Category Archives: The Modern Pantheon

Doing It Justice?

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So… the question: Does Justice League do justice to the Justice League? My answer is a resounding “sort of.” Overall, I found the movie entertaining and fun, and that’s the most important part as far as I’m concerned. Let us all remind ourselves that this is make-believe. On the other hand, fantasy can provide us with a different perspective from which to consider reality, and it therefore reflects reality in distorted form. While I think some reviewers have taken this whole business too seriously, it is not necessarily  inappropriate to note our personal disappointments.

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In keeping with what I just said, I will unburden myself. The script was uneven, and the dialogue ranged from good to almost wincingly bad. As an example, some of the lines given to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman character were awkward. When I watched BvS, I was struck by the quality of Gal Gadot’s screen presence as Wonder Woman, but I felt that she was a better actor than some of her lines indicated. Seeing her performance in Wonder Woman confirmed that, and I feel the same way this time around about Jason Momoa. This has me looking hopefully forward to the Aquaman movie.

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The editing was a bit choppy, especially over the first 30-40 minutes. The abrupt scene changes without much setup diminished the impact of some otherwise impressive visuals. This approach works better in the panels of a comic book than it does on the big screen.  I think an additional 15-30 minutes of runtime would have been justified.

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Let me pick a little further. Warner Brothers still needs to work a little on the quality of its characters’ costumes. They have an almost plastic quality at times. Also, the CGI occasionally looked too much like CGI, and this made the action sequences less satisfying for me. Case in point: the visual appearance of Steppenwolf  at times reminded me more of a video game than a major motion picture.  The character, however, was wonderfully voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has previously  impressed me in some serious dramatic films.

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Had I not seen Wonder Woman, I would have said that Justice League was an improvement for the DCEU. Warner Brothers owns perhaps the most iconic superhero pantheon in comics, but they need to pay more attention to scriptwriting, costuming, and special effects quality if they hope to catch up to the MCU. The cast was stellar and could have been better utilized for the above reasons. Aside from the actors I’ve already mentioned, there were Ben Affleck (Batman), Ezra Miller (The Flash), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), and (no surprise here since it was revealed before the premiere) Henry Cavill (Superman). Add in Amy Adams (Lois Lane), J. K. Simmons (another fine character actor as Commissioner Gordon), and a cameo appearance by Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen in the 1970s, a frightened policeman this time), and you have an excellent ensemble cast.

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I’ll include the following and fanciful cast poster from daniel-morphens because it includes the Martian Manhunter being played by my brother. I hadn’t thought of it before, but this character would be right up Doug’s alley.

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Everyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet should already know that they’re bringing Superman back. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it was my favorite scene in the movie. I thought that they finally got this character right, and his action scenes were truly impressive to my inner child. As for his unveiling/resurrection, the reactions of observers will suffice.

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Thor: Ragnarok – What I Missed (Part 2)

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Something occurred to me after I started writing last week’s post. The fact that I need a second week shows me that the movie had a lot of substance. The right concepts and plot elements were there, but as I wrote last week, I feel that they were covered up (to an extent) by the humor. I realize this is a matter of personal taste, so I won’t belabor the point. Thor: Ragnarok was obviously well-received by fans and critics alike, and I do intend to watch it again.

From this point on, there might be some spoilers for anyone who has not yet seen this film.

Now for the picky part of my critique, which I readily admit arises from my own unrealistic expectations. This is what I missed. First, as I’ve already alluded, I would have liked to see more emphasis placed on the mythological concepts and imagery. The Valkyrie flashback with the winged horses was brief enough that it teased that desire in me, and I had hoped to see more of that kind of scene.

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Secondly, when I heard that the Hulk would be given more dialogue, I envisioned a more nuanced psychological  and emotional study of this character.

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I have posted before that he represents an outsized version of what resides in all of us, and this could have created all kinds of possibilities for his character development.

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I had also hoped the script would show a gradual evolution of his ability to speak coherently. The dramatic potential of such an approach is huge since it would provide a window into the soul of this creature.

