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Oh thank Hera: Wonder Woman is a resounding, unabashed, and joyous success

It is perhaps fully impossible to ever truly overstate the feeling of relief that washed over me when the credits of Wonder Woman rolled. My animus towards and deep disappointment in the DCEU thus far is thoroughly well documented. I mean, I’ve detailed the fuck out of it.

But I speak so frequently and so passionately because I really do truly care for these characters. My attachment to this franchise has been something like a parent whose child makes a wrong step at every conceivable measure, hoping that they will eventually correct the path and get things right.

This time, they got it right.

Wonder Woman, the fourth entry in the nascent DCEU, is the first truly unabashed success. There is no rationalization required, no dense sorting through half-formed ideas given fullness. This is a great movie about a true hero, the first of these movies truly cast in the DC Comics mold. It’s funny, romantic, exciting, and a clarion call not only for what this franchise could be, but for another way forward for superhero cinema.

Wonder Woman is framed in the modern day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving the original plate of the photo from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a photo in her full regalia from a long-ago war.

This flashes us back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the only child on the island and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She’s an Amazon, a group of warrior women created by the Greek Gods. She’s trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and becomes the fiercest among them, wielding a power no one fully understands.

Their idyllic world shatters when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island with a battalion of German soldiers following behind. Man’s World has erupted in the War to End All Wars, which Diana believes can only be at the hands of Ares, the God of War. So she leaves the island with Captain Trevor to kill Ares and save the world.

It feels only appropriate to begin assessing this movie at the top, looking at Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot has been a low-grade charmer for years, her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise being a particular scene stealer, and Wonder Woman proves how ready she is to launch to the top of Hollywood.

Gadot turns out an incredible lead performance here. There’s a grace and a kindness underlying an undoubtedly powerful warrior, an emblem of peace through strength. Gadot is particularly adept in this movie at pulling you into her perspective, at filtering the film through her eyes. It’s the off-kilter way she engages, the enthusiasm in just the wrong places and the confusion in just the right ways. She stands tall as a hero, poised to move to the top of the Hollywood Ass-Kicker list.

But it isn’t just Gadot’s performance. Affleck does a bang-up job playing Batman after all. It’s the character they’ve crafted. For the first time, Wonder Woman gives us a hero in the truest DC mold, an emblem of something greater, an ideal that pushes against a darker world.

all-star

Diana here stands for something greater, for a love that can conquer the darkest impulses of humanity, for a hope that one day war can end. Diana uses her strength, but it’s as a peacemaker, as a hero that truly believes that humanity is good and can be made better. It’s not the flawed heroes of the Marvel Universe, but a representative of more, a God that stands above and charts a way forward.

Wonder Woman and the eponymous character both revel in striving towards something better. That’s what has set DC apart and can continue to set it apart, if it continues to use it right. It isn’t as though this film doesn’t engage in the philosophizing that has marked films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Rather, it understands that there can be fun while you prod those questions, a movie that thrills you and uses those thrills to dig in deep. We understand Diana’s belief in doing good because we see the people she saves, but also because we feel the joy and adrenaline along with her.

That is, I believe, thanks to director Patty Jenkins. Consider this quote from a New York Times interview:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Perhaps no mission statement better embodies the successes of what we see on screen.

Consider (keeping in mind the work screenwriter Allan Heinberg did) the film’s central romance, between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Romance in superhero films is often, to put it mildly, begrudgingly trotted out to please some executive trying to meet 4 quadrants.

Wonder Woman has perhaps one of the most successful on-screen romances in any superhero film. Much of that is helped by Pine, who does an absolutely phenomenal job as the noble but compromised Trevor, and his chemistry with Gadot. The two have a crackling banter that feels like a great screwball comedy and it’s easy to see what they might see in each other.

But it works because of that mission of sincerity and that thematic motivating belief that love can and will do good in the world. It informs the romance and gives it the space it needs to breathe in the movie. I can think of few movies that would indulge so many quiet and melancholy moments in this romance, or that would allow moments so unabashedly silly in the same space. But Jenkins’ sincere belief gives their love room to breathe and it makes it work.

That belief extends throughout the film. It’s that sincerity that makes everything work emotionally. Everything resonates, everything feels real, Wonder Woman goes for broke and it hits so often that it can wallpaper over any flaws.

I could of course pick at a few scabs. The third act indulges in plenty of weightless CGI battling, I wish it had been allowed to really make its own visual palette, the slo-mo can be a little much, and it takes a little too long to really get cooking at the beginning.

I say all that knowing there are small things littering the film to praise as well. The supporting cast, from Lucy Davis’ delightful Etta Candy to Ewen Bremner’s charming and sad Charlie to Saïd Taghmaoui’s roguish Sameer to Elena Anaya’s cackling Dr. Poison, fills out the margins of the film in a way few superhero films indulge. The action is phenomenal, a sequence set in the No Man’s Land of a Belgian battlefield is a total all-timer.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score must also be singled out. An old-school, sweeping score of a kind you hear less and less since the Zimmer style became popular, it really helps drive these moments home.

