I love superheroes. I learned to read on black and white reprints of Spider-Man comics back in the early seventies; then I made many friends during the comic shop boom of the late eighties and nineties. And now I’m basking in them all over again, up there on the big screen.
Thing is, throughout all this, I have always been a Marvelite. DC didn’t appeal to me. Even when I was very small, their heroes seemed silly and their stories even sillier. Reading Marvel comics made me feel grown up, like I had some secret insight into the lives of adults (Peter Parker was always struggling to pay his rent, Sue and Reed Richards were always struggling to balance the competing jobs of being superheroes and parents).
The one time I did read DC was during that brief period in the late eighties when Jim Shooter drove several key Marvel artists and writers into the arms of Karen Berger, over at DC. These included the artist George Perez, who brought his exquisitely detailed talents to bear on Wonder Woman. This, then, was the only time I ever read her adventures.
|A hint of the beautifully drawn and beautifully designed work of Mr. Perez.
Consequently, I bring very little prior knowledge to a DC movie. I had no idea who anyone was in last year’s Suicide Squad (except The Joker and Harley). This means I can come to a superhero film as a relatively clean slate, something I can’t do with Marvel films. The movie stands or falls by being a good or bad film in itself, not whether it’s a good or bad adaptation of a beloved childhood memory.
This why I can say, after much consideration, that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is hands down the best superhero film ever made. Not the most fun superhero film (that’s Marvel’s 2014 Guardians), not the most satisfyingly geeky superhero film (that’s 2012’s Avengers), just the flat-out best piece of film-making to feature a superhero. It is the most complete, most satisfying superhero film in and of itself.
Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) have been risible, lamentable failures, by comparison.
To put your curiosity out of its misery, Wonder Woman is nowhere near as good as Dark Knight, but it towers over the other three. It’s a completely satisfying piece of film-making. It’s one of those films which is far from perfect but wins the viewer over so completely with its charm, that you just don’t mind (It has that in common with Guardians Vol. 2, which is perfectly imperfect - see my review here).
|Introducing the Amazonian squad of ultimate badasses. Check it out: independently targeted bow and arrows. We've got tactical swords, tempered-steel ball-breakers. We've got shields, knives, and pointy sticks!
Our story begins in an idyllic Grecian wonderland (which, I believe, is a hold-over from those Perez comics, 30 years ago) where the entire population are women warriors called Amazons. It’s like Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), only with less well-developed breasts. This background does, at least, explain why Diana’s costume is a corset and a miniskirt because, back in the day, even men wore skirts. According to these Amazonians’ own myths, they have the power to craft babies out of clay, but only Zeus can give it life. So, these feminist warriors are still dependent on men, then. Indeed, so the myth goes, they were created by Zeus to show men love and peace and stop them fighting each other perpetually. Cos, y’know what boys are like when there’s no girls around.
“We are the bridge to a greater understanding between all men." And how's that going, hidden away here on your paradise island, with no men around?
This mythic flashback is presented as a series of animated Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which is certainly a diverting way to dump a lot of exposition on the audience in a short space of time - it certainly worked for Del Toro when he did it at the beginning of Hellboy II (2008).
Young Princess Diana is being protected from Ares, the God who will bring war to her, if he discovers her existence (you find out why, later on). However, rather conveniently, Diana discovers she has an explosive super-power just as war comes a-knocking in the form of a WW1 pilot who falls through an unexplained time-warp kinda thing, bringing a fleet of Germans on his tail.
There are men on the Amazons’ island. Well, that isn’t going to end well.
A battle ensues, swords and arrows against machine-guns and, of course, Snyder’s fingerprints are all over this (he’s still got overall creative control of these DC films), but that just adds to the balletic elegance of what we see. This vision of female warriors, it’s not like a Kathryn Bigelow film, where she’s just concerned with repeatedly demonstrating that she’s got brassier balls than the boys; these action scenes have quite a different feel about them.
After this, we settle into a little getting-to-know-you. These scenes serve several purposes. We get chance to get to know both Gal Gadot’s Diana and Chris Pine’s Steve, as they get to know each other, but the film also plays around with the clichés of the genre. So she walks in on him in the bath, rather than the other way round, and he is therefore reduced to sex-object to be looked at, which is a delicious reversal of the usual way of things.
Of course, that isn’t the only reversal we get here. A lot of very familiar motifs are made new again by simply having them involve women. For example, it is Diana who draws the magic sword. I’ve seen a lot of warriors tool up with a lot of swords, but never a woman before. Not before bloody time. Remember the bullet-catch in Superman the Movie (1978), where Clark catches a bullet destined for Lois? Well, that gets reversed here, too.
There is beautifully written fun to be had with their mutual misunderstanding of each other’s customs. And the scene where she persuades him to sleep with her is subverted from the usual male wish-fulfilment fantasy, when she matter-of-factly assures him that she knows all about procreation and understands that men are “unnecessary for pleasure”. That would feel very different in a film made by men!
Steve’s ‘secretary’, Etta Candy, is played perfectly by Lucy Davis, but isn’t given nearly enough to do. She, again, provides a thread of very human comedy, when she and Diana go clothes shopping and, again, a sequence that could have ridiculed both parties, or been played purely so the camera can catch a glimpse of breast in a mirror, is a lovely piece of character comedy. It pushes the story along a bit, but it pushes the characters along a lot.
