Sunday, 4 June 2017
Yay or Nay? My Thoughts on Wonder Woman, Mild Spoilers Ahead!
Taking place in the last year of World War I, Wonder Woman chronicles Princess Diana's heroic journey from her life as the Amazonian daughter of Queen Hippolyta on Themyscira to becoming the world-wide sensation known as "Wonder Woman" in Man's World. At the start of her journey, Diana has a very innocent view of the world and of mankind comparable to that of a child. As she becomes acquainted with the world of man, its prejudices, weaknesses, and corruption, she starts to learn that life on the other side is more complex and not as clear-cut as she was accustomed to on Themyscira. By the end of her journey, Diana develops a stronger sense of identity and mission for herself.
There is a lot to say about this movie in terms of planning and execution, beginning with the staff and cast themselves. One thing all of the DCEU films has consistently done well was cast the right actors in the right roles, and Wonder Woman is no exception to this. Like the preceding films, Gal Gadot is well cast as the titular character and has brilliant chemistry with her co-star, Chris Pine, who plays her love interest, Steve Trevor.
As Diana, Gadot excels at presenting her character as a multifaceted human being. When we first meet her on Themyscira, Diana is innocent and wildly optimistic about her capabilities and the difference she can make to the outside world. She's very confident and very determined to be hero the world needs her to be and Gadot really brings all of those qualities to the forefront in her acting. In fact, she doesn't portray Diana, she is Diana.
When we see the character wake up to the reality of man's world and all of the nuances and complexities that exist within it, we see a very nice balance between culture shock and fascination with new things she didn't experience on Themyscira. Things like seeing a man and a baby for the first time, and even having her very first ice cream. She was also not conscious of social norms in London and was not at all restrained in her behaviour, thoughts, and expression. If anything, both Steve and Etta were restrained for her. Again, this is all brilliantly brought to the forefront in a way that feels organic for the character by both Gadot's acting and Patty Jenkins' direction.
When we get to the part where Diana realises for the first time that the corruption of man is not as simple as defeating one bad guy, and is in fact more complex than that, we see her vulnerability, we see her disillusionment, and we see her give up when things don't turn out as she expected. We also see her reflect on her experiences on man's world, and we see her realise that for all the bad that exists in the world, there is also plenty of good as well, and that is what restores her motivation to keep going. She realises that there is still a lot of love in the world as well as good people worth protecting and fighting for. Again, all of this character development is very well thought out in the script by Allan Heinberg, and it is successfully brought to life by both Gadot and Jenkins.
In addition to Gadot's casting as Diana, three more characters that are well cast are Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, and David Thewlis as Ares. As Trevor, Pine brings a very balanced performance as the jaded, ordinary man who has seen the worst of mankind and is determined to end the Great War, but we also see the side of him that is vulnerable. He feels cynical about the nature of mankind, but is also inspired by Diana to keep fighting for the things he believes in, and to do what he feels is right, not what others tell him is the "right thing to do." She consistently challenges what he accepts as normal and we see Trevor's natural transformation from a jaded soldier to a genuinely heroic war hero.
Though she only gets about three or four scenes total in the film, Lucy Davis also makes the most of her performance as the charming and outgoing Etta Candy. In the scenes that she does get, Davis is naturally funny on screen, and none of the film's jokes come at her expense. She's nuanced in her delivery, bringing in just the right level of theatricality to her character's body language and elocution. She's definitely a character I would've loved to have seen more of in this movie, not just because she is Diana's best friend in the comics and brings the perspective of the ordinary woman who grew up in a patriarchy, but also because Davis is absolutely outstanding in her performance.
If the reason for why Davis was underused was to keep the movie within a 2.5 hour timeframe, I would've happily paid for a 03 hour movie just to see Davis' character featured more prominently in the film. She could've very easily been one of Steve's "reinforcements," especially since Davis' version of the character is more closely based on the Golden Age version. The Golden Age Etta was very much an action girl who assisted Diana in all of her missions, and demonstrated the same level of determination to get things done as Diana. She also did a whole lot of tackling and fist fighting when the occasion arose! In the same way that Diana has always been an unstoppable force in both the comics and film, Etta is also an unstoppable force on her own and should've definitely been featured prominently in this movie. Davis definitely has acting chops to bring all of those character qualities to the forefront!
