Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

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Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

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Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange

The Marvel movies that exist slightly outside of the Avengers orbit have a bit of a tricky situation on their hands. They’re given much more freedom, and are less restricted by existing storylines, allowing us the intergalactic funk of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, their style can’t be too extreme, or else they’ll clash when they inevitably join the rest of the squad, as seen in the drab approach Ant-Man took to the material. Ant-Man may have benefited from a bit more crazy behind the camera, but Doctor Strange, the newest addition to the MCU lineup, cleverly gets around this by building the crazy right into the structure of its world. The style of the special effects is like nothing you would see in Thor or Iron Man, but it’s not presented as a trick of the camera; by allowing some batshit crazy magical powers, batshit crazy visual tricks still fit the house style. Unfortunately, while the fantastical moments are far-and-away the best reason to see the movie, they necessitate a deeply silly mythology, and greatly outshine the least interesting cast of characters in any major MCU release outside of maybe The Incredible Hulk.

Donning the cape is Benedict Cumberbatch, who essentially plays the role he seems to always play as an effortlessly competent and talented individual with contempt for those who can’t perform at his level (he insulting calls someone a “Bachelors degree” at one point). It recalls his Sherlock, obviously, but also Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who similarly started off full of hubris and has seemingly boundless intelligence just because. But where Downey’s sardonic Stark is lovably self-deprecating, Cumberbatch’s Strange is infuriatingly smug. Where Stark applied knowledge he gained from his engineering background in his superhero persona, Strange is simply adept at wizardry and neurosurgery because he’s brilliant. It feels very much like a Chosen One kind of story, and while his ego is shot down often by Rachel McAdams’ love interest and Tilda Swinton’s guru, his natural competence flies directly in the face of those criticisms. He does brilliantly all while being a self-absorbed elitist narcissist about it, without the charisma to offset it (Cumberbatch’s natural charm is majorly blunted by his forced and completely unnecessary American accent).

There’s little in the rest of the story to really add much interest. Swinton’s The Ancient One is perhaps the sole bright spot, a fantastically designed character who is granted the movie’s sole moving moment, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fellow sorceror Mordo is underserved, Rachel McAdams is given a thankless role, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an unfortunate addition to Marvel’s trend of uninteresting villains. A lot of this can maybe be attributed to how arbitrary the rules of the universe seem to be constructed. This is a world full of sorcerors, sure, but the extent of their powers is never clearly defined. The advancement of the plot relies often on one-upmanship and lines like “they’re more powerful in this realm”, more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than Harry Potter. Hands are waved around and sparks fly for particular reason, and it’s more difficult to just go with than a giant green anger totem or a patroitic supersoldier for whatever reason. It’s just too silly, like something two kids would come up with bored in a backyard. Sometimes, this works; Strange’s cape has a personality akin to the magic carpet in Aladdin, and is appropriately endearing. Sometimes its just stupid. As a particularly egregious example, a lot is made of separating the body and soul as “astral projections”. While this leads to the aforementioned tender moment between Strange and the Ancient One, it also leads to an absurd ghost battle that serves no purpose other than making sure five minutes don’t go by without some action.

After the requisite training portion of the film, it really does kick into a non-stop action mode, in not necessarily the best way. After a great opening scene, it stops dead for about an hour, and then dives headfirst into the conclusion. By the time the movie arrives at the final showdown, it feels like the act-two break is still to come. The bloodless mysticism and senseless competence of Strange keep the action scenes from having real stakes, but Doctor Strange is creative enough with its special effects and design to make these scenes the far-and-away saving grace of the movie. Cities fold, floors and ceilings tile out into fractals, and the flow of time is allowed to play out differently in the background and foreground action. It’s nothing absolutely daring, and it wears it’s debt to The Matrix, Inception, and Cyriak (of Cows & Cows & Cows fame) on its sleeve, but it still has capacity to dazzle. I’m not sure if it’ll still dazzle on a small screen, but while the effects don’t make up for the lack of investment, they’re certainly the key selling point for seeing it on a big screen in 3D.

