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Wonder Woman Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Beginning with a sword and shield frenzy on a corpse-strewn battlefield, Wonder Woman hits the ground running with Gods and Amazons going toe-to-toe and mythical beasts hurtling about on a full-scale rampage. The Age of Antiquity has Deity of Chaos, Ares, waging war and only being thwarted by the courage and spite of the mythical warrior-women of Themyscira, led by the renowned Queen Hippolyta. When the Great God Zeus casts his verdict over the events, Ares is imprisoned for eternity on the Amazon island and the tribe charged with watching over him. But, as is the nature of such “do-gooding” mercy, the scumbag dutifully escapes and plots heinous revenge whilst making his detestable presence felt in the modern world by breeding hostility and violence everywhere he goes. The Amazon burden is compounded when it transpires that one of their own aided him in his jailbreak, and the explosive arrival on their secret island of an US Air Force pilot, Steve Trevor, means that centuries of idyllic existence is now in jeopardy. Lucky, then, that they kept up their extensive and exacting battle training, eh?

    With Princess Diana (no, not that one), moulded of earth and lightning and the only woman actually born on the island, passing the ancient tests of skill, endurance, strength and prowess in a time-honoured tournament, the responsibility passes to her to hunt down Ares and stop his mad campaign once and for all. Accompanying her on this kill-or-capture mission is the American pilot, who must help her find her way in the corrupted society of Men, and whose national colours she must wear as an emblem on her, ahem, provocative costume.

    “They're messing with Lincoln. Nobody messes with Lincoln!”

    William H. Marston's initial character, created in the early 1940's, is given a shot in the arm by screenwriter Michael Jenelic from a freshly-tweaked origin story from Gail Simone. Wonder Woman had, of course, already enjoyed a great revamp in Bruce Timm's brilliant Justice League series, though, for many, she will always be immortalised by the pneumatic Lynda Carter in the 70's hit TV show. But, with superhero movies showing no signs of losing momentum or public fascination, and with a big-budget live-action version on the cards, the time seemed right for Timm to pave the way for feminine fury with a great new feature from DC's animated stable. This new-look Princess Diana, iconic figurehead of the mystical race of Amazon hotties, once again finds herself thrust into a world dominated by male dunderheads and her staunch beliefs, reinforced by centuries of veritable bra-burning doctrine fostered by an ancient treachery, and forced to fight for truth, justice and the American Way. And it was high-time that she was given such a lavish makeover, with Timm on board as producer, alongside Greg (Superman: Doomsday/ Justice League: The New Frontier) Noveck and Lauren Montgomery directing after her successful leap from the Art Department to actually helming on Superman: Doomsday bringing the whole Ray Harryhausen-inspired outing to vigorous, enthralling and screen-painted life.

    “Mr. President, the threat has been neutralised.”

    “How?”

    “It seems by a group of ... armoured super-models!

    With animation that is fast, fluid and hyper-stylised with an emphasis on speed and brutality, Wonder Woman looks incredibly cinematic. This was obviously the intention. Plenty of shots and movements have that kinetic camera-like poise and elegance and the image of Steve's crashing jet as it streams passed Diana, who is mounted on a horse and surveying the impending arrival from an awesome cliff-top promontory, is simply breathtaking. However, there are still things that just don't look right. No matter how dynamic and vividly rendered those bone-crunching fight scenes may be, the simple matter of showing a character just walking casually down the street still looks horribly clumsy and seems to reveal a strange kinship to the animation of the olden days - the sixties Spider-Man, say. But this is more than made up for with the swift dynamics on plentiful display. We have a staggeringly aggressive aerial dog-fight near the start. Massed battles exhibit the verve and scale that only animation can give them. And physics-defying body-throws that see Diana, Ares and John Di Maggio's action-figure-in-the-making war-beast, Deimos, ripping through walls, buildings and even statuary, ancient and modern like colourful torpedoes of primal rage cannot fail to take the breath away. Subtle instances of crack editing also reward. Tactless Steve is on the receiving end of two terrific tooth-rattling slaps for his dim-witted advances and his chin/chair collision in the bar is a hoot, too.

    “Here, the true nature of men is laid bare. What other depraved thoughts must you be thinking?”

    God, your daughter has a nice rack ...

