Sunday, June 4, 2017

Film: "Wonder Woman"

I was eleven years old when I was watching television one evening (November 7, 1975 to be exact) and "Wonder Woman" blasted into the living room. I remember being stunned as I watched the premiere of yet another superhero come to life on the small screen (we already had "Spiderman", "The Incredible Hulk", "Captain Marvel" and "Isis" to watch) but this series followed, more closely, the origins and escapades of the DC superheroine's life I had read in the comic books - everything from the bullet-deflecting bracelets to the golden lasso to the invisible airplane and her tiara. And, of course, it helped (a great deal!) that Wonder Woman was portrayed by the stunning Lynda Carter.
Lynda Carter

The series ran from 1975 until 1979, with CBS picking up the ABC rejected series after just one year and bringing the characters into the 20th century. I do have to admit that the series lost it's luster after finding a new television home and there were mundane plots and themes that flat-lined the original intent of the show to the point of non-salvation. Still and yet, the original series was a hit and resonated with an audience, not just of superhero fans like myself, but also with the growing feminist movement and a prevalent nationalistic pride that dotted the social and political landscape of the era. Basically for me, it was fun...cartoon-ish in a way, but nonetheless fun.

Note: There was an attempt about a year and half prior to the series that brought Wonder Woman to the small screen as a made-for-television movie. It starred the then little known Cathy Lee Crosby as Diana Prince but the character relied more on sensibilities and experiences rather than on physical strength and superpowers and it didn't have the mass appeal that the series did. People did dismiss it as a lame attempt to bring the character to life and had there been a better writer, story line and effects, it probably would have been more than a mere blimp on the television landscape.
Cathy Lee Crosby

Note 2: About six years ago, David E. Kelley started to helm an updated television series of the Wonder woman that starred Adrianne Palicki in the title role. While the 2011 effort was never released on television, the pilot episode, which can be searched for and seen on the internet, did include some nice fight choreography and sincere effects, not unlike its inspired "Xena" predecessor.
Adrianne Palicki

In the forty-plus years since the Lynda Carter series ended, there has always been speculation about a feature film for the superheroine. The seeds of one were no doubt planted when DC forged ahead with Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, which led to "The Man of Steel" and "Batman vs. Superman" and now to the upcoming "Justice League". Somewhere in that mess of planning, "Wonder Woman" the feature, developed and just yesterday, June 2, "Wonder Woman" made her international film debut.

Like all superhero movies, "Wonder Woman" is an origins film, taking care to illustrate the beginnings of Diana, Princess of Themyscira through her growth as the title character. Director Patty Jenkins spends enough time showing Diana learning the ways of her Amazonian family in the Island Paradise from a young child to adulthood. According to her mother Hippolyta (played by one of my favorite actresses, Connie Nielsen), Diana was formed from clay and was summoned to life with the breath of a dying Zeus "when time was new"; and, under the tutelage of her aunt Antiope (played by a very physical Robin Wright who also speaks with a very obtuse accent), she learns the ways of the warrior. And just in fortuitous time too, since Captain Steve Trevor crash lands within the invisible protective shield of Themyscira bringing with him a host of German soldiers.
On Themyscira, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, second from let) is protected by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, second from right) and trained by Menalippe (Lisa Loven Kongsli, left) and Antiope (Robin Wright, right)
Under the spell of the lasso of Hestia, Trevor truthfully confesses that he is a spy with British intelligence in the "war to end all wars" (the film is set during World War I) and that millions of lives have already been lost in over four years. As we learn, this must be the work of Ares, the god of war, and the reason for the Amazons' exile from the ancient. It is also the impetus for Diana to leave Paradise, to accompany Trevor to the outside world, confront Ares and end the worldwide suffering. "You may never come back," says a woeful Hippolyta as Diana prepares to leave..."and who will I be if I stay?" answers the Princess. Indeed. 

Gal Gadot carries the Wonder Woman character with full force bringing both compassion and fortitude to the role. Obviously, her training as part of the Israeli Defense have given Gadot the agility and strength to execute the demanding physicality of the role, but she also exhibits a gracious, sincere vulnerability that feeds into the compassionate, humanitarian-like quality of Diana. She is both warrior and woman, and Jenkins has allowed the script to feed those dimensions of the character quite well. 

Chris Pine's Steve Trevor is not the one-dimensional character that was depicted in the series and in the comic strip. Here, Pine gets to be wing-man, sidekick, hero and even lover which is a more fully developed role for the actor. And he does so quite well and seems un-intimidated taking a back seat to the title character and even to Gadot herself. It was actually quite refreshing to see a him in this particular role where he is both a victim of Diana's idealism and co-culprit in her mission of justice. 

Chris Pine as Capt. Steve Trevor cautions Diana to see a bigger picture other than seeking Ares' death. 
The plot itself revolves around Diana's eventual confrontation with Ares in an epic battle, but it was just so refreshing to see her as a new character in a world ravaged by war, disillusionment and suffering. When times call for Diana to act, she does and does so very well. The actions scenes are shot with stop-action, slow-motion effect and the Diana in this movie works wonders with sword, shield and lasso. 

I'm not quite sure about the fuss being made by Patty Jenkins as a female director donning the captain's hat for a superhero flick. She follows a long line of successful women directors who have made outstanding, critically acclaimed and award-winning contributions to film: Barbra Streisand ("Prince of Tides"), Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle"), Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"), Susan Seidelman ("Desperately Seeking Susan"), Penny Marshall ("Big" and "League of Their Own"), Gurinder Chdha ("Bend it Like Beckham"), Ava Duvernay ("Selma"), Jane Campion ("The Piano") and Katherine Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), just to name a few.  What is compelling, however, is that the lens through which Diana's story is told indeed has more compassion. I do agree that Jenkin's vision is unique to the superhero universe only in this respect and it would be interesting to see what she, and other women directors, would do with other superhero franchises. 

"Wonder Woman" director Patty Jenkins with Gal Gadot
In the end, it is Gadot's new take on the character that is utterly compelling. As an audience, we do feel her compassion and her let-downs, her fortitude and her victories. For all that is going on in the world today, Wonder Woman is both a call to action and a reminder of who we intrinsically are as a people and as a global community. 
[June 4, 2017]