Wonder Woman (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wonder Woman (2017)

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Sculpted with clay, given life by Zeus, and gifted with immense strength - Diana, princess of the Amazons, cannot ignore the war that has engulfed the world outside her island.  Sword and shield in hand she embarks on a journey to slay the god of war and put an end to years of death.  Patty Jenkins directs Wonder Woman, with the screenplay written by Allan Heinberg, and stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Starting with Man of Steel in 2013, the movies of the DC universe have grappled with a question of faith.  Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wrestled with what good faith in a higher power can do in a world beset with evils.  David Ayer upped the mortal ante on the question of faith in Suicide Squad showing the hubris of humans who think themselves deities trying to control forces they barely understand.  Now it's Patty Jenkins' turn to call, raise, or fold the question of what good faith can do, and she raises the stakes in the graceful Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is at its best in the opening act that has modern-day Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a photograph that sends us back in time to her origins.  There is no question if deities exist on the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, as Diana's existence is owed to a clay figure created by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and given life by Zeus.  Knowing first-hand that your existence is due to divine intervention puts the question of faith on hold for a different question.  Now that we know the deities exist, why haven't they come to our rescue?

The answer lies in the setting of Wonder Woman - not Themyscira - but a world engulfed in total conflict.  World War I, and the resulting loss of faith in religion, imperial power, and basic decency, was one of the catalysts that spread Modernism as an art form.  Humans the world over began to reject old teachings and embrace ways of making it new (to paraphrase Ezra Pound.)  One scene between young Diana and her mother illustrates this perfectly as a picture book comes to life when Hippolyta tells Diana how the gods fell.  Jenkins draws from Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, the stop-motion action of Jason and the Argonauts, and a child's innocence to present a largely bloodless conflict of animated figures.

Inverting the masculinity of other famous beachfront kisses, Patty Jenkins finds nice ways to repurpose the genres usually dominated by men.

Lucky kids are able to grow up thinking conflict is something that the strong can always avoid by protecting the weak.  Jenkins tunes into the fantasy by presenting the denizens of Themyscira as the multiracial epitome of peace through strength.  Feminism without intersectionality is no feminism I can get behind, and with every shot of young Diana admiring the various PoC Amazons for their strength I found myself warming up with happiness.  Equally admirable are the dozens of Indian faces in the background of England when Diana's adventure takes her there (it is England in the new 20th century after all), and that one of the co-stars is Saïd Taghmaoui.  He is a French-American performer of Moroccan parents who, as Sameer, challenges Diana's claim to knowing hundreds of languages by engaging in a spirited game of one-upmanship in differing tongues.

But, like the gradual escalation of powers in World War I, the idea of peace in a world where neutrality is barely an option is a fantasy that ends with the arrival of Steve (Chris Pine).  I've got nothing against Steve, and I loved the way Jenkins repurposed the famous beach kiss in From Here To Eternity as Diana helps bring Steve back to life against the gorgeous backdrop of beachfront Themyscira.  He's just a generic hero in the middle of a fight where a literal deity is at his side and he still can't help but shush her.  This section, also in England, is the worst part of Wonder Woman and embraces the sort of cheeky "I can look good and kick butt too" feminism that Joss Whedon is usually responsible for.

I get it, Diana's in a man's world now and her femininity is a distraction to all the manly men doing their manly things.  It's just that Diana is written in a way that puts her strength to the side no matter how many times she saves Steve's life.  There's only so many times I can watch Diana get shushed or corrected by Steve before I start to get annoyed at how Allan Heinberg's script takes the wonder out of Wonder Woman, and the lack of opposition from Diana is odd considering how little guff she accepts the rest of the movie.  Thankfully, Wonder Woman returns to the front-lines of battle and away from the flat observational humor of a woman speaking in a room filled with men, but it's a rough twenty minutes or so until we're back to what makes Wonder Woman great.

When we do, hoo boy, it's in a doozy of a scene.  Diana's defensive offense provides Wonder Woman with its best action beats, showing what happens when a deity steps in to take the weight of the world onto herself.  It's more literally than in other DC films but that's the point.  She is a powerful goddess who can only handle so much suffering of the creatures her likewise powerful family helped create.  Heartbreak comes quickly when she realizes there's only so much suffering she can prevent and, in a way, answers one of Lex Luthor's questions from BvS.  She is all good, but even at her best she cannot be powerful enough to save everyone.

Wonder Woman's best moments are when we see Diana reject the restraints placed on her and leap forward to protect humans.

In one of Wonder Woman's blessings, the only crossover aspects between Wonder Woman and the other DC films are thematically rather than directly.  One of the big unanswered questions of BvS was why Wonder Woman went into hiding.  That's not answered in an easy way here, but imagine how much strength it takes to put the suffering of others onto your shoulders and finally achieve the peace you were prophesied to bring.  Then barely one generation passes before the cycle of pain starts all over with no evil deities to blame.  Why should we count on our deities to save us when we can't even stop fighting for one generation?

Part of the answer is likely in our flawed humanity.  One of my favorite things about the villains of Wonder Woman is how delightfully human they are.  General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is a vain man who huffs super cocaine to enhance his strength, and Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) excitedly admires cracks on a window when gassing other humans to death.  If there's beauty and strength in our goodness, then we have to account that there is a sublime weight to our evil.  Our deities are fine to step in for the former but when the latter rears its head it's difficult to say the effort is worth it.

Gadot is a graceful and powerful presence as Diana, reassuring and guiding those who have every reason to lose faith in humanity.  Jenkins was the perfect director for this material, seeing the nuance in the contours of a heroine much like she found the humanity in Monster.  Together they present a beautiful struggle where it's easy to believe, if only for a moment, the deities will come down and save us from ourselves.  While not without its flaws, I embrace Wonder Woman for that hope, even if I know the future she's yet to witness.

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Wonder Woman (2017)

Directed by Patty Jenkins.
Screenplay written by Allan Heinberg.
Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. You seemed to enjoy this tremendously more than I did. It’s entertaining and Gadot is great. Both undeniable facts. The movie as a whole? Alarmingly safe and mediocre…where have all our standards gone, critics (not you…just in general)?

    • Thank you for the comment and I’m kinda with you. It’s more interesting if I put it in the framework of DC’s overall dialogue about faith but if I watched it in a vacuum I’d be less enthusiastic. Before Armond White went off the rails in his review I thought he brought up some great criticisms about how safe WW is.

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