Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wonder Watch: Wonder Woman (2017)

It's no secret I'm not a fan of the three prior entries in the shared DC filmic universe (which the kids are calling the DCEU, of DC Extended Universe, which makes no sense, but this train left the station without me).

If you want to extrapolate how much I was dreading the possibility of another weak entry from DC in the current superhero movie bonanza, you can check out my recent post on my love for Wonder Woman as a character and then, based on how I felt about Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, try to figure out how another movie as weak as the prior DC films was going to settle with me.

Of course, as the cinematic debut of The Amazing Amazon (despite 75 years in print and a well-known commodity), Wonder Woman (2017) carried an unreasonable set of both expectations and penalties for movies far beyond this single picture.  If it failed, who knew what this meant for Wonder Woman as a franchise, yes,* but, if it failed: what would happen to female-starring superhero movies in general?

With much of the same crew responsible for prior efforts involved in this venture, there was no reason to believe much had changed from the disappointing first three DC filmic installments.  And, no, I couldn't trust the trailers.  Man of Steel had a phenomenal trailer, and I actually went to see Suicide Squad in part because it had a different director than Snyder and had a fun trailer.

Whatever changed at DCEU's offices (Geoff Johns' rise to power, I'm guessing), I am ecstatic to say:  Wonder Woman has made it to the big screen, and I was absolutely thrilled with the movie.

In a sort of pre-amble, we are told that Diana is the only child to have been raised on Themyscira,  island home of the Amazons of ancient Greek lore.  Fierce warriors, but also scholars, statesmen, and more, the Amazons train constantly.  A spirited girl, Diana seeks the training of an Amazon in secret from Antiope, General of the Amazons.  Nonetheless, our Princess has never been off the island, a place where violence is studied, but not practiced.

During the last days of World War I, American pilot and spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes into the ocean just off the shores of Themyscira.  The Amazons have lived in (immortal) peace for thousands of years, preparing to fulfill their destiny of defeating Ares, the Greek God of war.  Unfortunately, Trevor brings was tailed by a small crew of German soldiers and sailors, and, thus, battle breaks out on the beach where Diana, Princess and sole child of the Amazons, has pulled our pilot to shore.

After a battle in which several Amazons are hurt and killed (guns are new to them), Diana learns that Steve Trevor is carrying the notebook of a German-sympathizing chemist, the contents of which include the formula for a terrible poison gas which could kill millions.  Diana and Steve return to London, Steve to get his information to Whitehall, and Diana to get to the war where she believes she will face and defeat Ares and end war while fulfilling the destiny of the Amazons.

Robin Wright, y'all...

The pair recruit a diverse cast of characters (a Scotsman marksman, a Moroccan mercenary/ actor, and a Native American smuggler) and head for the frontlines.  We also meet Etta Candy, who doesn't get nearly enough screentime.

For the first time, Diana sees war as something outside of stories and sparring drills.  And, of course, WWI was the first truly mechanized war, with the carnage occurring on an industrialized scale.  The horrors of trench warfare, of occupied cities under the muzzle of tank cannons, of poison gas attacks - all pass before the eyes of the spirited but naive warrior.

Despite the backdrop and themes of the actual cost and horror of war, the movie never sinks entirely into the depths of moodiness and teen-agery brooding that the prior DCEU movies tried to convey with grimacing heroes whining about their lot in life.  After reading this article at Fandango (thanks, Gerry!), the story of how director Patty Jenkins had to fight for the now famous "No Man's Land" scene will give followers of superhero films a far greater idea how the entire *point* of superheroes is lost by the time they make it to the big and small screens (and lesser comics).**   Though it's a small bit of evidence, the article gives some clue as to how Man of Steel seems to know how a superhero is supposed to work, but then inserts Superman macking on Lois on the ashes of dead Metropolitans, and how Batman can only unclench his sphincter when Superman uses his mommy's name. Our villains must have grappled with our parents or have some other personal tie.  It cannot be simply for "the greater good" (ie; Superman: The Movie).

Instead, our Diana (never referred to as "Wonder Woman" in the film, natch), stumbles into the war with near child-like naivete, a product of dual-layers of sheltering by an over-protective mother and growing up in an island paradise where a really bad day is when one is accidentally smacked about too hard during super-warrior practice.  Her mother can't ever quite put reality into words for her daughter, and so it's not until she's faced with the horrors of war directly that the way the rest of the world lives becomes more than a story in a book.

While still believing in the myths and stories of her people, she does see how she can make a difference, and we get the "No Man's Land" and liberation of the village sequence.  And, trust me, it's an astounding sequence from beginning to end.

