“You’re a wonder, Wonder Woman…”

I have to admit; my enthusiasm for the new “Wonder Woman” (2017) movie was somewhat dimmed after Gal Gadot’s decent-if-not-overwhelming debut as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in the lackluster DC Comics’ movie “Batman v Superman” (2016). Before I go any further, I think I have to say that my initial assessment may have had more to do with Zack Snyder’s movie than with Gadot herself.

In fact, Snyder’s handling of the DC movie universe to date (“Man of Steel” “Batman v Superman”) has resulted in expensive, CGI-heavy, somewhat mixed achievements.  The two movies to date have had their moments, but neither were what I’d call ‘great’ superhero movies; nothing like the giddy fun of Marvel’s “Iron Man” (2008) or epic crime drama of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (also from 2008… a really good year for superhero movies).

So the thought of Snyder helming another DC adaptation didn’t exactly tickle my fancy.  It also didn’t help that previous attempts to put together a Wonder Woman movie have crashed and burned; even “The Avengers”‘ Joss Whedon once quit an aborted Wonder Woman project in frustration, as it simmered in development hell…

And there was, of course, the fairly successful “Wonder Woman” TV show (1975-9), which was one part 1960s Batman, one part-Charlie’s Angels.  A quasi-camp, three-season action-adventure series that primarily succeeded in giving many boys of my generation a painful, wonder years’ crush on the devastatingly good-looking Lynda Carter.  I would only catch a few episodes here and there, but to this day I could barely remember a single plot to any one of them.  The show even changed time periods (from World War 2 to the present day) and all I ever noticed was that Diana Prince’s clothing styles changed a little bit.   Distracted doesn’t begin to cover it.  Oh, Lynda Carter; it was downright cruel, the effect you had on nerdy little boys like me…

This was also the height of late ’70s–early ’80s “jiggle TV” (the era of the literal ‘boob tube’), with shows like “Charlie’s Angels”, “Three’s Company”, “The Fall Guy” etc, which relied as much on women in bikinis as they did anything else.   Televised beauty pageants were all the rage then, too.  In those primitive, unsophisticated times?  A TV show about a sexy glamazon fighting crime and securing world peace made total sense.

There was also a 2011 TV pilot of “Wonder Woman” starring Adrianne Palicki, which never made it to series.  I’ve only seen clips of it on YouTube, and to be honest, it’s not hard to see why it never went anywhere.   It felt sort of stuck between the campy ’70s series and a Buffy-style reimagining; seemingly undecided which way to go, and not fully committed to either vision.   It was at this point I began thinking that perhaps the Wonder Woman idea just didn’t work in the present day; that the idea of a busty, leggy amazon fighting crime in star-spangled tights and a red/gold bustier was simply too silly and would be laughed right off a movie screen (even the recent 2013 “Man of Steel” got rid of Superman’s ‘man-panties’).

Perhaps the slew of kickass movie/TV heroines since the 1970s, like ALIEN’s Ripley, Star Wars’ Princess Leia, Alias’ Sydney Bristow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and so many others had simply rendered the idea of Wonder Woman obsolete (?).

Then something very interesting happened; it was announced that the new “Wonder Woman” movie would not be directed by Zack Snyder.  It would instead be directed by indie/arthouse director Patty Jenkins, who helmed the gritty docudrama “Monster” (2003).

“Monster” chronicled the dead-end existence of real-life prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos (brought to vivid life by a de-glammed Charlize Theron) and her lover, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci).  The movie told Wuornos’ painful story in disturbing details, but never descended to the kind of dime-a-dozen, ‘edgy’ indie serial-killer dramas that used to litter late night cable TV.   “Monster” painted Wuornos sympathetically at times, but it never lost sight of its why she earned the movie’s title.   This was a film about a wounded animal of a person; lashing out and angrily consuming or destroying that which stood in her way.   I only saw the movie once, but it haunted me.

So when I heard Jenkins was helming Wonder Woman?  I was interested, but still not entirely sold.   But my wife (a longtime DC fan) insisted, and there was good buzz, so as of last weekend?  We saw the new “Wonder Woman” movie.

