Movie reviews: 'Wonder Woman' gets superhero origin story right
Published Friday, June 2, 2017 5:35AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, June 2, 2017 12:33PM EDT
WONDER WOMAN: 4 STARS
At this point in history the superhero “origin story” is about as welcome as head lice or burning your tongue on hot coffee. From the turgid “Suicide Squad” to “Green Lantern’s” uninspired story and the below average “The Fantastic Four,” just to name a few, comic book movies have offered up enough colourful folklore to make Greek mythology seem positively uneventful by comparison. Trouble is, they are often bogged down by their own mythology, crushed under the weight of dead parents, mysterious cosmic rays, fateful choices and magical benefactors.
The odd one gets it right. “Batman Begins,” “Deadpool,” “Iron Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” all kicked off their franchises with style and I’m happy to add “Wonder Woman” to that short list.
The story of Diana, the Amazonian princess who becomes Wonder Woman, actually began at the end of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” She was a woman who “walked away from mankind” only to be drawn back into the saving-of-humanity business.
The new film, directed by Patty Jenkins, recounts Diana’s (played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey as a preteen and teen) childhood on the secluded paradise island of Themyscira. Inhabited by Amazons, a race of women who helped Zeus fight off a coup by his treacherous son, the war god Ares, the isle is a retreat from the horrors of the world. Led by Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the all-female society trains in all manner of hand-to-hand combat, preparing for the return of Ares. “It’s our sacred duty to protect the world,” she says.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, World War I rages on. The Amazon’s worst fears are realised when the planet's unrest comes to Themyscira in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a US military pilot who crashes a plane into the waters just offshore of Diana’s (played as an adult by Gal Gadot) home. Rescued by the warrior princess—he’s the first man she’s ever seen—the fallen pilot tells Diana about the war and a new chemical weapon being developed by the Germans. Convinced the conflict is the work of Ares, Diana decamps from the only home she’s ever known to London, then the heart of the action, the Western Front. “Be careful in the world of men Diana,” says Hippolyta, “they do not deserve you.”
“Wonder Woman” is the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman and the first female lead superhero movie since Jennifer Garner’s “Electra” twelve years ago. The success of director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” both artistically and financially (at the time of this writing the film is tracking to make $175 million globally) should guarantee we won’t have to wait until another Bush is president until we see another one.
Equal parts Amazon sword and sandal epic, mad scientist flick, war movie and rom com, it’s a crowd pleaser that places the popular character front and centre. As played by Gadot, Diana is charismatic and kick ass, a superhero who is both truly super and heroic. Like Superman she is firmly on the side of good, not a tortured soul à la Batman. Naïve to the ways of the world, she runs headfirst into trouble. Whether she's throwing a German tank across a battlefield, defying gravity to leap to the top of a bell tower, tolerating Trevor’s occasional mansplaining or deflecting bullets with her indestructible Bracelets of Submission, she proves in scene after scene to be both a formidable warrior and a genuine, profoundly empathic character.
The action scenes are cool. The Lasso of Truth sequences look like a glow-in-the-dark Cirque du Soleil scarf dance and the iconic Wonder Woman battle poses placed against the terrible beauty of World War I frontlines are stunners, but it’s ultimately her strength of character that keeps the movie interesting. Even the prerequisite CGI overkill at the end is made palatable by her potent message that only love can save the world. It’s a welcome and refreshing change from the deep, dark pit the DC movies seem to have fallen into of late.
“Wonder Woman” works because it maintains a human core in a fantastical good vs. evil story. As Diana’s understanding of heroism and mankind deepens, so does the movie. As she questions authority and man’s capacity for cruelty there are several very funny moments—her “How can a woman possibly fight in this?” routine at Selfridge’s clothing department is very funny—and action galore, but Jenkins wisely and wonderfully keeps the character true to her self confident, mythic comic book roots.
CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE: 3 ½ STARS
As if there weren’t already enough superheroes on the big screen these days, along comes another one tailor made for the younger set. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is an animated film based on Dav Pilkey’s bestselling books for kids.
Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch loan their voices to rambunctious fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins. The pair write, illustrate and sell homemade comics like “Sad Worm” and Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman.” Their favourite character is Captain Underpants. “Most superheroes look like they're flying around in their underwear,” they say. “This guy actually does.”
They are also pranksters who get in trouble so often there are two chairs outside the principal’s office labelled, Reserved for George and Reserved for Harold. Their principal, Mr. Benjamin "Benny" Krupp (Ed Helms), a grumpy old man who hates comics, Christmas and kittens among other things has an plan to put an end to the pranks, and “annihilate your friendship.”
He plans to split them up, placing them in different classes. “You won't be together,” says Krupp. “You won't be able to enjoy each other and ruin my life.” To avoid being separated George accidentally puts Krupp into a trance using his Hypno-Ring, the most powerful item ever found in the cereal box, turning him into Captain Underpants.
The Captain Underpants has few actual superhero powers, but his skills—along with his sidekicks George and Harold—will be tested as he does battle with the evil substitute teacher Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants Esquire (Nick Kroll). Tired of people making fun of his name the mad genius inventor and revenge seeker, plans to eliminate laughter from the world by destroying everyone’s Hahaguffawchuckleamalus, the part of the brain that controls the human capacity for mirth.
