Wonder Woman is the Best DCEU Film So Far. Here’s Why. [SPOILERS]

The weight of expectation on the release of this month’s Wonder Woman film was enough to buckle the shoulders of even the sturdiest Amazon warrior.

The overlords of the DC Extended Universe would have been holding their breath for this release. After the lukewarm reception to 2012’s Man of Steel, the critical and fan backlash to the abysmal (and dull) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and that same year’s hot mess of reshoots, rewrites and re-cuts, Suicide Squad, they needed a genuine win.

It wasn’t just a case of turning a juicy profit for the studio fat cats, either. Like the eponymous heroine, Wonder Woman had to be nimble and agile, walking a number of tightrope acts. The film couldn’t be too dark, or it risked being lumped in the BvS basket of boredom; too light and fluffy, and fans looking for gritty superhero realism wouldn’t want to see it.

Even Wonder Woman’s costume reflects that tension: though much darker, armour-like and practical than Lynda Carter’s 1970s spandex, her gear is still significantly brighter and reflective of hope than her appearance in BvS.

There were also aggro Twitter politics to be danced around: Wonder Woman had to somehow placate both feminist and anti-feminist audiences. Feminsts were already concerned about issues ranging from female agency through to the more trivial matter of the protagonist’s underarm hair (or lack thereof). In the red corner, anti-feminists were waiting in the wings to deride any female-led film that played into cloying social-justice sensibilities, as with the notorious kerfuffles around the critically-panned 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.

Somehow, perhaps as only a princess of Themyscira could, Wonder Woman ducks and weaves the hail of bullets from awaiting critics, impresses them all, and emerges stronger than ever.

Wonder Woman is a superb film.

More importantly, this film is actually really fun – and that isn’t true for any DCEU film thus far.

The movie opens in modern-day Paris, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), now working at the Louvre, receives an aging photograph from Bruce Wayne. Diana recalls her past: specifically, the events that led to the photograph in question. Born on the mystical Greek island of Themyscira, an island populated solely by females – and female warriors, at that – Diana is trained to become the strongest warrior of them all.

Trained by her aunt, Antiope (an impressive Robin Wright), and guided by a protective mother (Connie Nielsen), Diana masters the ways of the Amazon. She learns the mythology of her people, too: that the wars of the past were caused by the Greek god of war, Ares, and that his return may be inevitable.

Cue the unexpected arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a captain from the United States Army Air Service, who crash-lands a plane near the protected island, opening Diana’s eyes to the world beyond. Learning that the entire world is in the throes of the fourth year of World War I, and believing Ares to be at the core of it, Diana enters wartime Europe to help end the war; Steve, needing her help, allows her to join him.

What follows is one of the more memorable superhero tales in recent memory. Transposing the story to the 1918 setting is a stroke of genius by the film’s writer Allan Heinberg: the curious mix of power and innocence that radiates from Diana is juxtaposed perfectly with the era’s suffragette politics. Gal Gadot is not just radiant, but convincing: she deftly runs the gamut of charming, likeable protagonist and unyielding Amazon warrior powerhouse.

In fact, her heroic qualities reverberate in the sky-shattering guitar riff that has become rapidly well-known as Wonder Woman’s new theme music. Several powerful scenes in this film – both the high-octane and the poignant – gave me shivers, and this leads to the film’s biggest power.

Wonder Woman is an earnest film that actually gives the audience hope; the heroine inspires the viewers. The film doesn’t deflate its meaningful moments with poorly-timed comic relief; nor does it pretend, as BvS did, that it’s too cool and aloof to deal with genuine emotion. Certain moments hit you squarely in the feels: this superhero talks about her belief in love, and in an era of rapid-fire quips and dark broodiness, this resonates.

Gadot isn’t the only stellar actor in the cast. Pine is brilliant as her love interest, Steve, making the most of his playful, perfectly-pitched comic moments. He also enjoyed a fairly drawn-out “nude” scene in which he which boosted his credentials as bona fide beefcake and delivered some top-shelf innuendo (“I’m above average …” he tells Diana – with just enough boyish charm to avoid being crass).

Supporting actor David Thewlis (AKA Professor Remus Lupin) does an impressive job as Sir Patrick Morgan, while Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) is a delight for audiences. Sameer (Saïd Tachmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) round out the good guys as a trio of likeable rogues – though all three characters feel like they could’ve been explored more had the story not been as tight.

Only the villains seem to be reading from a different script: Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his mad-scientist sidekick Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) come off a little cartoonish. The dilapidated lab with beakers everywhere is a little cliché, and given the two are cooking up mustard gas to wipe out civilians, those scenes surely could have been taken a little more seriously? It clashes with how soberly we are invited to view the scene of the village actually being bombed with the gas.