C

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Doctor Strange (2016)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Tilda Swinton
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange

Civil War is great fun when it ignores the Captain America part

“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” says Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to Chris Evans’ Captain America early in Civil War. At the risk to betraying my hashtag sympathies, I couldn’t agree more. Captain America is likely the least interesting of the main Avengers, a do-gooder beefcake with a kinda-dumb aesthetic. His fish-out-of-water tendencies are his redeeming feature, and he’s vastly outpaced in that department by Thor. He’s a bland hero, which makes him a fine center for the action of others but a difficult sell to carry his own movies. The First Avenger was fun enough thanks to its WWII period setting, and Winter Soldier similarly had fun with format while placing half of the star-power demands on the ever-capable shoulders of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. It’s no secret that Civil War is an ensemble piece, and much more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America one. What’s surprising is that, while Civil War still doesn’t quite sell Cap, it’s the best Iron Man movie since the first one came out eight years ago.

The central argument of Civil War, Iron Man defending regulation of the Avengers while Cap demands autonomy, is sold surprisingly convincingly and with as much gravitas as possible without being too ridiculous. The Avengers leave a wake a destruction with little culpability; Tony Stark recognizes this at long last, after creating the last Avengers supervillain in Ultron, while Captain America (ironically) is untrusting of government intervention. It’s a neat inversion of their character types, but one that makes sense in context. The decision of #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan really does come down to how tethered to reality the MCU is. If we can believe that the Avengers are some incorruptible moral force, then UN oversight is clearly a terrible plan, especially given that we know that William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross is a bit of a megalomaniac. However, the movie pays much more than lip service to reality, putting the Avengers to task for the collateral damage they are responsible for. For Cap’s side, extra motivation comes when Bucky Barnes re-appears as The Winter Soldier, possibly framed for an attack on the UN, while a mysterious operative played by Daniel Bruhl lurks on the sidelines. Barnes is probably my least favourite character in the MCU, a mopier Steve Rogers with a too-coincidental origin story, and his re-appearance is a bit too much after taking a major role in the last Cap outing. But he’s a cog in the big machine this time, and suffices as a plot device to divide the extended Avengers (sans Hulk and Thor, plus Spider-Man and Black Panther).

What is really remarkable about Civil War in the context of the MCU is how it keeps the stakes relatively small. Floating cities and alien invasions are nowhere to be seen, and while Bruhl is an effective and memorable villain in the underwhelming Marvel pantheon, the conflict is nearly entirely between heroes. While not nearly as many faceless lives are at risk, the battles seem to have real consequence and are miles more engaging than anything in Age of Ultron. The action scenes in the first half are a less involving, as they mostly involve the team fighting goons with guns, but when hero-on-hero action starts, Civil War finds its feet fast and produces the most flat-out enjoyable MCU scenes since the first Avengers.

It helps that Marvel has crafted its squad so carefully. While some of the motivations for the minor characters are fuzzy (notably Hawkeye and Ant-Man), these characters work best when together. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is more enjoyable in his five minutes in Civil War than the entirety of his own movie, and Anthony Mackie proves himself once again as the secret weapon the Cap movies. The two big new additions, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, are both great, even given semi-awkward introductions. Spider-Man in particular is a joy, easily stealing the movie and injecting some much-needed new blood. The scene where all these personalities meet is worth the price of admission alone.

If the MCU films haven’t worked for you, Civil War isn’t likely to wave the problems away. They’re still dumb fun which uses physics any way it wants and takes itself maybe a smidge too seriously, but they nicely avoid the darkness that plagues their DC bretheren in favour of sheer joy. While Cap is as uninteresting as ever, the cast around him is exceptional and the interplay on display is fantastic fun. The movie doesn’t hit the reset button, and nicely sets up future MCU films by leaving some distrust sown among the heroes. I’m sure a big space alien will force everyone to make nice again soon, but mining trouble in paradise has led to one of the better Marvel films, even if pieces are getting tired.

