faith in his corrupt city, but a genuine belief that people are innately good, that lives are worth saving for more than the purposes of reparation or showboating. Batman V Superman failed to deliver on the promise of Clark’s smile at the end of Man of Steel, but Wonder Woman takes up the charge with conviction. When tragedy strikes, Diana is visibly shaken. When her powers manifest, she learns to command them without aid or exposition. When faced with the awful truth of humanity, she lassos the last vestige of goodness available and digs in her heels.

This refusal to go all self-referential or edgy seemed to draw out a smattering of sighs and snickers from the audience, but none from me. The unabashed display of hope and courage brought me back to watching my Dad’s DVD of Superman: The Movie as a child, and Gal Gadot’s performance succeeds entirely on her ability to convey that yearning, that desperation, even, to do the right thing. I don’t believe this to be some overcooked attempt on the behalf of Jenkins, Snyder and co. to counteract criticisms of the series’ dire grittiness, but because the movie honestly means to be so. It left me beaming, occasionally through watery eyes, but never through derision. My prayer that the DCEU (or, Goddess forbid, the genre as a whole) learns the right lesson from Wonder Woman may go unanswered, but it’s one as genuine as Diana’s desire for justice. I’m with her.