**** I WILL TRY VERY HARD NOT TO SPOIL THE ENDING (promise!) ****

The movie opens with a modern day framing story set in Paris.   Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is a curator at the Louvre, when she receives a mysterious hand-delivered package from “Wayne Enterprises” (as in Bruce Wayne/Batman).   She opens it to find an old, weathered World War 1-era photograph taken of herself (in Wonder Woman garb), standing with several men of various nationalities standing in a war-torn village.

From there, the film flashes back to her origin story on Themyscira (aka “Paradise Island”), a mysterious, Greek-mythic tropical island enveloped in an invisibility cloak.  The island is inhabited by powerful, long-lived female warriors created by Zeus to protect the ‘world of men’ from Ares, the god of war.   The tribe is led by Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (“Gladiator” star Connie Nielsen), and her warrior aunt, General Antiope (“Princess Bride” “House of Cards” star Robin Wright).   Antiope secretly trains Diana against the wishes of the queen, until the queen is forced to recognize that Diana is destined for greatness in the ongoing fight against Ares.   It feels like something out of a lost Ray Harryhausen movie (and I’m a huge Harryhausen geek, so that’s a compliment).

Soon the ‘world of men’ (a world corrupted by the evil god Ares’ influence, according to Themysciran legend) comes crashing in on paradise in the form of British allied-Yank spy Steve Trevor (a charming Chris Pine) in a captured German aircraft.   Trevor is greeted with suspicion by the amazons, but he eventually secures an ally in his rescuer Diana, who believes that his tales of the outside world’s global war can only be from the influence of  Ares.

Steve Trevor finds himself the only man on an island of beautiful, amazonian women.  Oh, poor guy…

Some of the film’s lightest-of-lighter moments come from the Trevor’s landing in what could be seen as a heterosexual male/lesbian fantasy, as well as the culture clash between Diana’s mythic, Amazonian life and Trevor’s old-fashioned ‘American values’ (circa 1918).   The ‘getting-to-know-you’ moments are both sweet and humorous, and they also showcase Chris Pine and Gal Gadot’s terrific chemistry together, as well as their well-tuned comic timing.  Pine had demonstrated such timing before in the recent Star Trek movies, but Gadot proves herself a solid ‘straight woman.’

Soon German troops penetrate the island’s invisible cloak and storm the beaches, where they are met with fierce resistance by the amazons; but at a heavy cost.  Faced with personal loss, Diana is now determined in her quest to go out into the world and stop Ares.   She and Steve escape in a sailboat and eventually arrive in London of World War 1.

On a sidetone, it was an interesting choice to set the bulk of the movie in Europe of World War 1 instead of the oft-used World War 2 (World War 2 is the setting of the original comics and the first year of the ’70s TV series).

The WW1 setting gives the film a quasi-steampunk look and production design that a World War 2-era movie simply wouldn’t have afforded.  That choice allows the new movie to immediately distinguish itself.   It’s also more welcome, as the WW1 period rarely gets much in the way of movie screen time these days (and is arguably much more interesting visually).  Kudos to screenwriter Allan Heinberg (from a story by Snyder, Heinberg and Jason Fuchs) on a smart decision.

Once in London, there is humorous scene of Trevor and his secretary ‘Etta Candy’ (an unrecognizable Lucy Davis, from “Shawn of the Dead”) trying desperately to help the amazonian warrior Diana ‘fit in’ with British society.  It’s “Pygmalion” turned on its sexist head, as the warrior Diana seethes under the confinement of ‘civilized’ clothing (“how can I possibly fight in this thing?”).

I also very much enjoyed a clever riff on the Lois & Clark robbery scene of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), as Diana stops a bullet directed at Steve in a secluded alleyway.   The scene is almost a frame-by-frame homage to the Richard Donner film, but with a new perspective that freshens it up considerably.

As Trevor makes his report to his chauvinistic British superiors, Diana chafes at the restrictions of this new world.  They decide to go off to the front, but with separate agendas.  Steve wishes to stop production of a deadly German chemical super-weapon.  Diana believes she can find and stop Ares and end the war… all war… for good.