It was interesting seeing this film just a week after Pirates of the Caribbean, and comparing the way the two films deal with an assertive female character. Pirates’ Carina is branded a witch, because she understands astronomy and navigation; in this film Diana’s entrance into a Whitehall cabinet meeting, with her understanding of tactics and foreign codes, is met with a comparably scathing response. Even though the great and the good are discussing the imminent end of the war, it suddenly becomes far more important to get the woman out of the room. Priorities, guys.
This does, of course, let Diana (and us) get first-hand experience of the complacent corrupt old men who are running the war, before we get to experience the grit and grim of the battle first hand. It’s important to get that perspective. When I saw, in the trailer, that this film was going to drop Wonder Woman into the First World War, I was really concerned about this being cheap and exploitative. But it isn’t, because the film concentrates on the human sacrifice, on the pain, on the victims. Diana’s whole mission is to confront Ares, which is, in essence, the mission to end all war.
Well, that’s gotta be a good thing!
As we move into the film’s second half, set amid the chaos of the Western Front, we are introduced to a rogue’s gallery of swiftly-sketched side-kicks and colourful characters who, again, add to the films humour and humanity. Wonder Woman is also chock-full of clever little details such as, for random example, the way Steve brings with him “English tea for the Germans, German beer for the English, and Edgar Rice Burroughs books for both”.
|The motley crew: Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Eugene Brave Rock as Chief and the bird in the unnecessarily short skirt ... is Ewen Bremner.
The first big action set-piece, when Diana cuts loose in a small town overrun with Germans; bears more than a passing resemblance to the scene in Iron Man (2008), when Tony Stark first uses the suit, and takes out a town full of badguys. But that scene worked for Marvel, it was a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment that played a major part in building the billion-dollar empire that is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe; so, why shouldn’t DC try to catch some of that lightning in their own bottle? I have to say, watching Diana running fearlessly into overwhelming odds, has a similarly inspiring effect. That is a genuinely exciting action scene!
As the film proceeds, it misses a few steps, and the plot reversals - the surprises that you aren’t supposed to see coming - are bleeding obvious; and there are a few annoying plot threads that are left dangling (such as what's with the time-warp thingy at the beginning ... and why did it suddenly appear?); but I really didn’t care. The film had paid its dues, it had built up a cast of interesting and likeable characters who a really cared for; which is more than can be said for Man of Steel, Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad.
The film even shoe-horns a few genuinely profound philosophical thoughts in amongst the energy bolts and flying masonry of the inevitably explosive show-down.
|That really is an inefficient way to carry a long sword. I mean, yes, it looks cool, of course it does, but, unless you've got freakishly long arms, you're never gonna get it out of the damn scabbard.
So, Wonder Woman (and, thankfully, that phrase is never spoken in the film) makes credible a character who has always seemed, frankly, ridiculous. Gal Gadot’s central performance is mistressful. She is equally comfortable with the comedy as she is the drama, and she manages to wear that armoured corset with real dignity. Chris Pine is perfectly chosen as her foil, because his humour strikes the right tone throughout (and, let’s face it, humour is something these DC films have been sorely lacking). It is to the credit of all that Diana isn’t simply reduced to being Steve’s straight-woman. She has her own intelligence and her own mischievous sense of humour. She is, in other words, a fully-rounded character. Imagine that.
It is a tribute to the skills of scriptwriter Allan Heinberg, that this film feels like it was written by a woman. He’s worked on TV shows with predominantly female casts, so he has a good idea of how to structure a scene so it doesn’t feel creepy or clichéd - as several of the getting-to-know-you scenes would have if they’d been written less sensitively.
Judging from the responses I've seen and read; this film is already inspiring a whole generation of young girls; hopefully to do more than just usher in a new fashion in cosplay. I imagine there will a significant uptake of girls studying Martial Arts. Which would be pretty frickin' awesome!
|In her first major acting role, Ms. Gadot manages to be disarming, both in the literal sense in the action scenes, but also in the more sensitive moments requiring a skilled actor. Expect her to be a BIG star, very soon.
And, of course, an incredible amount of credit has to be given to director, Patty Jenkins. It’s been fourteen years since she directed a movie, but the last one she made was called Monster (2003) and it won Charlize Theron a hatful of awards, including an Academy Award. I wonder if Jenkins chose to leave it this long, or if she just couldn’t find a project that was worthy of her? Her touch is assured, throughout. She handles the special effects confidently (okay, some of the flying scenes are a bit ropey), gives all of her characters depth and interest, paces the dialogue beautifully to bring out the comedy and the drama, often in the same scene, and then builds action scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in any recent blockbuster.
Given the overwhelmingly positive response Wonder Woman has received, I wouldn’t be surprised if this superhero film doesn’t gather some traction at Oscar time. Either way, I hope Jenkins is bombarded with offers to make films that are worthy of her, and she doesn’t leave it another fourteen years before she shows us all how it’s done, one more time.
Writer: Allen Heinberg
Director: Patty Jenkins
Dur: 141 mins
Writer: Allen Heinberg
Director: Patty Jenkins
Dur: 141 mins