And as good as this film was, I can’t have been the only one who walked out of the cinema wondering why the evil Germans didn’t speak bloody German among themselves? Given that director Patty Jenkins wasn’t afraid to expose subtitle-averse audiences to a multilingual exchange between Diana and Sameer, why avoid the subtitles with Ludendorff and his cronies? Please explain.

That said, Jenkins’ direction is exquisite. I wouldn’t be surprised to see fan campaigns to oust Zack Snyder as director of any further DC films and replace him with Jenkins. Hell, I might join them. Jenkins is talented, and her interviews show that she isn’t just pandering to the fandom; rather, she has her own vision and it is aligned with the audience – something Snyder has failed to master.

The only thing missing from this movie? Nobody actually called Diana “Wonder Woman”. A deliberate decision, perhaps, but at least a wink to the name would’ve felt appropriate.

Wonder Woman is a triumph, and it may be the turning point DC desperately needed. Roll on, Justice League.

Advertisements

Review: Power Rangers is a Better Superhero Film than Logan [SPOILERS]

[CAUTION: Major spoilers ahead for both films.]

Remember when superhero films didn’t constitute a genre in their own right?

Me neither, but beyond the reaches of our pop-culture-saturated memories, there was a time before Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) when superhero movies in general didn’t do that well.

Of course, superhero lore has thrived in comic books for decades. But during the 90s, fans who wanted to see their cartoon heroes brought to life had to make do with a rapidly-declining series of Batman sequels. (Joel Schumacher has since taken the credit – or blame, rather – for the infamous batnipples.) More often than not, comic book interpretations landed on the small screen, usually as animated TV series pitched at juvenile audiences. Even Superman couldn’t shake off the social opprobrium of 1987’s disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, remaining confined to the live-action television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman during the following decade.

This side of the new millennium has seen the rapid change in fortunes for the superhero genre we are now accustomed to. Early outings by Singer (X-Men and 2003’s sequel X2: X-Men United) broke new ground in presenting fantastic superheroes and villains in a darker, grittier world – a realistic world. Adult fans no longer needed to use their children as human shields against criticism for seeing the latest superhero blockbuster – because the films were no longer the domain of children. Since 2000, the primary viewership of superhero movies has progressively shifted from children to older teens to adults, and the tone of these films has grown increasingly darker. Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots led to a watershed moment in this trend: 2005’s Batman Begins set a newly dark tone for the franchise, surpassed by 2008’s phenomenal masterpiece The Dark Knight.

The epic success of The Dark Knight led to what many refer to as the Nolanisation of the superhero genre: with some notable exceptions, most superhero films from both DC and Marvel since 2008 have been deliberately darker. Indeed, Nolan’s legacy can be seen across Hollywood, from Daniel Craig-era Bond outings like Casino Royale and Skyfall through to gritty fairy tale live-action adaptations like Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman.

But in 2017, the tide may be changing. This is most apparent in the first two highly-anticipated superhero blockbusters of the year.

Logan is the ninth X-Men instalment (excluding 2016’s Deadpool) and represents Hugh Jackman’s final performance as the mutton-chopped, razor-clawed Wolverine. Set in a dismal, depressing-but-not-quite-dystopic version of 2029, Logan sees Wolverine (Jackman) as a battle-scarred, flask-swigging lone wolf (haha).

A far cry from his life with the X-Men, Logan’s twilight years consist of driving a limo around Texas to fund his alcohol addiction as his body slowly begins to shut down from adamantium poisoning, and to afford medication for the nonagenarian Professor Charles Xavier (played by an incandescent Patrick Stewart). The professor has been sequestered away in a remote, desolate part of Mexico (in this version of 2029, Trump’s wall apparently never got off the ground), cared for by the albino mutant-trufflehunter Caliban (Stephan Merchant).

The cause of this sombre new life is never fully elaborated; viewers only catch mentions of an “incident in Westchester” in which, in a psychic seizure, Xavier killed a heap of the X-Men and innocent civilians. The implication is that the other X-Men we know and love all died in the destruction of Xavier’s old mutant school.

After being begged for help by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse for biotech company Transigen, Logan discovers the corporation has been experimenting on a group of genetically-engineered child mutants. After Transigen ordered the children to be terminated, Lopez and other staff smuggled some of the child mutants out of the complex, including the 11-year-old Laura, who she now asks Logan to help transport to an imagined mutant sanctuary named Eden somewhere in North Dakota.

