Sunday, June 04, 2017

Wonder versus War

Striding through cynicism and hopelessness to honestly confront the age old problem of humanity's penchant for self-destruction, 2017's Wonder Woman is a wonder indeed. The philosophical conflict between strong-arm tactics and the hazards of people allowed to be free is the standard underlying story for superhero movies ever since The Dark Knight explored the idea so effectively. Wonder Woman is the first superhero film since The Dark Knight to make that struggle feel like a personal, artistic expression. There's a lot of talent at work in the film, but the lion's share of the credit must go to Patty Jenkins who, if Warner Brothers knows what's good for them, ought to be put in charge of the DCCU from now on.

I was one of the few people who thought the trailers for Wonder Woman didn't look very good. I noticed Chris Pine had a lot more lines in the trailers and they were leaning more on his charm, which made sense, I thought, since Gal Gadot was so bland in Batman v Superman. When I saw the movie, I saw that my impression was both right and wrong. The movie does lean more on Chris Pine and Gal Gadot is bland. But you know who else is bland? Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gal Gadot is this generation's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

People have compared Wonder Woman to The Dirty Dozen and there's some truth in that but for me the apt comparison is to Terminator 2. The reason Schwarzenegger was never enough to make any further sequels in the Terminator franchise work is because Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong were essential to the film and essential to what made Schwarzenegger's "innocent android figuring out human nature" work. Linda Hamilton in particular gives the necessary contrast of a human being who's been psychically beaten and tempered by the violence of a human world. Chris Pine doesn't give quite so raw a performance but he does give a very good one--he's charming and he's had experiences that make him reluctant to trust Diana's guileless commitment to doing the right thing.

There is some of the fish-out-of-water, innocent lamb with regular guy dynamic at work here, despite the fact that Diana has studied many books on sex (by the way, if you want a much worldier woman in a period comic book series, you should've watched Peggy Carter). There's the perspective that Diana being so inexperienced plays into a patriarchal sexual dynamic that isn't alleviated by the fact that she has superpowers since such things are so divorced from reality. On the other hand, there's a cynicism in this perspective, too, for saying that innocence has no value. That's a big part of the film's point, that Diana is a reorienting influence on Steve (Chris Pine). That neither character has all the maturity cards is to the film's credit, it's not a flaw or anti-feminist.

It's also not anti-feminist to talk about Gadot's beauty and physical performance, which is as crucial as Schwarzenegger's physicality. Jenkins knew this in making the film and delivered great work from the material she was given. When Steve wakes up on the Themyscira beach, we get these enormous close-ups of Gadot's beautiful face peering at him (us) curiously. It feels intrusive and starts to feel oddly good. The cinematography and makeup seem calculated to soften Gadot's features a great deal which becomes a stimulating paradox in the suddenness of her action scenes. Her performance has a bit more ham than in Batman v Superman--the right amount for how Jenkins uses her--her grins and head tilts are subtly strange and I always felt like I didn't get enough time to study her reaction before the camera went back to Pine. It all adds up to create maybe the best example of a goddess put to film that I've seen.

Alongside the effective otherworldliness of Diana, Jenkins ably and shrewdly assembles a group of rough edged humans with Steve's comrades at the pub whom he takes along for their journey into the horrors of World War I trenches. Jenkins gets away with a surprising amount of that horror even in this era of the "grimdark" comic book film, just enough to make Diana's walk across "No-Man's Land" (a thankfully understated joke) so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I could point out flaws in the screenplay. The varying levels of knowledge and ignorance Diana has don't quite add up, the final philosophical arguments between characters don't quite fit into the catch-phrases they try to use, but Jenkins coordinates everything so beautifully there was never a moment I wasn't completely invested in what Diana and Steve were trying to do and I felt both of their perspectives. Jenkins delivers something that really feels like it touches on the function of an ideal for humanity when contrasted with horrible, messy reality. It's an amazing film.

Several supporting performances were good, among them Ewen Bremner and particularly David Thewlis were absolutely wonderful.

No comments:

Post a Comment