Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Bad Math

Be honest: when was the last time there was a straight-up action movie making waves in theaters? No superheroes, space ships, young adult novel writing, or any franchise attachment to it, just a story about a blunt tough guy shooting and/or punching people in the face. Aside from 2014’s John Wick there doesn’t seem to be a big market for those kind of movies any more. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable, but it’s hard not to wish for an action movie to just shut up and start shooting without divulging into a muddled mess.

Case in point: The Accountant, a cross between John Wick and Jason Bourne that thinks it’s so cool and clever that it doesn’t know how far it’s stuck its foot in its mouth. The title character is Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a brilliant but socially awkward accountant living in solitude and helping locals uncook their books. He gets a job for a robotics company going through their financial records after an employee (Anna Kendrick) finds an error in recent transactions. When Chris finds the error to be accurate, he’s told to back off and is marked for dead. But according to the research of a U.S. Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) and analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Chris has been cleaning up the finances of mob bosses, arms dealers and terrorists for years, and he’s not shy about throwing fists and pulling triggers. 

It is important to note that, while influenced by other action movies, The Accountant is one of those rare original ideas that filmgoers have been craving for since franchisemania has swallowed Hollywood whole. There are interesting ideas and elements in the script by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) and he wisely keeps the mysterious parts of the story element hidden so that the audience sticks with it. Sadly, The Accountant succumbs to an abundance of anti-climactic ends to its story threads. There is almost zero interaction Simmons and Addai-Robinson have with the main story, and their closing moments are wrapped up in a drawn out form of exposition and a boring press conference at the film’s end. That’s not even including the involvement of John Lithgow and Jon Bernthal in the movie, who are practically filler to make the two hour runtime. Even Chris’s own story feels incomplete, like it doesn’t know how to finish off making the character fully rounded. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? Misunderstood? Seeking redemption? Wrong place, wrong time? 


The character of Chris himself might also draw attention, as he has high-functioning Autism. He doesn’t understand sarcasm and has trouble with being polite in conversation, but he’s brilliant with numbers and stone-cold when it comes to killing. To the film’s credit, Chris’s condition is not treated as a crutch and not glorified as the reason for his talents. The movie doesn’t even identify his condition until an hour in, and it’s not highlighted or given special drama. It’s just who Chris is and he deals with it in his own way, and that’s commendable for the movie to do. 

Commendations should also be given to director Gavin O’Connor (MiracleWarrior) for actually managing to construct a solid atmosphere in the needlessly-complex mess. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) shot the movie with a pale blue overtone and a near-constant sense of unease while Chris works numerical wonders and shoots up a lake house. It’s like if David Fincher directed a Bourne movie, complete with occasional shaky cam fight scene and some well-staged shootouts. O’Connor thinks he’s making some grand thriller by way of a R-rated action movie, like if The Insider had James Bond in it. Sadly, the mostly dull script and twisting story don’t do his work justice and he seems as lost in the narrative as the audience.

That’s not to say he doesn’t try to savor his talented cast. Affleck, seven months off of his inaugural run as Batman, seems to really get the character of Chris down as stoic but still hiding something underneath. It also shows that Batman training has paid off considering how great he does with the action scenes. Kendrick is typical Anna Kendrick, though it does provide for some funny scenes with Affleck. Simmons acts like he’s asleep in every scene he’s in, but at least Addai-Robinson has the decency to carry the scenes she’s in with and without him. Bernthal is so cool and charismatic in this that it’s actually the biggest waste of the movie. Maybe he’s the star that action movies have been waiting for, a cocky tough guy with just the right amount of emotional investment in something he knows is just fancy gun fights. Oh and Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor are in this….and then they disappear with no mark left on the story at all, so hopefully they were properly compensated.

The nicest thing to say about The Accountant is that it’s a very nice looking try. This may sound a bit demeaning to the action movie considering how far it’s come since the heyday of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but maybe the genre needs to lower its standards a bit. Perhaps competing with capes, magic, and laser swords is too much pressure on the action genre. There has to be some kind of middle ground between trying to hard and not trying hard enough, though you won’t find it here.

2 out of 4 stars