Wonder Woman Sails Into Shiny Waters

So obviously a lot has been going on in recent months all about, but I did manage to go see the long awaited and much speculated about Wonder Woman movie, starring Gal Gadot. I enjoyed it overall and give it about a B+ grade, which, given the DC multiverse’s film record the last few years, is quite good. The action scenes were mostly great, very cleverly done, the cinematography and use of color and audio with homages to the comics themselves was interesting and nicely shaped by the director, Patty Jenkins. The special effects were sometimes a bit uneven – some of them were great but a few looked a bit too electronic game animation-like. That’s going to happen, though, and it’s pretty amazing at how extensive a range of things they can CGI create now. There were a few points of the plot that didn’t make a great deal of sense – par for the course in action movies – and the ending had some very good dramatic stuff but also a fair amount of hokey stuff that didn’t quite pull it together as well as it might have been done.

But that also is a bit of a Wonder Woman tradition and they managed to set up Wonder Woman’s role in the up-coming Justice League movie quite well. There were a lot of shout-outs to the Wonder Woman comics, although the story and action were moved to World War I, the war that greatly changed both war itself and the idea of empire. They managed to jigger together the character’s many re-booted back stories to give her a cohesive background origin that worked with the movie’s main arc.

Gadot herself gave a very strong performance. She brought easy physicality to the role and handled the tricky mix of naïvety and smarts that is Diana first leaving her island about as well as could be managed. The main costume was still too Xena-ish but the movie may have started a new fashion trend of swords down the back of evening dresses (and the use of the sword was explained in the film.) Chris Pine showed his all to the audience as American spy Steve Trevor (and I do mean literally all.) He also had a tricky balance between playing a man of the 1918 time period trying to explain it to Diana and one who accepts backing her plays as leader in a changing world, as well as an island of warrior women, and I think he did a good job. Their canon romance was a bit rushed for the movie’s sake, but that really couldn’t be helped and they had good chemistry. The movie did a good job on the difficult issues of war and humanity that both of them have to grapple with, (though again the ending could have been stronger.)

Non-white representation in the movie was not great, which was a bit of a disappointment. Two major black canon characters were cut from the Amazons and WOC were token among them (though they did beautifully in their action scenes.) The main Amazon roles went to white, not particularly Mediterranean  appearing actresses — Robin Wright was steely sharp as Diana’s “fun” aunt and Connie Nielsen had the rather thankless role of Diana’s worried queen mom, Hippolyta. Two major supporting characters were non-white men and both actors, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock, did really good performances with what they had. Problem is that what they had were awful stereotypes, which may have been partly because their characters were actually drawn from the DC Comics, but things definitely could have been improved in the script. The film seemed to acknowledge itself on the sad state of Hollywood in this area, including one very pointed line of dialogue delivered by Taghmaoui. So here’s hoping DC does better in the other movies.

Ewen Bremner also had to deal with some stereotypes – Scottish ones for his part – and managed to also give a nice performance nonetheless. Elena Anaya and the renowned Danny Huston made interesting villains. And Lucy Davis, who I particularly enjoyed in Shaun of the Dead, is a national treasure here as Trevor’s British assistant Etta, stealing every scene she’s in. The movie was not a laugh riot, given the subject matter, but it did use healthy doses of humor very effectively throughout, which is again a considerable improvement on the dour, muddled DC film universe so far. If you haven’t had a chance to catch the film yet, I’d say it’s well worth your time even if you’re not the biggest Wonder Woman fan, for the action visuals alone.

If the movie Wonder Woman had been a regular big action film in our ideal world, my little review above would be the only things needing to be talked about. But of course the movie in the sexist system we still have was made the flashpoint of “will woman superhero movies ruin us,” with an enormous amount of pressure, including the responsibility to prop up sagging enthusiasm for the entire DC franchise in preparation for the up-coming Justice League movie.

Wonder Woman, as part of that DC franchise, was given a very large production budget estimated at $149 million U.S. To break even, a film has to essentially double its production budget in global box office to cover the additional costs of distribution, marketing, PR, etc. That meant that Wonder Woman had to make just shy of $300 million to not completely flop, which would still be disastrous given the large budget stakes of the franchise. Luckily, Wonder Woman made that amount before the first week of U.S. release was finished. After that, all else is profit.

But making a profit, even a decent one, would not be enough when it’s a woman lead on a superhero movie. A decent profit would be considered by most of the powers that be (mainly white guys) in the film industry and in the marketing field as a “fluke,”, an exception attributable mainly to Wonder Woman benefiting from being part of the DC franchise, the character appearing first in Batman v. Superman, etc. It would be held as evidence that women superhero and action leads (despite many films/pieces of evidence to the contrary,) still weren’t reliable bets, especially for big budgets. And the same hand-waving would be extended to Wonder Woman’s woman director.

In order for Wonder Woman to be considered a major hit that was hard to ignore or discount as occurring by merit/popularity, the movie was going to have to make quadruple its production budget — hit over $600 million, do Deadpool money or better. Even then, there would still be industry players who try to downplay the worth and potential of having woman led superhero movies, but the excuse gets harder and harder to prop up believably in the culture when the superhero that Hollywood claimed was so difficult to pull off in a film debut brings in that much cash.

Last week or so, Wonder Woman crossed the $600 million line in global box office, a few weeks out of the U.S. release. It currently is estimated to have earned over $700 million globally, almost half of it — $350 million plus – domestically in the U.S. It’s the number four global earner for the year (with woman led Beauty and the Beast at number one.) That’s a position it probably won’t keep as the year goes on, but since it’s still chugging through summer box office, it will likely be in the top ten for the year and may eventually snuggle up towards the $1 billion mark. It may very well pass the $870+ box office for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the movie that pretty much everybody hated but was the official DC launching pad film. It’s a doubly impressive feat in the wake of a number of major action movies this year starring big white/male stars that flopped or didn’t do anywhere near what was hoped in box office.

What this is going to mean for action films and in particular the big superhero/comics domination of our times, the extent of it, is not yet fully certain. But at the least, it’s probably going to mean that DC and rival giant Marvel are going to put more financial support into their franchise’s woman-led films and that more woman fronted action movies and graphic novel adaptations may get green lit in the industry. Wonder Woman 2 is rumored to be likely a go, with Jenkins possibly directing again. And the women characters in the more ensemble comics films may get more to do.

It also means that the world’s most popular woman superhero is someone who undeniably audiences wanted to see in these movies, a cultural “trickle, trickle” stream that is more of a deluge. We have been transitioning in the movies from having women action badasses be a welcome sometime occurrence to it being a regularly expected thing in action, to now expecting women action badasses to top one another in spectacle movies, just like the guys. While the era of giant action franchises that do well in China is probably not going to go on forever, right now they need women characters to meet audience interest and it seems to be opening up new opportunities for actresses, as well as women producers and directors.

So Wonder Woman isn’t just a very entertaining, visually interesting summer action film that offers up a love poem to its iconic heroine. It’s a catapult over the wall, and Wonder Woman, for one, will not be going back behind it.

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Filed under Movies/TV, SFFH, Women

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