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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Wondering about Wonder Woman

Gender box office records broken, glass ceiling smashed, thousands of words written about the film’s wider impact: nothing’s impossible for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman or so it appears. There may be spoilers ahead!

Before I give my witness statement, I need to set myself in context: yes, I’m a comic geek, but I’m not hugely into DC, outside of Bats and Supes; I don’t think I’ve ever read an issue of Wonder Woman, but I am a reader and watcher of Jessica Jones, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Agent Carter, and Mockingbird from the Marvel comics, movies and TV series, and also a reader of more female-focussed works such as Bitch Planet, Saga, Black Magick and Velvet.

Like many, I wasn’t happy with Bats v Supes and was seriously underwhelmed by Suicide Squad. The only chink of light in BvS was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first trailer, but as WW’s opening date drew closer, I became more hopeful.

And for the most part that hope was well founded. Aside from the bookends, the film is self-contained with no references to the established DC movie universe. Indeed, the film is probably even better if you haven’t seen BvS.

The film is comfortable in its own skin, even if the plot feels like a patchwork of Superman The Movie, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (the London backstreet bullet-catch sequence is a replay of Lois and Clark being mugged behind the Daily Planet sequence in Superman, for example). The film has an honest emotional core to it, not unlike Lord of the Rings, that lends the film gravitas and lifts it above its source material. It’s perfectly pitched, and the tonal shifts are well executed: the comedy to drama to tragedy absolutely works.

Indeed, it’s certainly the most romantic superhero movie since Thor and Spider-Man II. And that’s in part due to the natural chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine as Captain Steve Trevor. There’s a whiff of James T Kirk in Trevor, but Pine takes his position in the drama and rolls with it: he’s world-weary, heroic, but flummoxed, embarrassed and by the end utterly smitten with Diana (just like every guy in the room, then!). It has already been noted by other observers, notably in Meg Downey's excellent analysis for, that he declares his love for her and that she does not reciprocate.

I like that the film allows Trevor to maintain the gentlemanly code of conduct that’s correct for the period, which then paves the way for a delicate moment of power play: post-dance, Trevor escorts Diana to her room and moves to exit and close the door, not assuming he has the right to stay; with a subtle bow and turn of the head, Diana’s stare pierces him and invites him to stay. Like Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks in Aliens with Ripley, Trevor respects Diana from the off and swiftly accepts her power and her right to be the dominant force.

It would be fair to say that the challenge her empowerment provides to the film’s patriarchy emboldens the majority of men to be better, to think with their brains and hearts rather than with their cocks and anger – for the most part, Diana doesn’t emasculate the men around her.

With her part in ensuring the end of WWI a secret, there’s no chance for her efforts to galvanise the gender war. (Note: the script never refers to ‘goddesses’, just ‘gods’.) Indeed, the film rather raises the question of what Diana did for the 100 years or so between the Great War and BvS? Perhaps Justice League may offer us a clue when it opens in November.

While the film is effectively a star-making vehicle for Gal Gadot (it’ll be intriguing to see how her career develops: what roles will she be offered?), I’m not convinced she completely believed in some of her character’s ‘hero’ moments or maybe those set pieces were early in the shoot and she wasn’t fully confident in herself and the material.

That said, Diana’s almost graceful journey from ingénue to hero to wrathful and judging god to benevolent idol demands much and Gadot rises to the challenge. The film’s set piece in No Man’s Land, in which Diana draws the attention and the heavy fire of the German frontline, brings a lump to the throat, aided by Rupert Gregson-Williams’ stirring score.

The film’s and Diana’s gaze falls witheringly on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and woman, specifically through war. The film is stridently anti-war and much is made of Diana’s compassion; there’s even time for a needs of the few versus the needs of the many debate before the No Man’s Land sequence.

There’s some giddy, Liberal wish-fulfilment in the finale that is counterpointed by our foreknowledge of the events to come in the ensuing 100 years and thus hints at the moral complexities and failings of mankind Diana will have to learn: she ends Ares but not jealousy, hatred and war.

The film has issues, of course. The finale launches the film backwards into a pitch-black Zack Snyder-style CGI-fest with maximum destruction for our viewing pleasure… This is a shame given how progressive the film is up to that point.

And briefly touching on technical points, the fight styles and effects in the DC movies so far are not a patch on Marvel’s work. Similarly, Marvel’s choice of cinematographers is a notch (or more) above DC’s. Those trends continue with Wonder Woman.

There’s an element of tokenism to Trevor’s Scooby Gang: are they there simply to highlight to Diana man’s inhumanity to man and woman alike? Upon reflection and further viewings, Ewen Bremner’s PTSD-sufferer probably gets the best of the bad hands dealt here.

The bad guys are just too typically lazily drawn and there’s no getting away from the fact that great performers like Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are wasted here. Similarly, there’s little for Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright to do as Diana’s mother and aunt respectively.

And as intelligent as some of the material and the approach to it is, WW does not confront and debate the gender war with the same depth and analysis as Marvel’s/Netflix’s Jessica Jones (perhaps because, in pure narrative terms, Diana is at war with war whereas JJ is at war with the patriarchy).

Those caveats aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It sets a high bar for the Captain Marvel movie (and the Black Widow solo outing should it ever emerge) and should comfortably pull in more than $600m worldwide – frankly it should do $700m-plus but that hinges on how good its domestic legs are and how the rest of the world takes to a character it barely knows.

Wonder Woman is a standard around which those who rightly demand Hollywood should produce more diverse output from more diverse creatives must rally (and in significant number). Nevertheless, the film represents victory in just one battle of a much longer and larger campaign.

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