It’s been ages since the last High-Low Report, but it has joyously returned to mark the recent release of Wonder Woman, the latest picture to enter the DCEU (DC Extended Universe). Andrew and Jun, MediaBrewPub’s resident low-brow and high-brow respectively, are back to exchange their thoughts over a pint of digital brew. While they will venture into spoiler territory, spoiler tags have been added, so consider this a safe read if you haven’t seen the film.
Andrew’s thoughts are in red, and Jun’s in blue.
It is time. After spending months training for the right moment to emerge from my MediaBrewPub hibernation, I have returned. I have honed my low-brow craft by playing Hudson Hawk, Catwoman, and Avatar: The Last Airbender on repeat – 27 hours a day, 9 days a week. I am prepared. I have lain in wait for the right moment to emerge from the ashes of my blog silence and re-claim the MBP throne from my high-brow colleague. This past weekend, on the anniversary of the birth of the Low-Brow sensibility, an opportunity presented itself.
And so here we stand at the re-emergence of low-brow dominance with the revival of MBP’s High-Low Report. And what better way to revive this sacred battle than with DC’s latest shot across the bow at Marvel: Wonder Woman. “Shot across the bow,” you ask? Yes. Because for all of Marvel’s successes, it is the DCEU that introduced the first film carried by a strong female lead. Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, the Wasp… all sideshows in the patriarchal world of the MCU. DC has clearly realized that their failures were leaving the heavy lifting to the likes of Batman and Superman. Even in Suicide Squad, it was Harley Quinn who was the bright spot of an otherwise dismal cinematic affair. They needed the Amazon Princess. Diana Prince, the woman that stole our hearts during the two and a half hours of over-stylized, dreary, dull, and demented Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s the twenty-first century. Anyone who hasn’t figured out that all relationships are ruled by women has clearly fallen asleep at the wheel. Hats off to DC for being the first in the comic book world to truly embrace this truth.
That’s enough foreplay. I’ve got to start with Gal Gadot. With apologies to my wife, I left the movie 110% sure I was a little in love with her. With no apologies, I’m 1000% sure my wife feels the exact same way. She had us mesmerized. But I’ll get to all that. It’s time to hear from our resident movie froo-froo man. High-brow, what are your initial thoughts on Wonder Woman and, more importantly, how much do you love Gal Gadot?
The prodigal son has returned! Welcome back, low-brow. We missed you around these parts, so it’s good to have you back. Now, if only our editor-in-chief Simon would return to the fold as well… but I digress so that we can get back to Wonder Woman. I wholeheartedly agree with your writeup about DC taking a shot at Marvel with the film, except for the part where you claim that Harley Quinn was the bright spot of the abysmal Suicide Squad – looks like you misspelled Amanda Waller. Bow down to the queen that is Viola Davis, y’all.
Gadot is wonderful as the titular superhero. While she’s certainly one of the very few highlights in the disastrous BvS, the fact of the matter is, the character had little to do that movie, so this latest entry in the DCEU was always going to be the true test of the actress’ abilities and talents. Simply put, she knocks it out of the park. Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg shape Diana into a marvelous character, whom Gadot confidently breathes life into. Her grace feels genuine and has weight. Her naivety – like when she squeals over spotting a baby or when she melts after eating ice cream, both for the first time in her life – is hilarious and carries an irresistible sweetness. Her determination to do good lifts the spirits of not just the characters around her, but the audience’s as well. This is nothing short of a full-bodied performance from Gadot.
As for the film itself, I find it to be just good, which is frustrating because it would be a great film if it weren’t for one thing: a messy third act. Wonder Woman had me hooked during its first two acts. It does a great job at establishing its lead character and taking her on a compelling arc. It manages to comfortably mesh Greek mythology with a World War I setting. It successfully balances a funny “fish out of water” story, a war story that doesn’t hold back on the horror, and an organic love story (this last one is key because I don’t think any recent superhero film has done this). It showcases charismatic and interesting secondary characters. Everything looks great until the third act unravels. It features overblown and shoddy CGI, casts those secondary characters aside, and – most egregiously – expects us to buy a villain who is poorly built up to and serves as an information dump. I wouldn’t say the third act completely derails the picture, but it sure provides an underwhelming finish. Still, this is hands down the best entry in the DCEU (I know this isn’t saying much considering how low the bar is), and while said cinematic universe still has a ways to go when it comes to tight storytelling, even I can’t deny that its future seems brighter than it was before.
