Thursday, March 12, 2009

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

It is odd that Warner Bros. has yet to produce a live action Wonder Woman movie. Batman and Superman have each enjoyed a successful franchise: why not Wonder Woman?

Perhaps we know the answer.

Wonder Woman, on her own, is a difficult character to manage. In fact, an argument could well be made that she is simply not a very good character.

Certainly, there is a fascinating dynamic existing between her and her teammates on the Justice League. She is one of the three pillars of the DC Universe, and, as a representation of mythology and fantasy, she is an integral part of the setting.

But without the League, she is a difficult character to manage. She was created as a metaphor for a very specific ideology; a bizarre version of feminism that cannot be reconciled with either the movement of the 60's, nor its successors. Her creator, a psychologist of some significance, envisioned a world where men yielded power to women in exchange for being able to objectify their superiors (hence the costume - the lasso is a topic for another day).

His beliefs were more complicated, of course, but this simplification serves to illustrate the problems that arise when the character is updated. When she is not on the Justice League, it is difficult for the character to be taken seriously.

As a solution, the new direct-to-DVD Wonder Woman does not take itself seriously, at all. Fundamentally, for all the action and fantasy elements, this is a romantic comedy. The writers abandoned her power of flight, instead relying on a more mortal version of the character.

The result was a surprisingly enjoyable, though at times baffling, picture.

This isn't to say the violence was badly used: in fact, at times, it exceeded our expectations. The planning for these fights was superbly done, as was the animation. The lack of blood, however, struck us as a weakness. This was particularly surprising given the thought put into the battles, themselves. While there was some blood, it was a rare sight. It's not that we demand gore in all cases, but characters were impaled - complete with blades protruding from their bodies - without a drop of blood. Considering the effort made to highlight the film's PG-13 rating, this struck us as somewhat cowardly. We find ourselves wondering if the studio might have stepped in at the last minute and "adjusted" the film. We know for a fact they've done this before.

Likewise, the fights had consistency issues. Wonder Woman's strength, speed, and resistance to damage in one scene had no correlation to the next. At times, she was wounded as though she were human, while others portrayed her as nearly invulnerable.

While we were pleased by most of the voice casting work, it was Nathan Fillion (iD&Di: .89) who truly carried the movie. His cowboy delivery of Steve Trevor's dialogue elevated the jokes to a level of genius.

It was not without flaws, however. The antagonist, Ares, underwhelmed. Despite excellent voice casting and layered motivation connected to the death of his son, his story seemed rushed and his design - particularly when it changed near the end - was uninteresting. Ares never created a sense of dread in the viewer; indeed, Hades's short cameo accomplished this to better effect. The problem may simply have been that the relationship between Diana and Steve overshadowed everything else.

The theme of the movie also had an obnoxious tendency of butting in when it wasn't welcome. In an effort to retain some link to the character's origin, the scenario was recast as a metaphor for communication between men and women. While we appreciate the idea behind this, the execution felt forced and awkward. Interrupting a battle scene, for instance, with a line of pop psychology was not the film's high point. Still, enough of these moments were played for comic effect that the damage was minimal.

Overall, this was an enjoyable film. Under the leadership of Bruce Timm, Warner Bros. has mastered the art of producing these direct-to-dvd animated films. While it fails to match the brilliance of New Frontier, this is highly entertaining.

On a scale between one and five stars, where five stars represents The Incredibles, we feel Wonder Woman deserves three and a half. It's a worthy addition to any geek's animation collection.

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