Wonder Woman—DC's pioneering superheroine finally takes the lead in a feature film with this lavish origin story, set in the World War I era. The title character, Diana by name, has grown from a feisty little girl into the impressive adult form of Gal Gadot on the secret, hidden island of the Amazons, under the watchful eye of her Mom Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Against Hippolyta's wishes, she's secretly trained as a warrior by her aunt, Antiobe (Robin Wright, sporting an accent to vaguely match Nielsen's and Gadot's).
One day Diana rescues daredevil American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who happens upon the island while escaping from the Germans. She's appalled when she learns of the ubiquity of war in the outside world, and she's convinced it's the malicious work of Ares the war god. She decides, again over Mom's objections, to let Trevor take her to the Front in Europe, where she plans to identify Ares, kick the crap out of him, and end war on Earth once and for all. She's not ambitious or anything.
With Trevor, she travels first to London and then, with a ragtag group of ethnically mixed sidekicks, to Belgium, and learns that shutting down war isn't as simple as it ought to be. She also runs afoul of various villains, among them a scarred chemist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya, masked much as she was in Almodovar's superb The Skin I Live In).
Setting this movie during WWI, rather than having Wonder Woman battling the Nazis as she was originally created to do (the character debuted in the comics in 1941), initially seemed wrong to me, and there were moments where the dialogue and other details seemed off, period-wise. I'd guess that, among other reasons, the filmmakers wanted Diana to enter civilization at an even less emancipated time for her gender; they wanted her to encounter corsets and petticoats. They may also have wanted less familiar, less easily loath-able bad guys than the Nazis, so as to spread around the blame for warmongering more equitably among all humankind.
In any case, as the movie progressed my resistance to it quickly wore off. Wonder Woman isn't quite as slick as last year's Dr. Strange, but it's more touching, and like Dr. Strange, it's a non-facetious superhero flick that it's possible to wholeheartedly enjoy, almost from beginning to end. The movie is colorful and playful, even sunny at times, but better still there's a lack of cynicism to it, an openhearted, unembarrassed sense of decency and heroism that's highly gratifying after years of self-consciously "dark" comic-book sagas.
This tone is reflected in the warmth and emotional directness of Gadot's performance—she has a quick throwaway scene involving an ice cream cone that made me fall in love with her. The lack of coyness between her and Pine's Trevor is likewise refreshing. They don't tediously bicker or one-up each other.
Diana is so preoccupied with her mission that she barely seems to notice how she scandalizes the male authority figures she meets, ignoring their shock at her outspokenness as if it's too unimportant to acknowledge. And when she expresses disbelief at the matter-of-fact acceptance of war, she doesn't seem infantile, because director Patty Jenkins and the writers (Allan Heinberg among other hands) have structured the story so that we see our own civilization from her point of view.
The filmmakers grapple, while staying within a conventional template for this kind of movie, with the persistent limitation of superhero stories: The tendency to reduce all conflicts to a climactic brawl. That they don't prevail—the movie does indeed climax with a brawl, and one that's of questionable relevance to the vexing problem of the human tendency to make war not love—doesn't make the attempt any less honorable.
Also opening in the Valley this week...
...is the historical drama Churchill, with the great Brian Cox playing the title role. I had the chance to chat with director Jonathan Teplitzky; you can read my interview on the New Times blog.
And Sunday evening at FilmBar Phoenix...
...is a showing of The Quiet Earth, the 1985 sci-fi classic from New Zealand, with an introduction and Q&A by co-writer and co-producer Sam Pillsbury. You can read my short article on this memorable flick on the Phoenix Magazine blog.