Monday, March 7, 2016

Wonder Woman (2009)

Though she debuted in the comics in 1941, Wonder Woman has always been ahead of her time. Gender equality and acceptance still has a long way to go, but the speed of change in the Internet Age allows a perfect opportunity for the world to catch up with the Amazon warrior. Later this month, Wonder Woman makes her cinematic debut on the big screen, being introduced in the rather dark-looking feature, “Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice.” Hopefully, Wonder Woman will be more a part of the Dawn than the dark night before it.

Wonder Woman is a truly frightening warrior, but luckily she always fights for something worth it: justice for those who have none. In light of her mission, let’s take a look at the most serious film narrative featuring Wonder Woman to date, 2009’s direct-to-DVD animation self-titled “Wonder Woman.” Though DC Comics’ live-action films have been somewhat polarizing for fans, the animation they began with the Batman series, under the guidance and now iconic style of Bruce Timm, has been more universally applauded. As producer on “Wonder Woman,” it can be assumed this is a quality film. Happily, that assumption is correct, though the questions of Wonder Woman fans remain: what took so long, and where is the next one…?
The story begins with the superhero origin sequence, a narrative that more and more gets bad press for being unnecessary as we all presumably know these characters by now. However, in the case of Wonder Woman, though the most iconic female superhero, I found this origin narrative to be most welcome. For a character from 1941 with little sustained presence, I was unaware of some the nuances of her story, which has unique and rather interesting aspects.

We open on the Amazon women fighting against the Greek God of War, Ares. This conflict sets up not only the origin but the conflicts in the main story to follow. Hippolyta battles Ares while Artemis, Persephone, and Alexa, amongst many others, fight his evil army. If you know Greek mythology, Artemis is an agile and able hunter and fighter. Alexa, a character made for the story, is Persephone’s non-warlike sister. Her inability to fight leads to Persephone’s getting a deep face wound in her sister’s defense. Ares is taken prisoner eventually and Zeus allows the Amazons to take an island refuge where they can build their own life away from the warlike ways of men. Without men present, Hippolyta’s daughter Diana, i.e., Wonder Woman, is born in similar fashion to the biblical story of Adam and Eve: the mother-to-be creates a baby form out of clay which eventually gets animated into life.

Fast forward: Diana is a princess, but has also become the most-skilled warrior. Persephone, whose role begins to echo her real Greek mythological counterpart, serves as the guard of the jailed Ares. When US Air Force pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the island after engaging enemy planes, it is revealed that Persephone has fallen in love with Ares and they escape together. To return Trevor to the outside world coincides with the Amazon’s need to recapture Ares. Wonder Woman is the first Amazon to leave the island. In the outside world, she finds Ares and his resurgent army, and must stop them from turning the world into one of pure war and hatred.

I’ll get my criticism out of the way first. Though I suppose this is happening around World War II, unless I missed something it is never made clear. I’m still wondering who those enemy planes represented. No sign of the War exists back in civilization, so I’m not sure that is a correct assumption. As a criticism, that’s not much. The answer wouldn’t really change anything. Also, the Amazon’s invisible plane shows up with no explanation. But if you know WW, you know the plane. If you don’t, it’s easy enough to roll with it.

Overall, this is an entertaining film, and Wonder Woman shines as a lead character. As direct-to-DVD implies, the animation is somewhere between your typical anime and labor-intensive 2D work usually seen on big screen features. However, the sequences here are rather more complicated than I expected, often going more frames than needed and adding in more detail than expected. As well, the art style pioneered by Timm has enough of an influence here to make for relay engaging imagery. For my taste, for a superhero animated film, the color palette is a bit dark, but that is the trend for superhero movies these days (see the trailers for the Superman/Batman film coming – what ever happened to real comic book colors?) and this doesn't hurt the film at all.

There are some issues around this film, but they are interesting to discuss, not negatives by any means. First, though we might expect a superhero animation to be for kids, DC seems to realize their market is bigger and more adult due to the production quality and scripts for their films. “Wonder Woman” is no exception. The Greek Gods and Amazons fight to the death, which raises the drama and the gore (though not too excessively), which then raises the audience’s interest. Actions have consequences, and it is acceptable to show the consequences and actions of war. So, there is some graphic violence, which might be excessive for some, but is lessened through the filter of animation, I think. These scenes fit as emphasis for the narrative being told.

More relevant to the question of why Wonder Woman has not gotten a full film before this, even while reigning supreme as the iconic female superhero, is the relationship she has with Steve Trevor as portrayed in this film. The script’s language (written by Gail Simone, a comics writer who wrote Wonder Woman comics) says it all. Trevor admits to being a “pig” while under the influence of WW’s lariat of truth. At one point he even says she has a nice “rack.” So, although Steve can be somewhat heroic at times action-wise, his comments would make me believe Wonder Woman would want nothing to do with him. The film hits a false note by allowing a romance to blossom. Trevor is obviously what he admits to being, no matter how much he protests. When Diana kicks him straight between his legs, it should have signalled the end of any romance. When the narrative is allowed to go standard – he is the first man she has ever seen and her love is ignited by him, and perhaps because she can kick his ass, it’s OK for him to stay a pig because, well, she can kick his ass, and any way, in the end, he is the one cooking dinner while WW goes over to fight another villain (which is admittedly a great touch) – I think we lose what we usually believe the true wonder of Wonder Woman to be, even though we rarely get it. Justice for all should also include justice for her, but the character of Steve Trevor never seems to go away. Perhaps he should.

But other than this standard part of the Wonder Woman narrative, the film delivers a strong character that we root for every second. With good voice work from the underrated Keri Russell and fan-favorite Nathan Fillion, and perhaps one of the best performances I can recall from Alfred Molina, featured here as Ares, this is an entertaining film. When it came out, seven years ago, it signalled that Wonder Woman was making her move. Sadly, it didn't, and only now will we be getting another incarnation of this nuanced female hero. Hopefully, she steals that movie from the dour Superman and the how-can-anyone-be-so-serious-Batman.







(*Four stars just for being about Wonder Woman!)




Available on Warner Home Video DVD and Blu-ray and various streaming services.
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