Heroine

By Noel Vera

(WARNING: plot developments and narrative twists discussed in detail.)

She “saved the DC Films Cinematic Universe!” declared one article. Of all the hype swirling around the movie it’s the one attributed accomplishment I’m not sure I really like.

The movie itself? Better than expected, though saying that I realize we’re talking lowered expectations (Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman anyone?).

The story: Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on the island of Themiscyra, raised by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), trained (behind her mother’s back) to fight as a warrior by General Antiope (Robin Wright). When Diana rescues US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a crashed plane she learns of a world wide war raging outside; she believes the Greek god Ares is responsible and leaves with Trevor to try stop aforementioned god, save mankind.

The script as described (by Allan Heinberg, from a story cobbled together by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs) is based on the comics created by William Moulton Marston (aka Charles Moulton) based in turn on the legend of the Amazons. The setting has been transposed from the Second World War (the comic was first published in 1941) to the First, from a familiar easily justified conflict (the battle for survival against Nazis) to something vaguer, more morally ambivalent (It was called “the war to end all wars” — an eerie echo of Diana’s quest that, as intentions go and historical records show, doesn’t pan out too well).

Jenkins and company get this much right: focus on the woman more than the superhero (far as I can recall Diana’s official moniker isn’t used once in the picture). Presenting her as a naif let loose in the world has its risks though; as Melissa Anderson of the Village Voice puts it, this goddess has to have her companion mansplain everything to her, a trope that’s been done before (Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Ron Howard’s Splash among others). Basically caters to the fantasy of the everyday man mentoring a superpowered but clueless woman, proving his superiority in nearly all aspects except when (crucial moment) he’s being overwhelmed (defended, rescued) by her, sometimes in private.

That’s the fantasy; Jenkins’s version is more a drama about loss of innocence, in this case Diana’s, who learns the true nature of the humans she has set out to save. Not sure if Gadot’s the amazing new discovery of an actress most critics make her out to be, but her large eyes and broad brow are a clear parchment on which we see the terrible costs and consequence of war — easily the most effective moments in the story. When Diana is finally fed up and rises out of the trench to do something it’s a mighty moment (enough of this macho bullshit!), the movie’s (and Jenkin’s) dramatic high point (though it must be pointed out that when she rises it’s to do more than her share of killing).

Said drama then shifts into full-on love story, though there’s always been suggestions of chemistry here there. Diana and Steve realize their feelings for each other and we buy most of it: Pine helps by muting the testosterone he displayed as Captain Kirk, opting for the soulful underplaying in Hell or High Water — in that film too soulful (it made you forgive him his criminal offenses), in a comic book flick like this just right (as Diana puts it with a heroically straight face: “I believe in love”). Gadot isn’t asked by either script or director to do much more than stand and pose like a divine presence and — whaddaya know — the combination works.

That’s the good stuff; the rest isn’t as pretty. The opening fights on Themiscyra are horrifyingly staged, shot too close in and cut to be near-incomprehensible (to allow I assume untrained actors to look more impressive). The later battles are somewhat better executed, long takes where the camera swirls round the actors, though Jenkins tends to fall back on the DC house action style pioneered by Snyder: endless slow-motion bombast, slathered with plenty of digital effects. The aforementioned scene where Diana climbs out of the trenches to cross the battlefield is Jenkins’s most effective, though she ruins it by having the heroine jump the remaining space* (If she could have done that at any time why didn’t she earlier? Ended the battle sooner and saved lives, not to mention the metal polish on her shield?).

Am I suggesting women are good only for emotional and not fight scenes? Kathryn Bigelow is a terrific action filmmaker whose setpieces are not just well executed but visually evocative; Ida Lupino was so known for her thrillers it’s said she had trouble trying to find someone who would trust her to direct drama. The latter filmmaker incidentally chafed at the categories the industry often assigned thanks to her gender; she challenged them as much and as often as she could.

So Jenkins got to direct a big-budget superhero movie? Good for her; she was smart enough to focus on emotional throughline as opposed to narrative (y’know — the one that develops all that Extended Universe crap). Too bad she couldn’t maintain that focus; too bad not all her action setpieces are successful; too bad she’s made so much more money for a huge corporate entity largely intent on perpetuating mindless pap. Here’s hoping she does better on the sequel (which is going to happen whether I want it to or not) and — this being my larger more important point — that she moves on to do work that really matters, like her memorable debut feature.

*(I’m guessing this is something Snyder — sorry Jenkins — filched from animé, where amazing leaps and bounds are common fare. But somehow Japanese filmmakers seem better able to do it right, suggesting people crossing immeasurable reaches with unimaginable speed; when Snyder — sorry Jenkins — does it, the effect is off-puttingly reductive not expansive: instead of costumed figures with godlike powers they come across as tiny grasshoppers with disturbingly floppy limbs.)

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