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That said, there were still some great ideas which were well executed. I liked every scene with Fenris the wolf, another character lifted out of The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson. The only problem with his battle with the Hulk is that it was a little difficult to tell how it was resolved.

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The evolution of Heimdall’s character was well done if not entirely consistent with his vocal style from previous movies. It was interesting to see him playing a different role in the story, and I’m glad they didn’t kill him off.

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The climactic battle was typically spectacular for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll reserve judgment on turning Thor into the new Odin. That will be depend on how it is approached in future efforts.

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I particularly liked the scene showing the destruction of Asgard by Surtur. It was appropriately epic.

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I liked the redemption themes as well: the relationship of Thor and Loki…

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… the moral awakening of Skurge …

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… the reunion of Odin and his two sons, and the persuasion of Valkyrie as played by Tessa Thompson.  I especially liked the story arc of Valkyrie’s fall, degradation, and ultimate restoration to her former glory. It was a unique treatment of yet another character from Norse mythology.

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And that might be as good a place to end as any.

Thor: Ragnarok – What I Missed (Part 1)

thor 6I had mixed feelings as I sat in my seat waiting for the outro at the end of the credits for Thor: Ragnarok. On the one hand, I was thoroughly entertained for over two hours. On the other, I was disappointed by what I hadn’t seen. I realize that appreciation can be colored by prior expectations, and I really expected a lot out of this movie (maybe too much). I’ll have to see it again to get a more balanced perspective.  I’ll divide my comments into three areas: what I liked, what I didn’t like, and (perhaps most importantly) what I missed.

To begin with, I loved the first part. The opening sequence was visually satisfying, and the dialogue and action were engaging.

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It is in this opening that we meet Surtur, the fire demon who is capably played by Clancy Brown.

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We also meet Skurge, the negligent interim keeper of the Bifrost, as played by Karl Urban.

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The segment with Doctor Strange might have been a bit incongruous, but it was visually effective and very interesting. I am very intrigued by this character.

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The first scene where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) speak one last time with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) was beautifully done, and I liked seeing Odin portrayed as an old man in normal clothing. The idea of gods among us in the guise of mere mortals resonated with me.

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The set up and reveal of Hela was well-crafted and intriguingly done. She, like Loki, comes from Norse mythology, and (like Loki) she is a different kind of villain. I enjoyed the scenes in which she was depicted, and Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job portraying her.

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Up to this point, I was satisfied with the development of the mythological elements in the plot. Then came the middle. I’ve always liked how Marvel uses humor to diffuse the tension, but I felt that this time it almost smothered it.

The introduction of the deranged Grandmaster as played by Jeff Goldblum managed to add a humorous sense of dread before the jokes threatened to take over.

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There were good scenes and ideas throughout the rest of the movie, but I felt they were overly subordinated to the jokes. The contrast of dread followed by an instant of comic relief didn’t feel as if it had been given sufficient time to build. Also, I wonder if there was too much reliance on phrases and slapstick sequences from past movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The almost Shakespearian nobility of Thor is a great straight line for the punch lines which involve him. I was sorry to see that sense of nobility lessened as much as it was, partly because I thought it lessened the impact of the humor, which much of the time was genuinely funny. I’m all for evolving a character, but I’m also all for maintaining sufficient continuity to make that evolution more plausible.

Well, this is taking longer than I had anticipated, so I’d better continue this thread next week.

The Modern Pantheon: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

 

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When reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, Disney Marvel), I suppose one must mention Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel.  From the opening to the closing credits, he adds an emotional,  humorous, and heroic facet to the story.

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In addition to some of the personnel mentioned last week, some new cast members join the party: Kurt Russell as Ego, Pom Klementief as Mantis, Sylvester Stallone As Stakar Ogord (the head Ravager who reveals some of Yondu’s backstory), and Elizabeth Debecki as Ayesha (a ranking member of the snobbish Sovereign).

