' Cinema Romantico: Wonder Woman

Monday, June 26, 2017

Wonder Woman

“Wonder Woman” opens with a CGI shot of Earth, reveling in the peace our blue planet projects from space, before drilling all the way down to ground level, as if uncovering all the grit and grime lurking just beneath so many winsome atmospheric layers. It’s a shot essentially putting Earth under the microscope, foreshadowing how the idealism of the film’s titular character, though she is never called that, only Diana (Gal Gadot), is also thrust under the microscope. She cultivates this idealism amidst an all-female Amazon society on the picturesque island of Themyscira, free of standard place and time, given to them by Zeus as a refuge from the war god Ares. And while the inhabitants have trained themselves into great warriors, as if expecting idiotic male intrusion at any time, this idyll also becomes emblematic of countless kinds of true love, like that of a daughter and mother, Diana and Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), gracefully demonstrated by director Patty Jenkins in a racking focus shot when Diana leaves Themyscira that shows daughter and mother’s mirrored emotions even as they move apart.


Her leaving is tied to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy she saves after he crashes a German warplane into the sea, and who proceeds to tell these insulated Amazons about WWI, a cause to which Diana commits herself instantly with the lofty goal that she can end find Ares and slay him to conclude The Great War. Though a man is part and parcel to the inciting incident, the choice to go is all Diana’s and indicative of her agency throughout. And though the stakes are pitched at a global scale, Jenkins, working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, is careful to keep the story intimate while never rendering the people all around her as irrelevant. If Superman always seemed determined to blend in with humanity, until humanity needed him to save it, that is, this Wonder Woman flouts blending in as she walks around the streets of London with her sword like Beatrix Kiddo strolling through airport with a samurai sword in “Kill Bill”.

Wonder Woman was always rooted to feminism, and while the film does lean that way, it seems to partially limit itself in interest of box office, eschewing full-throated advocacy to evoke its ideology more through fish out of water comedy. That sounds awful, but in this Gadot’s performance is the key. Though she gets out her action movie kicks with a confident calm, she is equally adept at evincing guilelessness, turning a perplexed cocking of her head into a subtle running joke, entering stuffy rooms populated by stuffy men, who gasp when they see her, because she simply assumes she belongs, underscoring just how stupid such sexism was in the first place, and using her screwball-ish scenes with Chris Pine to effortlessly cut through all his character’s halting cynicism and inherent let-me-take-the-lead machismo. Diana and Steve’s double entendres when she inadvertently walks in on him bathing could have come straight from Philip Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood Rutledge horse racing banter, though Gadot plays it less amorously than with an I-Don’t-Know-How-You-Guys-Walk-Around-With-Those-Things incredulousness.

Yes, she and Steve fall in love, that’s a given, though it is less a screenplay necessity than an evocation of Diana’s compassion. If so many lousy men around her might get her guard up, she still detects Steve’s benevolence, given life by Pine’s agreeable lack of presumption, like a scene in a small French village where they dance in the snow. There Jenkins forgoes an emotionally manipulative score for the pub’s awning quietly whipping in the snowy breeze, and the notes of a saloon piano wafting through the door, sort of conjuring up a first dance au naturel. Later, when Diana kiddingly but lovingly compliments Steve’s Scottish sharpshooter Charlie (Ewen Bremner) on his singing voice, her accompanying wide smile will make you believe, if only fleetingly, in peace on earth, goodwill towards men who may or may not deserve it.


The impetus of this scene is a charge on a German platoon to liberate the village, illustrating the film’s nimbleness at continually segueing from big battles to smaller moments, the latter crucially underlining what’s at stake in the former. To get there, however, they must cross the frightening width between trenches, “No Man’s Land”, explains Steve, and a hopeless endeavor, he continues, that they would be wise not to even attempt. It’s a bout of mansplaining, really, one which Diana ignores, and thank God too because the ensuing scene, in which she emerges from the trench, the music seemingly carrying her, and spurs the attack, is such an astonishing jolt of pure cinema my eyes got misty. If so many movies in recent years, comic book or otherwise, have rendered untold faceless extras as mere collateral damage in the name of special effects, in this bravura sequence the faceless extras become the point as Diana refuses to write off their lives. And while Jenkins leans heavily, as she does elsewhere, on speed ramping, a la “The Matrix”, it is less run of the mill than emblematic of how Wonder Woman simply exists on a different plain. You see this too in scenes where she implements her bullet deflecting bracelets, often shot from above, as if Zeus is looking down with approval.

If superhero origin stories on screen often center on gradually coming to understand one’s powers that never quite happens with “Wonder Woman” as this scene demonstrates, simply allowing what she is to intrinsically rise up in her actions. Instead her hero’s journey turns on grasping this world where people so readily turn to evil in the face of despair, and the elixir she consequently needs to acquire isn’t so much physical as emotional, the idea that humanity, for all its flaws, is worth saving, or at least protecting, which is where “Wonder Woman” winds up, in an action-packed conclusion. This sequence, per comic book movie tradition, goes on too long but still comes off because of the thematic heft of its cross-cut narratives, a man who makes a decision for something bigger than himself and one Wonder Woman who puts the rest of mankind on her shoulders.

No comments: