Friday, 2 June 2017

Film Review: Gal Gadot shines in the flawed but fun Wonder Woman

DC's extended universe didn't get off to the best of starts, did it? From the fun but forgettable Man of Steel to the promising but ultimately plodding Suicide Squad, and not to mention the flat out disastrous Batman v Superman, their franchise was running on fumes before it even began. Wonder Woman had a lot of hype around it from the get go, but then again, so did Suicide Squad, right? Why should we raise our expectations again only to have them crushed down in a grim whirlwind of film making catastrophe once more?

As it turns out, Wonder Woman is actually worth being excited about. Gone is the unrelenting grimness of Batman v Superman, gone are the ugly characterisations of Suicide Squad. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is the first time the DCEU has felt as if there's some potential littering about within its dark corners. More than that, it's just an effectively crafted film regardless of franchise or future tie-ins. Jenkins has succeeded in making a deeply satisfying, if heavily flawed, film - and one that I already look forward to revisiting.

Diana (Gal Gadot), a Princess, lives on the female occupied island of Themyscira, where she trains to become a warrior like the rest of her kind. One day, pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the shore of the island, followed by a fleet of WWI German soldiers. Steve talks about an evil man with a dangerous weapon, and Diana believes this man to be Ares, the God of war who corrupted mankind. For that reason, Diana leaves the island with Steve, and they both intend to kill him and cease the war to end all wars.

A big handful of Wonder Woman's issues come in this first act. For one, Diana's island is wholly unspectacular and disappointingly lacking in homeliness - barely fleshed out beyond swords and shields, it doesn't feel the least bit lived in. The opening half hour is also frustratingly dull, rarely igniting a sense of the film's titular wonder - it's not until Steve shows up that the film finds anything interesting on Themyscira. For Diana's abandoning of this world to resonate we need to believe her belonging there, we need to feel like this is a big decision for her. Instead, it feels like a logical plot point - what should be game changing and character defining lands as little more than a ticked box on a narrative checklist.

Once Diana and Steve begin their adventure things pick up, but not by a lot. Wonder Woman still feels slow and safe and unsure of itself. The warrior-focused Diana navigating dress shops in central London has a kind of screwball comedy feel to it, and Gadot and Pine have charming chemistry, yet the film refuses to indulge in what could make for an enjoyable little diversion. Humour is scarce and the action is too fleeting to be fully enjoyed. It's as if the film's script - penned by Allan Heinberg - keeps coming up with fun ideas but is too scared to engage them fully, instead touching upon them for quick flashes and then hurrying along to the next plot beat.

The pacing soon evens out though, as Diana and Steve head to Belgium and find themselves facing a German occupied village on the other side of No Man's Land. Steve tells Diana there's nothing she can do, but she disagrees. With barely a word, Diana strips herself of her forced British attire (though Jenkins' camera wisely refuses to sexualise her) and walks across the battle lines alone. Bullets fly towards her, and she bats them away. Hope fills the faces of those behind her as she leads the allied forces across German lines, liberating the village from enemy control.

It's a breathtaking sequence, and a solid contender for one of the best film scenes of 2017 thus far. Jenkins frequently engages in slow motion throughout the film - and it's often very annoying - but here the effect is used wisely. It's as if time stops around Diana as she refuses to take no for an answer, facing an entire army head on and alone. The following action sequence finds Diana fleeting from building to building, taking out bad guys in style and saving the lives of those around her. It's the first time the film captures that titular feeling - it simply oozes wonder.

Gadot is a revelation in this role. She brims with enthusiasm during the film's rare light hearted moments but carries the heavier stuff too. She stands tall and looks mighty, as a superhero should, but Gadot makes the more intimate material work as well - her frustrated confusion as to why people rebut the idea of peace is quietly very powerful. In the action scenes Gadot physically appears god-like, she tackles challenging choreography with ease but knows when Diana needs to look weakened. It's a commanding, unforgettable performance.

And it allows Jenkins to direct the hell out of the film. If the first half feels tame and timid, the second half is forceful and ferocious. Jenkins may over stylise the action a tad too much, but it's easy to forgive her for doing so - it just looks so damn good. Jenkins turns that No Man's Land sequence into a heart stopping ordeal, and even when the script threatens to turn the film's final act into a CGI laden mess, she keeps things grounded - both literally and figuratively. It's a vast improvement over the unbearably sloppy direction we've seen in every other DCEU film so far.

Wonder Woman isn't a perfect outing, but it was never going to be. Origin stories rarely are perfect, they have too much going on to truly let loose and roll with the things they probably want to roll with. The film's script is a mess in the first half, and at well over two hours it could do with a much tighter edit - it would actually help the first hour's pacing a great deal. Still, there's an awful lot to like here. Gadot's performance is first rate and Jenkins' direction is consistently exciting. They've taken something filled with potential and actually delivered on most of it - and that's something I haven't said about a comic book movie in a very long time.

In A Sentence
Weighed down by a bloated runtime and an uneven script, Wonder Woman nonetheless soars on the strengths of Gal Gadot's compelling performance and Patty Jenkins' confident direction.

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