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This entertaining and somewhat adolescent movie (no offense intended from one who regards himself an overgrown teenager) employs a number of themes from ancient mythology: patricide, the seduction (or worse) of women by gods, and gods as planets. My unanswered question about Peter Quill’s father is addressed early on. He was sired by Ego, a Celestial (or god, “small ‘g’, son”) whose powerful but self-absorbed mind has generated his physical form and the planet he calls home.

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The planet itself is alive, a concept from Greco Roman mythology. I was reminded of Plato’s Timmaeus. Humans and gods were considered animals because they moved (i.e. were animated), and this applied to planets as well, which were often associated with various gods. The surface of Ego’s planet is a kind of Candy Land on hallucinatory steroids (my invented term).

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I liked how Ego’s planet is, at one point, shown as having a face when viewed from outer space.

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It’s elaborate interior is likened to a nervous system emanating from Ego’s brain.

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Mantis is Ego’s fearful assistant. She identifies herself as an Empath, an alien who can detect emotions through physical contact with the person feeling them.

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The story has a persistent theme of reconciliation – for example, between sisters Gamora and Nebula…

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… and between Quill and Yondu (as well as between Yondu and the Ravagers).

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In an outro mingled with the closing credits, Ayesha…

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Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2017

 

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…  reveals the technological chrysalis that will usher Adam Warlock into the MCU.

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In the comics, Adam is repeatedly killed and resurrected, so his cinematic inclusion should be of mythological interest. Another outro (as well as a screen shot) provides a humorous scene of Stan Lee telling stories to the Watchers.

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His own creation, they are observers who show up at events of cosmic importance in the comics. Given the rate at which these movies are being made, Marvel Studios should never run out of characters.

 

 

The Modern Pantheon: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Last week, I mentioned two departures from the norm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first I reviewed is Doctor Strange. The second is actually two movies, so far. The first (as if you couldn’t tell from the above picture) is…

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Let’s get this out of the way first. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Disney Marvel Studios, directed by James Gunn) has an extensive ensemble cast: Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Starlord), Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Michael Rooker as Yondu Udanta, an unrecognizableKaren Gillan as Nebula, John C. Reilly as Corpsman Dey, Glenn Close as Nova Prime, Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, Djimon Hounsou as Korath, Lee Pace as Ronan, and Josh Brolin as the voice of Thanos. There are more, but I’m getting tired. Much could be said about the plot, characters, acting, soundtrack, and special effects of this very entertaining movie. I’m choosing instead to focus on the cosmic and mythological aspects of its well-scripted story.

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This is the first movie which offers more information on Thanos, a multidimensional character invented by writer Jim Starlin for Marvel Comics. He has otherwise been seen only in outro sequences for Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. A little of his backstory is provided in this movie. If the MCU does any justice to this character, he will prove a good psychological and mystical study. I look forward to seeing more of him.

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From Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), directed by James Gunn

Of course, Thanos and several others are after an artifact which turns out to be an Infinity Stone.

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Benicio Del Toro does a good turn as The Collector. I enjoyed the sequence where he explains the history of the Infinity Stones. This scene infuses the MCU with an interesting cosmology.

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One of my unanswered questions was the lineage of Peter Quill. His mother was an earthling, but the exceptional identity of his father is not revealed in this first movie. It hints at a mythological nature which enables him to hold onto the Infinity Stone for as long as he does without being destroyed.

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I think it appropriate to mention Groot in this context as well. Despite his violent capabilities, he is a benevolent creature who looks out for his friends and ultimately sacrifices himself for them. Like many Marvel characters, though, he isn’t really dead. The comics as well as the movies of Marvel utilize a number of resurrection themes. I attribute this more to an economic need to provide suspense and to bring characters back for future installments than to any religious motivation, but I still appreciate the additional depth it provides when done properly.

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Surf in again next week. There will be plenty more to follow…

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The Modern Pantheon: Doctor Strange

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I have seen two movies from Disney Marvel Studios that represent rather radical departures from what I had watched before. Doctor Strange is one of them, and I will take a look at the other next week.