While Ares was also not featured very prominently in this film either, his small role was also appropriate given that the focal point of this movie was to show the audience how Diana went from being the innocent Amazonian Princess of Themyscira to the superhero known as Wonder Woman. Since the entirety of Diana's origin story centred on her learning from experience rather than having anything handed down to her, it actually made sense that Ares would be the last thing to show up in the final act of the film. By then she had learned what the outside world was like and was in a better place to make her own calls about what she felt was right. As such, Ares' minor appearance is appropriately used and David Thewlis' performance as the character makes it worthwhile.
Despite the fact that the showdown between Ares and Diana at the climax of the film doesn't offer much to speak of, it's not the battle itself that mattered as much as Diana's own epiphany and the role that Ares played in that realisation. The role Ares plays in Diana's story is to challenge what she accepts as truth and even attempts to corrupt her by exploiting her vulnerability and innocence in the same way he did mankind.
The way that Thewlis plays his part in this film is so perfect, the casting director could not have picked a better actor for the role. Thewlis has a very trustworthy-looking face, a very reserved posture, and is very soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He definitely doesn't possess the kinds of qualities Diana would immediately look for in the infamous God of War, which makes his revelation in the third act of the film that much more significant. He catches Diana completely off guard and the nuance with which Thewlis plays his part before completely reclaiming his more recognisable form is what sells his deception.
Of course, we cannot finish our discussion on casting choices without discussing the actors who were hired to portray Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope respectively. While many of us (myself included) were hoping to see Lynda Carter (the actress who previously played Wonder Woman in the 1970s television series) cast in the role for the novelty of seeing a symbolic passing of the torch, I have to admit Connie Nielsen was excellent casting as the Queen of the Amazons.
Nielsen has a very strong regal presence in this movie, even when she takes on the roles of mother and warrior. Even without saying anything, she makes it clear as soon as she enters the room that she is the authority and governing figure of Themyscira. I would say her best scenes, however, are with Diana both as a child and as an adult. As a mother who also happens to be queen, Nielsen sells her performance on the fact that she knows she cannot control her daughter's actions but also feels very conflicted about Diana's curiosity of Man's World, given her own experience with how easily men can be corrupted. There is a genuine fear for her daughter's safety that is natural for a mother, but also does her best to respect her daughter's wishes, however much that scares her. I would say this was the most heartbreaking moment in the film for me.
There's also Robin Wright who nails her role as the passionate and confident General Antiope who also functions as Diana's mentor in the film. Wright doesn't just show through her performance that she is the best warrior amongst the Amazons, but she also shows a loving side as well, namely in recognising Diana's strong potential as a warrior and nurturing her desire to learn her craft. She encourages Diana to pursue her own goals and even goes against the Queen's wishes to do so.
Two more actors that were brilliantly cast in this film were Ann Ogbomo and Ann Wolfe who played Philippus and Artemis respectively. Though they had minor roles in this film, they also shined as their respective characters in the scenes they were given. Like Etta Candy though, I also felt they were gravely underused and should've had a stronger presence, especially Philippus as she's usually one of the more prominent Amazons of Themyscira who is also closest to the queen. If again, the issue here was maintaining a reasonable timeframe, again, I would've happily paid for a 03 hour movie to see more of Philippus and Artemis.
On that note, I also loved that there were diverse women present as Amazons on Themyscira, and it wasn't an island exclusively populated by white women. I loved that there were black, Asian, and other dark-skinned women to diversify the island's ethnic population. I also wish, however, that they existed in larger numbers and had more of a speaking role, at least in the case of Philippus.
Aside from very good casting, another area where the film excels is on having a strong script and careful editing. The script itself presents a clear message and purpose, it follows a three act structure, and features dialogue that feels natural. The characters are all very well developed and offer different qualities and perspectives that make each of them standout on their own. The script also takes itself seriously when it needs to and allows for moments of humour and theatricality. There is very good balance in the use of each of these things to the point where no one aspect overshadows the others.
