“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

“Logan” Review

Logan_2017_posterIf the typical comic book movie is one that is light on its feet, quippy, sterile, and sanitized, Logan operates as the direct inverse. Directed by James Mangold, this entry into the X-Men franchise is bleak, dirty, and fixated on violence. Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe also is obsessed with death and destruction, but while Disney covers its sadism with a sickly sweet sheen of special effects, Twentieth Century Fox’s Logan hurls mutilated bodies at its audience with a focused and unrelenting consistency. On the surface, this may sound like a necessary correction to a genre that increasingly cowers from the consequences of its own carnage (note the critical skewering of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) but Logan functions as little more than a reactionary explosion of over-the-top violence that, aside from its nihilism, offers nothing substantively distinct from the numbing parade of big-budget blockbusters.

In a strange way, Mangold seems to have adopted a mirror position of fallacies typically made by religious fundamentalists in judging artistic merit. The fundamentalist will view a film and reject it out of hand because the work contains content (actions, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc.) which the individual objects to, neglecting how those aspects of the story may be utilized in a manner that is both artistically compelling and humanly truthful. Likewise, Logan confuses the mere presence of horrific violence as a sufficient response to the glossing over of said violence in countless blockbuster franchises. Forcing the viewer to witness innumerable skull-punctures and dismemberments (all depicted in graphic detail) does nothing in itself to justify its own existence, and therein lies the chief problem with Logan: it offends, but it offends with no purpose.

Logan may depict violence, but it offers no meaningful questioning of that same violence. The brutality simply exists. The film is ostensibly an exploration of the modern fear that in a capitalist society we have all been reduced to weapons and tools at the mercy of corporations. Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the eleven-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) are saddled with powerful claws and regenerative abilities, yet the film never presents the opportunity for either character to solve conflict with anything other than the very tools of weaponization the narrative purports to hold in disdain. Scene after scene of slaughter is put before the audience, culminating in a dizzying massacre of nameless bad guys that we’ve seen two-dozen times too many (and this time at the hands of children, a fact that the breathless film never seems to seriously mourn but instead plays as cool and exciting). This climactic battle sees the film perform perhaps its most egregious act of moral jujitsu: it celebrates freedom for children born in test tubes and weaponized in labs while simultaneously reveling in the violent and repeated annihilation of X-24, a mutant clone of Logan also born in a test tube and weaponized in a lab. The obvious parallel is disregarded by a film too obsessed with its own faux-seriousness.

Mangold does certainly know how to direct actors, and Jackman works extremely well with the small-scale material (it’s undeniably refreshing to have a superhero movie where the world/galaxy isn’t at stake), while Patrick Stewart makes quite the impression as an aged and unstable Professor X. Hints of novel ideas, like this theme of aging, pepper the landscape, but Logan is so obsessed with its own brutality that it literally eviscerates every shred of creativity as soon as it threatens to emerge (the excessive and casual disposal of a kindly farmer’s family should sear the most hardened conscience). The cinematography is of the competently mediocre variety that most comic book movies tend towards, an anonymous succession of mathematically consistent close and medium shots that fail to use visual language in any meaningful way other than to linger over a shattered skull or bleeding stump. Its villains are of the cartoonishly predictable and one-dimensional variety, one a soulless scientist, the other an insecure rank hopper who feels lazily plucked from Mangold’s far superior 3:10 to Yuma.

Mangold’s sense of character and moral complexity is alive and well in that also-violent Western, while Logan is content merely to beat its audience over the head with cruelty and refuse to provide any artistic form to the proceedings. Most offensive and concerning of all, Logan seems to think that this shotgunning of brutality with little rhyme or reason is in fact its primary virtue. It is a film that can be considered worthwhile only in relation to the recent slew of obnoxiously safe Marvel titles. Because it is essentially an exercise in excess without craft, Logan often feels like the once repressed child of sheltering parents gone overboard in teenage rebellion. If you find yourself wanting a thoughtful exploration of violence and nihilism, pulling out No Country for Old Men from the DVD pile may prove more worth your time.

“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.