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Shazam!

Shazam

Some are born powerful (Wonder Woman), some achieve power (Batman), others have power thrust upon them. Such is the case with foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), blessed with superpowers by a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) by virtue of his, well, virtues. Curiously, much of Shazam! actively avoids these virtues, as Billy shows the zero responsibility that comes from his great powers. Super powers have been linked to growing pains and puberty before, especially with Spider-Man, but with Shazam! this becomes literal, the film quirkily merging superpowered antics with the out-of-body humour of Big. It proves a pleasant addition to the DCEU, as director David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi bring levity and humour to the film, that are generally lacking in the largely grim franchise. Some of this humour consists of lightly mocking the other films, as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Superman merchandise appear and references are made to the events of other films in the series. Many of these jokes find their mark, as Shazam! is frequently very funny, as Billy/Shazam along with friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) experiment with superpowers as well as super names, investigate lairs and struggle to keep everything a secret. Once villain Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) comes on the scene, Billy must step up to the ‘hero’ part of superhero, and again the film is acutely aware of the legacy it joins, echoing sequences from Man of Steel especially with a cheeky humour, as well as overt references to Big and Rocky. Along the way, the film also makes some interesting explorations of family, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. Combined with the humour, this is the most satisfying aspect of Shazam!, as the film provides some genuine surprises in its exploration of familial ties. It is less successful in its pacing, often feeling languorous and overlong. This is down to its many parts not being brought together cohesively: Billy exploring his powers; Sivana pursuing his ambition; the trials and tribulations of Billy’s fellow foster children and foster parents. These elements remain disparate rather than coherent, ham-fistedly roped together rather than linked by connective tissue. Other filmmakers have struck the balance between internal story strands, franchise tie-ins and acknowledging fan knowledge through references. With Shazam established, along with a group of supporting characters and adversaries, maybe future instalments will strike a better balance than this initial effort. In the meantime, there’s plenty of fun to be had here.

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The Death of Superman / Reign of the Supermen

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The Death of Supermanis one of the bestselling comic books ever published, shifting over six million copies upon its release in 1993. The story’s bold premise and provocative artwork is turned into animated pictures, complete with a fine ensemble of voice actors. The Death of Supermancharts the arrival of the seemingly indestructible alien beast Doomsday, its rampage through Metropolis (and the Justice League) and its battle with the Man of Steel. Like many a superhero tale, The Death of Supermanalso engages with ideas of identity and roles. A romance blossoms between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the latter of whom struggles to reconcile his public and secret identities. The other members of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, as well as Lex Luthor, also worry about Superman’s role, and these concerns run throughout the film and its sequel.

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The adaptation struggles to bring the emotional heft to the screen, not least due to rather stilted animation. Compared to recent fare likeIncredibles 2and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this superhero adventure feels lacklustre and uninspired. Character movements lack fluidity, backgrounds are often under-developed and the film falls into an unfortunate space between comic book and animation, lacking verve and dynamism. Where The Death of Supermandoes succeed, perhaps surprisingly, is in its brutality. The violence inflicted by Doomsday is bloody and often graphic, from crushed and severed heads to battered and bloody heroes. The eventual conflict between Superman and Doomsday is compelling and does deliver in the physical and emotional stakes, even though the end is known. While the journey to the climax is not always engaging, it is a hard viewer who does not experience a lump in their throat

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The follow-up, Reign of the Supermen, is more successful in the animation stakes, offering greater vibrancy and movement. It also has a good line in humour, which is while present is less at home in The Death of Superman. In Reign of the Supermen, the humour is effective, especially the comedic quips of the Flash and Green Lantern. The film also does some exploration of power and its proper uses, the various ‘Supermen’ offering different takes on the concept. On the downside, the Supermen as well as the overarching plot seems overtly derivative of other cinematic superhero adventures, which leads to the film feeling like a half-hearted imitation of The Avengers. Overall, this double bill falls short in several ways, but does provide thrills and laughs in others.

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Incredibles 2

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Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).

IncrediblesjpgAll this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.

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Tomb Raider

Tomb RaiderA bike chase through London streets. A foot chase through a Hong Kong marina. A boat caught in a storm at sea. Various encounters with armed men. Puzzles to open doorways and collapsing caves. Movie set pieces or video game challenges? In the case of Tomb Raider, both, as Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) takes on these obstacles that play out much like stages to a video game, while director Roar Uthaug renders these sequences with visceral thrills and gritty heft. The combined efforts of director and star in relation to these sequences are the film’s major strengths, as the viewer can feel the impact and lurch of the action while Lara herself is engagingly human and vulnerable, never coming across as a cypher who can regenerate to try the level again. Vikander is a hugely likeable lead, combining convincing physicality with relatable naivety, traits that are balanced with resourcefulness and a talent for swift adaptation. Less compelling is her backstory, as writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons and Evan Daugherty give her a rather hackneyed daddy’s girl identity that threatens to overwhelm the potential for progressive gender representation. Nothing is made of the gender elements here: Lara’s agency and ability is not contrasted with that of her male counterparts and there is no romantic subplot. This is pleasing because, as in Rogue One, Wonder Woman, Atomic BlondeStar Wars: The Last Jedi, a female protagonist of agency is presented as perfectly natural, rather than being made into a cause. Unlike those earlier films, Lara’s motivation is simply to find her father, while the film also fails an easy opportunity to pass the Bechdel Test. While both the action and the archaeology would earn a nod from Indiana Jones, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.

