Thursday, June 1, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

For being one of the oldest, most beloved, most popular, and best-selling comic book characters in history, the character of Wonder Woman has taken an unusually long time to find herself on the big screen. She was first written and drawn in 1941 and would not appear on movie screens until this year in 2017. If a baby girl were born on the day of Wonder Woman's comic book premiere, that same little girl would have to wait until she was an elderly woman of 75 years before she could sit down and watch the first feature film adaptation at the local cinema.
For this, and for many other reasons, it is fair to say that Wonder Woman (2017) is one of the most anticipated movie releases in film history. For many decades now, boys, girls, men, and women alike have wanted to see the entertaining superheroine in action in a big-budget action movie. And positive feminine role models are in shockingly short supply at the movies anyway.
Audiences have been starving for this movie for decades and to the credit of director Patty Jenkins, and producers Zack and Deborah Snyder, they managed to deliver a massive big-budget blockbuster that delivers a satisfying and nutritious viewing experience to sate our appetites for it. The film stands out as a monumental achievement..
Although, to be fair, no discussion of the history of this character is complete without discussing small screen success of Lynda Carter's iconic performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in her classic TV series The New Original Wonder Woman (1975-79). In fact, any live-action screen incarnation of the character of Wonder Woman would always have to face comparison with and live up to that original TV role brought to life by the bright and talented Lynda Carter.
Lynda Carter's portrayal of Wonder Woman was not only very popular at the time her TV show ran, but also remains well-watched and appreciated in reruns and on home video by younger generations up to this day. The TV show was definitely made as family friendly fare during a slightly more naïve, more positive, and less sophisticated era of TV storytelling in general, though. Both for the better and occasionally for the worse. But it is an exceptionally fun and creative TV program that still stands up well for family viewing today.
Although Gal Gadot would eventually win us over with her powerful performance as Diana, Princess of Themiscyra (humorously shortened to just "Prince" by Steve Trevor), many Wonder Woman fans at first doubted that such a thin woman, with such a skinny supermodel-like physique, would be able to portray well a character known for her strong, and muscular Amazonian physique. Some even criticized her overall shape and breast size as being completely wrong for the part. You can watch Gal Gadot humorously discuss this criticism with Jimmy Kimmel in the clip below.
But to her credit, Gal Gadot trained hard and developed an athletic build that would match the part better than most anticipated. She worked that Xena-styled suit of armor and made us believe she was a truly bad-ass warrior woman from an isolated race of beautiful, tall Amazonian women. Not the easiest feat to pull off, but she did.
And it is not like Gal Gadot can get away with sliding back and forth between her formerly skinnier physique and then just bulk up again the next time she needs to play Wonder Woman. She has to play Wonder Woman almost non-stop for the next few years straight. From Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) to Wonder Woman (2017) to Justice League (2017) to Wonder Woman 2 (2019) and Flashpoint (2020), and likely for the Green Lantern film and at least one more Justice League movie after that.
Gal Gadot has essentially committed to maintaining her new athletic physique for at least five years straight, amid birthing and mothering babies! You have to give her respect for that kind of discipline to maintain her new shape like that, constantly under public scrutiny as a role model for young women and girls around the world. That takes the fortitude and resolve of a hero.
Warner Bros. wanted to not just make a woman superhero film, but they wanted to get a woman director to helm the production, too. It was great that upon Marvel's breakup with Patty Jenkins over their divergent visions for Thor 2: The Dark World (2013), Warner Bros. was able to convince her to direct Wonder Woman (2017) for them, instead.
Patty Jenkins directed a young Charlize Theron to an Oscar victory in her feature directorial debut Monster (2003). Although Patty Jenkins deserves a lion share of the credit for directing such a great superhero film, I do think it is worth shouting out Zack Snyder who originally cast Gal Gadot and introduced her character first in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Zack Snyder did his job as the DC Comics Cinematic Universe quarterback, set up the field for Patty Jenkins, then made a long pass to her, and like a good wide receiver, she caught the ball and carried it forward to land a touchdown for the team. She absolutely deserves credit for the touchdown. But let us not forget the quarterback's role.
I have little patience for anti-Zack Snyder propaganda. The man is one of the most incredible visual storytellers alive and his Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) were essential in establishing a standard of excellence that Patty Jenkins was encouraged to strive for when developing Wonder Woman. And lest we forget, Zack Snyder did develop the story for Wonder Woman, too, which he handed off to other screenwriters to flesh out in the film's screenplay.
Zack Snyder has receiving more than his fair share of criticism, so it is only fair he should also share in some of the praise for his many contributions to Wonder Woman (2017). His style of action film-making was even beautifully emulated by Patty Jenkins, helping bring an energized, kinetic power to Wonder Woman's fight scenes that set them apart.

