Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot's 2017 predecessor, cleverly combined genre elements with earnest nonchalance
Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (2017) briskly shook off blockbuster branding imperatives to introduce viewers to a glamorous and funny fish-out-of-water superhero.
Wonder Woman begins with ominous, lugubrious music (composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams), a voice-over invocation of “darkness” and an aerial view of the Louvre that seems full of sinister portent. The viewer may be forgiven a shudder of dread. Are we really going to pick up where Batman v Superman left off? Must we endure another dose of the grandiose self-pity and authoritarian belligerence that have characterised the DC-Warner Bros synergy in the Dark Knight era? (This is the cue for unhinged fans to come @ me on Twitter and accuse me of being a shill for Marvel and Disney. The rest of you are invited to keep reading.)
The question is not rhetorical, and I’m relieved to report that the answer is no. Once franchise continuity is established — a mysterious package from Bruce Wayne arrives at the office of Wonder Woman’s alter ego, Diana Prince, who works in the Louvre’s antiquities department — we are transported back to the heroine’s earlier life, long before she became mixed up with Wayne and Clark Kent.
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins from a script by Allan Heinberg, briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos. It feels less like yet another instalment in an endless sequence of apocalyptic merchandising opportunities than like … what’s the word I’m looking for? A movie. A pretty good one, too.
By which I mean that Wonder Woman tells an interesting, not entirely predictable story (until the climax, which reverts, inevitably and disappointingly, to dreary, overblown action clichés). It cleverly combines genre elements into something reasonably fresh, touching, and fun. Its earnest insouciance recalls the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s more than the mock-Wagnerian spectacles of our own day, and like those predigital Man of Steel adventures, it gestures knowingly but reverently back to the jaunty, truth-and-justice spirit of an even older Hollywood tradition.
This is an origin story, first and foremost, establishing the mythic background and modern mission of its main character. That kind of movie can be tedious, but Wonder Woman is leavened by touches of screwball comedy, espionage caper, and romantic adventure, as well as by what might be the most credible superhero screen kiss since upside-down Tobey Maguire planted one on Kirsten Dunst way back in Spider-Man.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Diana Prince is, properly speaking, Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen). The girl (played in childhood by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey before maturing into Gal Gadot) grows up on a craggy Mediterranean island, a Bechdel-test paradise of flower-strewn meadows, noble horses, and mighty quadriceps. Like a Disney princess — the resemblance hardly seems accidental — she is free-spirited and rebellious, her loyalties split between two opposed parental figures. Diana’s mother wants her daughter to mind her tutors and steer clear of the warrior traditions represented by Antiope (Robin Wright), the girl’s aunt.
In the course of family arguments about Diana’s destiny, the history of the Amazons is recounted, with emphasis on that tribe’s ambivalent relations with men — meaning human beings generically and dudes in particular. There are none of the latter on the island, which has been sealed off from history and the rest of the world by a magic membrane. And then one day a screaming comes across the sky, and a World War I vintage fighter plane disgorges Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a blue-eyed flyboy who is the living embodiment of the phrase “not all men.”
Steve, a spy for the Allies, is wearing a German uniform and is pursued by a flotilla of Teutonic bad guys, who battle the Amazons on the beach. The action hops to London and then to the trenches of Belgium, where the War to End All Wars slogs interminably on. There are fistfights in alleys and more extensive episodes of combat, during which Diana makes use of her aunt’s training, traditional Amazon weapons (notably a glowing piece of rope called the Lasso of Truth), and her own unique abilities. She deflects bullets and mortar shells on a sprint across no-man’s land, tosses an armored truck, and demolishes a church steeple.
Even better, she is a glamorous and funny fish out of water. Diana and Steve are assisted in their mission by a quartet of misfit sidekicks: a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner); a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock); a Middle Eastern fixer (Said Taghmaoui) and a plucky British suffragist (Lucy Davis). The field of possible supervillains includes Danny Huston as a German commander and Elena Anaya as a diabolical chemist. The great David Thewlis is on hand doing some of the things you might expect and also some things you might not.
But make no mistake: This is a star vehicle all the way. Ms Gadot, who like the other Amazons speaks English with an accent (though hers, unlike Ms. Wright’s or Ms Nielsen’s, may be a result of her Israeli background), has a regal, effortlessly charismatic screen presence. She and Mr. Pine, who has Paul Newman’s seductive blue eyes and a hint of Clark Gable’s raffish charm, give Wonder Woman a jolt of classic Hollywood fizz. Their banter, long before that kiss, is lively and sexy, and their oil-and-water temperaments emulsify nicely.
Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Heinberg have synthesised a plausible modern archetype out of comic-book and movie sources that may have seemed problematic to modern sensibilities. Diana is erudite but unworldly, witty but never ironic, supremely self-confident, and utterly mystified by the modern world. Its capacity for cruelty is a perpetual shock to her, even though she herself is a prodigy of violence. Her sacred duty is to bring peace to the world. Accomplishing it requires a lot of killing, but that’s always the superhero paradox.
Wonder Woman, though, resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies — from the Marvel as well as the DC universes — into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing. Unlike most of her male counterparts, its heroine is not trying to exorcise inner demons or work out messiah issues. She wants to function freely in the world, to help out when needed, and to be respected for her abilities. No wonder she encounters so much resistance.
AO Scott c.2017 New York Times News Service
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