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Wonder Woman’s battle scenes show how to use — and not use — CGI in super-movies

For all its achievements, the movie can’t overcome the superhero genre’s biggest villain: a weightless, tension-free third-act battle.

Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman charges into battle.
Warner Bros.

There’s a lot to love about the new Wonder Woman: It features a pair of leads with genuine chemistry who feel like real adults rather than adolescent fantasies. It manages to be serious and sometimes even dark without ever being grim or brooding. It has a functioning sense of humor. It is the first film in the DC Comics extended universe that does not come across as actively hostile toward its hero. All in all, it’s a refreshing change of pace from the conventions that have come to define the superhero movie generally — and a major improvement on the heavy-metal dirge that has so far defined the DCEU under Zack Snyder.

But there’s one super-movie trope that Wonder Woman doesn’t quite overcome: the noisy, bloated third act overstuffed with expensive but poorly rendered computer-generated special effects.

With its fire-lit nighttime color scheme, its clumsy bombast, and its weightless, slightly cartoony CGI, the climactic showdown between Wonder Woman and Ares, the God of War, feels like a hangover from the Zack Snyder era. It’s a tension-free exercise in digital effects overload, and in a movie that otherwise feels so grounded in both physical and emotional reality, the sequence comes across as jarringly disconnected from either. And a big part of the reason why is its over-reliance on the same sort of crummy CG that made the final battle against Doomsday in Batman v. Superman such a bore.

It’s not that computer-generated effects are always bad; in fact, many of the most memorable action scenes of the past 25 years show how it can be used well. But the trick is to use computer-generated effects sparingly and wisely — to accentuate and exaggerate physical reality, rather than to act as a substitute for it entirely.

Wonder Woman’s first action scene shows how to mix practical and CG effects

That’s not to say that all of Wonder Woman’s action scenes suffer from these problems. Indeed, it’s worth contrasting Wonder Woman’s final fight with the film’s first big action scene, which takes place on the island of Themyscira, where Diana — Wonder Woman’s real name — lives with her fellow Amazons. The opening battle does everything right that its finale does wrong.

The sequence starts when Diana rescues pilot Steve Trevor after his plane crashes in the water. It quickly becomes clear that Trevor, an American spy during World War I, is being pursued by hostile German forces. The Amazons and the Germans then battle it out on the beach.

The most immediate difference here from the final battle is the lighting: The Themyscira scene takes place in the middle of a bright and sunny day, lit by overhead sun and a reflection that sparkles off the waves. But the scene also smartly and efficiently establishes the capabilities of the two sides: The Germans have guns and boats, while the Amazons have horses and swords, but the all-female band of Amazon warriors are also superhumanly powerful in a way that the mortal German men are not.

Robin Wright plays Antiope, a fierce Amazon warrior.
Warner Bros.

That’s where the CGI comes in. The scene follows bullets and arrows in time-dilated close-up as they fly across the battlefield, in order to highlight important moments in the fight. Director Patty Jenkins slows down time to show the Amazons in action as they leap, bound, and flip across the battlefield in ways that no human truly could. Some of it is wire-work, in which human actors are suspended on wires that are digitally removed in post-production, and some of it relies on computer-generated composites, with layers of images digitally stacked on top of each other and then tweaked by computer.

The backgrounds are enhanced as well, but the scene was shot on a real beach, with real sand, real water, and real seaside cliffs in the background. Jenkins uses computer-assisted effects to show what the Amazon bodies are capable of, and to demonstrate how powerful, agile, and graceful they are in comparison to the grubby German soldiers.

It’s a scene, in other words, that has clear stakes and a clear power-balance dynamic. And it’s built around the physicality of its participants and their relationship to the real, physical world, in which the CGI is designed to enhance that essential human physicality. (It doesn’t hurt that — as a scene in which powerful and noble women warriors slaughter brutish male soldiers, wiping out their engines of war — it helps to establish the movie’s theme early on.)

You can say the same about the mid-movie sequence in which Wonder Woman turns the tide of a battle in the trenches of World War I. Parts of the sequence, including portions of Wonder Woman’s sword, were created or modified in a computer. But it was also shot in dug-out trenches, with mud and dirt that give it a frisson of reality. These may not be the most memorable action scenes ever filmed, but compared to the finale, they are minor masterpieces.

Wonder Woman’s third-act showdown features two characters of indeterminate power. The specifics and limits of Wonder Woman’s powers are never firmly established, and the movie makes no attempt whatsoever to explain what, exactly, Ares is capable of, either: He shoots some sort of computer-generated energy from his hands, and he can also send chunks of runway and other large objects flying at his opponents. Almost everything you see in the finale, from the vehicles being tossed around to Ares’s electric-pulsing armor, was created or heavily modified inside a computer. As a result, the scene feels lifeless, flimsy, and more than a little tension-free.

CGI is better used to enhance than to create

It’s almost a stretch to describe Wonder Woman’s final battle as live-action filmmaking: It’s more of an animated scene with a few live-action elements layered on top. But big-budget action scenes, even those featuring impossible superheroics, almost always work better when it’s the other way around.

Think of something like the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded. Although it’s not technically a superhero film, it’s an extended, computer-effects heavy scene in which super-powered characters leap between and fight on top of fast-moving vehicles. But to shoot it, the Wachowskis built an entire stretch of highway on an old California naval base. There’s a lot that’s digitally enhanced or even fully digitally created in that scene — some of the cars, for example, were inserted via computer — but it draws some of its impact from its baseline reality. The scene was shot on a real road, using a squad of real stunt cars, crashing and smashing in ways that reflect real-world materials and physics.

That’s true of many of the most memorable superhero action set pieces in recent years, as well. The big superhero face-off at the end of the second act of Captain America: Civil War is heavy on CG-wizardry, but the crew also spent days filming at Germany’s Leipzig/Halle airport, setting off real explosions. This year’s Wolverine sequel, Logan, was a smaller-scale effort that relied far less heavily on green-screen effects than many superhero films, but still built digital stunt doubles for its lead actors. For The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan — who is so wary of digital technology that he reportedly does not own a mobile phone or have an email address — flipped a real 18-wheeler in downtown Chicago. For the mid-air escape that opens The Dark Knight, Nolan dropped a full-sized airplane out of the sky.

But even a professed digital skeptic like Nolan admits that CG has its place. In a 2012 interview with the Directors Guild of America, he laid out his vision for balancing practical effects work with computer-generated enhancements:

The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects. But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. … We try to enhance our stunt work and floor effects with extraordinary CGI tools like wire and rig removals. If you put a lot of time and effort into matching your original film elements, the kind of enhancements you can put into the frames can really trick the eye, offering results far beyond what was possible 20 years ago. The problem for me is if you don’t first shoot something with the camera on which to base the shot, the visual effect is going to stick out if the film you’re making has a realistic style or patina.”

It helps, of course, that Nolan’s foray into superhero films was with Batman, a more grounded hero who lacks traditional superpowers. And not every filmmaker needs go as far as Nolan to avoid digital effects. (It’s hard to imagine a Guardians of the Galaxy film, for example, without a significant amount of CGI.)

But in its broad strokes, Nolan’s approach makes a useful guide to crafting exciting, grounded action scenes, superhero or otherwise. Modern superhero movies simply wouldn’t be possible without computer-generated effects. But it’s the blending of reality and hyper-reality — the connection and tension between the two — that makes a sequence exciting. Which means that you have to start with reality first.

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