So while Patty Jenkins is an amazing talent that WB should not hesitate to contract to direct a sequel, let us remember the man Christopher Nolan chose as his heir apparent after the conclusion of the Dark Knight Trilogy: Zack Snyder. Zack Snyder has made some of the best action films of the past two decades and should be given a hearty pat on the back for his contributions here.
Luckily, Snyder and Jenkins were bold with this retelling of Wonder Woman's origin story and its heavy reliance on Greek mythology. Many versions of Wonder Woman's origin tries to minimize its connection to the Greek gods and lore, but this version of her story fully embraces it, casually mentioning figures like Zeus and Ares as a part of Diana's backstory, as if they were on par with Thomas Wayne or General Zod.
In this way, I imagine fans and students of Greek mythology will generally get a lot of satisfaction out of Wonder Woman (2017) and the Easter eggs in its subtext. Interesting clues are hinted at related to other branches of philosophy and religion, too, especially in the characters' dialogue throughout the film. There are some interesting questions raised about the nature of man and what it practically means to choose between good and evil in our modern world.
And rather than take shortcuts with these philosophical musings with pat responses or simplistic and trite answers like some comic book movies might be tempted to do, Wonder Woman (2017) commits to exploring the disturbing implications of human moral agency, and what evil lurks within the hearts of nearly every man and/or woman.
This is exemplified in the dichotomy of the particularly evil woman Dr. "Poison" Maru (Elena Anaya) and the morally complicated yet still heroic man Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Each has done acts that on the surface could appear evil to the outside observer, Diana, yet it is the man seeking a free world for others who ultimately wins her over in the end.
In Aries's final test of Diana's character, he points to weak, broken Dr. Maru and tells Diana to kill her. Diana winds up lifting an armored vehicle into the air and was about to slam it down on this woman who has dedicated her life to creating chemical weapons and combat-enhancing drugs. In Diana's grief over Trevor's sacrifice, we glimpse a dark side to Diana as she tears through a group of German soldiers.
But as Diana becomes more collected she realizes that just killing off evil humans is not her true mission, nor is it her calling in life. Diana chooses to spare Dr. Maru and instead focus on her true enemy, Aries himself. In this moment, I was reminded back to a pivotal moment in the first film that began this whole DC Cinematic Universe, Zack Snyder's origin story for Superman in Man of Steel (2013).
Interestingly, the wide-eyed and innocent Wonder Woman is forced to mature and to ponder the value of humanity and whether they are worth her efforts to save. Like Clark Kent in Man of Steel (2013) before her, we see that the evils of the world can be difficult for her to reconcile with Diana's formerly default positive view of humanity. Like Clark, she has to determine whether mankind as a whole is worth risking her life to save.
The interesting thing about Snyder's DC Cinematic Universe is that it is not enough for the superheroes to gain super powers, but there must first be a conscious decision to confront the reality of what humanity is, both the good and bad, and only then can the hero within finally be born.
They must learn to love humanity enough to be willing to give up their lives to try to save it. And for nearly indestructible beings like Clark and Diana, whose natural lifespans are several orders of magnitude greater than a normal person, this is even a far greater sacrifice than is typically possible.
And it is that sense of innate goodness to the character and sense of earned sacrifice that helps set apart Man of Steel (2013) and now Wonder Woman (2017) from the pack of most superhero films. And it is why they will continue to be enduring classics into the future. Wonder Woman stands toe to toe with Superman as an excellent role model.
In case anyone wondered what kind of impact a director can have on a big blockbuster movie, look no further than the memorable "No Man's Land" sequence from this film. The studio was insistent that Patty Jenkins not film it and cut it out of the movie entirely because it would be the most expensive sequence scene in the film to shoot.

Luckily, Patty Jenkins stood her ground and insisted the entire movie comes together in that sequence and removing it would kill the movie itself. Without her fierce determination in the face of studio pressure, then we would have ended up with a far less empowering film. Which at the end of the day is the point of filming Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, or any other superhero. Creating a sense of empowerment in doing the right thing in the hearts and minds of the audience.

And part of the joy and delight of watching Wonder Woman is to see the skeptical looks in the men around her transform from doubt to faith in her ability to cross a barrier where no mortal man could cross for years and bring a seemingly impossible victory to the men who eventually follow her gladly into battle to liberate the countryside as they attempt to bring a swift and absolute conclusion to the war.
It is remarkable that in the process of modernizing Diana's character and origin story to appeal more to modern audiences, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot never lost sight of the basic qualities that have always made Wonder Woman a favorite hero of both women and men alike. And while the world has waited several decades for this film version of the character to be made, I am happy to say it was well worth the wait.

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