On the editing front, there is very good use of colour, particularly when depicting the scenes that take place on Themyscira and Europe. For Themyscira, there is an appropriately brighter colour palette to help convey the tone and feel of a paradise island, complete with bright green grasses, sunny blue skies, and clear blue oceans. For Europe, there is an appropriately grey colour palette to help convey the pollution of industrialisation, and also the tone and feel of a continent devastated by war. On the depiction of war itself, it is also presented in an appropriately nuanced way and any depiction of injuries is presented with subtlety and is never exploitive or traumatising.
When it comes to depicting the action sequences, there is a nice balance between the use of slow motion and rapid movement. You actually see the action and you're not shown shaky cam or quickly edited clips of action to create the optical illusion of speed. There is also a nice balance between the use of CGI and live footage, leading to visual harmony and authentic-looking scenery as opposed to feeling like you are watching animation from a video game.
Lastly, we cannot ignore Rupert Gregson-Williams' score for this film. There's a very epic, very Hans Zimmer quality to his sound for the scenes involving the Amazons and Diana in battle, but there is also a softness to his sound for the more dramatic scenes that reminds me a lot of James Horner. There's a very nice balance between those two distinct sounds and I like that his music adds to the story in a way that makes it feel like a period piece and a superhero film at the same time. I especially like that his score at no point sounds apocalyptic like Zimmer's score did for Batman v Superman. One minor critique I have about the soundtrack is that I wish they had included the piece that plays in the scene where Diana first arrives in London and fights Ludendorff's men in an alley. I love the sound of that piece, I'm not sure why it wasn't included in the film's soundtrack. If an deluxe version of the album gets released, I hope they include that piece in there!
There is admittedly nothing bad I have to say about this film since everything about this movie is dexterously crafted and well executed, not to mention it has a very strong coming-of-age story for the lead character. There are, however, still some creative choices I would've done differently. One of those major ones being the film's use of Diana's now retconned New 52 origin in place of her more classic origin. For context, let's talk about Diana's origin in the comics continuity and why it matters.
In the original Golden Age telling of Diana's origin, Queen Hippolyta yearned for a child of her own, and she channelled that desire by sculpting a statue of a baby daughter using clay. Originally, she did not actively pray for the gods to turn the statue into a real baby, but still silently wished for the baby to come to life in a similar fashion to Pygmalion with Galatea. The goddess Aphrodite--who is also a patron of the Amazons--recognised the Queen's desire for a daughter and granted her that wish by turning the statue into a real baby that she subsequently named Diana, after the Roman goddess of the moon and hunting.
Every retelling of Diana's origin story has been a variation of the Golden Age original as established by William Moulton Marston in 1941, and it was an important origin story. It was a story that made Diana a unique heroine in the DC Universe because her entire existence is 100% feminine. Without a father, she essentially had two mothers with Queen Hippolyta and the goddess Aphrodite, which also made her story symbolically if not explicitly queer. This was not only a revolutionary development for the 1940s, but it also stayed true to the fact the Ancient Greeks embraced homosexuality. As such, it is important--in my opinion--to leave Diana's classic origin intact in every interpretation.
The first time that we saw a change to Diana's classic origin story was during Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman run at the start of the New 52. Amongst the changes that he made to the character was establishing that Diana's clay baby origin was a "lie" and that her "real existence" came about through a tryst between Queen Hippolyta and Zeus. So instead of the Queen sculpting a baby out of clay that the gods turn into a real child, she actually became pregnant with Zeus' child, which made Diana a demigod.
This change to Diana's origin story didn't prove too popular with Wonder Woman fans for good reason. First, it made the most patriarchal figure of the Greek pantheon a part of Diana's origin story, which then became the most prominent aspect of her character. This both weakened the femininity of Diana's origin by making her mother less important and prominent, and even erased the symbolic queerness of her story by making it explicitly heterosexual. Not only did this change masculinise Diana's story in a way that betrays her feminist existence, but it especially takes away the intersectionality of her story by removing the goddess that made her story queer the first time.
Given the problems that came with the New 52 reinterpretation of Diana's mythology, it is not surprising that it was retconned out of existence in Rebirth, which reinstated her classic origin. It also meant there was concern about the decision to use the New 52 version of Diana's origin story for the movie instead of her more classic one. At best, scriptwriter Allan Heinberg was very careful not to make Zeus' role in Diana's story prominent like in the New 52, choosing instead to focus on her relationships with her mother and aunt. Still, using this version of Diana's origin does the character no favours, especially when the plot twist that was used to justify the it did not actually require it.