I’d love to hear your initial thoughts about the film, and after that, let’s move our discussion to the cast and the characters they play. We’ve already spoken about how lovely Gadot is, and while she does carry the picture, it benefits from some other standouts. Chris Pine, who plays Steve Trevor, is terrific. He has some uproarious scenes, shares an infectious chemistry with Gadot, and settles very well into his character’s role as a foil to Diana. While I do wish the film did more with their characters, I enjoyed the performances from Lucy Punch as Etta Candy, Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremmer as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as Chief. Also, Robin Wright as General Antiope? Goddamn. I bow down to her.
Prodigal son? Touché, my friend. It feels good to be back in the throes of movie chatter. And yes, I did leave out Viola Davis – but let’s just say that Suicide Squad‘s best performers were its women, that’s the whole point. Back to Wonder Woman, I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did the wifey. I was so excited on the drive home that when Shana asked what I thought you would rate it I had to really think about it. Not because I thought it was such a superbly crafted film but because the bar for DCEU is set so low for me, it’s hard to look at things objectively. I believe I put you at the 4-4.25 range for the film because I really did think that the characters shined in ways that we haven’t seen from this universe so far.
Gal Gadot was the clear reason I loved this film. I don’t want to retread your wonderful analysis so here are things that I appreciated about her performance. I had already bought into the idea that she could handle the weight of being a superhero on screen. BvS proved that. But I was worried that they would leave her as an “above the fray” character that is invulnerable and therefore detached from humanity and the audience. Or, even worse, giving her all the personality tics of typical male superheroes and leaving out the fact that this is a kickass woman! Look, men and women are equal but not the same. You look at Black Widow, Marvel’s longest tenured female superhero, and she has been portrayed as (rightly so) a very cold and withdrawn character. You look at other films that turn strong female leads into action heroes, and I feel like there’s this need in Hollywood to remove their femininity to create a more “suitable” action hero. Wonder Woman succeeds, to me, because of how Gadot highlights her femininity in ways that enhance her heroism. There is a warmth she exudes from the screen that draws you in a way that you could never get from a male hero – it’s incredible. It also helps that she is beautiful to the point of distraction.
I think seeing her introduced in BvS gave the studio an interesting way to lead into her origin story. I appreciated the lead-in to her memories because of its simple yet relevant way of giving us an excuse to have an origin story. It felt organic and emotional in ways origin stories do not capture. And because we are looking through the lens of a character that has such a high emotional IQ, it changed the way I viewed the film. That might just be a personal thing but I loved it. Even the message she wrote back to Bruce at the end of the film closed the loop in a satisfying manner. It was like sharing a moment of nostalgia with a character that you love.
Visually… thank God for some color. Themyscira was gorgeous, and if there’s something to complain about, it’s that we only got a tiny glimpse of that world. The casting of the Amazonians was wonderful and “goddamn” was basically the exact thing I said when Robin Wright first displayed her battle prowess. And then, they cross over into the “real” world. Finally, it makes sense for things to be a little more dull, a little more depressing (and just a little, not the outrageous dark worlds of Man of Steel and BvS). As much as you dislike the third act, I did appreciate how incredibly cliché the sunrise was to create our (mostly) happy ending. Given the story they were trying to tell, I’m not sure how they could have done it any better. The overall look and feel of the film just felt so not DCEU while still clearly being different from Marvel. And considering how much they overused her theme in the trailers and BvS, I’m glad they waited until her first real Wonder Woman moment to unleash it in this movie.
So you were about to delve into some specifics on the side characters. For me, Chris Pine did an outstanding job moving the story along without overshadowing Gadot. He was likable and the juxtaposition of his charming idealism was well-placed in the cynical time of WWI. He also did a great job coming off as “above average” as opposed to what he is – a goddamn specimen of the male species. His inability to control his inevitable befuddlement when engaging with Diana’s beauty and naiveté were heartwarming and hilarious. Speaking of Diana’s naiveté, can we get an extended version of the scene where she’s choosing a new wardrobe?
So let’s hear your thoughts on the side characters. Lots of great ones to hit, which is a nice change of pace for the DCEU.
Great assessment of Gadot’s performance, Andrew, and I find your point about the telling of Diana’s origin story quite intriguing.
I think what makes the secondary characters stand out compared to those from the other DCEU films is that they feel as though they actually belong in the story, and the story itself needs and values them. No one really feels extraneous or dropped in for the sake of having them in the film (á la Katana and Slipknot in Suicide Squad). They’re extensions of the ideas and themes that Wonder Woman presents, and that they’re interesting to boot makes them organic and fleshed out. Etta personifies the status of women under a patriarchy, and to have Diana be confronted with this reality leads to some terrific scenes (Andrew, I’m right behind you on your request for an extended wardrobe selection scene). The horrors and consequences of war have shaped Sameer, Charlie, and Chief in various ways, and the film offers us a glance into what lies beneath their surface: dreams deferred, innocence lost, an identity found. While such explorations can be found in war films, I really appreciated their presence in this one, which goes to show how it doesn’t pull any punches regarding the nature of war.