B

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Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, and Robert Downey Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • Heads up: two post-credits scenes, one halfway through and one at the bitter end.
  • SPOILER THOUGHT: To nicely tie it all together, while Cap is right that Bucky’s situation is not what it seems, it once again is entirely a consequence of previous actions taken by the Avengers. If someone had held them accountable for anything at any point, perhaps Helmut would have gotten some satisfaction another way. As for the Avengers in prison, Tony isn’t wrong when he says they broke the law, and there didn’t even turn out to be a time-sensitive Helmut scheme for them to stop after all to justify the airport brawl. It obviously sucks to see these great characters behind bars, but they did earn it.
Civil War is great fun when it ignores the Captain America part

Ant-Man tries to fit a weird peg in an MCU-shaped hole

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not without its share of oddities. Perhaps most notably, the Guardians of the Galaxy occupy a Star Wars-esque universe and count a talking raccoon amongst their numbers. Thor is a Norse god who shambles onto Earth speaking old English and wearing shining armor. Both of these examples originate in distant (read: non-Earth) lands, which gives their inherent weirdness an immediately foreign anchor and allows us to suspend all notions of “real-world”. Sure, Iron Man and Captain America are the things of fantasy, but they have to obey at least some level of reality to keep us invested (or have Thor come along to justify the big bad). Ant-Man is Earthbound like the latter two examples, but is a concept so absolutely off of its rocker that it should feel more at place with Thor and Guardians. By making it fit the mold of the Avengers, Ant-Man doesn’t get a chance to let its freak flag fly, and instead feels like a clear stop-gap on the way to getting him in the Avengers.

Not to say that a movie about a super-science (read: magic) suit that lets Paul Rudd get really small isn’t without its touches. It gets nicely ludicrous in the final act (albeit mostly in scenes glimpsed in the trailer), but doesn’t have as much fun with the material as you would expect for the first sections. But it doesn’t go as cartoony as you would hope, although it thankfully doesn’t get overly dark either. The training montage, which should be a plethora of zaniness, is pretty straightforward, with some funny moments but no memorable or original uses of the concept. The secondary ability, where they can control ants through unrelated super science (once again, magic), never feels natural in the world they build, but does lead to at least a few laugh lines. As a minor quiblle, the physics are fairly inconsistent, which only stops being an issue in the last act when the joy of the mayhem finally becomes great enough to overlook it. Things that get shrunk (such as vehicles) seem to not weight their full amount (and are carried around like a toy car), but Ant-Man supposedly is still a regular-weight dude, which gives his little punches power. And the quantum stuff sprinkled throughout is pretty boilerplate “Uncertainty means abstract” stuff.

Maybe the biggest problem is that none of the characters really stand out, given that the Marvel universe is generally great at providing memorable heroes. Paul Rudd is always better either laid back or playing an unrepentant bag of dicks, and doesn’t quite work as a hero/electric engineer. Michael Douglas is introduced with some very impressive de-aging CGI as super-scientist Hank Pym, and is fine as an exposition machine but plays it fairly straight. His relationship with his daughter Hope is pivotal, but he and Evangeline Lilly don’t seem too invested. While Marvel loves its heroes, its non-Loki villains are near-uniformly uninteresting, and Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket is no exception (although far from the bottom of the barrel). The Yellowjacket villain is well-designed, but Corey Stoll doesn’t make the role memorable, even when they let the character do some seriously manic mad-scientist stuff, what with turning people into boogers. The arc of him being rejected by his mentor Pym doesn’t fully land since Pym isn’t the center of the movie; had it taken its own advice and let Hope Pym be the super-spy, maybe the familial tie would bring it all together. As it is, Lang and Pym’s side stories feel very disconnected, despite both ostensibly being about family. However, on the sidekick side, Michael Pena is fantastically bug-eyed and optimistic, and is perfect in every way, and his centrepiece lip-synced exposition montage is the best scene of the movie.