Without going into details, if the reason for Diana's source of power is to provide her with the means to defeat a powerful god like Ares, the original goddess Aphrodite would've easily worked to achieve the same purpose and it would've resulted in a more powerful plot twist. Not only would keeping Aphrodite have kept Diana's origin feminine and symbolically queer in the movie, but there would've also been a personal stake for Aphrodite in blessing Diana with the gifts needed to defeat Ares: he was Aphrodite's lover and the father of her own children.
For Aphrodite to bless Queen Hippolyta with a daughter who has the power to defeat her own lover and children's father would've required tremendous sacrifice on her part, especially given Ares' actions on Mount Olympus in the movie. If another reason had to be established for keeping Aphrodite as Diana's divine parent, her own personal sacrifice regarding her lover would've definitely sufficed, especially since the fight between Ares and the other Greek gods was very masculine in nature. Keeping Aphrodite as Diana's divine parent would've also stayed consistent with the idea of Diana using the power of love to crush evil as the goddess of love herself. Zeus does not embody that idea or concept in any capacity, so replacing Aphrodite for him in Diana's story makes no sense at all.
Another thing I would've done differently in this movie was make Danny Huston's character--General Ludendorff--the Duke of Deception to more strongly tie him to the film's main antagonist, Ares. I also felt that a lot of his actions in the film were very similar to that of the Duke's in the Golden Age comics, minus his ability to manipulate people's perception. Since Ares' logic in this movie is that men are easily corruptible and he doesn't need to do much to get them to destroy each other, Ludendorff as the Duke would've easily validated Ares' point by willingly submitting to his power in order to pursue is own goals.
One last thing I would've done differently was the use of Doctor Poison in this movie. On the one hand, making her the chief chemist for developing a deadlier version of mustard gas within the context of World War I is a great premise for the character. On the other hand, I also feel that the character works best as her own villain, especially if you go with the original Princess Maru version of the character from the Golden Age comics.
One of the things that always appealed to me about Princess Maru is the fact that she is a Japanese princess who was born and raised within the context of a patriarchal society that favours male heirs to the Japanese empire. This premise alone provides an excellent contrast to Princess Diana's story because it provides a very different motivating factor for the affected character. Whereas Princess Diana was born and raised within the context of a nurturing matriarchy that values women's accomplishments, Princess Maru was not. While Diana's upbringing affords her unwavering confidence in her own abilities and does not feel a need to prove herself to her mother, the same is not true for Maru.
In stark contrast with Diana, Princess Maru, would see her father as the most important figure of the Japanese empire and would also be constantly reminded of the fact that her gender is unfavourable for succeeding her father as emperor. She would therefore feel the need to prove her worth to her father, and I can very easily see that factoring into her decision to join the Germans into developing deadlier weapons for them. I can also very easily see this character as the kind of vulnerable person Ares would exploit to prove his point about the corruptibility of human beings.
Perhaps instead of Danny Huston's character (as good as he is), perhaps the original Princess Maru would've been a better choice antagonist, especially for contrasting Diana's own story as an heir to a different monarchial legacy. Perhaps even Elena Anaya's Doctor Poison could've easily been her apprentice, especially since she was very much the henchwoman of Ludendorff in the movie. Imagine how much more interesting it would've been for her to work under the original Princess Maru instead? You would've had a very different example of the mentor-apprentice relationship to contrast the one between Antiope and Diana, especially with the original Doctor Poison who invented reverso in the comics.
While there are definitely some creative choices I would've done differently in this movie concerning Diana's origin and the movie's villains, as an overall product, it is a very inspirational film that's a must watch for everyone. I would argue it's the best film of the DCEU film line-up so far, with Man of Steel following this one at #2. There is a lot that I loved about this film in terms of casting, careful storytelling, and execution. I especially loved that the movie embraced Diana's core concept as a character who embraces femininity and believes in fighting against injustice with love. It was so satisfying to see the film end with that high point, I couldn't wait to see it again this past Saturday for Wonder Woman Day. That's how happy the overall film made me.