Granted, I do wish the film did more with these characters. Some of my favorite scenes involve Diana interacting with them, thereby getting to know not just them but also the world they’re a part of. I love the scene where Etta explains to Diana what a secretary does, and in response Diana likens it to slavery. However, that’s pretty much all there is to that matter. I wanted so much for Diana to tackle that further, to inspire Etta to be more. Alas, apparently the film has to get Diana to the front lines, so that’s that. Of the three soldiers, Chief gets the least amount of screen time, which is a shame since his background is the most compelling, as in one scene he reveals to Diana that his people (the Native Americans) lost everything due to Steve’s people (the white men). However, he meets the same fate as the other two in that they cease developing as characters after the second act, and they’re relegated to carrying out thankless tasks that honestly any schmuck can do.
It looks like you’re more forgiving of the third act that I am, which is fine, I guess. I will say, though, that my issues lie mostly with its storytelling and how it plays out rather than the way it ends (the sunrise, despite being sappy, works). The film pulls a reveal here that feels forced, and what aggravates it even further is that there isn’t a trail of breadcrumbs that can anticipate such a reveal. I’ve heard some friends of mine talk about how they didn’t see it coming, and in this case, that shouldn’t be a compliment. It tries to aim for a “Holy shit” reaction without working its way toward it, so the reaction it elicited from me instead is more of a “Wait, does that even work?” The whole thing comes across as an afterthought, and the information dump that follows it feels hollow. Capping it all off is a fight sequence that’s a boring bonanza of visual effects, mainly because it doesn’t feel any different from the final face-off from BvS. What makes this worse is that the effects themselves look shockingly cheap. I get the ideas that Jenkins and Heinberg are going for in this third act, but the execution is, frankly, poor.
Apart from that, I agree with your appraisal of the film’s craft. I never thought I’d see colors that aren’t dark and grey in the DCEU, but they’re here, and I dig how the filmmakers use them to contrast warm Themyscira with gloomy, war-torn Europe. Aline Bonetto’s recreations of WWI London and Belgium are nothing short of fantastic, and ditto for Lindy Hemming’s costume designs, particularly Diana’s civilian garb. The action sequences (bar the final one) are exhilarating and expertly choreographed, and I had a huge smile whenever we got to see how insanely powerful Diana is in combat – there are quite a number of money shots here. I can’t remember Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score very well, but what I do remember is Diana’s thunderous theme. When it comes on, you know shit is about to get real.
So, now that the fourth film of the DCEU is done and dusted, how do you feel about this universe’s future?
Jun, my favorite part of these conversations is how you do a much better job than I do tracking all the people behind the scenes that make the movie. Hats off to those who are off-camera making it all happen!
I really don’t know how to feel about the future of the DCEU. As bad as their installments have been, I will still go and watch them and still, most likely, be entertained. I’ll realize that they’re bad – I just don’t really care. While “fun” is not the way I’d describe their films up to this point, it’s still cool to see these characters on the big screen. I’d describe my thoughts as, “Well, at least I have something to look forward to.” I went to see Wonder Woman because there’s nothing else for me to do out here in Upstate NY. I was neither excited nor not excited. I just go because it’s what I do. With the knowledge that there exists a world where DCEU doesn’t not give you a bloated storyline and clichéd characters, I’m looking forward to the Justice League film and, more importantly, my beloved Aquaman. It looks like they’re figuring out the character thing. So yeah, I feel pretty good. Plus, they’re changing up the director roster which, with all sympathies and respect to Zack Snyder, needed some fresh blood.
I find it interesting that you have friends who didn’t see the reveal coming. I thought it was pretty obvious. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen but there were breadcrumbs that made me highly suspicious of our good friend David Thewlis. When he was revealed as Ares, it made a decent amount of sense to me and, from my perspective, was the right way to inject Ares as the villain. What I’m more interested in discussing is whether or not you feel that was even necessary? I thought one of the greatest moments of the film was Diana’s emotional response to the idea that humans are inherently flawed. That there was no grand villain – human nature is complex and there exists both good and evil, often times more of the latter. While the movie ended up at that point anyway, the addition of Ares to the mix was unnecessary and detracts from the strength it took for Diana to commit to providing her support of mankind. The final moments between Steve and Diana would have been more impactful if she realized that the world is a gray area of good and evil yet she still decides to help them anyway. Ares was introduced to state that argument out loud but – maybe I’m crazy – I feel moviegoers are smart enough to infer that on their own. Taking this a step further, could you imagine the internal conflict Diana would have faced if Steve died because she decided that mankind was worth saving a few moments too late? They had a potentially great moment available to them but insisted on bringing in a big bad guy for the sake of having a supervillain. I’d say Captain America: Civil War has shown us that there are great moments to be had when you look at the philosophical conflicts heroes have to face instead of just lining up powerful bad guys.