2017: Review of the Year

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A little late, it’s time to re-pile stuff in front of the Christmas decorations, resume speculation about summer holidays before realising way too late that the prices have risen, and to reflect on the previous year in film. As always, there was far more I wanted to see than I was able to due to time and money constraints, with my total of 2017 releases (in the UK) coming to a grand total of 51. Even working from such a small sample, however, 2017 was a brilliant movie year, in terms of the sheer range in quality that helped me appreciate afresh just how much is out there. From Oscar upsets to Marvelous blockbusters, long-mooted sequels to alluring animation, 2017 offered much and delivered more than it disappointed. Of the 51 releases I saw, these are my top twelve, in musical form:

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The movies gave to me

Twelve Ragnaroks

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Eleven Hidden Figures

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Ten runs with Logan

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Nine men in Moonlight

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Eight Blade Runners

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Seven pregnant mothers!

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Manchester By The Six

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Five Red Turtles

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Four Wonder Women

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Three Handmaidens

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Two Detroit riots

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And escape from the beach at Dunkirk.

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And now, with review tweets and full access to my archive, here are Vincent’s Views of 2017 in full.

Top Twelve

  1. Dunkirk

A ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly tense, mercilessly immersive triptych on trauma, time and terror.

  1. Detroit

A harrowing, immersive, unflinching portrait of prejudice, brutality, societal tension and being the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  1. The Handmaiden

An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.

  1. Wonder Woman

A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.

  1. The Red Turtle

A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.

  1. Manchester by the Sea

A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.

  1. mother!

An exquisitely unhinged, utterly delirious, relentlessly deranged, headlong charge into unmitigated chaos.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

A spellbinding, suffusive, mind expanding exploration of identity, humanity and mediation.

  1. Moonlight

A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.

  1. Logan

A brutal, melancholic and intimately violent portrayal of running from and living with your past.

  1. Hidden Figures

An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.

  1. Thor: Ragnarok

A colourful, eclectic, highly Antipodean adventure of friendship, memory and powers old and new.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Murder on the Orient Express

A crisp, clockwork lattice of motives, suspects, histories and ethics, engineered into a probing investigation of morality and balance.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

A whipsmart high school action comedy of superpowered growing pains.

  1. Lady Macbeth

A beautifully composed, exquisitely restrained portrait of devastating disruption.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

A wonderfully wacky and dizzily dazzling space opera of wit, warmth, adventure, family and reconciliation.

  1. A Ghost Story

A subtle, enveloping, achingly sad tale of grief, isolation and the experience of time.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

An overlong but still thrilling multi-stranded space chase of divination, intuition, legends, legacies and lightsabres.

  1. Kong: Skull Island

A thrilling ride through the wild side that reminds us of our place in nature.

  1. My Cousin Rachel

A ripe, sumptuous Gothic romance of obsession, ambiguity and multiple planes.

  1. It

An atmospheric and genuinely scary tale of fear(s), friendship, nostalgia and growing pains.

  1. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle

A gleefully absurd, riotously funny, thrillingly immersive action adventure of nostalgia, identity, growing pains and working together.

  1. The Limehouse Golem

A ripe, grisly period murder mystery of roles both social and theatrical.

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

A overly portentous but visceral and at times orgiastically violent film of faith and courage under fire.

  1. La La Land

A vibrant, colourful medley of nostalgia and dreams both lost and won.

Solid Offerings  

  1. War For The Planet Of The Apes

A coldly beautiful, brilliantly realised and unrelentingly grim epic of grief, revenge, cruelty and compassion.

  1. Wind River

An atmospheric, muscular and very cold thriller of borderlands both geographical and societal.

  1. Miss Sloane

A gripping, twisting and enthralling journey through corridors of power and landscapes of laws, ethics and conscience.

  1. Atomic Blonde

An achingly 80s, super slick and stylistically bravura period spy thriller of crunchy action, double-crossing and neon.

  1. Patriots Day

A compelling if inconsistent collation of coherence and chaos within community.

  1. Justice League

A somewhat unbalanced yet stylish, witty and punchy super smackdown of power, fear, courage and the strength of unity.

  1. Get Out

A gripping, thrilling and disturbing horror of racial attitudes and oppression.

  1. Assassin’s Creed

A visceral, enthralling exploration of mind, body and the cinematic space.

