Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Is It So Hard For Movie Studios To Do Wonder Woman Right?

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of character, Most of the writing in the first half, Use of humor/fish out of water elements, Good use of computer effects for characters in battle scenes
The Bad: Used a terrible adversary for the story, Set up defies suspension of disbelief, Mediocre direction and editing, Forced romantic subplot, Obvious reversals
The Basics: Wonder Woman is painfully average . . . when it could have been so much more.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of Wonder Woman. While my siblings were into Superman and Batman, I remember having a Pop-Up Book of Wonder Woman and it's such a distinctive memory that I can actually remember various pages of the book so many decades later. I'm a big fan of Wonder Woman, to the extent that in my writing career, one of the first big movie scripts I wrote was one for Wonder Woman. I advocated Anne Hathaway for the lead in Wonder Woman (in the article here!) and wrote the full script and treatment for the sequels for the film I envisioned with her as the lead. I even got the script within an inch of the hands of the man who could have made the film happen (Warner Bros. has lawyers who have trained their executives exceptionally well; the executive was enthusiastically reaching for the script after a very nice, albeit abstract, conversation and when he saw the title on the script, he physically recoiled!). So, when Wonder Woman was announced, I was both excited and apprehensive.

I was excited because I have waited my whole life for a live-action Wonder Woman that might follow on the progressive aspects of the television series Wonder Woman (reviewed here!), but with a more modern sensibility for dialogue (and costuming), I was apprehensive about Wonder Woman because none of the credited writers for the film were women (I know, Wonder Woman was created by a man), which suggested to me that the film would end up devolving into a mindless action-adventure film instead of being philosophically complex and banking on the character's intelligence and reason instead of big special effects-driven battles. I was apprehensive when Gal Gadot was cast because the casting seemed to suggest an actress who could handle the physical aspects of the role instead of long passages of dialogue. I was apprehensive because, despite Diana and Wonder Woman being a bright spot in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (reviewed here!), that film was a dismal mess that lived down to the worst expectations of what a film based upon a comic book source material could be.

Despite the concerns I had, I rushed out to the earliest possible screening of Wonder Woman that I could. And the latest big screen Wonder Woman was not worth driving 90 miles each way to the giant screen. Actually, that became surprisingly relevant as the direction and editing were disappointing. I drove ninety miles each way for the screen that is the closest to an IMAX in my area and it did not take long into Wonder Woman before I began to notice that the film's scale was being used incredibly poorly. Director Patty Jenkins utilized a number of very large sets and locations in Wonder Woman, but the shots are often framed to show a small area within the location, a quick shot of the full location, then Diana enters with the camera focused fairly tightly on her while she moves through the location. In other words, the full magnitude of the scope or how the elements and characters within that environment are not clearly related using the visual medium in order to make the story flow organically. In comic books that problem exists when the artwork does not create large environments; in Wonder Woman, virtually every room seems tiny until Diana starts kicking ass in it. Even in the first big battle, the scope is erratically rendered to undermine the flow and undersell the setting.

Usually, I do two paragraphs on the film's plot, but with Wonder Woman, the plot is so simple it does not warrant it. Themyscira is an island occupied by Zeus's chosen Amazons, women who once warred Ares to a standstill when Ares slew the other gods and exerted his influence over mankind. Princess Diana grows up on Themyscira wanting only to learn combat, despite her mother's express wishes. On the day that Diana defeats the greatest Amazon warrior, Steve Trevor's plane crashes in the waters off Themyscira. Trevor, an American spy working for the British government, unwittingly leads the Germans to Themyscira. The Amazons thwart the Germans and in the aftermath, Trevor tells the Amazons about the war going on. Convinced that Ares is influencing the world of man and he must be stopped, Diana and Trevor leave Themyscira and head toward the Front to find a weapon's lab and Ares in their attempt to end World War I.

Wonder Woman is told in flashback and it did not take long for that set-up to wear thin with me. First, Diana is in Paris when she receives a package from Bruce Wayne. The package is the photograph Bruce Wayne found online when he was investigating Diana in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Seeing the photograph causes Diana to remember her childhood and the circumstances that led to and followed the taking of the photograph. It does not take long in the flashback before the narrative goes into alternative storytelling - Hippolyta telling the story if Themyscira and flashbacks within the flashback, like Steve Trevor telling the story of what he was doing before his crash. The conceit that sets up the flashback story turns into absurd by the film's end; Diana had unfettered access to the photograph near the film's end and good cause (from a character point of view) to go find it. Why she had to wait for Bruce Wayne to track it down almost a century later becomes a real headscratcher.

Wonder Woman peaks very early on the aspects that work. In the first half of the film, the movie has some funny lines and is very high on charm, though it is mystifying that Steve Trevor seems unable to say the word "penis." The character of Antiope is wonderful and well-played by Robin Wright. Ironically, Wright is underused as she has proven time and time again she can handle long monologues about ethics and machinations, but she is used almost exclusively in an incredibly physical performance as Antiope. Robin Wright almost makes it possible to ignore the problematic aspects of Themyscira her performance is so good in Wonder Woman.

