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Thoughts on WONDER WOMAN (2017) (Spoilers)

I finally saw Wonder Woman today, and I pretty much agree with the critical consensus — it’s a terrific movie, and the first DC Extended Universe movie that not only isn’t fatally flawed, but is genuinely excellent and has a coherent, well-defined heroic journey at its heart. Gal Gadot is fantastic in the role, not only a sublimely beautiful, poised, and powerful physical presence but a strong lead actress who handles all the emotional range the film requires of her, which is a lot more than any of the previous three DCEU films have demanded of their leads. Chris Pine is also remarkably good as Steve Trevor, bringing enormous wit and charm to the proceedings (in fact, there were moments when he reminded me more of William Shatner here than he does in the Star Trek movies). The rest of the supporting cast was good too, with Lucy Davis a standout as Etta Candy.

Oh, and first off, let me respond to the inane “Gal Gadot isn’t buff enough” meme that I’m still seeing floating around online, even from the occasional female reviewer. It’s a myth that people have to be bulky to be strong — a myth that comic books have helped to promote by embracing bodybuilders as their standard character design reference over the past few decades. But bodybuilders bulk up for display. Muscles meant for practical use can be strong yet still quite lean; after all, muscle cells are basically long, thin fibers. And people with naturally tall, slender builds can be very strong while still being slender — look at Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that Diana of Themyscira is a demigoddess with superhuman strength anyway, so even if she were scrawny (which she isn’t by any realistic standard), she could probably still kick any mere mortal’s ass.

I do have some quibbles with the origin presented in the film. I don’t like the retcon that the Amazons were created by Zeus, and that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. In the original comics, it was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who created the Amazons and breathed life into Diana. Making it Zeus makes the backstory too male-dominated, and makes the Amazons feel like an extension of a male agenda. I also wish Kid Diana hadn’t been quite so enthralled with fighting and weapons; I would’ve liked to see more of her well-rounded education in the more positive things that drive her as an adult. (The actress playing Kid Diana was adorably badass, though. Give her a Wonder Tot prequel, stat!) Still, I guess that preoccupation is part of the naivete she has to outgrow over the film. She has a romanticized, simplified notion of what war is, resulting from the fact that she’s never seen it except as a bunch of awesome athletic feats her elder sisters perform.

And I like the acrobatic horseback combat, by the way. The Amazons of Greek myth were probably based on some of the horse-nomad peoples of Asia Minor, peoples that had a fair amount of gender equality (out of necessity — nomads can’t afford to have anyone not pulling their weight) and thus could’ve been seen as female-dominated by the intensely misogynistic Athenians. And horse nomads were historically known for their impressive mounted-fighting abilities, which seemed to be the basis for the Amazon combat methods shown in the film. So that’s a nice bit of historical context in a film with a generally fanciful portrait of antiquity.

In thinking back on the film, considering how it succeeds where the previous DCEU films failed, I realize that on the surface, it doesn’t seem that different from the previous films. It has a very dark and grim subject matter — it’s set in the quagmire of World War I and has characters lecturing Diana on humanity’s fundamental capacity for evil and self-destruction. It has a hero who kills. And, like Man of Steel, it has a hero whose journey to adopt the role is in defiance of a parental figure trying to hold them back. So why does it work so much better when it has many of the same elements?

As for the parental-defiance issue, part of it is that it fits the character better. Wonder Woman’s origin story has always involved her defying Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island/Themyscira — and has always had Hippolyta grudgingly accept her daughter’s decision and allow her to make her own path in the world. But Superman’s backstory has usually portrayed Pa Kent as Clark’s inspiration and role model, the one who taught him his value system and implored him to use his gifts to help others. Making Jonathan Kent someone whose advice Clark had to reject in order to become a force for good was too great a change, and too cynical for the Superman narrative. Then again, as much as I hated Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan, I felt one of the more successful aspects of the film was the way Clark refused to be guided by his father’s fear and pettiness, and instead innately tried to do the right thing. So the thing that worked best about MoS’s Clark Kent is also something that worked about Diana of Themyscira. The difference is, in the case of Wonder Woman, it worked for the parental figure too.

As for the dark and grim subject matter, I think part of the difference is that the grimness was necessary in the context of the WWI setting, rather than just being there for its own sake. More importantly, the difference is that the Snyder Superman films tried to impose the darkness on Superman himself, to make him succumb to it and thus diminish him as a figure of nobility and inspiration. MoS and BvS paid lip service to some people seeing Superman as a savior and inspiration, but they didn’t really earn those reactions because they were more interested in showing Superman failing and struggling than in showing him actually helping anyone. BvS also defaulted to grim version of Batman based on a graphic novel (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that was meant to be an exaggerated, worst-case extreme and that’s too often been misinterpreted as a template for how Batman should normally be portrayed.  But in Wonder Woman, the grimness is around Diana. It doesn’t become a part of her. On the contrary, her basic goodness and compassion stand against the darkness of her surroundings and give hope and inspiration to others. She does what a superhero should do — she makes things better. The darkness is her incentive to shine, rather than something that infuses and darkens her. And though she sees the darkness in humanity, she also sees the goodness and love, and stands up for it and instills it in others. This is what Superman should do. It’s even what Batman should do — by using his own darkness to counter the crime and corruption of Gotham, he brings hope to its people and to its forces of law and order, and by taking Robin under his wing, he gives him a better life and allows him to be purer and happier than Batman was in the same circumstances. But Wonder Woman is the first DCEU protagonist who’s actually done that as a central element of her film.

