Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

My heroine

(WARNING: plot and narrative twists discussed in detail)

She "(s)aved the DC Films Cinematic Universe!" declared one article; of all the hype swirling around the movie it's the attributed accomplishment I like the least. 

The movie itself? Better than expected, though saying that I realize we're talking drastically lowered expectations (Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman anyone?). 

The story: Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on the island of Themyscira, raised by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), trained (behind her mother's back) to fight as a warrior by General Antiope (Robin Wright). When Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a crashed plane she learns of a world-wide war raging outside; she believes the Greek god Ares is responsible and with Trevor leaves the island to try stop aforementioned god, save mankind.

The script as described ( written by Allan Heinberg, from a story cobbled together by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs) is based on the comics created by William Moulton Marston (aka Charles Moulton) based in turn on the legend of the Amazons. The setting has been transposed from the Second World War (the comic was first published in 1941) to the First, from a familiar easily justified conflict (Allies versus Nazis) to something vaguer, more morally ambivalent (It was called "the war to end all wars"--an eerie echo of Diana's quest that, as intentions go and historical records show, didn't work out too well).

Jenkins and company get this much right: focus on the woman more than the superhero (far as I can recall Diana's official moniker isn't used once in the picture). Presenting her as a naif let loose in the world has its risks though; as Melissa Anderson of the Village Voice puts it, this goddess has to have her companion mansplain everything to her, a trope that's been done before (Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Ron Howard's Splash among others). Basically caters to the daydream of the everyday man mentoring a superpowered but clueless woman, proving his superiority in nearly all aspects except when being overwhelmed (defended, rescued) by her, sometimes in private. 

That's the fantasy; Jenkins' version is more a drama about loss of innocence in this case Diana's, who learns something of the true nature of the humans she has set out to save. Not sure if Gadot is the amazing new discovery of an actress most critics make her out to be, but her large eyes and broad brow are a clear parchment on which we see writ large her reaction to the terrible consequences of war--easily the most effective moments in the story. When Diana is finally fed up and climbs out of the trench to do something it's a mighty moment (enough of this macho bullshit!), the movie's (and Jenkin's) dramatic high point (though it must be pointed out that when she does so it's to do more than her share of killing). 

Said drama shifts into full-on love story, though there's always been suggested chemistry here there. Diana and Steve realize their feelings for each other and we buy much of it: Pine helps by muting the testosterone he displayed as Captain Kirk, opting for the soulful underplaying he demonstrated in Hell and High Water--in that film too soulful (it made you forgive him his criminal offenses) in a comic book flick like this, where he plays heroic sidekick (in Tagalog: 'dakilang alalay'), just right (as Gadot puts it with a straight face: "I believe in love"). The actress isn't asked by either script or director to do much more than stand and pose beside Pine like a divine presence and--whaddaya know--the combination works.

That's the good stuff; the rest isn't as pretty. The opening combat on Themyscira is horrifyingly staged, shot too close in and cut to be near-incomprehensible (to allow I assume untrained actors to look impressive). The later battles are somewhat better executed, long takes where the camera swirls round the actors, though Jenkins tends to fall back on the DC house action style pioneered by Snyder: endless slow-motion bombast, slathered with plenty of ugly-looking digital effects. The aforementioned scene where Diana climbs out of the trenches to cross the battlefield is Jenkins' most effective, takes a page out of Park Chan Wook's famed hallway fight sequence in Oldboy where battle's progress and drama's forward thrust fuse into a single titanic motion, from left to right (though Park did it better by doing it all in a single long take). Jenkins sadly ruins the moment by having her heroine vault the remaining space* (If she could have done that at any time why didn't she earlier? Cut the battle short and saved lives, not to mention metal polish on her shield?).

*(Guessing this is something Snyder--sorry Jenkins--filched from anime, where amazing leaps are common fare. Somehow Japanese animators seem better at it, suggesting people crossing immeasurable reaches with unimaginable speed; when Snyder--sorry Jenkins--does it the effect is offputtingly reductive not expansive: instead of costumed figures with godlike powers they come across as grasshoppers with disturbingly floppy limbs.)   

Am I suggesting women are good only for tears and big emotional moments? Kathryn Bigelow does excellent action sequences that are not only exciting but visually evocative. Filipina filmmaker Janice O'Hara in her recent debut feature--a drama set in World War 2 Philippines--proved it's possible to stage action not as separate setpieces but as integral moments that reveal character and develop dramatic impact (I'd recommend her to do a Hollywood comic-book megaproduction, if her career hadn't been abruptly and tragically cut short). Ida Lupino was so admired for her thrillers it's said she had trouble finding backing to do straight drama--Lupino incidentally chafed at the roles initially handed to her by the industry thanks to her gender (anything from comic ingenue to neurotic villainess); she challenged the status quo as much and as often as possible, and soon as she could stepped behind the camera to shape scenes instead of merely performing them. Tough and talented, emphatic and imaginative, if asked to pick a heroine I admire she'd be my top choice.

But then why do a violent spectacle-filled climax at all?  If Jenkins wanted to break real ground she'd end this $149 million production with Diana and Ares standing on that airfield just, y'know, talking. Maybe have Ares admit that in the centuries he's spent as god of war he's finally been outmatched--rendered obsolete by his mortal inferiors. 

Then there's the source material. Marston is a fascinatingly complex figure--he invented the systolic blood pressure test, one basis for the lie detector test (Truthtelling lasso anyone?); with input from wife Elizabeth ("--make her a woman") and mistress Olive Byrne (Diana's bulletproof armbands are based on Olive's jeweled bracelets) he created the character of Princess Diana as a powerful take-charge feminist symbol who somehow finds herself tied up all the time. 

This mix in Marston of progressive gender ideas and a taste for erotic bondage is at best amusingly incongruous, at worst disturbingly inappropriate; Jenkins and her writers do away with the latter of course but I submit it would have been interesting (if more challenging) for them to exploit that heritage somehow, to use the image of a woman bound up by a (usually villainous) man so she could break her chains of oppression, again and again. At the very least Jenkins could have gone beyond the chaste bedroom kiss that ends the couple's one and only love scene to give us an idea of what it's like for a man to be with a woman capable of snapping him in two--perhaps handcuff Chris Pine to the brass bedframe for a few laughs.**

**(Marston"Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!") 

So Jenkins got to direct a big-budget superhero movie? Good for her; she was smart enough to focus on emotional throughline as opposed to narrative--y'know, the kind dedicated to developing all that Extended Universe crap. Too bad she couldn't maintain that focus; too bad not all her action setpieces are successful; too bad she's making so much money for a huge corporate entity intent on perpetuating mostly mindless pap. Here's hoping she does better on the sequel and--this being my larger more important point--that she moves on to do work that really matters, like her memorable debut feature. 

First published in Businessworld 6.8.17

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