What follows is something like an indie road trip film mashed up with moments of intense action. After Lopez is murdered, Logan and Xavier whisk Laura away and head for Eden, all the while tracked by murderous and slightly unhinged Transigen goon Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).

The funereal tone of Logan was foreshadowed by the inclusion of Johnny Cash’s elegiac 2003 song ‘Hurt’ in its trailer. At the film’s opening, Logan is already on the verge of suicide, having crafted an adamantium bullet for the day he decides to top himself. And at the film’s end, his story is brought to a final end as he dies in the arms of Laura, who is revealed to be his cloned daughter.

Logan is brutal, and the first X-Men film to deliberately seek an R-rating (MA15+ here in Australia). Director James Mangold was quick to capitalise on the higher rating, with Wolverine dropping the F-bomb without restraint and slicing and dicing his claws straight through arms, chest and heads. The violence is brutal, but so is the toll the film takes on the viewer’s morale.

Despite the miasma of depression that clings like a cumulonimbus cloud to every second of the film, there is plenty to love about Logan.

The performances are stellar: if Hugh Jackman is looking to move on to film noir or any number of indie film genres for the next arc of his career, he’s presented a brilliant audition reel here. Stewart gives his best performance as Xavier, also: he finally has the leeway to present a more human depiction of the professor, and every endearing moment makes his on-screen demise even more gutwrenching (despite it being thoroughly telegraphed). Newcomer Dafne Keen is radiant as the young Laura – despite remaining taciturn for nearly the first half of the film, she holds her own against the film’s grown-ups and maintains a powerful aura.

The film’s writers also deserve props. Not only is the dialogue tight and effective, but the pacing is excellent, vacillating between bloody action scenes and quieter moments with just enough glimpses of emotional truth. Moreover, the deliberate decision to avoid a genre-typical over-the-top big bad – with the usual ‘save the world’ menace at the climax – is refreshing. The action is scintillating, but small-scale, and all the more resonant for it.

In fact, Logan as a film is exceptionally well made, poignant, and moving.

But as a superhero film, it absolutely sucks.

Logan is perhaps the best example of taking Nolanisation to its extreme: a superhero film so dark, so gritty, so goddamn devoid of fun and fantasy, that it renders itself irrelevant.

What good is it to escape from our shitty, depressing lives into a world that’s even more depressing and shitty?

Worse, we suffer with Wolverine for two hours for nothing. There’s no real victory. He gets killed, bleeds out, dies and is buried. The child mutants hold a makeshift funeral for him in the woods and then move on. For a film that concludes Wolverine’s story – the story of the main character of the X-Men films – this death is unexpectedly minimalistic and devoid of pathos. There is no link back to any of the former films, nor any of the former characters. No life-before-your-eyes moment. A brief flashback of Dr. Jean Grey would’ve been appropriate here, but there’s zip.

There is a coldness to this kind of film making. Mangold’s subtext is that emotional moments are the purview of lesser films – something like those camp Tim Burton or silly Joel Schumacher films – not hip 2017 productions. Melodrama is out and cool detachment is in. Even when you’re ending your main character’s life.

The same detachment pervades and undermines the film. The superhero genre has always been a source of escape from the harsh realities of our brief human lives and unjust world. The genre became popular escapism because it not only offered us fantastic heroes who had powers far beyond our own, but because it allowed us to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil, and justice can be served.

Logan offers no such proposition. In fact, it actively rejects it; even the title refers to the protagonist’s human name, not his superhero name. Mangold certainly knows what he’s doing.

But to subvert a genre to such an extent at this late stage – the final part of a series – jars horrendously.

Capping the X-Men legacy with Logan is like dining on a sumptuous eight-course meal and being served a miniscule molecular gastronomic foam for dessert.

In terms of folklore, it’s like watching Frodo get murdered by Gollum just before he can destroy the ring, or seeing Voldemort destroy Hogwarts while Bellatrix Lestrange toys with Harry Potter’s corpse. Is it dark? Yes. Is it what Nolan would do? Probably. But it is also poor storytelling and emotionally unsatisfying.

The 2017 Power Rangers reboot may not seem worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Logan, and in terms of filmmaking prowess that’s probably true.

But in terms of genre and purpose, Power Rangers is a better superhero film than Logan could hope to be.

A remake of the 1990s television and merchandising juggernaut, Power Rangers tells the origin story of five American teenagers who discover coloured coins that give them superpowers. They are suddenly imbued with super strength before locating a spaceship buried deep underground. On board, they learn the meaning of their powers from a robot, Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), and an ancient warrior named Zordon (the original Red Ranger from 65 million years ago, voiced by Bryan Cranston). The five teens are charged with defending the precious Zeo Crystal from a vengeful former ranger named Rita Repulsa (an excellently over-the-top Elizabeth Banks).

