Wonder Woman

Exactly what it says on the tin

wonderwomanPatty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman joins the very short list of superhero movies whose existence is justified.  It’s a landmark for the genre, but also a refresher course on how to make a decent blockbuster: characters are well-defined despite the focus on plot and action, everyone’s motivations make sense (to a reasonable degree, anyway), the supporting cast is likeable (even lovable), the villains are worthy opponents, and despite the its length, the film is never bloated with unnecessary side material. Best of all, the protagonist is a layered, thinking person who despite her superhuman abilities and “chosen one” status must adapt, learn, doubt, fear, and overcome. Not that the audience ever doubts that she’ll kick the enemies’ asses in the end, but it’s how she gets there that makes the CG-slathered action watchable.

The film centers around Diana (Gal Gadot), child of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who has been raised on a strangely Christian-ified version of Greek Mythology in which God of War Ares takes on a Lucifer role and seeks to eradicate his father’s creations (humans) by manipulating them into killing one another.  In the world outside Themyscira, World War I is raging, so when Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and learns about the years-long conflict with countless millions of casualties, the story seems to check out.  Although she can never return if she leaves, Diana sets out to kill Ares (whom she assumes is the cause of the war, and whose death will instantly end it).  Along the way, she learns to integrate herself into human society (to varying degrees of success) and becomes sharply aware of something she was never taught by the Amazons: nuance.

The film is part action epic, part formula comic-book fare, part period romance, and part fish-out-of-water comedy.  Unlike Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, whose tone doesn’t work because 1) the humor isn’t funny and 2) only some of the characters take the story seriously, Wonder Woman balances its parts rather masterfully, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into its pacing and characterization.  We go from ancient immortal god-women on horses (including Robin Wright as Antiope, the greatest warrior in history) to the gritty, crapsack WWI era, where women are secretaries (or “slaves,” as Diana would argue), and the transition is seamless.  Pine’s character is likeable, and although he seems to consider himself special, he’s not arrogant enough to think he, rather than Diana, should be the hero simply based on gender. On top of that, even though the romantic connection between the duo is an inevitable part of the formula, it’s not all that bad because Pine plays Trevor as a nuanced person (not just a super-spy) who actually respects Diana in addition to being physically attracted to her, and is more than willing to follow her into battle when she takes the lead.

The supporting cast is well-utilized and genuinely worth spending time with. The classic ragtag band of good-hearted scoundrels includes Saïd Taghmaoui as secret agent Sameer, Ewan Bremner as Charlie, a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as “Chief,” a Native trader who is none too shy about giving Diana an education about what hostile takeovers by one people over another actually look like.  On the enemy side, Danny Huston takes mostly-center-stage as a fictionalized version of real-life German general Erich Ludendorff, a sort of wannabe supervillain who obviously isn’t Ares. He and Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka “Doctor Poison” (now there’s a supervillain name) form the Big Bad Duumvirate that the good guys must content with until the true nature of Ares is revealed, and despite its predictability, it pays off well. Admirably, none of the characters, hero or villain, are wasted or dismissively killed off for a laugh.  In fact, Diana’s decision to spare a certain character shows a real maturity on the part of the filmmakers (and by extent, the character).

Spoilers in this part. Gal Gadot’s performance is really something, because she’s not relying on audience expectation in order to sell herself as a hero. Here’s an actress who understands Diana in and out, put real effort (read: nearly twenty pounds of muscle) into transforming into the character, and whose real-life combat expertise (Israeli military) lends the fight scenes a realism and urgency that most other superhero movies cannot boast (although we do get some of the DBZ-style “characters shooting colored beams at each other from a distance” stuff when Diana’s badass final adversary is revealed).  Diana, in sum, is a rare and incredible find in a genre that throws the word “hero” around way too loosely, and while I wasn’t paying attention to Gadot’s work before this, I now can’t think of anyone else more worthy of the role.

Among the film’s pitfalls are the erasing of Diana’s bisexuality (though her intimate scene with Trevor more than implies that this isn’t her “first” anything), and the film as a whole could certainly be more intersectional (where are all of the Black soldiers and American/European citizens?), but it’s a decent rough draft of what is (hopefully) to come.

wonder_woman_282017_film29Wonder Woman (2017); written by Allan Heinberg; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.

