Wonder Woman

Well, we have waited a long time for this and it is finally here. A DC Universe film that makes you anxious to see another DC Universe film. With iconic heroes like Batman and Superman and villains like The Joker, it still took a woman to put them on the right track. Men just can’t ask for directions. Fortunately we have two women to thank for bringing these movies back from the brink of disaster. The perfectly cast Gal Godot and the very talented director Patty Jenkins. They have managed to make a film that is watchable but also memorable. The best thing the film does is give us a central character that we can root for and care about. Diana, Princess of Amazons, who has spent her whole life preparing to fight. We get to see that preparation but even better than that, we get to witness her explode into the world in a romantic period piece that has a great mix of reality and comic book silliness.

 

There are two distinct world depicted in this film. The first is the seemingly idyllic island that the Amazons life on, without the need for men. The only child on the island is the daughter of their Queen, Hippolyta. She tells Diana that she was molded out of clay and brought to life with the breath of the god Zeus. There is no sens of time in their world, so as Diana grows, it could be  over twenty years or twenty-thousand. She definitely has enough time however to become the greatest warrior ever among her people. Her mother despairs of her becoming a fierce instrument in the battle against war, but her Aunt Antiope, the current bad ass of the clan, knows that it is Diana’s destiny. The whole section on the island is told with efficiency and with as little excess as possible, while still filling us in on the legends and backgrounds of the characters. Certainly there are some blank spaces and questions, but director Jenkins manages to keep us focused on the main issue, which concerns Diana’s role in fighting back against the God Aries, the lord of war.

Chris Pine continues to impress in his starring roles. This second fiddle part is certainly not as challenging as his role in last years “Hell or High Water”, but it does put him in a high profile blockbuster for another consecutive year. Between his Steve Trevor and the leading lady, it is nice to know that pretty people will always be able to find work. Gal Godot is the not so secret weapon in this film. She has a look about her that can be haunted one minute and determined the next. That she has a face that could break a man’s heart and moves (admittedly enhanced by technology) that could render her the greatest action hero ever, does not hurt this film a bit. The sincerity of her demeanor at times when combined with her outright sexiness, should make massive fans out of those who watch this movie.

One other reason that I think this movie works better than “Man of Steel“, “Batman vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad“, is that it is set in a more nostalgic period when cynicism was seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Scowling villains are not confronted by scowling heroes, but rather by open hearted optimists who see evil and while they may have some doubts about what is good, they want to do the right thing for the right reasons. Diana is so innocently hopeful that she is going to save the world, that when she experiences doubts, especially about humans, it is more believable that she can make a good choice in the long run. Her heart breaks when tragedy strikes at home when she and her Amazon family first confront modern man. She experiences the same slap in the face when she sees that even good men can be faulty in too many ways. The fact that we are capable of making an act of self sacrifice also an emblem of love, leaves it’s mark on this Princess.

Spanish Actress Elena Anaya and veteran character actor Danny Huston, serve as the tertiary  bad guys, the ones that draw the focus of our heroes immediately. Mankind is the secondary villain, and it will survive to challenge Diana Prince in the future, as we already know from our earlier DCU experiences. The main villain is exactly who you think it is going to be. When he appears on screen, you just know that something else is going on here. Since it is a movie and film is a visual medium, there will be a cinematic confrontation. It ends up a little too much like all of these stories do, with  an ultimate power being battled on the most basic physical front rather than on a more cerebral level. Still, it measures up to the kind of fireworks you want out of a movie based on a comic book.

The battle sequences on the beach of Diana’s home and in “no mans land” at the front, are two stand out episodes of the story. We also get two fish out of water stories for the price of one. Steve is befuddled by the ancient matriarchy he has fallen into and Diana is horrified by the ugly modern world, trapped in what seems like never ending war. The side characters in the WW I story are just interesting enough to be worth including, but since the story is not going to stay in this time period, it is understandable that they do not get too much backstory or time. The romance works the way wartime romances usually do, in spite of the short time period that couples have for bonding. I love the look of the film in both the mythical and battlefield visions. I could hear that Wonder Woman Theme come on in most of the scenes and still get goosebumps. I really liked this movie, and while it does have some story issues, they won’t bother you much. Instead of worrying about a lack of backstory or the tie in to Greek mythology, the real Wonder of Wonder Woman is how do we get more of Gal Gadot in all of the DC Universe?

 

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

We live in a binary world. At least we do in the current times. People play games like “Would you Rather?” or they swipe left or right. With the rise of social media, the desire for instant gratification has encouraged the most extremes of views to be the ones we pay the most attention to. The whole idea of social comparison has been reduced to “It’s Awesome” or “It Sucks.” Well my friends, on this blog we don’t play by simple binary rules. Even though the title of today’s subject seems to suggest we come down on one side for one hero or the other, the world is more complicated than that, and so is this movie. If all you are looking for is an instant up or down, prepare to be disappointed. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, is not the holy grail that comic book fans would hope for, but it is also not the POS that so many haters on the internet are willing to tag it as. As a story it is something of a mess, as a movie it is a puzzlement, but as a spectacle it is pretty impressive and there are some other small things to recommend it.