As for the violence… yeah, I’m not a fan of heroes who kill, so that is an issue for me. But it helps somewhat that it’s in the context of a war story, rather than a crimefighting story where that level of force seems excessive. And it helps more that it’s balanced by the more positive things Diana does. The problem with Superman’s actions in Snyder’s films is that they’re too detached, too impersonal. In MoS, he’s literally on the opposite side of the planet while the people of Metropolis are fleeing in terror and dying in droves, and then he (or rather, Snyder) doesn’t even seem aware of the civilians while he and Zod are smashing up the city. In BvS, his acts of heroism are impersonal vignettes about Superman manipulating big heavy objects, and whatever people he’s helping in the process are barely noticed — whereas the film focuses more on his failures to save people when it bothers to pay attention to him at all. But Wonder Woman’s battles are clearly, centrally about saving people. We see the people she’s helping, and we see her connect to them. So there’s a better sense of who and what she’s fighting for, and a greater emphasis on that human element rather than just nonstop CGI destruction. The climax does get a bit heavy on the CGI for a few minutes, but unlike MoS, it doesn’t grind the story to a halt and lose focus on the human stakes of the battle.

A key difference: In both MoS and WW, the climax has the villain urging the hero to accept his nihilistic view and kill an enemy. MoS has Kal-El succumb to the argument and choose to kill, which means that the villain basically wins the philosophical battle and the hero is thus weakened. But here, Diana makes the opposite choice, sparing Dr. Maru. (At least, I think she does. The editing is a bit unclear, since she seems to throw the tank in the same direction Maru ran, and we don’t see Maru after that. But I presume the intention is that she defied Ares and spared Maru.) Okay, yeah, she also kills Ares, but the difference is, it’s not because he told her to. Both sparing Maru and killing Ares are her own choice, driven by her own judgment. Throughout the film, she had a strong point of view and wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do. She did listen and learn, did modulate her actions in response to what she learned, but her choices were always her own. Even though I might wish she’d made a different choice in the case of Ares, she still ends up a stronger protagonist than Clark did, because she didn’t just let the villain talk her into abandoning everything she believed in. And her choice not to show mercy to a predator is balanced by the fact that she did show mercy to someone she recognized as a victim.

Of course, part of the reason the film worked so much better than its predecessors is simply that it had a more coherent story with a better narrative flow and pacing. It felt like a normal movie with a good balance of character, action, ideas, emotion, and humor. It wasn’t trying too hard to affect a certain style or attitude as an end in itself, but was telling a story in the way that worked best for that story. And most importantly for a superhero franchise, it was actually about heroism and inspiration.

There was also a lot of respect for the source material, with some nice homages to the comics. There are two points in the film where Diana recreates the pose Wonder Woman struck on the cover of her debut issue — when she smashes through the window to rescue the hostages (I think it is), and in the final shot of the film (though I think she’s in the mirror-image pose there). The montage of her childhood seems to homage the three life stages that were frequently featured in ’50s and ’60s WW stories by Robert Kanigher — Wonder Tot, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. (Kanigher started out telling stories about Wondy’s youth, then got into the habit of doing “imaginary stories” where the child, teen, and adult versions of Diana impossibly hung out together. Then another writer failed to realize that Wonder Girl was a younger Wonder Woman in the past and added her to the Teen Titans comic that was set in the present, so they had to retcon her into being a separate character, and it got immensely more complicated from there.) The climactic battle with Ares even nods at William Moulton Marston’s heavy use of bondage in the early WW comics, when she’s wrapped up and squeezed in the armor plates.

One thing we didn’t get was the name “Wonder Woman” actually being spoken at any point in the film. I think they missed an opportunity to use it in the Veld scenes. It seems that it would’ve been fairly natural for the rescued villagers to call her Das Wunder-Fraulein, and for Steve to translate it into English as “the Wonder Woman.” It was German that gave us wunderkind, after all, so it seems like it would’ve been a plausible origin for the name.

By the way, I’ve seen a number of people say that the Wonder Woman theme used in BvS and here reminds them of a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — but I can’t help but notice that it has the same 7/8 time signature and 3-note ostinato as Joseph Lo Duca’s Xena: Warrior Princess theme. Fitting, no?