Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Amazon goddess gets her due

Wonder Woman (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.2.17

It’s darn well about time.

During the big-screen superhero eruption that began when Christopher Reeve first donned Superman’s iconic blue-and-red garb back in 1978, no super-heroine has been able to carry her own film.

Although Diana (Gal Gadot, center) reluctantly allows Steve (Chris Pine) and Etta (Lucy
Davis) to dress her in the fashion of the day, she's unwilling to abandon the sword and
shield that define her as an Amazon goddess ... which presents a bit of a problem.
Until now.

(Misfires such as 2004’s Catwoman and ’05’s Elektra are best left forgotten.)

We caught a glimpse of Gal Gadot’s interpretation of Wonder Woman in last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and there’s no question: The 5-foot-10 Israeli actress sold the outfit and the essential regal bearing. But that soulless film gave her no opportunity for anything approaching emotional gravitas, so the jury remained out.

Until now.

Director Patty Jenkins’ thoroughly engaging depiction of Diana — first daughter of the sheltered Amazonian island of Themyscira — owes its heart to both Gadot and a respectful script from Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. The narrative honors the character’s origin, as laid down in October 1941, in issue No. 8 of DC’s All Star Comics.

Much more crucially, this film blends its myth-making and furious action with just the right touch of humor: a droll undertone that has been lamentably absent in recent Batman and Superman entries. Much of this wit derives from Diana’s fish-out-of-water reaction to so-called civilized society, which Gadot displays with a charming balance of innocence and sparkle. She definitely catches her character’s (ahem) sense of wonder.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Diana’s story begins on Themyscira, where — rather oddly — she’s the only child amid hundreds of Amazon warriors. She’s a precocious child (adorably played by Lilly Aspell), eager to battle-train, but her mother (Connie Nielsen, as Queen Hippolyta) rejects the very notion. Diana thus practices in secret, under the tutelage of champion warrior Antiope (Robin Wright).

The years pass; Diana achieves maturity. Fate places her on a high island cliff just as a strange object — a crippled plane — penetrates the invisible “cloak” that conceals Themyscira from the outer world. The craft crash-lands and sinks rapidly beneath the ocean waves; the quick-thinking Diana rescues the lone pilot just in time, thereby getting her first glimpse of a man.

He proves to be American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), on loan to the British military for clandestine operations against the German army. He reveals all of this only when bound by the Amazonian “Lasso of Hestia,” which forces those so encircled to speak the truth. (Handy toy, that ... and boy, we could use one on Capitol Hill these days.)

All of these details are alien to Diana, who knows nothing of the outer world. Queen Hippolyta, on the other hand, suspects that a long-feared crisis has come to pass. The well-educated Diana quickly deduces the same: The dread god of war, Ares — defeated eons ago by Zeus — has risen and manipulated mankind into “the war to end all wars.”

(It’s intriguing that Wonder Woman — a character whose published origin was tied firmly to World War II — has been “back-dated” to the previous global conflict. Intriguing and refreshing: Too many filmmakers insist on dragging iconic characters out of their indigenous surroundings, and into our modern world. Taking Diana back to 1918 was ingenious, as it perfectly suits the “great war”/“god of war” premise that drives the narrative.)

Diana, a straight-line thinker, believes that the war will stop if she can find and defeat Ares. She therefore accompanies Steve back to Merry Olde, where — to her dismay — she discovers that the world of man is not inhabited by straight-line thinkers.

Even so, some things are obvious. The potential armistice is threatened by Germany’s dogmatic and maniacal Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who with his pet chemist — Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), her face partially concealed like the Phantom of the Opera — plans to unleash a chemical weapon that will disintegrate gas masks and kill everybody it envelops.

It’s a credible, scientifically reasonable hazard that feels appropriate to the era, and therefore resonates far more successfully than the universe-warping threats that have become go-to slogs in far too many recent superhero epics. On top of which, we identify with Diana’s despair, as she’s repeatedly shocked by mankind’s inhumanity, causing her to question whether we’re even worth saving.

That notion also strikes home, quite uncomfortably, in our modern era of terrorists who think nothing of blowing up scores of innocent civilians.

Gadot handles this angst with heartfelt credibility, and she believably covers both ends of her character’s wide emotional spectrum. On the one hand, her frequently flinty gaze suggests the omniscient disapproval of a godlike parent whose multitude of children keep misbehaving; alternative, wanting to blend in, Diana tolerates — with patient bemusement — Steve’s efforts to “ordinary” her.

Pine gets all the best one-liners, though, as Steve constantly struggles to explain himself, and his world. Pine radiates boyish charm, particularly while trying to describe — and justify — human “mating rituals.” We’ve seen this sort of exchange many, many times before, but Gadot and Pine nonetheless make it fresh, sweet and quite amusing.

Lucy Davis is a hoot as Etta Candy, introduced here as Steve’s secretary. (“We call that slavery,” Diana opines, after learning the nature of Etta’s responsibilities.) This plus-size character also has a long comic book history, mostly as Diana’s best friend and resourceful “Man’s World” sidekick; this film doesn’t quite go there, but Davis’ Etta is no less plucky, and no less invaluable.

She has a particularly good time while trying to outfit Diana in the manner of 1918 London.

Steve also has a set of friends eager to participate in worthy missions. The multi-lingual Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a former Moroccan soldier who’d rather be an actor, is adept at gentle persuasion. Charlie (Ewen Bremner), once a crack sniper, suffers from shell shock and wishes to redeem himself. The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is a transplanted Native American turned black marketeer: a noble, even-tempered man pleased by the personal freedom that only a war can bring.

All three are well played and thoroughly engaging, although Bremner’s blustering Charlie is the most vivid.

Huston makes a reasonably nasty villain, but he’s an odd casting choice in a film laden with international actors. He’s simply too “American” to look or sound right in the part, and he pales alongside Anaya’s diabolical Dr. Maru, who is credible enough to be genuinely scary.

David Thewlis introduces welcome civility as the eminent Sir Patrick, the lone British cabinet member willing to support Steve’s clandestine mission to prevent Ludendorff and Maru from unleashing their deadly gas.

A mission which, no surprise, quickly dispels Diana’s futile attempt to “blend.”

Production designer Aline Bonetto and visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer build convincing worlds at both extremes: from the opulent, paradise realm of Themyscira to the massive, smog-choked city of London. Our initial overview of the latter is sensational: a depiction that could have sprung from history book photos of the era.

Jenkins’ film is self-indulgently long at 141 minutes, our emotional involvement most noticeably threatened during a climactic, landscape-shattering battle that has become obligatory in superhero epics. Even here, though, the director holds our hearts and minds by cross-cutting between this physics-defying excess, and a much more realistic struggle involving Diana’s comrades.

Jenkins and her writers also obtain poignant weight from a wrap-around prologue/epilogue that quite cleverly explains Diana’s place in our contemporary era.

It would be hard to ask for — or expect — more. Let’s hope this attention to personality isn’t left behind, when Gadot’s Wonder Woman reappears later this year, in Justice League.

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