Here is another example of the twofold choice that is foisted upon us by our social peers: D.C. or Marvel? The success of the Marvel Universe in the movie theaters over the last few years is a credit to patience and planning as well as good writing. Starting with “Ironman” the comic worlds of the Marvel stories have been brought to life and linked very effectively. Even though there are glaring failures with Marvel Product, that can usually be attributed to rights issues which have resulted in three different studios trying to manage the comic universe. Disney now owns the most successful of these and with “The Avengers” has merged them together into the kinds of elaborate story lines that readers of the comics have enjoyed. Cross pollination has produced some fun moments and at least two great films, “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  Certainly, the D.C. comics, with the most iconic Super heroes of all times could do the same. The Christopher Nolan Batman films are pretty much a separate property that Warner Brothers would like to merge into a cohesive Universe with Superman. 2013’s “Man of Steel” was an attempt to restart that franchise with an eye to building a comparable comic universe to the Marvel films.

One of my major complaints about the new version of Superman is that the story and the character are so serious as to lack any joy at all. Henry Cavill has a sly smile that could be used effectively if the screenwriters and the director choose to do so, if any of you saw last year’s “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” you know what I am talking about. There is really only one moment when Clark Kent/Superman seems like he might be enjoying his time her on Earth, of course if you came home to Amy Adams sitting in the bathtub, you would smile too. That’s about it though. There should be more by play between the main characters and there is not much. The only other time a smile might cross your face when this film is running is when Wonder Woman shows up and the two guys simply look at each other and “wonder” where she came from. Superman gets duped a couple of times in the film and that feels like a problem also. Cavill’s best scenes are with his co-stars from the original film he appeared in, otherwise he seems to be brooding and angry most of the time.

Now you expect Bruce Wayne/Batman to brood, after all he is “The Dark Night”. One of the things that should surprise the pessimists about this film is the performance and portrays of Batman by Ben Affleck. A redeeming feature of this film is that it accurately suggests that there is an aftermath to the wanton destruction that took place in the earlier film. This story connects Bruce Wayne to those events as an eyewitness and a victim. Batman’s frustration with taking down criminals is exactly right, they are like weeds, as soon as you pull up one, another rises to take it’s place. This Bruce Wayne is suspicious of Superman and willing to try to take a stand, even though Alfred and the rest of us can see that it is a little bit driven by tunnel vision. Affleck does a good job playing a conflicted and grim Bruce Wayne as he tries to figure out what plots are afoot and what role Superman plays in them. There is a scene at a fancy reception given by Lex Luthor, that allows Afflect to play detective and try to flirt a little. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne is given an insufficient amount of time with his personal life to feel much of a stake. Jeremy Irons is a great choice to play Alfred, but he is very under-utilized in the movie and that is a pity.

Neither character gets much of a chance to make an impact on us emotionally because so many things are happening in the story it is hard to keep track. Kryptonite is being discovered, as is Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor is plotting three different things at once, some of which feel unnecessary in the long run. There is an investigation into Superman’s intervention in a terrorist camp and a disgruntled victim of the war with Zod is part of the intrigue. In the course of two and a half hours, there are a half dozen story lines and they are interspersed with flashbacks and dream sequences so often that it is sometimes difficult to tell how it all fits together and what actions really are supposed to be taking place. It does not help that Jesse Eisenberg has been directed to play Lex Luthor as a victim of ADHD with a touch of paranoia. Comic book fans who complain about the villain monologuing the hero, should appreciate the frequency with which Eisenberg simply can’t complete an idea out loud, or in one very obvious case, coherently. This film is really a straight drama with very little in the way of heroics. The drama is complicated and the characters are shown in such murky circumstances that it is hard to fathom motive even when the actions are explained. One person in our group put it in a straight forward way, “Why can’t Superman and Batman see that they are being manipulated and simply kick Luthor’s ass?” That’s a good question and it is not an easy one to answer.

So, at this point we have that the tone is grim, the plot is convoluted, the characters lack much character, and it is long. So whats there to recommend? Well, the look of the film is impressive in scope and original in conception. Batman’s toys are integrated into the story well and as I’ve already said, Afflect does a fine job with an older, discouraged and angry Batman character. There are two sequences with Superman’s family that are pretty solid, and Amy Adams is naked in the bathtub. So that’s an inventory of what’s good about this film, is there anything great in it?  The best element of the film is Wonder Woman, who is kept mysterious for the most part and arrives on the scene in a moment spoiled by the trailers for the movie but still able to give us a thrill. Gal Gadot was in four of the “Fast and Furious” movies and I don’t remember her at all [OK, I’ve only seen three of them myself, but she was in all three of those],  here you will definitely remember her. She is shooting a stand alone “Wonder Woman” movie and her presence in this film, makes me want to see that. I  also like the seeds that have been planted for future films featuring characters from the Justice league. The problem that I foresee is that the tone of each of those stories will be as down as these first two films have been.

 

We need a little less sturm and drang, and a lot more character. The central characters don’t have to be cartoons but they could be more human by having some emotion other than being pissed off. Two charismatic actors are being played with by director Zack Snyder. He has them as his action figures to move through an afternoon of a child’s version of a story, “fight-explosion-fight-chase-fight.” The screenwriters need to take a lesson from the films from the past that used these characters. We should like them because they have strength but also personality. A shot like Michael Keaton in gravity boots or Christopher Reeve discovering that phone booths have become phone kiosks, would go a long way in creating some goodwill for these projects. Spectacle is enough for now, but if you want people to stay engaged for a dozen more films from this universe, you better give us more to care about.