For the most part, Wonder Woman is a straightforward superhero/ hero origin story.  There's a big-bad to be overcome with ties to the hero's origin (one which will shock literally no one who ever read a Post-Crisis Wonder Woman issue).  There's a love interest and internal conflict as the hero recognizes her place in the grand scheme.  It can, at times, feel uncomfortably close to Captain America: The First Avenger, but in finding ways not to replicate that movie, blazes its own path.  Despite the fact we don't get the out-of-the box "Howling Commandos" as characters, Steve Trevor's gang of mercenaries feels better defined.  And if we weren't going the direction of George Perez's approach (which I think would work for TV, but not a 2+ hour movie), returning Diana to some of her roots as a war-time comrade worked exceedingly well.

Chris Pine was the right man for this approach to Steve Trevor - the cockiness of his flyboy/ spy is worn away by horrors he's seen (surfacing only occasionally) and - maybe trying to protect her, maybe unsure how to talk about it - Trevor also can't convey to Diana the realities of what he's seen anymore than her mother.  Certainly, had he not met Diana he was on a path to be one of the "Lost Generation" who returned from WWI, unable to discuss the war.

If Agent Peggy Carter gave us an ideal "superhero girlfriend" for the modern era, it's significant that this film's Steve Trevor isn't the guy trying to force Diana into a romance or domesticity.  And when romance does blossom, it's extremely well played and understated.  Trevor starts from a place of respect for Diana and company.  There's no awkward "scenes to make a point" that would have played too heavy, nor for awkward recognizable laughs - existing just to make the dudes in the audience feel better that they'd be forgiven for a faux pas.  I'd argue that would have undermined the immediate awe with which Steve meets the Amazons and which tells us something both about him and especially about them.  If he's protective of Diana, when she demonstrates who and what she is and that, despite her naivete, she can handle herself - he backs off.

To stray a bit - this isn't entirely new.  The Steve Trevor of the 70's era TV show was definitely in a sidekick and supporting role (and barely there by end of Season 3 as Waggoner and Carter were apparently on the outs).  After they got through those awkward first few episodes, I can't recall Lyle Waggoner's Trevor not giving WW her due, but he did hang onto the "Angel" bit.

Audiences may be frustrated that we don't get much of Etta Candy, a character who has worn many faces in the comics over the past 75 years, and here is played as a capable but daffy Moneypenny played by Lucy Davis (almost unrecognizable in WWI-era garb).  Leaving an audience wanting more is a good thing, though.

Similarly, we don't get nearly enough of Robin Wright as Antiope or Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta (good casting as sisters, btw).  The story is not about Themyscira, and so our time there is limited, but I do hope sequels will get us back to the island.

There have been a *lot* of interpretations of Paradise Island over the years, and a great number of them hold a place in my heart (we can discuss the fact that it's *too many* some other time).  Honestly, short of seeing not-enough of the island and a tragic lack of giant, domesticated kangaroos, this is a terrific version of/ vision of the idea.  This is a society perhaps in a certain stasis from which Diana wants to break free, but it's also a society doing well, it's not sick or degenerating.  Jenkins' direction here continues to make it all grand but natural.

Gadot herself may not be in contention for any Oscars as a newfound gift to the acting arts, but in comparison to the posing and jumping about that she was consigned to in Batman v Superman, she shows herself capable of a tremendous amount more.  Whether she'd already found the character of Diana by BvS or in working on this movie, I can't say.  But surely this script and Jenkins' storytelling gave her a tremendous amount to work with here - and despite the howls of many on comics message boards that we see too many origin stories - this is why we should see them.  Gadot truly carries the character across a wide-range of experience and never crumbles, but she's playing someone losing their innocence here, and she's able to show us what it means to react to each of those layers of protection being forced away, only to find the character we're looking for beneath.

I'll be honest, I got a little choked up a couple of times during the film, the first: actually seeing Themyscira realized on the big screen (to see Amazons not portrayed as something for the male gaze, if I can pull an RTF 101 term from the playbook, but to see the Amazons as the vibrant society I've read about for so long made *real*.  I am quite certain as a 40-something white dude, the impact on me was a fraction compared to the women and girls in the audience).

The second time I pushed back a tear was seeing Diana step up out of the trenches and show the world was waiting for her.

This post has taken a great deal of time to write as I've been busy with other things (baseball things), but in a way I'm quite glad of it.  On social media, I've seen so many of my friends mention the "No Man's Land" scene and talk about how they were either pushing back tears or letting them flow freely during many parts of the film, but especially this sequence.  I have my own reasons for why this might have been - the realization of a favorite character, a beautifully rendered cinematic sequence, the power I recognized and what it might mean for women.

I confess that I was surprised I wasn't near-glowing during this sequence (as well as near everything on Themyscira), as it was such a pure moment of superheroism, with amazing bits coming along in a rolling, growing rhythm, getting better and better until the sequence hit it's climax.  And, indeed, I do this thing where I have to stifle a cackling laugh built out of sheer enjoyment/ joy at seeing these things done well.