But I can’t throw too much shade, because Zimmer did help write the Wonder Woman theme, a recurring guitar riff that showed up in Batman v. Superman to announce Wonder Woman’s arrival, and here shows simply how great it is to have a theme for a character. When that guitar riff enters during that No Man’s Land sequence, you’re damn near ready to jump out of your chair cheering. That’s a theme song.

In my eyes, Wonder Woman is simply the best traditional superhero movie in some time. Its belief in do-gooding, its thoughts on what that can mean, its great performance, its unabashed joy in superheroics are such a breath of fresh air. This is a victory, a story that finally lets a DC Comics character come to life, and be who they are and what they stand for.

Grade: A

Rant Warning: Wonder Woman and the Problems of Deconstruction (Before Construction)

This came out today:

In any rational world, this would be way up my alley. Already a clearly strong lead with an inventive setting (how many WW1 movies are there, especially big-ass blockbusters?) and there’s been a need for a Wonder Woman movie for god knows how long. 75 years?

Yet, despite the well-put together trailer, I’m not feeling it just yet.

It’s not what you’d think. Yes, my feelings on the current DCEU are fairly clear and yes, I’ve been burned twice now on these movies. I think it’s fair to urge caution with these DCEU films, the trailers have looked incredible basically every time (Man of Steel #3, BvS Comic-Con, Suicide Squad Bohemian Rhapsody) and have each time turned out nowhere near living up to the promise.

But a good trailer shouldn’t set me on edge. After all, it’s fully possible a good trailer could be cut from a good movie. That is sometimes how that works.

Nor is it necessarily the credits, though that may be our intro. Despite Zack Snyder not directing this one, he’s got a “Story By” credit and he is still producing. Moreover, this film by necessity follows up out of the creative decisions that he made with the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

And there’s the rub.

The intro to this trailer seems to be set in the modern day, my guess is that we get a frame of Wonder Woman flashing back to her past. As the trailer sets it up, this ultimately becomes the story of how she turns her back on humanity, overwhelmed by the darkness within it.

For those of you unfamiliar, Wonder Woman as a character is a diplomat. The emissary from Themyscira to Man’s World always intended to broker peace before resorting to war. That’s why her primary weapons have always been a lasso and a pair of deflecting bracelets. Weapons of defense, not offense.

Now, why was Wonder Woman chosen as that emissary? Because of her good nature. Because she fundamentally believes in the goodness of humanity, it’s a core aspect of her character. In other words, making a Wonder Woman who doesn’t believe in humanity is a BIG FUCKING DEAL.

Not that it hasn’t been done before. In fact, Kingdom Come, one of the greatest DC stories ever told, does feature a Wonder Woman that has ultimately grown distant from humanity.

But besides the fact that Kingdom Come is an alternate universe story rather than the main DC line, the conception of that character builds out of years of stories about the character. Much like Superman withdrawing from the world and Batman becoming totally alone, the intention is to ask “What brought her to this point?” as it is so unusual.

In other words, they didn’t start off asking this question. They had a construction of the character before they broke her down and analyzed her. Which is the biggest concern I have about Wonder Woman. We already know where this character is going to end up, as a deconstruction of a character we didn’t know. The whole trajectory of this film is to break down the character and ask what could make her turn her back on humanity. Without us ever really having the room to understand why she initially embraces it.

The DCEU is a deconstructionist comic book work. For those of you unfamiliar, comic book deconstructionism is a movement that began in the 80s with the works of writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. These were works that sought to apply more complex human psychology to superheroes. Works like Watchmen, Miracleman, and The Dark Knight Returns took the iconography and actions of these superheroes and asked who the real people willing to put themselves in those situations would be. Deconstructionist writers found that those people might not be mentally all together. Batman might have deep-seated parental issues, Nite Owl might use crime-fighting as a sublimation for his own impotence, and someone like Miracleman might be a mad god.

The extreme popularity of these books (credited with reviving the comics industry) had a huge effect on those who followed. This included Zack Snyder, who has repeatedly credited The Dark Knight Returns for inspiring Batman v. Superman and who panel for panel adapted Watchmen. Hell, we’ve heard Snyder and his producing partner Deborah Snyder say they were deconstructing the heroes.

Fundamentally, there’s something wrong about breaking these characters down without ever having created them. The first big screen creation of Wonder Woman is starting off what should be years into her. We have no idea who she is, but we’re already being asked to question her. That’s a weird place for a character to be.

Am I willing to be wrong? Absolutely. I hope this is everything we need and that Justice League puts it all back together. But my teeth got set on edge, seeing the same attitude time and time again with these films.

Warner Brothers repair their damage with a hell of a Comic-Con. I rank the trailers.

For a couple years now, Warner Brothers has been…how I should say…hard up. It’s not necessarily their fault. In fact, their failure is a marked result of their most admirable quality. They’re a studio willing to swing for the fences every time. They give real filmmakers the chance to do truly bold or daring things within the constraints of studio filmmaking. Sometimes that nets you Mad Max: Fury Road or Godzilla. Other times, it nets you Jupiter Ascending or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. 

But rather than go back on that promise, they keep taking chances with the hope that one year, it will pay off. If I may speak frankly, boy howdy does it look like it paid off this year.

Continue reading Warner Brothers repair their damage with a hell of a Comic-Con. I rank the trailers.