Themyscira is troublingly rendered in Wonder Woman. In the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation, there was a terrible episode called "Angel One" (reviewed here!). "Angel One" was pretty lousy because the whole gimmick of the episode was that the Enterprise visits a planet that is a matriarchal society. The episode is disappointing on two fronts: 1. Women being in charge of a planet hardly seems novel or interesting (it's a planet being run by women, not by cats or fungi . . . of course women can run a government!) and 2. The matriarchal society is just as corrupt and petty as a male-dominated government. While I can get that there might be a statement being made that women are just as corruptible as men when put in power, it makes it somewhat pointless to bother with making a matriarchal society in film for the purpose of a statement. In Wonder Woman, Themyscira is presented in a similarly problematic way.

Themyscira is ruled by Hippolyta and most of the Amazons spend their time training constantly for the potential of a military incursion. Themyscira, however, is both cloaked from the outside world and features women who Zeus himself segregated as a different type of person from mankind. The set-up for Themyscira would have been great, if only the film had managed to maintain that idea for more than two minutes. Diana wants to train with Antiope to learn to fight, Hippolyta tells both the child and Antiope that Diana is not to be trained and when Diana sneaks out, Antiope spends years lying to Hippolyta by training Diana. So, the Amazons are just as much liars as the men of the world.

Worse than that is that Hippolyta's story about how Themyscira was formed climaxes with the Queen of the Amazons telling Diana that Zeus housed powerful artifacts upon the island, most significantly the God Killer. The God Killer is presented as the weapon that can be used to defeat Ares. Sadly, Patty Jenkins adequately captures facial expressions from Connie Nielsen's Hippolyta, Robin Wright's Antiope, and all sorts of background Amazons to indicate that Diana is wrong when she leaps to the conclusion that a prized sword on the island is the God Killer. Right away, Wonder Woman sets up a painfully forced reversal by seeding early the idea that Diana is the God Killer and in that way, the film feels like DC is yet again chasing Marvel; Diana being seeded early as the God Killer feels virtually identical to Elektra being the Black Sky in the second season of Daredevil (reviewed here!). As well, because Jenkins captures the right expressions and Antiope makes a pretty clear declaration, Wonder Woman is entirely undermined in its climax when the primary villain of the film makes it explicit to Diana that she, not the sword, is the God Killer.

So, the Amazons are a bunch of liars. Great. The thing is, if Wonder Woman were written better, the idea of Diana being the God Killer is not an inherently bad one. Instead of setting up a ridiculously artificial reversal, a far more compelling story would have been Diana growing up knowing she is the God Killer and training for it; leaving Themyscira ultimately because she feels it is her destiny and purpose to save mankind from Ares . . . instead of her sneaking out like a thief in the night.

The Themyscira section of Wonder Woman is also set up with a criminal level of suspension of disbelief required for the level of coincidence it presents. The Amazons are immortal and Diana has been training with Antiope and the other Amazon warriors for a considerable amount of time when she has the chance to show off for Hippolyta. That day, while Diana desperately searches for approval from her mother, Antiope goes all-out in her training and unleashes Diana's full potential. Antiope is wounded when she attacks Diana and Diana deflects with her bracelets. The shockwave caused by the attack leaves Antiope shaken and represents the first time Diana actually hurts her mentor. That plot conceit leaves Diana feeling isolated and concerned, which is how she is standing by herself on a cliff when Steve Trevor's plane goes down and pierces the veil around Themyscira. I kept waiting for there to be a causal link between the two events; like the shockwave actually hit Trevor's plane and knocked it out of the sky. No such luck for those who like sensible storytelling. Instead, out of all of the days of Diana's life, the day she finally defeats Antiope in public combat happens to be right after Steve Trevor robs Dr. Maru's lab and is persued by Germans into Themyscira's bubble. Really?!

The problem with Wonder Woman is that the "Really?!" moments stack up ridiculously quickly. The Germans invade the beach of Themyscira and are not nearly shocked enough at seeing both an island suddenly and bright sunlight when they were lost in fog seconds before. But then, the Germans start shooting at the Amazons and in making a PG-13 film, Patty Jenkins makes Wonder Woman ridiculous. The first Amazon casualty is a warrior, wearing leather armor, who is shot fairly squarely in the stomach. In addition to being bloodless, it is absurd that a World War I German rifle would penetrate the leather armor and layer of muscles and leave the warrior instantly dead.

Patty Jenkins seems particularly afraid to dwell on big moments in Wonder Woman. Regardless of the practicality of the Germans actually managing to take out the highly-organized, prepared and competent Amazons, Jenkins completely guts the aftermath of the attack by pushing the plot forward with Diana defending Steve Trevor and the introduction of the Lasso Of Hestia (the magical lasso that forces those ensnared in it to tell the complete truth). Here is a society of immortals who has not had a military conflict for thousands of years and now there are multiple deaths, including one of the most beloved Amazons. And the women of Themyscira are not particularly shaken, they leap right into learning about the war that Trevor has accidentally made them aware of.

