Friday, June 16, 2017

Wonder Woman: Myth and Man

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros)

Chris Pine has so much unfussy charm and is at home in so many different kinds of movies (and periods) that it’s easy to underrate him – to assume that he merely coasts on his good looks and camera savvy. He’s certainly got plenty of both, but he’s like a young Joel McCrea: his humor is in his natural responses to the untoward situations his characters find themselves in (even when he’s playing Cinderella’s prince in Into the Woods) and his sexiness derives from his unwavering presentness – his ability to be all there, physically and emotionally, in every scene. The only time I didn’t buy what he was doing on screen was in Hell or High Water, and there the fault was with Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, not with Pine. Some of his best work has gone virtually unseen – in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, where he was the best of all the movie Jack Ryans, and in The Finest Hours, where he played a Coast Guard sailor on a dramatically against-the-odds rescue mission, and especially in the gentle post-apocalyptic three-hander Z for Zachariah, where he shared the screen with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie.

He shows up about twenty minutes into Wonder Woman as Steve Trevor, an American spy during World War I who’s trying to shut down the Germans’ development of a deadly gas and is chased by them onto the coast of the uncharted island where the all-female Amazon race resides. The movie’s first sequences, where Diana, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) undergoes severe athletic training at the hands of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), initially over the objections of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), are enjoyable but a tad clunky, but once the soulful Israeli beauty Gadot has Pine to play off, the movie clicks firmly into place. It helps that the screenwriter, Allan Heinberg, gets Diana off the island and into the world of mortals. Under Patty Jenkins’ direction Gadot plays the fish-out-of-water scenes for all the humor she can wring out of them. (I love one throwaway bit where she tastes her first ice cream cone and praises the street vendor enthusiastically, as if he’d invented ice cream.)

Hippolyta wants her daughter to stay out of the affairs of humankind, but Diana’s nature draws her to circumstances where she can use her jaw-dropping athletic prowess to aid the underdog and forestall senseless violence. She also believes she was meant to fight Ares, the god of war, and defeat him, and when she finds out that the world is fighting the war to end all wars, she assumes that Ares is behind it and that if she can only stop him, the world will easily embrace peace. So when Steve leaves the island of the Amazons to try to prevent the Germans from using the new gas – developed by the brilliant, unfeeling Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), a.k.a. Dr. Poison, under the auspices of the power-hungry, warmongering General Ludendorf (Danny Huston) – Diana accompanies him, assuming that Ludendorf must be Ares in disguise. The English government, for whom Steve is working, is negotiating the armistice, so Steve is warned to stay away from Ludendorf, but Steve, a daredevil driven by moral conviction, disregards his orders, with the unofficial help of Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a sympathetic baronet in the Home Office. Steve enlists three friends whose attitude toward the rules is as cavalier as his – a Scot (Ewen Bremner), an Arab (Saïd Tagmaouhi) and a Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) – and their appearance takes the movie up a few notches.

The filmmaking could use more grandeur to go with the fairy-tale story (by Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs) but the picture is funny and even moving and the romantic chemistry between Pine and Gadot is its linchpin. The action sequences are very satisfying except for the climactic one, where Diana takes on Ares. The biggest challenge of comic-book movies is to make sense of the intersection of myth and modern-day realism; they often fail at this task, and I think Wonder Woman does, though the dramatic – and, if I may say so without sounding pretentious, the philosophical – point of the plot about a superheroine who thinks in mythic generalities striving to put an end to war by taking on the god of war works even if the sequence doesn’t. Anyway, by the time the movie gets to this point you’re so firmly on its side that the last act isn’t too much of a letdown. Almost all the way, the movie is sheer pleasure.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to see this film today so I will reserve comment 'til after. I, also, haven't finished your review 'cuz I hate being fore-warned. I do have to say that, having recently watched Hell or High Water, his roll in that surprisingly Bonnie and Clyde like film, was just as you described him to be in his other films. All present, and accounted for.