  1. Baby Driver

A slick, funky heist thriller with musical flow albeit an imbalance of grit and sentiment.

  1. Tommy’s Honour

A gorgeous, moving drama of family and class, and the most compelling film you may ever see about golf.

  1. Unlocked

A twisting, gripping and gritty espionage thriller that just avoids collapsing under its own contrivance.

  1. Life

A cine-literate, thrilling and suitably grisly space body horror.

  1. The Great Wall

A grand, visceral and sometimes witty monster movie with plenty of bang if lacking in awe.

  1. Call Me By Your Name

A beautifully transnational, intense yet never melodramatic portrayal of youth, sexuality and awakenings.

  1. Baywatch

A baggy, overly referential and yet surprisingly funny buddy comedy of sun, sand and silliness.

  1. The Zookeeper’s Wife

A sometimes moving but ultimately uneven Holocaust drama of compassion and cruelty towards our own and other species.

  1. Churchill

A handsomely mounted if somewhat repetitive home front political drama.

Disappointments

  1. Beauty and the Beast

A sometimes sweeping if rather disjointed musical fantasy romance.

  1. Fences

A somewhat stage-bound domestic drama of family and racial tensions, elevated by powerhouse performances.

  1. Ghost in the Shell

A visually arresting if narratively cumbersome sci-fi thriller of memory, identity and technology.

Turkeys

  1. Lion

An over-determined, clumsily directed and ultimately anemic cosmopolitan drama of loss.

  1. Live By Night

A handsome but hollow period gangster film.

  1. Alien: Covenant

A gory, sumptuous but overly panicked sci-fi horror of ambition and hubris.

  1. The Mummy

An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.

  1. The Dark Tower

A limp, lifeless, messy squandering of great potential.

  1. The Snowman

A ham-fisted and mechanically clichéd thriller that is more creaky than creepy.

 

Justice League

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After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.

Wonder Woman

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Amidst the problems of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one pinnacle of wisdom, class and super-powered kick-assery stood tall above everything else – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Despite this appearance and over 70 years of comic book history, the world’s most famous superheroine has waited until 2017 for a solo big screen appearance. Happily, Wonder Woman is worth the wait, as director Patty Jenkins delivers a dynamic, inventive and witty superhero adventure of duty, will, the pervasiveness of evil and the power of love. From the wraparound story in modern day Paris to childhood and training among the Amazons of Themyscira, Jenkins, Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg draw the viewer into Diana’s world, sharing her joys, fears and discoveries.

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Rather than following the dour example of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and BVS: DOJ, Wonder Woman is more reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger with its period setting and also Thor with its dramatisation of myth, and shares a sense of fun thus far lacking in the DC Extended Universe. Diana becomes aware of the wider world when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives with WWI German soldiers in hot pursuit. From here we embark on a ride to London and thence to the Western Front, a ride that is jaunty, gripping and at times powerfully moving. Jenkins strikes a fine balance between fish-out-of-water comedy, both for Steve among the Amazons and Diana among the British, grim moments featuring the impact of war on civilians and the ruthless aggression of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and some truly magnificent action set pieces. These set pieces constitute major developments of the drama: the first exhibits the skill and power of the Amazons; the second demonstrates Diana coming into her own as a warrior and had me welling up with emotion; the third begins with a gritty physicality before escalating to truly epic proportions. A common criticism of superhero films is that the final act succumbs to CG overload, but in the case of Wonder Woman the onslaught of visual effects expresses narrative development and the characters’ discoveries.

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This climactic sequence also features the film’s greatest strength: acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of evil. Throughout the film, Diana believes that it is her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, because this will end the Great War, a belief that Steve and the rest of their notably diverse team find naïve. A central villain is common to superhero cinema and often the purpose of the narrative is to defeat him (or occasionally her), but the more challenging entries in the genre such as X-Men, The Dark Knight and Logan do not locate evil quite so easily. Diana’s journey of discovery is also that of the viewer in realising that this film is doing something a little different, and the joy of this difference alongside the electrifying action makes the film into something special.

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Furthermore, Wonder Woman makes good on its gender politics. Diana is a superb character, defined not as a woman but as a warrior for justice. The film therefore manages to present that elusive thing called equality, where men and women unite for a common cause because they all care. Furthermore, the absurdities of patriarchy are highlighted, such as when Diana encounters the British high command in London and is dismayed by their lack of compassion, in stark contrast to the nobility of the Amazons. Some might find the romance between Steve and Diana clichéd and disappointing, but it is important to note that their relationship is part of a larger conceit of love that pervades the entire film, from the bonds among the Amazons to those between Steve’s fellow soldiers, and the compassion and empathy that drives Diana throughout. Superhero movies are often concerned with hope, but Wonder Woman goes further, Jenkins crafting a thrilling and moving tale of the compelling and invigorating power of love for all humanity.

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