Saturday 10 June 2017

Gal power: "Wonder Woman"

Even by the standards of the trumpeted-to-high-heaven latter-day comic-book movie, Wonder Woman has been keenly anticipated. Then again, this was pitched and received as no ordinary comic-book movie, being not just the first in the recent run of DC/Marvel "universe"-builders to be centred on a female superhero - traditionally box-office poison (think Tank Girl, Catwoman, Aeon Flux) - but the first to be directed by a woman: Patty Jenkins, elevated from the career purgatory she was left in following 2003's widely admired indie Monster. (Compare and contrast with the career progression of such fanboys as Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Colin Trevorrow, fast-tracked to major studio paydays within weeks of their debut Sundance sensations.) 

The biggest hope, among the hopeful, is that WW's success can be parlayed into more diverse blockbusters, films with kickass heroines, overseen by previously overlooked directors; that some of that major studio lucre will reach your Andrea Arnolds and Lynne Ramsays and revolutionise the way this most male of industries operates. That sounds suspiciously to me like putting one's faith in trickledown economics, the great lie of our times: as it is, the presence of current US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin among the credited producers ensures that Wonder Woman will be one of the year's few films to directly profit a member of that same Trump administration that has spent recent months assiduously dismantling female healthcare and planned-parenthood programs. Not for the first time, a superhero movie has invited us to think of the world in simple good/bad terms; that world, however, remains a far trickier place to interpret than our social media feeds would suggest.

In as much as Wonder Woman might be approached as a mere film rather than a flagpole for the Woke Citizens of Twitter to rally around, it proves unexpectedly engaging - nothing too radical, certainly, but proof that distaff directors are every bit as capable as their male colleagues at delivering proficient if naggingly weightless and arguably overlong spectacle to expectant Friday and Saturday night crowds. This is, inevitably, an origin story, which means that it skews towards the exposition and fan service that has sunk several recent high-profile event movies - it opens with a delivery from Wayne Enterprises, and concludes with its heroine penning a thank-you email to Batman - but Jenkins spends these two-and-a-bit hours building worlds that are at least enjoyable to hang out in.

For starters, there is Amazonia, an unspoiled, land-that-time-forgot idyll where the athletic young daughters of the Gods - among them Gal Gadot's Diana - are schooled in horseriding and hand-to-hand combat. Not even this matriarchal, girls-only bliss is entirely secluded from the ways of men, however. One day, the landscape - or at least the airspace - is breached by a mere mortal: Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy shot down by German fighter pilots, having snaffled crucial intelligence from the laboratory of minion-shooting Kaiser chief Ludendorff (Danny Huston). After initial suspicion, our heroine elects to accompany Steve back to his world - a world at war, or rather a comic-book idea of the world at war - to set things right; her honed and supple muscle tone is, it turns out, nothing compared to her conscience.  

This central pairing turns out to be the film's strongest suit: it's the dreamer and the realist, joshing, brushing up against and undercutting each other's worldview as they go. Pine, becoming more likeable with age, makes Steve a battle-hardened sceptic, shrugging his way through a conflict he describes as "a great big mess"; Gadot's Diana, operating under the belief the War is the doing of the Gods and not just men, insists she's the only one capable of sorting this mess out. In drizzly, smoky wartime London, where Steve is based, she appears as much a fish-out-of-water (and as much a force for possible good) as Amy Adams' princess in Enchanted - conflating the definition of a secretary with that of a slave, to the amusement of clerical workers everywhere - although her training keeps showing through: she quotes Socrates in the original Greek, and takes out fistfuls of double agents with her burning lasso of truth.

The surprise is how light it is, and perhaps this is the advantage of bringing a woman's touch to bear on this sort of material. Jenkins goes easier on the clunking plot mechanics and willywaggling CGI of these things; she cuts briskly through those sweaty male explanations of where this character gets her headband and armguards from, while clearing space on her lavishly appointed sets for characterful performers (David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, Lucy Davis) to have the kind of fun that transfers easily to an audience in the right mind. She knows how to make the action stirring, if only by embracing the absurdity of such moments as Diana strutting unmolested through No Man's Land as if she were modelling the new Donna Karan line; she gets the symbolism of Steve's all-male platoon forming a platform with sheet metal so our heroine can leap into a clock tower and neutralise a German sniper.

Yet she also makes narrative sense of the film's multiple endings, in a way many blockbuster directors, pushing onwards for bigger and better spectacle, haven't: Diana believes that killing the Big Bad who pops up at the end of her two-hour pursuit will put an end to her and Steve (and by extension the world)'s struggles; we get a further twenty minutes only after it's become apparent that it won't. The character as encountered here is bad-ass, but she's also as naive as some of her most fervent online cheerleaders, becoming more human by the end of the movie than the dark-eyed warrior princess we first meet back in Amazonia. (In a show of empathy with sensitive multiplex-goers, she develops a touch of tinnitus from all the explosions being set off around her, which is something Black Widow has never confessed to.)

Viewers of a certain age might still prefer the softer cut of Lynda Carter's jib than Gadot's cold, hard metallic carapace, which ties into this very corporate enterprise's generally steely palette. (To be fair, she is required to take a lot more flak than her predecessor ever did.) And, for all that the wonder women on my timeline might wish otherwise, I wonder whether the boardrooms of Hollywood are now configured such that the capitalism inherent in this Wonder Woman is destined to trump its feminism: that the brand is the key, the personnel secondary, leaving this franchise - whatever it costs, whatever it grosses - liable to be handed back to screenwriter Zack Snyder soon enough. Let's not allow that to diminish Jenkins' achievement here, though: she's ventured into battle and come back with a victory of sorts, an origins movie that - beneath the fuss and noise - leaves you keen to see more. It is, at the very least, a start.

Wonder Woman is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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