At a local tavern, Steve introduces Diana to a wonderful motley crew of misfit soldiers-of-fortune; Charlie (Ewan Bremner), a war-traumatized Scot who love to sing (badly) and hates to slip out of a good fight; “The Chief” (Eugene Brave Rock) a stoic native American warrior who gets the most stinging line in the movie when describing what happened to his people; and Sameer (Saiid Taghmoui), a charming Arab who is the most loquacious one of the trio.   These characters are very well-delineated and very memorable in their own unique ways.

Together they head off the front to stop the Germans, with Steve defying his superiors in England just as Diana defied the wishes of her people to join him.

From here I don’t want to give too much away regarding the story, but suffice it to say the characters all have their moments (and then some) as they advance through war-ravaged Belgium.

But there is also that scene…

The scene I’m referring to is Wonder Woman’s ‘coming out’ moment, as she sheds her bulky, ‘proper’ post-Edwardian outerwear and fights the Germans on her terms (and in her outfit).  It’s a charged and defining moment for the character; and it once again reminded me of “Superman: the Movie” when Superman first slips off his “Clark clothes” and saves a falling Lois Lane and a falling crippled helicopter, followed by a series of other heroic acts.

Wonder Woman, with her super-strength and speed (as well as her limited arsenal of a lasso and bracelets) saves an entire town against machine gun-wielding, grenade launching German troops.  She is now revealed (and liberated), no longer cowering behind a disguise; just as Superman revealed himself through his acts of super-heroism in Metropolis.   The scene is a bold statement on multiple levels.

The scene is also the character of Wonder Woman coming into her own in the motion picture universe as well.   It is a proof of concept that the character of Wonder Woman, given the right direction and sincere conviction of performance, can (and does) work very well on the big screen.

She also has that wonderful, kick-ass, wailing guitars-theme song when she fights (jump to the 1:30 minute mark on the video above ^)…

In witnessing the horrors that mortals do to one another, Wonder Woman also begins to change her worldview.  Good and evil in the ‘real’ world aren’t as black and white as they were in hers.  The character isn’t just coming into her own as a warrior; she is also learning what it is to truly be human; the nobility, as well as the self-inflicted ugliness.

An incognito Diana Prince begins to question humanity’s goodness as she and Steve Trevor look upon the self-inflicted horrors of the first world war…

Despite what she’s seen, she still believes that stopping Ares alone will restore humankind to a benevolence and grace that her culture believes it fell from.  It is within this notion of hers that the rest of the story lies.  And yes, Ares is in the film (that’s not too much a spoiler, if one listens carefully to Diana at the climax of “Batman v Superman”) so she is not entirely wrong… just naive.  Diana has much to learn in her trials, as the best Greek mythic heroes often did.   And make no mistake; this is a hero’s journey in a very classic sense (to be honest, I’m not fond of the word ‘heroine’; it reminds me of stewardess, or some other ‘separate-but-equal’ appellation… a hero is a hero, regardless of gender).  Diana’s journey from her world into World War 1 is as mythic and epic as they come.

And yes, to anyone like myself who previously doubted that the character of Wonder Woman could work in a ‘modern’ movie?  Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot will have you happily eating your words. This is most decidedly not the camp ’70s TV show.

“Wonder Woman” (2017) is, in my humble, middle-aged geeky opinion, the single best movie adaptation from DC comics since 2008’s “The Dark Knight” (even if it owes much more to 1978’s “Superman: the Movie”).

Director Jenkins seemingly borrows from her experience of “Monster” to gaze unflinchingly into humanity’s dark side (chemical gas attacks, mutilations, missing-limbed soldiers) as well as its potential for good (the core bravery of those who resist).  She also proved she can direct big budgeted modern action-adventure with the best of the best.

Star Gal Gadot also deserves a lot of the credit as well.  Her exotic Israeli lilt also gives her character an interesting ‘hard-to-place’ vibe that would’ve been lesser if she’d used a flat American or a posh British accent.   It also doesn’t hurt that she also once served in the Israeli military, and has the physicality to prove it.   With an able supporting cast and excellent direction, this is still very much Gadot’s movie.

Wonder women: director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) and star Gal Gadot.

To borrow a line from the funky ’70s theme song, “You’re a wonder, Wonder Woman.”   That line could apply to both Gadot AND to director Patty Jenkins, whose film (as of this writing) has become the highest grossing opening for a female director in movie history (!).

A wonder indeed!

 

 

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