His secret weapon? The Turbo Toilet 2000, a giant toilet invented by humourless classmate Melvin Sneedly (Jordan Peele). Because he has no sense of humour—“He’s like a chair or a supermodel,” says Poopypants—Melvin is the supervillain’s perfect sidekick.
As befitting a story about two troublemakers “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” embraces the kid friendly anarchy of Pilkey’s books. It zips along in a flash of gags, bright colours and textures. Director David “Turbo” Doren utilizes state of the art computer generated images plus puppets, flipbook animation and children's drawings come-to-life to illustrate the story. It’s lively and fun and if you don’t like a joke, hang on, there will be another one a second later.
That potty humour is the lowest form of wit is a running gag throughout but a film titled “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” wouldn’t be quite the same without it. It’s hard to image the story without the musical Whooppi Cushion symphony or the wonderfully silly name Diarrheastein. If, like Melvin, you have to ask, “Why is it funny?” then maybe it’s not for you, but if you’ve ever giggled in science class at the name Uranus, you’ll enjoy.
DRONE: 2 STARS
“Drone,” the new film from Vancouver director Jason Bourque, approaches the subject of drone warfare from a personal point of view. Unlike “Eye in the Sky,” a thriller that examined the legal, military, moral and political ramifications of an unmanned aerial vehicle bombing on high value targets in the war on terror, “Drone” places the story in a smaller world, the territory of a suburban private military contractors.
Neil (Sean Bean) is a family man, a concerned father who tenderly touches his troubled son’s shoulder with an offer to talk, “anytime you like.” His biggest worry is how to summarize his late father’s life into a eulogy. “It’s harder than I thought,” he says.
Like millions of others he’s a suburban husband who commutes to work to spend the day sitting in front of a computer. Unlike millions of others, from nine to five he rains down holy hell on unsuspecting enemies, dropping bombs from remote controlled drones.
It’s a good, safe office job until a hack reveals the names of many private drone operators, including Neil. The trouble he has been so careful to insulate himself and his family from becomes up close and personal when Karachi businessman Imir (Patrick Sabongui), convinced Neil is responsible for the deaths of his wife and child, comes to visit on the anniversary of their passing.
“In this videogame the victims are real,” Imir says. “They come home to their families after a long day of murder and put their children to bed. It’s easy to divorce what they do from real life consequences.”
“Drone” is an appropriate name for a movie that drones on at a glacial pace for much of its running time. The slow burn establishes Neil’s family dynamic, his grief over the loss of his father and the moments leading up to Imir’s revelation that his wife and child were “struck by a missile.” Using off kilter camera angles and low key, deliberate dialogue Bourque builds tension as Imir answers questions from Neil’s wife and son, both of whom are unaware of what dad does for a living.
Despite Bourque’s stylistic flourishes “Drone” is a psychological drama that, save for a hint of activity in its final moments, feels like it could have worked just as well as a stage play. Dialogue heavy, its all bark and very little bite leading up to an ending that is meant to be profound but overplays its hand. A twist here, a turn there and we’re left with a conclusion that adds little new to the conversation on the ethics of drone warfare.
#ANAMERICANDREAM: 2 ½ STARS
In his new film satirist Ken Finkleman casts his net to include everything from gun toting evangelicals and reality TV stars to government paranoia and corporate shenanigans. By the time the final credits roll though one question remains, Can you parody a culture that has already fallen into self-parody?
“#AnAmericanDream” looks to “Candide,” a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire, as a basis for its jaundiced look at life. Like the character Candide, when we first meet William Bowman (Jake Croker) he’s living a sheltered life. William is a college football star thrust into adulthood, and all the hardships that entails, after a concussion sidelines his athletic career.
He lands on his feet at a high-flying Wall Street company, only to be knocked down when his investment firm is taken over. Next up, he becomes a travelling salesman, selling religious books door to door to churches and libraries. When that implodes in a hail of gunfire he sets off on a journey that sees him involved in a public execution, a government cover-up and a fugitive as the star of a reality show called “Dead Man Running.”
Like “Candide” “#AnAmericanDream” pokes the bear, taking shots at religion, government and the military industrial complex. It’s an erratic, fantastical ride presented in Finkleman’s trademarked matter-of-fact style. When the going gets gonzo the director keeps a steady pace, punting William from one escapade to the next. The sheer volume of allegory and adventure is head spinning but when broken down into individual elements are eerie and timely. A snarky millennial newscaster puts us in the mind of Tomi Lahren while a televised execution feels like an episode of “Fear Factor” gone wild.
In our Fake News/Post Truth Era, however, these satirical components feel less tongue-in-cheek and more like a scary peek into the near future. It’s hard to know if Finkleman has made a movie that serves as a warning or as a comment on where we are today. This timeliness and familiarity blunts some of the film’s impact. Call it post-satire. Call it whatever you like, but in an age where former right-wing messiah Alex Jones can keep a straight face and claim his messages weren’t real, that they were just performance art, a movie like “#AnAmericanDream” feels less game-changing than it needs to be.