WONDER WOMAN (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content)
Released:  June 2, 2017
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock,
Saïd Taghmaoui

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The isn’t just the best film from the DC Extended Universe. Wonder Woman is better than nearly every movie from the Marvel Extended Universe.

Living in Zack Snyder’s DC world but not of it, director Patty JenkinsWonder Woman is an assured standalone that’s driven by a specific vision rather than marketing metrics, test audience risk-aversion, or a checklist of franchise requirements. It adheres to a traditional template, yet it’s superior to the obnoxious, generic blockbuster-ing that often riddles the multiplexes. Wonder Woman does more than construct and calculate its mythology (as most tentpoles settle for); it does so in truly mythic fashion.

Diana Prince is going to inspire a lot of people. She’s not only a butt-kicker; she’s an aspirational figure.

This is a heroine that’s actually heroic, not angsty or conflicted. She acts with the moral clarity of Christopher Reeves’ Superman (a refreshing quality in today’s burdened superhero landscape), ditching the tortured psyche shtick for pure, principled conviction. Jenkins also mines that trait for humor, but instead of playing the fish-out-of-water Diana as culturally square, Gal Gadot imbues the Amazonian with a matter-of-fact no-nonsense swagger. She’s not the rube; we are, in our stultifying moral relativity.

And like its heroine, the movie thrives on its own identity and agency, not desperate to go “dark” or “edgy” with the kind of tonal baggage that has slogged the DCEU thus far, yet it always feels like a genuine effort rather than a corrective. It buoys seriousness with humor and knows how to weave the two. The comic touches are light and witty, even sophisticated at times, emerging as clever expressions made by well-drawn characters, not pulled from a stockpile of jokey one-liners.

Right from the start, its Act One origin is on par with what you might expect from the best Disney animated classics. It’s tightly, thoughtfully constructed beat-for-beat, not vomiting out dense exposition dumps. The script and ensemble then go beyond just unpacking the backstory. They establish characters, relationships, rules, and this world in a way that causes us to become invested, not merely informed.

You’re rooting for Diana’s fighting spirit right from her first moments as a little girl. Gadot fiercely owns that passion (and the screen) when she becomes a young woman. Then, about an hour in, Diana finally makes her debut as Wonder Woman. It’s a moment that’s epic, iconic, and completely badass.

From there, instead of stopping a maniacal baddie that’s hell bent on a contrived global annihilation, she faces a very real threat: the First World War. That context grounds this superhero movie in a way that most others lose sight of, and layers the stakes with political complexities.

In my review of Batman V Superman, I said, “the film’s best superhero isn’t even in the title.” Gadot confirms that impression here with a strong, charismatic turn. She grabs this whole thing by the lapels and then leads it to wherever it’s going (no doubt a reflection of director Jenkins, too). And as a bonus, Jenkins colors Wonder Woman’s costume with the traditional red, blue, and gold hues, dispensing of the ugly, grungy sepia shades seen in BvS.

And her co-star? Along with his suave magnetism, Chris Pine has instincts for nuance (comedic and dramatic) that most actors rarely display. Between this and Hell or High Water, Pine is emerging as a talent capable of nearly anything. Note to Hollywood: starting now, just give Chris Pine all the roles. Please and thank you.

Together, Gadot and Pine have the kind of chemistry that inevitably has you screaming in your head, “Just kiss already!” It’ll be hard to beat these two as the summer’s best on-screen couple, romantic or otherwise.

She embodies strength and femininity in equal measure, not to mention smarts and ideals, creating as well-rounded a role model for girls as any character in the movies today, and he admires her strength rather than being dismissive of or threatened by it (a good role model for boys). Even so, parents take caution: some of the action is intense, at times scary, plus some romantic banter is responsible for the 13 after the PG.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Wonder Woman proves to be thematically relevant in a way Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg likely never intended. Yes, by design, their story arc upends the simplistic comic book cliché that defeating The Bad Guy will, in the end, defeat evil, but this reversal of superhero convention then challenges us to confront a more nefarious reality: evil is insidiously, subtly pervasive (even in our heroes). That’s something our current toxic bifurcated political climate is loathe to admit.

Kneejerk social media posts and argumentative news channel punditry may like to posit that The Politician We Hate is the inspiration for the hate that exists around us, but Wonder Woman actually tears down that bitter partisan Straw Man and forces us to look at (and judge) ourselves instead.

In terms of craft this is superbly made, with inspired, ambitious flourishes. The digital effects still kick into full-tilt overkill, unfortunately (a pox upon our blockbusters), but Jenkins is a serious filmmaker, framing shots and staging set pieces with intention, not coverage. Her eye is cinematic, not frenetic, and her movie (with all that it has to wrangle) never feels unwieldly.

Most importantly, Jenkins isn’t trying to build a franchise. It’s a restraint emphasized by the absence of any end-credit scenes, not to mention the avoidance of shoehorning in a clunky reference to Diana as “Wonder Woman” (the moniker literally goes without saying). Jenkins wisely just aims to make a really good movie, confident that the brand will take care of itself.

But then, why shouldn’t she? She has Gal Gadot, and all the power that she possesses. To make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love, and make a liar tell the truth. The world is ready for her, and the wonders she can do.

(You can also read my analysis of Wonder Woman‘s blockbuster success with audiences, “Why WONDER WOMAN Broke Through”.)

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