    The cast is more than up to the task of voicing these larger-than-life characters and there are some great people involved. Keri (M-I:3) Russell injects heroism, lyricism and a touch of indefinable destiny to her nubile Amazon princess, whilst also retaining that proud stance of femininity and reverse-chauvinism that makes her so appealing yet also pleasantly innocent in the world of Man. Firefly's Nathan Fillion brings a touch of laconic charm to the, otherwise, moronic Steve Trevor - a likeable but, as he has always been depicted, really rather redundant character in the saga. Serving mainly as the goof-ball who points Diana in the right direction in the mortal world, but only ends up having to be saved by her all the time, Steve is a rather short-changed sidekick who gets by on neat one-liners and klutzy charisma. Mind you, there are one or two moments when he is allowed to get stuck in, although the ending does, inevitably, see him craftily diverted from the main arena.

    Ares, voiced with obligatory English polite-cum-sinister tones by Alfred Molina, has moments of bland, wanton villainy. His pitch - thriving on blood, treachery, chaos and war to give him strength - is pure dumb hokum. But the writers do, at least, make a stab at giving him gravitas and poignancy during a splendidly eerie meeting with the shady proprietor of the Pit, Hades (Oliver Platt). Confronted with the enslaved and soulless wretch that his own son has become, Ares reveals a definite tremor of guilt, shock and compassion that is neatly, though swiftly dealt with. Likewise, this all-too-convenient and solidly one-dimensional blood-lust - we really should be beyond baddies who just exist solely to be bad, by now - is, at the end, given a final hint of motives stretching beyond merely the love of death and destruction. However, if the film has a weakness, then it is Ares who, despite his powers and his savagery, is never as frightening, or as intimidating as he should have been. Better, in fact, is his faithful and darkly vengeful accomplice, the devious Persephone (Vicki Lewis). It would have been so easy to have had her masquerading as a Greek-inspired variant on the Joker's minx-like paramour, Harley Quinn, but there is a deeper sense of tragedy and rage that makes her a credible woman-at-arms. Virginia Madsen brings nobility and age-old scorn to the part of Diana's mother and the Queen of Themyscira, Hippolyta, opening the door to her own brother, Michael, who will appear in the upcoming Green Lantern animated feature, which is also to be directed by Lauren Montgomery. The doomed Alexa is played by voice-of-choice (with too many tonsil-waggling cartoon sessions to mention) Tara Strong. And, if you listen closely you will hear cult-fave David (The Invisible Man/Ilya Kuriakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E) McCallum as the great God Zeus. McCallum also played Alfred Pennyworth in 2008's Batman: Gotham Knight and Merlin in the newer Batman show, The Brave And The Bold and is yet another in a long line of revered actors to have stepped into such a vocal genre.

    “If you come within five yards of her, I will personally castrate you!”

    Rossario Dawson is wilful and commanding as Diana's headstrong training rival and supreme combat-vixen, Artemis. Much more than merely another character in the show, she is given an arc of violence and revelation that has a fine emotional pay-off. Dawson is also awarded some meaty lines, as the above quotation shows, and offers firm support to the tale. It is tempting to think of further adventures just for her, let alone her more celebrated Amazon champion. Or even a mission that sees them both team-up in a sister-act of justified slaughter.

    What is also nice about the screenplay is the use of comedy. Whilst the odd one-liner, witty observation and situational exchange may smack of formulaic character-building, they work pretty well in the context of the narrative. The drinking session/seduction scene is great, with Diana matching Steve for tequila shots and remaining thoroughly in control - and incredibly high-brow - all throughout, whilst our gurning flyboy just makes an idiot of himself and allows his true desires regarding this “angel” before him to become clear. Earlier on, when a freshly crash-landed Steve surveys an idyllic lagoon filled with bathing Amazons, there can be no doubting what thoughts are running through his mind. “This is too good to be true,” he sighs. “And it is!” he is forced to remark with time-honoured macho-depletion as Artemis' arrows and spears are swiftly hurled his way. An educational discourse on the meaning of the word “crap” is also a slight nudge into what the writers think is a more grown-up screenplay. There is a slight hint of Hellboy's blue-collar mentality to the use of the word when things are going wrong as well, such as when Diana faces off against a magically enhanced Ares during the balls-to-the-wall climactic battle and utters it in pure Ron Perlman-style self-deflation.

    “How do you expect to defeat Zeus if you can't even beat a girl?”

