The DC Universe finally lightens up and makes an enjoyable film

Wonder Woman stands out amongst previous DC films like a Pterodactyl in a backyard aviary.

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One of my favourite aspects of film reviewing is that rarest of feelings, It is the slow creeping realisation that a film of which you had no interest in actually begins to show signs of quality.

It starts with a few reluctant admissions to yourself; “alright, that was kind of cool, I’ll give it that,” progresses to some slight admiration; “that’s a nicely framed shot,” “This actually feels like a different world,” eventually the film has got a hold of you. You find yourself smiling like an idiot while you watch Amazonian women flipping off of horses and firing arrows. You’re having a good time that you didn’t expect to have. Two hours that you had set aside to watch a film to form an opinion on becomes two hours of enjoyment and engagement that you were not prepared for. It’s like gaining time, it’s a liberating, exciting feeling that reminds you of why cinema is so important.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman is the best film I’ve ever seen but it is so far and above other DC fare that I am having a hard time keeping a sense of perspective in my discussion of the film. Even the smoggy air of a Shanghai industrial estate will taste like the sweetest breath to a man who was close to drowning.

Wonder Woman starts exactly as it should, with the briefest possible connection to the larger DC Universe: here’s modern day Diana Prince, she gets sent an old picture of herself by Bruce Wayne, the old photograph starts a flashback and we hear nothing more of Zach Snyder’s modern day disasterpiece. The film stands alone as a film about Wonder Woman and her exploits in the early twentieth century. The film does not fall in to the usual Super Hero movie trap of clinging to a desperate relevance to the larger cinematic universe.

And it is not just temporally that the film separates itself from its feeble forebears, the film also adjusts its tone to suit the subject. The film has fantastical elements in the form of its hero’s origin and so it fully commits to making this world appear realised, and incredibly fun.

Diana Prince, here is more Superman than the Man of Steel, she is an alien to this world she wants to save, she is naively optimistic and unflinchingly heroic. She does not sit around brooding about the morality of what she needs to do, she simply acts on her simple principles and impulses and saves any lives she can.

A major issue I had with Batman Vs Superman and Man of Steel is that the titular heroes damage the world much more than they fix it. In this case Wonder Woman has been placed into a broken world and goes to work helping anywhere she can. She acts like a hero. People in war torn villagers cheer her, soldiers in the trenches look up to her, young girls and boys can watch the film, be entertained and be inspired. It may sound saccharine to say but, to be fair, this is a character named Wonder Woman we’re talking about here.

The film does not bog itself down in politics, there are no scenes in supreme courts with wheelchair suicide bombers. There is no faux-philosophising villain with mixed motivations, there are distinctly evil villains with whacked out faces and undeniably good heroes with perfect jawlines fighting against evil. There is colour in the costumes, there is fun and lightheartedness in the writing without resorting to Marvel style pop culture references (Remember when Wong listened to All the Single Ladies in Dr Strange?). Where DC films have revelled in grey morals and grey scenery Wonder Woman is crisp and clear, funny in a simple fish out of water way and not trying too hard.

The characters of the movie are exactly that. Characters. They have clear motivations and are understandable in the way they act. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine both assign their respective characters hearts and flaws, their performances are well matched and charismatic. There is something so cinematic about this movie, its classic Hero’s journey structure, its simple romantic sub plot (in which the man is the object of affection) and its unambiguous villains make it endlessly appealing. The film could entertain children, which should be the first box each superhero movie ticks. It has a great soundtrack which is teased throughout the film. It is paced and structured like a film with an end goal, actions lead into each other, it’s an enjoyable and simple film. It could be criticised for being overly simplistic, but superhero films have been missing that clarity as of late, not every super hero movie should try to be as meaningful as The Watchmen, sometimes it just needs to be as fun as The Rocketeer.

Many articles have been written about the power of the feminist ideals that Wonder Woman represents, the truth is that there is hardly any overt feminist ideology in the script. Wonder Woman’s presence as a badass role model for girls is enough of a statement on its own. The film seems to understand that it needn’t bash people over the head with its cause to have an effect.

 

Recommendation

Wonder Woman is head and shoulders above any other DC film since Chris Nolan had control and taps into that superheroic niche in a way that Marvel has been failing to do lately.

Fight scenes are well choreographed and varied and it is one of those epically rare films that uses slow-mo effectively. The villains are fantastically villainous and the heroes brilliantly heroic. It looks the part all the way and embraces its separatism from the DC universe to become a single cohesive story.

Piece by Piece: Can Superhero Movies Take Risks?

Superhero movies have exploded in popularity in the last 17 years. But is there room for serious drama?

 

There have been three different Bruce Waynes and three Peter Parkers since Hugh Jackman first adopted The Wolverine’s claws and mutton chops. Two generations of the Fantastic Four, Professor Xavier and Magneto have been reincarnated and redesigned, collided with their new selves and The Green Lantern has gone the way of the Green Hornet and decided to make fun of superheroes instead. Careers have been made by superhero movies and some have already faded into obscurity. The Marvel cinematic universe has been entirely constructed and collided into two Avengers movies with a third on the way and through all this Hugh Jackman has been Wolverine.

