Movie review: “Wonder Woman”

 

DC has arrived. Kicking and screaming, getting in its own way at every opportunity, the Little Movie Studio That Couldn’t has finally put an unqualified win on the board with “Wonder Woman”. Gal Gadot is note-perfect in Patty Jenkins’s cohesive vision, creating a Wonder Woman / Diana Price who’s worth waiting for. Like all the best superheroes, she is at once complex and predictable, because even though Gadot’s Diana is multi-dimensional, sometimes conflicted and occasionally outright wrong, the character’s inner moral compass needle continues to point due danger. Raised on an island of literal Amazons and trained from an early age to defend the earth from the return of Aries, the god of war, Diana is quick to identify Aries’s fingerprints on a minor scuffle outside her island’s borders: World War One. She strikes a deal with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), shipwrecked pilot and spy—get her to the center of the action, and she will defeat Aries and end the conflict. Easy peasy, right? Diana’s naïveté would overwhelm a less capable actress, but Gadot’s charm easily carries the audience past exasperation—in her hands, Diana is a glutton for all kinds of carnal pleasures, from ice cream (“It’s delicious! You should be very proud!” she tells the stand-owner upon first taste) to sex, which she’s game for, but Steve the spy pilot is disappointingly uptight about. Diana’s first reaction to wartime London (“It’s hideous!”) is jarring and funny, but as the camera pulls back to reveal a smoke-choked hellscape, registers as accurate: Jenkins keeps finding new ways to show the world afresh through Diana’s eyes, while Gadot alchemizes innocence into idealism, giving us a Diana who reacts with total incredulity to trench warfare, because trench warfare surpasseth all understanding. By the time she goes over the top into no-man’s land, in a sequence that immediately joins the all-time great superhero moments in movie history, we’re ready to scale the backs of the movie seats to join her.

The movie isn’t perfect: fragments of modern dialogue are jarring in context (did anyone really say “you guys” or “cool” in 1918?), and MCU fans could be forgiven for noting the cinematic similarities between Steve Trevor (who rides a motorcycle through a forest and crashes his plane an awful lot) and his merry band of wartime accomplices, and Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. (Note: I do not give one spiraling crap which character—Steve Trevor or Steve Rogers—appeared first in print eighty-seven years ago. The point is that MCU showed us this on the big screen really recently, guys.) There is exactly one baddie too many, and the most interesting one (Elena Anaya, playing a dark mirror of Diana) goes underexplored. But a compelling backstory for a villain is a fair trade for enchanting battle sequences that seem both burnished and dynamic, like Caravaggio paintings brought to life. Smoke and fog are used to gorgeous aesthetic effect against skeletal, war-blasted pines; a sunrise mingles eerily with orange poison gas. The violence, too, is starkly beautiful. Jenkins uses stop motion to great effect, slowing Gadot’s fight choreography to a pace that can be admired but not quite parsed—the camera stays just ahead of your ability to register each block, kick, and turn, and the sum effect is like watching a talented magician do a trick very slowly. You’re dazzled, but none the wiser.
Which leads us to the movie’s conclusion, in which mankind’s salvageability is called rather severely into question. DC has not performed an about-face with “Wonder Woman”—this movie still has a darker, more somber tone than Marvel’s product. For the first time, though, that’s a good thing.

 

 

Movie review: “Star Trek: Beyond”

The newest installment in Star Trek’s canon rolls off the assembly line this weekend, christened with a focus-grouped and forgettable title (“Star Trek: Beyond”). Like most of what rolls off the assembly lines these days, the third installment in the rebooted “alternate original series” is serviceable enough, even pretty from certain angles; it offers a polished and effortless ride, depositing you outside the theater two hours later and ten dollars lighter, wreathed in a thin cloud of distraction. It does not, however, possess much of a soul, and if it seems churlish to complain about the lack of “soul” in a multimillion-dollar spectacle featuring the wholesale destruction of a USS Enterprise (complete with the startling phrase “Detach the saucer”), I can only plead affection for simpler fare. Isn’t the concept of hull breach terrifying enough, without seeing the Enterprise literally drawn and quartered in space, then dropped in several large chunks onto the planet below? In a quest to outdo the previous installments’ many and varied crash landings, “Beyond” goes, well, beyond, turning the beloved ship into a piñata and multiplying her attackers until they become a terrifying CGI swarm of… well, what were they, exactly? A character calls the evil army “bees” at one point, but bees have purpose—the antagonists’ motivation remains unclear until the very end, in which the chief baddie (Idris Elba, encased in mysteriously shifting prostheses) explains his Evil Philosophy, which nudges the audience from mere uncertainty into complete confusion. We never truly understand who he is, why he’s become a murderous fanatic, and why he has near-unlimited numbers of kamikaze-style followers willing to die for him. Say what you will about Eric Baña’s scenery-chewing Nero in the first installment, at least he had a motive (I lost my planet—let’s see how you like it).

 

Motive is sorely lacking on the protagonists’ side, too: in a too-neat voiceover at the beginning, Kirk expresses a desire for meaning in a life become rote. This would work better if the movie hadn’t opened with a “never a dull moment” scene from Kirk’s challenging life as a diplomat, or if the movie had meaning to offer besides “Keep the bad guy from getting the MacGuffin to the place before it’s too late to reverse the things.” Spock, too, is having doubts—his alternate-universe-counterpart, the sheared-off version of himself played by Leonard Nimoy, has died, causing him to once again question his relationship with Uhura: while the tributes to Nimoy are effective (and, in one scene, startlingly beautiful), the threat to Spock and Uhura’s relationship is less so, because we’ve seen these stakes before. We’ve also seen “bombardment from the skies/civilians in peril” quite a few times recently—this trope looked cool in “The Avengers”, tolerable in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, tired in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and exhausted in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; now, the sight of a citywide evacuation reads as pure visual filler.

 

What the movie lacks in forward impetus, however, it makes up for in color: the characters are lovingly unpacked and given time to mingle, which is precisely as it should be—Star Trek at its best is a character drama, not an action franchise. McCoy and Spock are given an especially generous amount of development time, and even Scottie gets a bit of dimension beyond his comic relief role. Watching these classic characters interact is pleasure enough to balance out the dull bits, and the climax strikes the perfect note of giddy nostalgia: it’s common enough to note that actors “look like they’re having fun”, but how often do they visibly bounce with excitement? This is a summer blockbuster as indistinguishable from other blockbusters as one Honda from another, but there’s cheesy fun aplenty for those willing to turn up the music and put the pedal down.