Pop quiz hotshot: Why is there no Wonder Man? That's what I thought, Libs.
There may be no more homogenized part of the human experience in 2017 than sitting down at the theater to watch a superhero blockbuster. It’s been 15 years since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and in those 15 years Hollywood has managed to synthesize and focus group superhero movies into a more streamlined and familiar form than maybe any other media subset in human history; even Tom Clancy doesn’t have this kind of rote consistency. This was exactly what I expected when I sat down to Wonder Woman, and it’s more or less exactly what I got. Normally, my brain would filter the experience out a few hours later and I wouldn’t think much more about a superhero movie until someone said something wrong about it on the internet, yet Wonder Woman has stuck with me for three days now. It’s a credit - and a detriment - to a movie that did so much right while having so many other aspects fall totally flat.
Wonder Woman is certainly your typical three course meal of a superhero movie; a surprisingly well paced origin story and an unsurprisingly long and boring climax that borders on anti-climax bookend all of the character development and trailer-friendly one liners. To be clear, this is a massive improvement on DC’s other cinematic origin stories and the 35 minutes or so you spend with the Amazon on the island of Themyscira actually feel like a productive use of the viewer’s time rather than the swamp trudge that was Man of Steel. The climax is basically the opposite; I could have walked out of the theater with 45 minutes to go and completely invented an ending for this piece and there’s a very good chance I’d come up with something so close to the actual ending you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. If you’ve seen a Zack Snyder movie before I’m sure you can picture it now: grey, more grey, every other shot in slow-mo for absolutely no reason, and an overdependence on (some honestly pretty shitty) green screen effects that makes the JJ Abrams lens flare feel like a rarity by comparison. During many of the fight scenes I was reminded of (the disappointing) Jack Reacher 2, in which the director was clearly trying to hide the fact that Tom Cruise is an old man that can’t do cool stunts anymore, except everyone involved appeared physically capable enough to throw a punch without going into bullet time.
Let’s be real for a second: no one that actually cares about the most superhero-y parts of superhero movies is bothering to read reviews about a movie like Wonder Woman (aside from looking for fodder for their “critics are biased against DC movies” conspiracy theories), and even if they were I still wouldn’t have much to say about the generic superhero fare bookending what turned out to be a phenomenal middle third of a movie. From the moment Gal Gadot’s Diana and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leave Themyscira to the moment they set out for the final confrontation with Ares, Wonder Woman morphs into a remarkable period piece rife with genuine chemistry and whimsy. Pine delivers a Michael J. Fox-ian charismatic performance that even I, maybe the biggest Chris Pine stan on the planet, had no idea he had in him. This was legitimately a star-making performance and it feels as though the directors know it, as for stretches Wonder Woman turns into The Chris Pine show featuring Wonder Woman and as a viewer you aren’t at all upset by it. Gadot is at her absolute best playing naivete and knows exactly how to grab the focus of a camera shot even from the periphery of a scene; she may not act like an A-Lister but she certainly knows how to look like one, and that takes her far during what’s essentially a period piece about drab early 20th century London. Scenes that would typically be throwaways in a movie like this jump off the screen due to nothing but the sheer force of will of the dual leads. You almost don’t want them to advance the plot at all; the best parts of Wonder Woman are just two actors with fantastic chemistry interacting with the world around them.
|Chris Fine can do whatever he wants to me wherever he wants, whenever he wants|
The tragedy here, of course, is that the Pine/Godot period piece that does so much with so little would never be greenlit by Hollywood in 2017 without the superhero bookends. For the better part of an hour, you don’t want to care that the two of them are supposed to be saving the world, yet the inevitability of the superhero machine forces you to come to terms with the fact that they have to. Their last scene in London before shipping off to the front lines juxtaposes them with troops leaving and returning and as a viewer you can almost empathize with them with the hour you’re inevitably about to spend in the “good guy wins, bad guy loses” trenches. To be clear here, there’s nothing wrong with formulaic movies, it’s just endlessly frustrating as someone that wants to see the best movie possible that what could have been was wasted on a movie that didn’t need it to please comic book fans.
Regardless of my genre gripes, this is certainly a movie that defies expectations. When positive reviews started to trickle out for Wonder Woman it was perfectly reasonable to wonder how much Trump-era grading on a curve we were being subjected to from a DC movie after the cinematic abortions that were Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman stands on its own two legs, and refreshingly, has basically zero tie-ins with the rest of the DC cinematic universe. If this was your first superhero movie you’d have no idea it was just one piece of a multibillion dollar franchise that’s planned to eventually encompass dozens of movies. There’s no Ben Affleck cameo waiting to sneak up on you in the last ten minutes to sell toys and tickets to another bad movie in 2019, and if DC continues to actually produce standalone movies like this they may have a shot at usurping a bit of Marvel’s market share, because some people just want to sit down and watch a fucking movie without all the extended universe bullshit smacking them in the face repeatedly. DC deserves some credit if this line of thinking was intentional.
One thing I don’t want to give DC credit for, however, is how hard this movie hedged its bets. Much has been made in the leadup to Wonder Woman about how nice it was to have a female-fronted superhero movie, especially after the turd in the punch bowl that was 2016’s Ghostbusters remake, and Wonder Woman simultaneously succeeds and fails in taking up the mantle of women everywhere. Yes, make no mistake, this is a powerful female lead who speaks her mind and stands up to men, but this is also a movie in which a naive woman is led around by the hand by the trope personified upstanding gentlemanly man. The characters certainly need each other but the way this codependence is framed by the movie is basically “your turn, my turn”. When Gadot goes off to kick ass on her own you can bet that within two scenes there will be an opportunity for Pine to tell her she’s wrong about something and have him be proven right, almost like watching Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking turns getting to shoot the basketball last year. Did DC really need to keep throwing these gender balance bones to their audience? It was almost insulting, to say nothing of the other problems the movie had (there’s a Native American character named The Chief who contacts the group by sending up smoke signals, in the year 2017, because of course there is). Just let Wonder Woman go kick ass, please. Don’t make me feel insulted by something Chris Pine is doing, it isn’t fair to my heart.
Despite its flaws, Wonder Woman is worth the price of admission, unless you’re a history nerd who cant get past the German army being in non era-specific uniforms and the fact that a key component of the Germans’ master plan was a really, really big biplane. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which I enjoyed, mind you) a few weeks ago and I don’t think I could’ve typed an entire paragraph about it that night and the fact that this movie actually made me think and feel things deserves a ton of credit. I’ve learned to never expect something more from a superhero movie and Wonder Woman surprised me in the most pleasant way possible, and whether the on-screen chemistry was just lightning in a bottle or actual clever filmmaking it looks like DC’s found a way to bilk more money out of me the next time one of these comes out.