Seventeen years as the same character, with nine film appearances as the man is an impressive feat (Roger Moore is the most prolific Bond with seven film appearances) but there is something equally admirable about Jackman’s commitment to portraying the Canadian loner throughout his entire career. X-Men was only his third career film appearance and is what thrust him into the public eye. Jackman’s career was jump started by the very film that is responsible for the seismic shift we have seen in box office cinema and the start of superhero movies as more than childish. His career has progressed along with the popularity of the superhero movie and with him bowing out with the incredibly final Logan it is fair to look at the changing nature and development of the superhero movie.

Real stakes, fake world

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I make no secret of the fact that my favourite superhero movies are those that have fun with the concept first and foremost. It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air and why Deadpool made it into my top 20 films of the year while Dr Strange sat on the bench. It’s why I believe that Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad the worst things to come out of Hollywood in 2016. There is room for the serious in the comic book flick, yet outside of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, how many can you name that have plumbed into real darkness and serious drama. It is true that Peter Parker is spurred by the death of Uncle Ben, that Wolverine and Black Widow are the results of experimentation and that Peter Quill’s mother dies slowly at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy but with it all there is a level of detachment.

The drama is merely a background – a motivation to spur on a character – to allow for moments where the audience can pump their fists and cheer over their hero overcoming. The actual meat of the drama in superhero films invariably comes from an outside source threatening the physical world with force; an alien horde, a Machiavellian God, a Nazi invasion.

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic

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One film that comes to mind as a film motivated by more than outward force is Captain America: The Winter Soldier which disposed of the basic superhero structure in exchange for a militaristic, political framework. It applied a superhero theme to a Bourne film, it had no single villain, there was no Apocalypse tearing the world apart or horde of alien invaders, its threat was based in the reality of the situation and Captain America, had he failed, would have been the main victim of the film. Unlike the city of New York in The Avengers or Gotham in Batman Begins, the danger in The Winter Soldier was focused primarily on Steve Rogers.

Its story was driven by character principles rather than an immediate threat to the world, it just so happens that Captain America’s principles are also the same as Americas. The world of The Winter Soldier was threatened by being overrun but the specifics of the takeover were not stated, the film simply placed its viewers in Steve Roger’s state of mind.

Age of Ultron is an example where the threat demeans the drama and action at the centre of it. The general threat of the world being overrun is too large, too vague and expansive that people cannot really engage with it. Even when Ultron focuses his attack on Sokovia, it’s honestly hard to care about these nameless faces and crowds. These kids and parents in car pile ups, stuck on broken bridges are simply objects, tools to tell a story. In Civil War Scarlet Witch accidentally causes a huge accident and multiple deaths in a busy city, it is an affecting moment not because of the civilians who die in the street but because the grief is focused solely on Scarlet Witch and how she feels about it, it’s just how empathy works.

The majority of people can’t bring themselves to be emotionally invested in the trials of real world horrors because it is too far detached from them, never mind a fictional comic book country. Film is best when it is smaller in scale, Die Hard is so effective at conveying the stakes because it is John McClane and HIS wife that are in danger, the drama unfolds in real time and we feel each small inconvenience because each small inconvenience is his. No one cares about Nakatomi’s bonds or any of the office workers, not even the pregnant woman who needs to sit on a couch, even Hans Gruber cares enough about her to let her sit down, so why don’t viewers?

It is because viewers connect with who they have had time to connect with, upping the number of people in danger never ups the stakes if the people in danger are undefined. Yet comic book movies abuse this trick to no end. It’s something that they struggle to grasp time and time again. But that is not to say that comic book movies should have Man of Steel’s complete disregard for the population, forcing buildings down and levelling an entire city all for the sake of a grudge match. It is that comic book movies will benefit from delving into the personal rather than the expansive.

The Anti-Cinematic Universe

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Yet, superhero movies are exclusively a box office deal, they are designed to be spectacle cinema, to sell popcorn, to please large crowds and sell IMAX tickets. They need to amaze, to meet expectations and simultaneously subvert the expectations of myriad subsections of fans who know every possible route that can be taken with a character. The rights to these films are also owned exclusively by larger companies, and Marvel, DC and Fox are keeping their rights close to their chest, meaning that every superhero movie must be excessively vetted to ensure it makes optimal economic sense. A small-scale Batman film that doubled as a detective story would be extremely feasible to pull off, but if it diverts from the larger goal of the studio then it cannot be created. Since Iron Man’s post credits sequence the cinematic universe has become the goal, each new film must serve to that. It even makes sense for Fox to split up the X-Men franchise into three separate franchises to allow themselves the gratification of the merging of these franchises in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The movies made to serve the cinematic universe are for the most part frustratingly similar, they follow the same character moments and story beats, feature unmemorable villains and share a tone. Whether it is the glum drabness of DC or the larger than life wit of Marvel, the point stands that there is less room for risk when all the chips are kept in the same pot.

Logan is far from a perfect movie but what it is film that shows a different direction for superhero movies, it is a sign that the subgenre could become its own genre, it has already developed enough tropes, actors such as Tilda Swinton, Chitewel Efijor and Anthony Hopkins are becoming more commonplace, and styles are being developed on different ends of the spectrum. Deadpool is a comedy, Logan is a drama, The Avengers is action, Winter Soldier is a thriller and Batman Vs Superman is CSPAN. Logan shows a proliferation that can only be good for the industry, and while it follows the Marvel route of struggling to create convincing villains it has taken inroads to create a more personal story, a road trip driven by self-destruction. It is adventurous with its direction and indulgent in its message. While viewers have been standing on the tracks waiting to be hit by the Marvel train of homogenisation Logan is prepping the ground work for an alternative track.

Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.