 

 

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The Wolverine

Only Hugh can prevent the technological apocalypse

THE WOLVERINEWhen I go to superhero/ine films at all, I go in cold (for reasons that probably don’t apply to this piece).  I don’t know (or care) much about what Silver Samurai does in the X-Men comics.  Objectively, however, James Mangold has put together a superhero movie that actually manages not to be a superhero movie, but a movie that happens to feature a guy with superpowers as the lead.  While still fitting into the seven-installment movie franchise, The Wolverine sheds preconceived obligations and limiting crossover lore in favor of telling a story about the character of Wolverine and what he may have done after the events of the original X-Men trilogy.

The story follows Logan (Hugh Jackman, no longer singing, but returning to curt delivery of laconic dialogue), now a hermit in the Canadian wilderness.  Having fought in pretty much every war in American history, we begin with Logan’s survival of the atomic bombing on Nagasaki, during which he saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) – given Logan’s immortal nature, it’s difficult to imagine how he was captured, but never mind.  In a touching flashback, the young Yashida offers Logan a special Japanese sword, which he instructs him to hold with two hands.  Logan refuses, stating that he will “come get it someday.”  In the distant future, long after the events of every subsequent X-Men film, the elderly and dying Yashida wants Logan to fulfill his promise, and sends Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch him.  Reluctantly heading to Tokyo after completing the superhero trope of knocking around a bunch of disrespectful thugs (in this case, hunters who have provoked and killed a grizzly bear), Logan finds that Yashida, now a billionaire “zaibatsu,” hasn’t called Logan here to say goodbye – he’d rather absorb Logan’s unwanted powers of immortality and live forever.  Logan refuses, Yashida dies offscreen (i.e. doesn’t die), and Logan decides to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, knife-wielding business mogul Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from two parties who seem to want her dead: Yakuza assassins hired by her own father, Shingen (LOST‘s Hiroyuki Sanada), who wishes to inherit Yashida’s legacy, and an enigmatic clan of black-clad bowmen led by a female gaijin known only as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and her right-hand man, Harada (Will Yun Lee), the film’s resident “frenemy.”

Due to a mild case of Island Syndrome, Logan nearly becomes a Boring Hero, and is saved only by the frequent appearance of Famke Janssen as Jean, the love of his life, whom he was forced to kill in the third film due to her destructive second personality.  This presents a much needed layer to Logan, a drifter directed only by hallucinations and animal instincts (and more than occasionally, convenient plot points).

The women of the film, like most in the series, are presented as independent people with their own strengths – Yukio is an unrivaled bodyguard (count how many times she saves Logan throughout the film); Mariko is a competent businesswoman and knife-thrower, and is fiercely dedicated to her family despite her desire not to own Yashida Corps; and Viper, the most one-note speaking part in the film, is actually an accomplished oncologist in addition to being a toxic mutant who spews villainous threats you’ve heard a million times before.  In various ways, this is a superhero movie that relies on its female characters despite none of them taking the lead (similar to the ways Unknown was actually about Diane Kruger’s character consistently rescuing Liam Neeson in spite of her better judgement and the sheer lack of credit received, this film, if told from another angle, could really be about the complicated sisterly relationship between Yukio and Mariko, and how their interactions with an impossibly-muscled foreigner help shape the direction the future takes).  This is unlike Iron Man 3, which presented the illusion of female empowerment by having Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), after being a damsel for two hours of reel, briefly take up the mantle of the male character to dispatch the villain (read: rather than being an empowered character on her own merits, she becomes the male character).

This is, as my father would say, “a pretty good movie,” considering the genre and the countless comic book reboots clogging theatres and shoving great indie work aside.  Most of the actors do their best to turn stock characters into believable people and formulaic shlock into viable drama.  The lion’s share of characters are normal humans, not mutants who exist for the sole purpose of showcasing cool CGI powers.  There’s just enough nuance for genuine interest; real questions about what Logan’s immortality means (albeit answered either with laconic statements or unanswered altogether); women who get to do things, and moreover, decide what they do; and ultimately, a mite of character growth not really seen in The Last Stand (which contained so many characters and plot alleys that the only dialogue I can remember is Vinnie Jones’ silly reference to a Juggernaut YouTube video).

I’m conflicted about the obligatory mid-credits lead-in to a full reboot of the core X-Men story, wherein Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) approach the finally-free Logan in an airport and inform him that yet another deadly force is out to extinguish all mutant life.  Can’t these sons of bitches leave well enough alone?  I’m not sure if I mean Professor X and Magneto, or their real-life supervillain counterparts at Marvel Entertainment.

The Wolverine (2013); written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by James Mangold; starring Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukishima, Tao Okamoto, and Hiroyuki Sanada. 

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.

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