In my mind, that change takes Wonder Woman from a very fun, good movie to a potentially great movie. What do you think? And to echo your question, how does this movie make you feel about future DCEU products? And, just for fun, where would this rank if it were an MCU film? If they’re the standard for a comic book universe, would Wonder Woman crack their best showings or would it be run of the mill?
Andrew, I just want to say that I look forward to the day when you and Shana move back here. California is better with you two in it.
I completely agree with your thoughts on this third act change you’re proposing. Personally, I don’t mind that Ares appeared in the climax (like you, I suspected Thewlis since he’s a well regarded actor who’s clearly meant to have a significant role in the story), but the messy execution of it all left a bad taste in my mouth and killed the momentum. Had they gone with your suggestion that Diana face the sheer complexity of human nature instead of Ares in the end, the results would have been much more emotionally satisfying (and yes, audiences should be able to infer it on their own) and surprising. The film does lay a number of breadcrumbs that lead up to this realization, so narratively speaking, it would definitely work. However, audiences like seeing a big baddie in superhero movies, so who knows how they would react to such a change, even though it would be a smart storytelling choice that’s totally earned.
As for the DCEU’s future, I’m feeling a bit more optimistic now that they have their first good (and fun!) movie under their belt. While I do think that DC Films higher ups Jon Berg and Geoff Johns are still working out the kinks, I believe that they’ll come good at some point in the future. Once DC Films delivers one more good, fun movie (and I do hope it’s Justice League), that’s when I’ll drink their Kool-Aid. If anything, I do like the filmmaking talent they’re recruiting, like Joss Whedon for Justice League (my deepest sympathies to Zack Snyder) and the Batgirl picture, Matt Reeves for The Batman, and James Wan for Aquaman.
Where would I rank Wonder Woman among the MCU films? That’s a good question. Going off my most recent rankings, I’d place it comfortably between Doctor Strange and Captain America: The First Avenger, which would put it in the better half of the MCU pictures. If it wasn’t for its third act letdown, I would have ranked it above the first Iron Man and perhaps even the first Guardians of the Galaxy. That goes to show just how agonizingly close to greatness this film is.
Where does Wonder Woman rank among the MCU films for you, Andrew? I predict that it would crack the top 5, nestling comfortably between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers / Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Also, any final thoughts on the film itself?
Jun, you’re too kind. I certainly miss the wonderful arguments we have over some good beers back on the best coast. I have no doubts that my road ends in So-Cal – and if I had any, my wife would smack them right out of my stupid head.
Good call on the placement of Wonder Woman. You predicted it exactly although I think you have Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 flipped. I have Avengers in fifth, I believe.
- Captain America: Civil War
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- The Avengers
Wonder Woman would knock Avengers out of the top five. I think that’s pretty impressive for a DCEU product. And despite the crap they’ve gotten, I wouldn’t say that the first four DCEU films stack up too poorly against the MCU’s first four:
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Man of Steel
- Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Suicide Squad
- Wonder Woman
I’d argue that Wonder Woman is the best of the eight films. Iron Man 2 and Suicide Squad are both throwaways. Thor is probably a little bit better to me than MoS, although I enjoyed the latter more than most. It’s really the fact that Incredible Hulk maintained mediocrity while BvS crapped the bed a bit. But it gave us the character of Wonder Woman. So… those are my final thoughts. The DCEU does have hope because Marvel didn’t get it exactly right to start either. What do you think?
God bless Shana, whose zero tolerance for bullshit and terrible ideas keeps Andrew a smart man.
Indeed, Wonder Woman holds up pretty well against the MCU products, especially when compared to the first four. I put Iron Man ahead of it due to its narrative cohesion, but I’ll declare without hesitation that Wonder Woman is more fun. In comparing the first four for both the DCEU and MCU, I agree that there isn’t much of a gap (since The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 are easily the weakest out of the whole MCU slate), though I prefer the MCU’s over the DCEU’s by just a hair. If I were to rank those films, I’d go:
- Iron Man
- Wonder Woman
- Man of Steel
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Suicide Squad
- Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I do believe, though, that in terms of character work, I’m willing to stack Diana up against Steve Rogers / Captain America, the best that the MCU has to offer. She is (rightly) her film’s most potent weapon, and I do hope that the filmmakers behind the upcoming DCEU will look to her as the example as the universe moves forward. I only wish that the film around her was up to par with the character herself.
Andrew’s Rating: 4.25/5.0
Jun’s Rating: 3.5/5.0
* Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.