Monday 12 June 2017

A clunky finale comes close to derailing Patty Jenkins' otherwise impressive Wonder Woman

Prince valiant: Gal Gadot goes to war in Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman

This review contains major spoilers - see the film and come back once you have. Look out for regular column Your Week In Film here tomorrow...

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis
Running time: 2hrs 21mins

Whilst Wonder Woman is a substantially better film than Man Of Steel or Suicide Squad, and a far more focused one than Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it comes close to falling off a cliff in its final half-hour. Inventing compelling, genuinely different finales for superhero movies can't be easy (there always has to be a big CGI fight, right?) and there are few which truly deliver. Marvel's Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are hardly masterpieces but at least their endings try to think outside the box. Wonder Woman – the fourth live-action DC film since the Zack Snyder reboot – chucks in a couple of decent twists (including a surprise death), but still stumbles badly down the final straight.

When the movie's big bad – Ares, God of War – is finally revealed, it's almost as if no one knows quite what to do with him. Our Amazonian heroine Diana Prince (the words 'Wonder Woman' aren't uttered once here) and her antagonist exchange blows and throw stuff at each other for a bit in a fairly uninspiring procession of CGI time-filling. The UK film critic Mark Kermode often talks about how modern movie special effects often appear "weightless", a criticism he most recently levelled at X-Men: Apocalypse but it's certainly the case here too. It's all a bit video gamey. All a bit insubstantial.

Worse still, just when it looks like Ares has her on the ropes, Diana has an epiphany: she realises how noble and self-sacrificing mankind is (exemplified by Chris Pine's love-interest airman) and as a result gets to harness her inner goddess – lightning bolts and all – to take down her foe and win the day. Yes, it's one of those trite and awful 'power of love' endings just like we've seen a thousand times before in other films, TV shows and comic-books. It's a shame because, up until that point, Wonder Woman is pretty impressive.

Unlike those other DC movies, Wonder Woman isn't set in the present day. In fact, it's a standalone affair which only hints at a wider continuity in a framing sequence at the beginning and end. During the dark days of World War I, United States airman Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands on the shores of a hidden island – Themiscyra. There he encounters a race of Amazon warrior women including Diana (Gal Gadot), the daughter of Zeus and Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Fascinated by Trevor (she's never seen a man before) and keen to hunt down and kill Ares, who she suspects is behind the conflict, Diana accompanies the soldier back to 'man's world'. Fish-out-of-water antics and much punching of Germans ensues before Diana and her quarry come face to face in final battle...

Amazon prime: Wonder Woman takes on the Germans

Despite a lengthy running time, Wonder Woman never drags (even that problematic final act flies by). It's pacy and punchy, nicely combines melodrama and action with amusing interludes, and Gadot and Pine have good chemistry (their characters' obvious feelings for each other aren't layered on thick either). It would have been the easiest thing in the world to appease the fanboys by casting some younger, big-bosomed actress in the role but 32-year-old Gadot (Lynda Carter was 24 when she took the role) turns out to be a brave and ultimately perfect choice. Building on her impressive debut in BvS, not only can the former model act – she radiates innocence, decency and inner strength – she also has a wiry athleticism about her that almost makes you believe she could deflect bullets and bench-press a couple of tons without working up a sweat.

Gadot is clearly beautiful and her costume is skimpy and yet you never once feel she's being sexualised or exploited. Of all the things I liked about Patty Jenkins' film, I think this is its most impressive component. The male gaze is entirely absent and it's worth comparing and contrasting that with the way Scarlett Johansson's bum and boobs are on almost constant display in her Black Widow jumpsuit in The Avengers and Captain America films. Finally, girls and women have a heroine who feels like she's entirely theirs, someone who isn't there to make up the numbers or provide nerds with a few cheap thrills.

In interviews, Gadot has discussed how the film attempts to pay homage to Christopher Reeve's Superman films from the late '70s and early '80s (the revolving door scene in WW is apparently a tiny tip of the hat to the one in Richard Donner's original movie) and how, inspired by the late actor, Jenkins was keen to explore Diana's "goodness". I think that's problematic, mainly because Diana kills quite a few people in the course of the film, including running one of the villains right through with an enormous sword ('The Godkiller'). In fact, she has rather more in common with the Superman of Man Of Steel than she ever does Reeves' big blue boy scout. To be fair, a sword-wielding warrior woman that doesn't kill may well have seemed absurd anyway, especially in a war film.

I've argued before that one of my big problems with superhero movies – both Marvel and DC – is often the quality of the bad-guys. But the evildoers here are a cut above the likes of Ultron or The Enchantress. Danny Huston always gives good villain. His turn as the vampire leader Marlow in the underrated 30 Days Of Night was terrifying and he brings a little of that menace to bear here as Erich Ludendorff, a warmongering German general plotting to sabotage an attempted armistice. His sidekick, a brilliant but deranged scientist called Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Doctor Poison, is a little underused by comparison but is nevertheless an intriguing mix of sinister and tragic. In fact, the only weakness is Ares himself and that has nothing to do with actor David Thewlis and everything to do with the aforementioned CGI and the fact he's shoved centre stage at the end like the boss in a video game rather than a fully-formed character in his own right.

Air America: Star Trek's Chris Pine plays Captain Steve Trevor

Apart from Pine (a generous actor equally at home as a lead or, in this case, little more than a love interest-cum-plot device), the supporting cast is a disappointing collection of country-specific clich├ęs. Oh look, there's Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner playing a drunken Scotsman, and there's The Office's Lucy Davis as a scatty English lady, and here comes Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American called, um, The Chief. In a film well over two hours in length there should have been a tiny bit more wriggle room for character development.

Jenkins – whose last big-screen movie was Monster way back in 2003 – isn't known for being an action director, but she takes on that mantle most impressively. There's a terrific extended scene that sees Diana smack-bang in the heat of battle – the trenches of Belgium's Western Front. In an attempt to reach an occupied village, she ventures out into No Man's Land and immediately comes under heavy bombardment from bullets and bombs, with only her sword, shield and magic bracelets to protect her.

It's the first time we see Diana really cut loose as she smashes the German armaments to bits before liberating the village and its people. In many ways it's the movie's pivotal sequence, not just because it's a bravura action set-piece but also for its symbolism. One of the world's most powerful feminine icons walloping the bejeebus out of her would-be male oppressors. No Man's Land, indeed.

Rating: WW½

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