FINISHING SCHOOL: Wonder Woman (2009, Animated)

wonderwomanFollowing up on their long-running benchmark shows Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League, Warner Bros. are taking a new approach to their DC superhero animation, releasing two or three short feature films straight to DVD and Blu-Ray each year. Spotlighting both major and lesser-known characters and sporting big-name voice casts, these films also have a more mature sensibility and slightly more graphic content than is allowed on Saturday morning TV.

So far Batman and Superman have scored a few films, together and separately, as have the Justice League. But in an animated first, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman have been given their own solo vehicles. Of the line so far, I’ve only seen Superman: Doomsday but was impressed by the scale of the action, the credible dialogue, and the emotional weight. Wonder Woman differs in offering an origin story, but easily meets the other criteria too. I’ve never had much interest in the character, uncertain of just how feminist this scantily-clad whip-wielding woman really was. This film though, in only 70 minutes, addresses that issue, tells a complete story, and dispels any notion that the Wonder Woman mythology isn’t interesting in its own right. This storyline and script could truly serve as the basis for a live-action film.

The opening sequence is a fairly ferocious ancient battle between the Amazons and the forces of Ares, god of war (Alfred Molina). The Amazons defeat him, but are utterly disillusioned with the havoc men have wrought. The goddess Hera heeds them and offers to create a paradise for the Amazons on the hidden island of Themyscira, so they can remove themselves from a world they hate. Their leader Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen) creates a child on the island, Diana (Keri Russell), who grows up with a curiosity about the outside world, which comes much closer when air-force pilot Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion) crash-lands on the island.

Like Superman: Doomsday, the action scenes are dynamic, physical, and exciting, with a musical score to match. For a straight-to-DVD production, the animation and the scale of the project is impressive. The actors are well-cast, with Fillion a natural as a womanising but ultimately sensitive Trevor. Russell initially sounds too youthful for the role but transforms into a commanding, impassioned warrior. The script is a decent yarn of Ares’ quest to regain power, but it’s pretty stock stuff – the prominence of ancient mythology is a nice touch though.

More interesting is that the gender politics of the concept are explored with more adroitness than mere cliche, with both Diana and Trevor making good points about each other’s somewhat narrow views on the opposite sex. It’s not a sophisticated feminist treatise, but in terms of using the Wonder Woman concept for more than Hot Chicks Fighting, it succeeds nicely.

I’d like to see most if not all of the other DC animated movies, though they’re coming out at a rate of knots. Wonder Woman and Green Lantern didn’t sell as well as the others though, which doesn’t bode well for spotlighting less prominent characters as per part of the stated goal of the series. Hopefully the forthcoming titles don’t just alternate between Batman, Superman, and Justice League, although the rumoured adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One would certainly be most welcome. I love animation, and any projects given as much care as these are quite a treat.

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