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Featuring a stellar cast and mind-bending special effects in an intriguing blend of eastern mysticism and science fiction, this was complexly designed, and appropriate attention was paid to the philosophical concepts underlying the strange physics. Even though there were no references to my own faith, my Christian orientation helped me to track with some of the themes – most notably, that of hidden dimensions within our everyday surroundings.

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I also related to the theme of the arrogant but talented doctor who receives his come-uppance and learns humility as his understanding of the universe is expanded.

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I’m a college professor, and I have humorously thought what it would be like to hear any of my students exclaim to me Strange’s earnest petition to The Ancient One: “Teach me!”

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What a lineup: Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Benedict Wong as (well…) Wong, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and Mads Mikkelson as Kaecillius, etc.

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Owing to the busy (but, strangely, not distracting) visuals and dense concepts, this is one movie that merits repeated viewings. This character makes an interesting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The doctor is in.

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Modern Pantheon: A Commandment Of Sorts

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Before you go to see Thor: Ragnarok, the next addition to the Disney Marvel Universe…

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… read The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson.

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Ah-ah… no backtalk…

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Just do it.

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Semi-seriously, watching some of the trailer material reminded me of The Prose Edda. If you want to know more of the original Norse mythology (including Asgard and Ragnarok), if you want to become more familiar with Thor, Loki, Hel, and other members of the Norse pantheon, it might be helpful to struggle through the abstractions of this older document. It’s actually fairly easy to read, considering its age.

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Don’t expect the immediate gratification of a Marvel Studios movie or a Marvel comic, but the book could put you in a more receptive mood to appreciate the liberties which are sure to be taken by the movie. Reinvention can be more fun when compared to the original.

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Photo Credits: Disney Marvel.

Modern Pantheon: The Justice League

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All of the image credits for this post go to Alex Ross, DC Comics, and Warner Brothers. For me, the above picture represents a standard. I have mentioned in a previous post that I thought that Warner Brothers and DC had made an artistic mistake when designing the costumes of their superheroes for this franchise. I mean, why mess around? The work has already been done, and I regard the work of Alex Ross as the gold standard for the visual appearance of DC characters. It’s okay to update things a little, and I would point to the design work for Wonder Woman as a less controversial example.

I don’t normally review trailers or other promotional materials for movies since I prefer to see the finished product before writing about it, but this was too intriguing. The poster below is a step in the right direction, and I hope it is an indication of visually more satisfying things to come from the DCEU. Featured in the movie poster are Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. I’m still not totally satisfied. After all, we’re talking about cherished images from my childhood here, but I’m willing to keep my mind open for the time being.

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You can’t go wrong with imitating an Alex Ross poster. I was enthused about the following version as well. It gives an indication that Superman isn’t going to stay dead (surprise, surprise). They might even redeem the colors in his costume. Then again, am I looking at a fan art insert? The lighting on the Kryptonian doesn’t seem to match.

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The trailer showed some good action scenes, some good dialogue, and some dialogue that still makes me wince. From the studio that brought you, “The bat’s dead; bury it,” we now have “Dressed like a bat; I can dig it.” Delivered by the king of Atlantis, no less. I read that Joss Whedon has been brought into the project, but I don’t know how much influence he’ll have since the filming was completed before he came on board. From all this, I expect that the final version of the movie will be uneven, but I think it will be worth seeing. I will test this hypothesis by firmly planting my 64-year-old derriere in a theater seat come November.

A Film Of Her Own (Part 3)

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Now for an analysis of the actual movie. Although the majority of the critiques I have read are effusive in their praise, there is an undercurrent of criticism. One is that the Wonder Woman movie (Warner Brothers) has nothing new to offer. I am reminded of how fickle critics can be. Make a movie that’s too different, and you have “a poor sense of genre.” Make it too formulaic, and it’s “more of the same.” I honestly thought that this cinematic effort struck a good balance between the extremes and that it actually was an original treatment.