    Such things as the Lasso of Truth and the bullet-deflecting bling on Diana's wrists, the invisible jet and an island, full of men-hating eternal women, that can appear and disappear from maps and radar are never properly explained - and there is no reason why they should be. Too many origin stories - animated, live-action or 2D comic-book - go too much into unnecessary detail, these days, forgetting that to probe so comprehensively into their genesis is to rob them of much of the magic that swirled around them in the first place. Admittedly, Wonder Woman does have much about her that is ridiculous, but this is also, by far, one of the best origin stories to have come along simply because it refuses to go overboard on explanations and prefers, instead, to hammer out its plot in quick bullet-points and then leap, headlong, into bringing the character into sharp and accessible focus for a newer generation. Warner Bros' DC Animation wing have remained consistent in these releases in terms of storytelling, faithful character homage and, of course, all the technical aspects of bringing such strong whirligig imagery to the screen. The animation, itself, is still large format and uncluttered, its beauty not so much in its detail but in its breadth and simplicity. Backdrops are broad and expansive, faces unmolested by naturalism. Colours literally leap from the screen, however, and the action - well, the action rocks big time. From the early days of Batman: The Animated Series, the violence has been punishing and painful and Wonder Woman is certainly no slacker in this department. Solid body-blows, vicious masonry-scattering impacts, colossally brutal kicks and smack-downs and, in-keeping with the ancient aspect of Diana's heritage, nasty sword-slicings punctuate the proceedings with an emphasis on merry mayhem that can't help but please. With a PG13 rating, we get to see blood as well, and the odd decapitation. One protracted death-scene is actually quite shocking, with Ares placing his hand over the chest-skewered victim's mouth to bring about her trip across the River Styx. But kudos just has to go a large-scale skirmish that even sees the zombified bodies of fallen Amazons brought back to shambling, ghoulish life to attack their own sisters. There is a delicious darkness to this sequence that, naturally, evokes misty-eyed memories of Jason and two of his Argonauts squaring-off against those dreaded skeletons, but the moment when a fallen warrior-ess transforms into one of the undead, herself, is quite unnervingly accomplished. Her subsequent decrepit drag-sword stagger is also reminiscent of David Emge's heroic buffoon, Steve, when he returns as a zombie in Romero's epic Dawn Of The Dead. A ritual sacrifice is cut from the same gory cloth as seen in both the first Blade and the first Hellboy, blood-channels in stone filling up with the stuff to help bring about unspeakable things. All this makes for a cartoon that has far more oomph to it than you may have expected.

    “Slaughter your sisters!”

    If Diana was one of the most alluring figures in the pantheon of superheroes, with her amazingly defined and choreographed form in Bruce Timm's Justice League show so eminently proving, then this incarnation must surely run a very close second. With that fabulously athletic body and piercing cobalt blue eyes she cuts one of the most entrancing images in animation - although I have to confess that I still adore Mrs. Incredible! The shot of her putting on the iconic costume and especially the, ahem, uplifting of that majestic, Olympian chest, is a moment that the animators must surely have fought with one another to get. Some eye-popping thigh-shots also make abundantly clear that this style of animation works every well indeed.

    “You tried to get me drunk. As if you could out-drink an Amazon, you pathetic lightweight!”

    Christopher Drake supplies a fantastic, full-blooded orchestral score that is actually, as far as I am concerned, one the better soundtrack treatments that I have heard for an animated feature. Now, this is no small achievement, actually. Since the late, great Shirley Walker scored Timm's celebrated and iconic Batman: The Animated Series, the field of such musical endeavour has really become a force to be reckoned with. The likes of Kevin Manthei, who scored Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Justice League: The New Frontier and Robert J. Kral, from Batman: Gotham Knight, have really pushed the boundaries of scale, style and substance. But, out of this crop of next generation composers, it is probably Drake who has made the biggest impact. Having already worked on two Hellboy Animated features and the main segments of Batman: Gotham Knight, he was a solid choice for scoring Wonder Woman. With a release of the film's score on CD pending, and such plentiful material already available, I will begin a series of in-depth CD reviews for these animated film scores, as this is certainly an area that is proving highly inventive and entertaining. But, for now, Drake delivers all the heroism, mystery and awe and even a nice, sobering element of the macabre, that you could wish for in a rip-roaring fantasy.

    Wonder Woman is great entertainment. Fast, furious and a sure-fire hit with the fans, this is the sort of animated superhero feature that seemingly does everything with ease. Character introductions, tight plotting, relationship-arcs and bruising action - you can't go wrong when they are served up with such economy, wit and bravura style. Wonder Woman always runs the risk of coming across as nothing more than a crazily ironic combination of male fantasy and female empowerment rolled into one divine form, yet the character actually has an awful lot more going for her. We leave Diana in a victorious position - no surprise there, of course, and hardly a spoiler - but her path in this new world is still one of danger, contradiction and bias ... therefore, let's have a sequel and a live-action version soon, please!

    Recommended.