Every now and then, I come across a film that makes me think of what Roger Ebert’s take on it would be. I feel this way after every new Scorsese release or any film that appeals earnestly to humanist sensibilities; like say, a Moonlight. Ebert came off as the glass half-full kind of guy and made it a point to laud the graceful and hopeful elements of a film, no matter how flawed and I think he would have found some joy in the humanism of a film like Wonder Woman.
Proclaiming the world’s need for more love seems like a cheesy message for a film to wield. But I look around, with harrowing events home and abroad, and think maybe we should shoehorn in such rhetoric in every film. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is set largely during the First World War – the war to end all wars. Our protagonist plays her part in securing victory in this war, but she will come to learn that the human heart is desperately wicked on both sides of the moral spectrum.
As we know, the stunning and physically imposing Gal Gadot brings poise and grace to the iconic eponymous Amazon warrior princess, Diana. But it’s the purity and positivity Diana embodies that seeks to leave a mark on audiences, as she is confronted with the question many other superheroes have: is man worth fighting for? The fact that Jenkins at times envisions Diana as a messianic figure, the special daughter of Zeus, gives us an indication our hero’s answer to this central question. But there are nonetheless times she was weighed down by this cup of suffering.
But before all this, we get to roll with Diana as a gleeful child on the secluded and magically protected Amazon island homeland of Themyscira. She watches on from a ledge throwing her fists and legs around as she watches with excitement the all-woman Amazon squadron training below. Young Diana wants in but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), wants to quash such desires despite Diana’s aunt and Amazon General, Antiope (Robin Wright), being in favour. Mind you Diana is probably about five years old at this time so her mum has a point, but we know in no time, she will be sparring and proving herself a stellar warrior.
The training is key to her physical attributes, however, the simple tale about a war between Zeus and the god of war, Ares, gives her purpose. In a story that resembles Lucifer’s revolt, we learn Zeus defeated Ares lifetimes ago but the god of war is expected to return to corrupt men and fan into flames that pathology of violence. She becomes convinced Ares has returned when she learns of the ongoing World War and the devastation it has caused, thanks to the crash arrival of Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
The pilot-cum-spy falls out of the sky through the enchantments protecting Themyscira in a German plane he stole after going rogue on what appeared to be a reconnaissance mission. In pursuit of Stephen are a hoard of Germans, setting the stage for the first battle sequence. The Amazons emerge victorious but Diana sees death and experiences loss for the first time. After all this, her desire to strike down Ares is heightened. She gears up with a sword, shield, lasso and her iconic battle gear and makes haste to war-torn Europe, with Steve by her side.
Their first stop is “hideous” London where we are treated to some fine fish-out-of-water humour revolving around her greenness to the outside world. It’s a joy to watch Diana shriek with excitement at the sight of a baby or treat a revolving door like an adversary in battle. She operates with a sense of entitlement and audacity that sees her boldly strut into a British War Cabinet meeting. Steve is an able sidekick – sharp and witty, though he has his doubts about Diana’s seemingly naïve mission to kill Ares. But you don’t say no to the combat talent Diana offers. You just go along with it, even if you think she’s an adorable nutjob.
As we venture closer to the battlefield, Steve rounds up some old wartime pals in the persons of Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a Scottish sniper ravaged by PTSD, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American with a heads up on how profitable war can be, and Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer a sweet talking soldier who had dreams of becoming actor – the screenplay obliges his smooth tongue by granting him some of the more enjoyable lines. On the villain side of things, we get the mad scientist nicknamed Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and her superior, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston).
Unsurprisingly, the foils aren’t compelling. They are developing a more severe brand of mustard gas, one that eats through gas masks and protective gears. The first time they test the gas, there is this bizarre bit of morbid humour; so hilarious yet so out of place it felt like someone sneaked in storyboard from a cartoon. The only live action character I could take seriously in that position would be the Joker. I feel like the film compensates for the weak villain with a twist in the finale which was a little effective because it was the rare blockbuster twist that caught me off guard.
You could cite some more flaws, in the action sequences. They are choreographed nicely enough and Jenkins never presents Amazon warriors and their athletic prowess in battle as some asinine novelty. But boy was I distracted with the lack of blood. Forgive me if that sounds silly. There is a bit late on when a battle on the rooftop ends with Diana coldly impaling a man through the ceiling (also quite at odds with the overall tone). We get a shot of the sword from below and it looks as fresh as the day it was forged. Nitpicking, I know, but it bothered me.
The more obvious flaws on the action front centre on the use of CGI. We get to Blade II and The Matrix: Reloaded levels here, if you know what I mean. As always there seems to be that constraint mandating a finale overwhelmed by CGI. The big final battle surreally resembles an epic Dragon Ball Z showdown and there are moments this bodes well, like a point where Diana goes all Amazon berserk dispatching German soldiers with motile efficiency as the background morphs into a fiery auburn blur.
Ultimately, what set Wonder Woman apart for me was Jenkins’ and screenwriter Allan Heinberg’s, ability to just elevate and engage with the focus on the right details. The production and character design in Themyscira; from the pure cerulean ocean down to the battle scars on the fiercely steely Antiope tingle the senses. The Amazon warriors’ armour looks worn but imperial. This attention to detail continues through to the bustling London and the script has the dexterity to insert a scene with a liberated Belgian village, broken by the war, but able to revel with a cool night gathering in the town square for music and dance.
Jenkins is totally enamoured by Diana. Our protagonist is never referred to as Wonder Woman by the script. It doesn’t have to. The camera does all the talking. We are eased into a lot of close-ups of evoking different sentiments and sensations – affection, humour, curiosity, valour, shock, and pain amongst others. Gadot sells a range of emotions and Jenkins is deliberate in the way she flies her heroine’s strong nuanced performance like a war banner, never dropping it till the battle is won. The humour is well woven into the script and a conduit for the restrained feminism beats. The story is rousing enough and devoid of cynicism. We don’t need to be hit on the head with the fact war to end all wars was anything but.
I remember Zach Snyder’s version of Wonder Woman appearing to be more of a pessimist. Sorry to remind of the happenings in Batman vs Superman, but the Diana we see here does not strike me as one would think twice about stepping up to be a hero in face of a threat to innocents like Doomsday.
But no one is protesting at this bout of character reengineering. The world, both cinematic and real life, is better off with a Wonder Woman that beams with honour and hope, a Wonder Woman that is inspired and not tortured, a Wonder Woman that sees beyond the obvious decay and destruction to the potential for joy and peace.