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Keep this in mind: it’s a superhero movie, for crying out loud. Their will always be similarities such as a backstory element, the conferring or possession of superpowers, and external as well as internal conflicts. One review I read accused this movie of being too much like Captain America, down to the wartime settings and unorthodox support teams. While there are similarities, I really felt that this was its own story. The test I apply is that I could not predict what would happen as I watched the plot unfold. I will also add that Wonder Woman is at least comparable to Captain America (which I own and have enjoyed repeatedly) in terms of quality. Both are nice period pieces with fanciful embellishment. This is the first effort by the DCEU which I would consider comparable to the output from Disney Marvel. They still have a long way to go in developing their extended universe, but this was a definite step in the right direction.

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The combination of a World War I setting with themes adapted from Greek mythology invoked the neoclassicism of the early twentieth century. It was certainly one of the better applications of this that I have seen, and the special effects seemed appropriate to the plot, purpose, and themes of the story. Unlike a few reviewers, I was not put off by the CGI during the climactic battle. For once, I found the imagery of a DC film visually satisfying and easy to follow. This film also established a distinctive style of graphic art that I hope will persist in the DCEU.

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I found the mythological concepts enjoyable, particularly the reveal of Ares. He was admirably portrayed with nuance and depth. Although many already know who played him, I will refrain from mentioning the actor to avoid spoiling anything for those who don’t know and who have not seen the movie.

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The action sequences were good. The portrayal of trench warfare and civilian and military casualties was realistic enough to make me wince, and there were subtle touches of humor at the right times. An amusing sequence where Wonder Woman as Diana Prince attempts to make sense of women’s fashion is a nice contrast to the battle scenes and depictions of devastation.

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In my opinion, this film is worthy of a theater viewing. I thought it was entertaining, and I appreciated the respectful treatment given to this iconic character. Initially short on experience, she is also portrayed as informed and intelligent, and the state this movie leaves her in by the end begs for more stories to develop her possibilities. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you do, whether in the theater or as a rental, depending on availability.

The lady is waiting…

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A Film Of Her Own (Part 2)

The Wonder Woman movie (Warner Brothers) met my expectations and then some. It also satisfied my hope that this character would receive respectful treatment. Among those who should receive credit for this, I think Patty Jenkins, the director, should obviously be mentioned.

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Another of my suspicions was confirmed, as well. I already felt that Gal Gadot had good screen presence, but given a decent script, she can also act. Allen Heinberg wrote the screenplay of the story by Zack Snyder, and the script enabled Gadot to show some emotional range as well as wry humor. She also did her own stunts, and was credible in the action sequences. While her physique was not considered by some fans to be muscular enough for this role, I found it interesting that her body type actually wasn’t very far off from that of the original comic book character. I know I held the following panel up as a sexist stereotype last week, but I think it helps to confirm the point I just made.

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Additionally, DC Comics seems to have followed the lead of Marvel Comics by redesigning the look of a superhero to resemble the cinematic imagery.

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A number of characters paid homage to the Golden Age version of Wonder Woman. Chris Pine did a typically good turn as Steve Trevor…

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… and Lucy Davis was cast in a more dignified portrayal of Etta Candy.

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As Sir Patrick Morgan, David Thewlis was excellent, and I enjoyed seeing him in the role of a more mature character.

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Overall, I thought the movie passed the villain test. Elena Anaya was suitably creepy as Dr. Poison. While a little more one-dimensionally written, the German officer, Lundendorff, was well-acted by Danny Huston. The sequence when he dances with a disguised (well, sort of) Diana Prince is palpably threatening.

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Queen Hippolyta is played by Connie Nielsen, and her warrior sister, Antiope, is played by Robin Wright.

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Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Ewen Bremner (pictured left to right on either side of Chris Pine and Gal Gadot, below) constituted an admirable and rag tag support crew whose characters were surprisingly well-developed for the amount of screen time they were given.

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The cast was impressive, and the script and acting were good. Okay, this is fun, so I’ll drag it out for another week.