While not batshit enough to leave a visual mark, it is batshit enough that, when it does crossover with familiar Avengers, it feels a bit off. The compromise necessary to fit these two styles together may have prevented Ant-Man from having its own wacko voice, and it will be interesting to see how current outlier Guardians of the Galaxy manages to fit itself in. It also gets to feel a bit like a cheaper cousin, as when it does overlap, only one Avenger shows up (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon) with no backup (even from SHIELD) at what is ostensibly a major base. Ant-Man may end up bringing some nice flavour to Civil War and Avengers 3, and even the next Ant-Man movie may be able to get out from under the Avengers shadow and work its own magic. As an entry, Ant-Man is among the more skippable entries in the still-reliably entertaining MCU machine.

C

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Ant-Man (2015)
Dir. Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and Michael Douglas
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)
On Netflix

Ant-Man tries to fit a weird peg in an MCU-shaped hole

Deadpool is shabbily amusing and amusingly shabby

Superhero saturation is in full swing, an epidemic only tempered a bit by the strange fact that the majority of the big-budget superhero movies are shockingly good. The studios have been self-aware about this for a while, hiring Joss Whedon to inject some much-needed smarm into the The Avengers. The indie studios have been even more self-aware, putting out varying-quality anti-superhero movies like Kick-Ass, Defendor, and Super (Super’s director, James Gunn, even went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy). It was only a matter of time before a studio got fully on-board with taking down the genre, and thus: Deadpool. With trailers making it look like every fourteen-year-old boy’s favourite movie, the rapturous commercial response to Deadpool was no huge surprise, but that it was coupled with critical praise was a bit of a shock. The secret sauce might just be that Deadpool is violent and crass without being mean-spirited, enjoyable just by being a good time at the movies. That same feature prevents it from being very distinct against the very movies it parodies, and the seams of its budget show, but it’s still a highly enjoyable lark.

Deadpool opens in-media-res, teasing out its origin story while intercutting a fight scene occurring roughly halfway through the movie. This move makes sense, partially to make one action scene seem like twenty, and partially since the origin story is not particularly exciting or colourful, outside of just being able to spend some time with Ryan Reynolds’ charismatic Wade Wilson and his love interest, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Reynolds was born for this role, as expected, even if he’s finally starting to look his age, and he makes Deadpool a funny asshole without coming across as annoying, petulant, or unlikable. Baccarin is equally important to carrying these portions, and her barbs are every bit as potent as Reynolds’; it makes it a small shame when she inevitably takes a damsel-in-distress role, but its not as egregious a case as it has been before. When Baccarin is plotwise unavailable, TJ Miller’s bartender Weasel steps in as Deadpool’s foil. Miller has been hyped up for this as if he’s the second coming of Comedy Christ, and he’s alright and all, but is essentially a fairly replaceable white guy sidekick.

What really hurts Deadpool is that it never builds up its world into something interesting, which is never more apparent than in its second act (where Deadpool signs up for military research). It’s all dark and grimy, but the kinds of things we’ve seen before. The villains are nondescript, especially main bad-guy Francis played by a very uncharismatic Ed Skrein. Even outside of this point, it still feels small-scale. This is a great boon in terms of its scope; there are no overstated, bland threats against the whole planet, giving it a personal feel. But it’s artifice is never hidden, and it’s hard to get lost in as a result. At one point, Deadpool knocks on the door of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Negasonic Teenage Warhead, one of two X-Men we meet over the movie (along with Colossus), answers the door, and Deadpool notes that the studio must be skimping if they can only afford two X-Men. Being aware of its shabbiness is great and all, but it doesn’t negate said shabbiness. Compare its similarly shabby cousin Kick-Ass, which doesn’t have nearly the quality of jokes but does have a sense of world-building. The mercenary bar gets close in Deadpool, but could have used a bit more fleshing out.

Deadpool doesn’t have the sense of identity I was expecting or hoping for, but its great fun nonetheless. At 1h40m, it’s a quick and breezy distraction with plenty of great gags and memorable visuals. I’m not hoping for a Deadpool Expanded Universe or crossovers necessarily, but I do hope the inevitable sequel has a bit more colour outside of its central performance.

B-

DEADPOOL

Deadpool (2016)
Dir. Tim Miller
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, and Ed Skrein
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)

Deadpool is shabbily amusing and amusingly shabby