The plot and premise are predictably naff, and also very reminiscent of the 90s television series and an era before 9/11. An era when superhero stories were targeted at children and teens.

That’s not to say Nolan’s shadow doesn’t loom over this film, too – as Doris Lessing said, no person can resist the current of their own time. The 2017 Power Rangers may still be lighthearted and fun at its core, but it’s being remade in a post-9/11 and post-Nolan world. There are shades of a more serious tone here and there, from Zack’s relationship with his mother to Trini’s sexuality and Billy’s autism.

The difference is that, rather than dominate the story, these aspects serve as they should in a story of fantasy: as decorations and trimmings to the central story.

The relationship between the five teenage leads begins awkwardly, and takes a little too long to warm up, but once the flames of connection are stoked, a sense of bonding takes place – not just between the characters, but between the characters and the audience. Flashes of well-placed vulnerability endear the teens to the viewer. Even the cocky Jason (Australian-born Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger and leader of the group, is given some moments of both angst and arrogance that allow Montgomery chances to show off his charismatic presence on screen.

The initial tension between the teenagers is superseded by genuine affection part way through the film. Then comes a slew of really rare concepts for today’s flicks: youthful hope, collaboration, friendship, justice … even some laughter here and there.

Is Power Rangers as realistic as Logan? Well, of course it isn’t. Rita Repulsa’s name alone is juvenile. She can also summon a giant monster dude who’s made out of molten gold. The rangers should die about three times each, but they don’t. They can produce magical armour through the sheer force of will. And they have giant dinosaur-themed machines that combine into the giant Megazord, once a staple of 90s kids’ toy boxes.

Power Rangers is silly and unrealistic. But good lord, is it unexpectedly fun. When I heard the brief bars of the original theme song, I felt like a kid at the movies again.

As blogger Robert Selth noted, when legendary film critic Roger Ebert reviewed Batman Begins, he astutely observed that, “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be. But it acts as if it is.”

Ebert’s insight goes to the core of post-Nolan superhero genre’s success – and why it’s growing ever more rotten. Because our current measurement of how successful a superhero film is whether or not it is realistic, instead of whether or not it is fun.

Logan was realistic, and an excellent film. But as I walked out of the cinema and back into a world where essentially everything is screwed up, I felt more depressed than when I walked in.

Conversely, I went to see Power Rangers expecting to roll my eyes, and unexpectedly left the theatre with a smile and a spring in my step, buoyed by the prospect that the good guys did win something for once.

And isn’t that why people have historically turned to the idea of superheroes for entertainment? In a postmodern, post-9/11 world, the idea of being briefly diverted for two hours with ideals of hope and believing in something is appealing.

There’s room enough for both types of film, of course. But do both of them have the right to call themselves superhero movies?

Review: Secret Men’s Business by John Marsden

As a teenager I was so ashamed of reading this book, I hid it with my porn stash.

Whoa, did this book have an incredible impact on me as a kid.

When you’re a teenage boy, there are so many things you want to ask about being a bloke. secret men's business cover

You want to ask your dad, your brothers, your cousins, even your mates – but you don’t, because this is a verboten topic. You’re expected to know how to become a man without ever talking about it – because to talk about being a man means you must still be a boy, and the last thing a teenage boy wants to be called is a boy and not a man.

I remember finding Secret Men’s Business in the town library and being fascinated that a man had actually sat down and written all of this for us boys to just pick up and learn what we wanted to know. What an absolute champion. Marsden’s book tackled a wide range of topics, from the emotional to the sexual and highly visceral – the stuff you really couldn’t talk about with your dad. It was a thrilling, captivating read and it hit the mark.

My most vivid memory of the book is of hiding it. I don’t think my parents or anyone else knew I was reading it. I only read it in bed, after everyone in the house was asleep. It was hidden in a secret place in my bedroom. In fact, I hid it where I hid my porn magazines, and I would have probably had the same reaction if either item had been unwittingly found. There was a shame that came with reading this – because I felt like I should have already known it all: that manly wisdom should arrive via osmosis or telepathy, not from a book.

But despite that, I was still compelled to read this book. I had to know all the secret stuff about being a man – the stuff that nobody talked about. This book had it all. And I felt better once I’d finished it. I was less insecure; more confident. This book helped shape me as a man. It also helped shape me as a writer. I wanted to incorporate some of these themes, some of this masculine wisdom, some of this unabashed honesty, into my fiction – if I could find a way to do it well, of course.

John Marsden found a niche with this excellent book, and I’m so glad, because it changed my life for the better.

Holden