Right before Wonder Woman enters its most charming phase, it introduces its most problematic aspect: its villain. The primary villain in the cinematic Wonder Woman is Ares, God Of War. Ares is a frequent adversary in Wonder Woman comics and some of the best stories involve Ares and Diana interacting. But in Wonder Woman, Ares is particularly troubling as an enemy. Wonder Woman is set during the last days of World War I and Diana's belief is that Ares, God Of War, is directly responsible for the German's military initiative. Her theory is that if she can kill Ares, whom she believes has manifested in German military leader Ludendorff, who is directly overseeing Dr. Maru's work, the war will end. Using Ares sets up Diana to either haplessly follow a ridiculous lead to a poor conclusion or creates a storytelling problem that will make Ares an asinine villain. Wonder Woman creates a head-slapping moment when the film's writers manage to do both. In considering the film, the second problematic aspect of Ares being used as the villain in Wonder Woman shines more brightly. As a conflict looms between Diana and Ares, viewers are forced to wrestle with a key problem of history; if Ares is the architect of World War I, how the hell can there be a World War II in the DC Comics Cinematic Universe?! The books manage to avoid conundrums like this - both by being set in modern times and - by having Wonder Woman resolve conflicts with Ares by conversations, not outright physical conflicts. Wonder Woman, alas, is nowhere near as sensible.

Despite all this, I did not hate Wonder Woman. The set-ups and suspensions of disbelief made a mockery of much of the character and setting of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman, in this incarnation, is just another generic action hero in yet another "kill the villain" style super hero flick. But Chris Pine, despite not seeing the penis joke through by actually saying the word before getting corrected, is actually wonderful as Steve Trevor. Trevor is funny and Pine plays of Gal Gadot expertly. Some of the best moments in Wonder Woman are the fish-out-of-water moments when Steve Trevor tries to explain the world of man to Diana. Trevor trying to explain marriage (huge missed opportunity for Diana to either reference the lesbian marriages on Themyscira or differentiate how the women of Paradise Island can have love and fidelity without The State or Church codifying them), sleeping together, time and his adequacy as a man are very funny. In fact, Chris Pine does not seem like he is playing Steve Trevor as Captain Kirk . . . until the damn motorcycle comes out!

Lucy Davis is hilarious as Etta, though she is underused. Said Taghmaoui is good as Sameer and Ewen Bremner offers one of the most diverse performances of the film as the shell-shocked Charlie. Charlie affords Diana a great opportunity to showcase compassion for a man and Gal Gadot plays that relationship in a decent fashion. I was skeptical about Connie Nielsen playing Hippolyta (Lynda Carter seemed like the obvious choice for casting for Hippolyta), but Nielsen does fine in the role. Danny Huston and David Thewlis don't show viewers anything new in Wonder Woman (they aren't bad, but they have such long, distinctive careers, it is unsurprising they have both played characters much like the ones they play in Wonder Woman before).

Gal Gadot is fine in Wonder Woman, though much of the material she is given is not particularly cerebral or does not require Gadot for the big Diana moments. Chief among the problematic aspects of Diana is the forced romantic subplot between Diana and Steve Trevor. Diana knows Steve Trevor for, perhaps, a few weeks in Wonder Woman. (Without spoiling) At the climax of the film, Diana comes to believe that the way to save humanity is love and she conjures mental images of Trevor. Diana does not think about Hippolyta, Antiope, or Themyscira, which she wants to keep safe from the hatred of Ares . . . Wonder Woman turns to the most banal and forced concept of romantic love for the character epiphany. This is not the fault of Gadot. Gadot gets through all of the big physical moments and Wonder Woman affords her one or two chances for marginally decent philosophical speeches, but almost all of the big moments of philosophy are ended by Steve Trevor pulling Diana out of a room or Diana's high-minded dialogue ending in a fight. Gadot does fine with the material she is given.

As I drove the ninety miles home from the theater, I kept trying to figure out if I actually liked Wonder Woman or not. Early on in the film, I kept thinking of lines I enjoyed and I truly was impressed by Robin Wright and I was thinking 7/10. But then I just kept rolling my eyes and as I drove home, I most easily recalled the problems with the film (didn't we just see Wonder Woman in a climactic battle at night in the last film, seriously, they couldn't pull it off as a daytime battle this time?!). When I returned home and started describing Wonder Woman, my wife managed to phrase perfectly what I had not managed to articulate: Wonder Woman is entirely average. I was hoping for greatness, I was dreading, but prepared for, awful, but Wonder Woman is neither. The plot has massive problems and the adversary is dead-wrong for the film, the direction and editing fails to linger and capture scope, but the battles are solid, most of the performances are wonderful for the material given and when the writers tried to have fun, it shows with some clever and funny lines, so the movie just averages out.

For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Alien: Covenant
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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