Friday, June 2, 2017

Go Gal: "Wonder Woman" recoups DC's luck with lightness and the wonderful Gadot


Wonder Woman (2017) 
141 min., rated PG-13. 

Good things do come to those who wait, and it was worth it. It’s been 14 years since director Patty Jenkins last made a feature film with 2003’s remarkable “Monster” and, believe it or not, she is the first woman to helm a superhero movie, especially one fronted by a badass female. Secondly, “Wonder Woman” is part of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and, yes, it is a recoup after Warner Bros.' latest offerings (2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad”). Those two aspects are worth celebrating in and of themselves. The iconic Wonder Woman first appeared in the DC Comics back in 1941 and then came to life through Lynda Carter in the campy 1975-1979 TV show, and in 2017, she’s just now getting her due. It wouldn’t mean much to call “Wonder Woman” the best entry in its cinematic universe or the best movie led by a superheroine—remember turkeys “Catwoman” and “Elektra”?—but it actually lands on its own two feet as a robust, entertaining, if not overwhelming, debut.

Raised on the lush paradise island of Themyscira—hidden by fog and populated only by women—Amazon princess Diana (Gal Gadot) always wanted to be a warrior. Though her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), forbidded it, she was trained by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), and grew up to fully realize the extent of her inborn capabilities. When World War I spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a plane near Themyscira, Diana rescues him from drowning. He explains to the Amazons about the war in the world of man and his mission to stop General Erich Ludendorff’s (Danny Huston) nefarious plan with Doctor Maru/Poison (Elena Anaya) in developing a new kind of mustard gas. Disobeying her mother’s orders again, Diana elects herself to join Steve on his mission to stop Ludendorff, whom she believes to be Ares, the Greek god of war. Setting foot in grey, “hideous” London, the Amazon princess helps Steve recruit a ragtag team of compatriots, Moroccan undercover agent Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), seemingly wimpy Scottish sharpshooter Charlie (Ewn Bremner), and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). With her bullet-deflecting bracelets, the Lasso of Truth, and trust shield on her person, Diana will stop at nothing to do what she believes in to defend the world from the War to End All Wars.

Besides a needless framing device—Diana working at the Louve and receiving a letter and a WWI-era photograph of herself from Bruce Wayne serves as a bookend to tell Diana’s origin story—that feels more like obligation to set up “Justice League,” “Wonder Woman” feels like its own effort and not a bridge for the future. Director Patty Jenkins and TV scribe Allan Heinberg bring such a distinctly feminine perspective to the telling and a lot of the humor that the film never feels old-hat as an origin story. Treating the setting of WWI seriously without putting a dour, humorless shadow over the proceedings, the filmmakers don’t recreate the mistakes of other DCEU entries but actually find a more Marvel-like flavor with a welcome sense of humor that never clashes. Like Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the tone is comfortably on-target, straddling between lightness and darkness, as well as big, splashy moments and smaller, more quiet ones. And, much like Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor,” the fish-out-of-water scenario for Diana brings on a beguiling playfulness, along with a loving homage to Richard Donner’s 1978 original “Superman” during an alleyway mugging. On the whole, it’s sincere but never self-serious or overbearingly jokey.

Teasing her role as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Gal Gadot now earns her first lead role and owns it. The Israeli-born actress not only looks the part but blesses it with her magnetic, statuesque screen presence. Beautiful but carrying herself with charm, warmth and unassuming comic chops, like her adorable first taste of ice cream, Gadot is convincingly always playing the bravest and most selfless person in the room. Though Diana might seem flawless and self-sufficient in combat, she is still not 100% invincible, and there is a touch of naiveté to her that doesn’t help when faced with the war-torn realities. As Diana’s “girl Friday” Steve Trevor, Chris Pine is well-cast and charismatic as ever, earning a number of priceless reactions. Diana and Steve share such a frisky banter, extending to an innuendo about the male spy calling himself “above average” when the warrior princess is actually asking about his watch to Diana informing Steve that she’s concluded men are only “essential for procreation” but not really needed for pleasure. Their love story is sweet and sufficiently passionate rather than merely surface-level, which is a relief because the third act is dependent on the audience’s investment in their relationship.

Of the supporting performances, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright are fierce and sell their Amazonian accents in their few scenes as Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope, while Lucy Davis is a sparkling delight as Steve’s faithful, talkative secretary who helps Diana pick out the appropriate attire for a lady in 1918, London. As three villains are meant to be better than one—a scenery-chewing Danny Huston as chemical-snorting General Ludendorff and another performer who won’t be named as he or she is given a late reveal—the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with the facially disfigured Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya from Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In”), who seems too compelling to waste.

All in all, “Wonder Woman” gets so much right, even if it often feels pretty old-fashioned. Director Patty Jenkins does know exactly when to sprinkle in the action, and while too much speed-ramping is employed for this one’s taste, she never edits the rock-‘em-sock-‘em set pieces within an inch of their lives. Diana’s charge from the trenches to the front line of no man’s land is particularly thrilling and empowering, as is her battle in the house of a Belgian village. The final confrontation, though cool to watch, does grow a smidgen repetitive as Diana and Main Baddie throw a lot of metal and tarmac at each other, but it’s worth noting and refreshing, too, that there isn’t a ton of wanton destruction and collateral damage with innocent bystanders this time around. Tina Guo’s electric cello riff also always makes for a memorable jolt of exhilaration. Being called the superhero movie to end all superhero movies might be pushing it but as the poster child for hope, love, persistence, and bravery, “Wonder Woman” raises the bar for summer tentpoles in such a way that one is eager to see Wonder Woman leap into action again.

Grade:

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