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NYCC2009: "Wonder Woman" Sets the New Gold Standard

All the world is waiting for youSing in me, Muse, and through me tell of the movie
of that Woman skilled in all ways of contending,
and her wanderlust, borne for years on end
after she was formed of clay and given life
on the proud shores of Themyscira.
She saw the towers of Man’s World
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered much oafish wooing
for her valiant heart, while she fought only
for her Sisters, to defeat the God of War.
But not only by will nor valor will she save them,
but through the might of her thews and the skill
of the doughty animators of Warner Brothers
who have given her life and brought Wonder to
screen to set hearts racing for beauty
and the lust of battle.

For those Philistines among you who slept through The Odyssey in high school, I’ll give the modern English translation: the new Wonder Woman direct-to-video animated movie Kicks Ass. Hard. It is a gloriously exhilarating, operatic spectacle that sets a new and impossibly high standard for direct-to-video movies and superhero cartoons alike.

And the power you possessWonder Woman begins with a bang, kicking us straight onto a battlefield in ancient Greece where the God of War Ares (voiced by Alfred Molina) and his forces battle against Queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen) and her warrior Amazon sisters. These scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie, with pulse-pounding action sequences that quickly and efficiently communicate a lot of information about the characters and the story. When Ares is finally defeated, the gods of Olympus task the Amazons to keep Ares imprisoned for the good of humanity, gifting them with eternal life and youth on the hidden island paradise of Themyscira, where they sequester themselves from Man’s World for centuries. The only new life on the island comes when Queen Hippolyta forms a child of clay, naming the girl Diana after the figure is given life in a scene of surprising power. This youngest Amazon (Keri Russell) grows up to a coltish, independent woman that chafes at the boundaries keeping the Amazons as imprisoned as Ares. When a dogfight over Themyscira brings Col. Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion) to the island, events are soon set in motion that will result in Diana leaving Themyscira to return Trevor to current-day Man’s World and try to avert worldwide Armageddon.

In your satin tights, fighting for your rightsThe easiest thing to focus on in Wonder Woman are the wonderful action sequences. Between Marvel’s Hulk Vs. and Wonder Woman, it is a glorious time to be a fan of more mature action animation. We are treated to a great variety of creatively staged action sequences: the intimate, small-scale training duel between Artemis (Rosario Dawson) and Diana, the almost comical fight between Diana and a group of would-be muggers, the subsequent beatdown between Diana and Ares’ thuggish son Deimos, the thrilling dogfight sequence that puts Trevor on Themyscira, and the massive, cast-of-thousands battles between armies of Amazons and nightmarish mythical monsters. The climactic battle scene is simply marvelous, set in an extremely familiar, real-world setting that gives the property damage real emotional weight, with the setting of one scene in particular adding a subtle but palpable emotional poignancy. Make no mistake, though: Wonder Woman pulls no punches in its powerfully kinetic battles. The battles are much more violent than any we’ve seen before, with an early cut of the movie earning an R-rating and the final cut still on the high-end of a PG-13. However, one of the things that Wonder Woman really gets right is the warrior culture of the Amazons that can glorify martial prowess without slipping into bloodthirst for its own sake, and that balancing act in the writing is probably why the violence in the movie never feels gratuitous or unnecessary. This is simply a different playing field than the ones we’ve been subconsciously conditioned to accept through the restrictions of Saturday morning cartoons.

No matter how great the action sequences are, they would be simple exercises in pointless violence without a good story, and Wonder Woman excels at this as well. It’s story is a perfect fit for the DTV’s 75-minute run time, especially compared to something like the excellent but maddeningly abridged Justice League: The New Frontier. The story carries zero excess weight, keeping things moving without ever dragging or getting sidetracked into boring digressions. It also does an excellent job at injecting just the right amount of humor into the movie, keeping the movie from getting overly dramatic or sinking into excessively dark mythical mud. The animation is sumptuous from start to finish, and would easily earn kudos on technical merit alone. The most nitpicky fans might complain that some elements aren’t explained (like the invisible jet), but that would be like eating the finest gourmet meal you’ve ever had and complaining that that the silverware wasn’t shiny enough. Even if the criticisms are factually true, they’re also also completely irrelevant and seem to entirely miss the point of the exercise.

And the old red, white, and blue!The characters of Wonder Woman are vividly realized through their story arcs, their character animation, and their absolutely pitch-perfect voice acting performances. The fans who expressed concern at Keri Russell’s casting as Diana may rest easy: her spirited performance is perfect for the role, giving Diana a youthful free spirit that’s backed by a steely, indomitable determination. She also gets a perfect foil in Steve Trevor, decidedly not the mansel in distress of the Lynda Carter TV show whose only function was to screw up and get rescued by Wonder Woman. Trevor is a chauvinist pig with a heart of gold who can definitely hold his own against Diana, and the nimbly written role seems tailor made for Nathan Fillion’s wonderful performance. Steve and Diana are a pair right out of the finest film romantic comedies, and the movie does an excellent job of integrating their battle of the sexes into the larger narrative. Among the supporting characters, Alfred Molina’s deliciously evil Ares proves that it really is more fun to be the bad guy, while Rosario Dawson as the Amazon’s Amazon Artemis channels the entertaining macho swagger of Toshiro Mifune in his many samurai roles.

It is common for pop culture analysts to claim that superheroes are our modern-day myths. The claim may have some vague truth on the surface, but most superhero stories simply can’t withstand that kind of scrutiny, collapsing quickly under that heavy metaphorical burden. Until now. In the end, Wonder Woman comes off as less of a superhero story and more like a modern-era fairy tale, tapping into the same deep, poetic vein plumbed by other pop culture works from Star Wars to The Matrix to the best of the Disney animated features. If there is a criticism to be leveled at Wonder Woman, it is only that it inadvertently makes all its predecessors look so bad by comparison, despite their considerable strengths, and that it sets a high-water mark that will be incredibly difficult for its successors to top.

Wonder Woman arrives on 1-disc and 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray disc on March 3, 2009. For more information, check out the following coverage on Toon Zone News:

Return to Toon Zone News’ New York Comic Con 2009 Coverage Round-up

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