But - I can only intellectualize what it must have been to see this sequence for the women and girls.  Because (a) there's nearly nothing like it in any other superhero faire, especially from DC, nothing that goes through so many beats and moods, all without exposition, as Diana realizes her heroic warrior self, and (b) of course it was the heroic core of Diana that was there all along, to ignore common sense-wisdom, to put herself on the frontline.  To separate that scene from her gender and shedding those roles as much as she's shed her post-Edwardian wardrobe and appeared as the Amazon beneath.

What's fascinating/ a bit challenging is that the great conclusion of the movie is a rejection of goals based upon the teachings of one's own people, no matter how noble and good; a rejection of an attractive idea that, in many ways, is that of least resistance; but mostly it builds on the promise of the prior two hours and finds faith and power in rejecting cynicism.


That accepting "love" was the way to go rather than global genocide, it's a little unclear to me if that meant she *still* kicked Ares' ass, or if the power of love destroyed Ares.  Only Huey Lewis knows for sure.


When Batman v. Superman arrived, I recall the comments about how great Wonder Woman had been in the film, but when I watched it - I'll be honest with you guys, I wasn't impressed.  Diana was reduced to someone skulking about giving furtive glances and shot for sex appeal.  Her entry into the battle with "Doomsday" felt very little like any version of Wonder Woman with which I was familiar (that "glory of battle" sly grin felt out of character), and felt like she'd been re-written in a latter-career Frank Miller pose - a warrior woman who has the lasso because that's her trademark, but she'd rather be stabbing things.

If I was counted among those who felt she was a bit waifish for the role, you'll have to forgive me 3 seasons of Lynda Carter in heels, eye-to-eye or towering over her male colleagues, and the piles of comics that suggested she had some shoulders on her.  And, yeah, all of the Amazons are supposed to be physically intimidating, something I think that plays out in their minutes on screen.

Yes, Wonder Woman is magic, but there's a reason I also don't want Michael Cera cast as Superman, and that could apply here as well.  Heck, Robin Wright's pilates coach had clearly gotten her to where I was thinking we'd be seeing Diana.  

But I didn't care.  Not during this movie.

And, kudos to Jenkins for getting the Magic Lasso and the bracelets their due.  The sword and shield (and occasional axe) have been relied upon entirely too much of late in the comics, and the Magic Lasso has a place other than as a lie-detector.  And, here, Jenkins gets that and makes it work in ways BvS never quite got.  I don't want to call it a failure of imagination to just have Batman decide he could be using a gun, but... yes, that's what it would be (note BvS's Batmobile and its murder turrets), and it feels a bit the same if you don't bring the lasso and bracelets/ gauntlets to life.

The movie isn't perfect.  It has issues, it's a bit pat.  I've heard people say "it's too long" which is kind of weird, because - did you see the prior DCEU movies?  Holy smokes, talk about sturm und drang signifying nothing but having a runtime of 2:30+.  Honestly, I never felt that way with this movie.

The villain's plot is pretty boilerplate, but... man, it's not really about the intricacies of the plots, I guess.  But at least we got a pretty awesome take on Dr. Poison.  Otherwise, I'm not sure I was entirely enthralled by that plot other than a means to an end, which is what it was.

But I'm not sure much of that matters.  It's a comic book movie, and they work a certain way, and this is one more example.  We give it a pass for most everyone else.

As DC's pantheon of heroes comes to the big screen, it's deeply heartening to see them fully embrace who at least one of their heroes is supposed to be and how that will work in the larger structure of the DCEU.  And, moreover, reach an audience that has been served as observers, but not in the same way those of us with an Iron Man, a Batman, a Superman, a Captain America...  have been served.  And to see it done so well?

On facebook I made the comment that, yes - take your daughters, let them see Wonder Woman tear it up on the big screen.  But I also said that I believed parents should take their sons.  How you negotiate that conversation with your children is your problem - but for all the little girls who have watched as Stever Rogers has become Captain America or Peter Parker, Spider-Man, there's a place not for shoving this down anyone's throat, but a chance for boys to see that the girls can do this, too.  That there are challenges to women they don't deal with, that a cool dude like Steve Trevor can be more than fine with Diana Prince and not feel less because she is amazing.

And a lot of supposed adult men could stand to hear it, too.

*a curious burden some superheroes and other genre characters have borne is that failure of a movie is often written off to the characters rather than terrible execution on behalf of the producers, writers and directors.  But especially the studios themselves, from requested changes in preproduction which weaken the concept, to ridiculous marketing.

***(note: the entire last season of The Flash, while enjoyable, had literally nothing to do with anyone but the core group of characters, and they still stood around talking about how Barry is a "hero" when he was mostly worried about fixing shit he broke.)


Sound Affects said...

Little Diana watching the badasses train chokes me up still. Very powerful meta image. Having my two daughters next to me there was huge.

mcsteans said...

Great review. I'm actually having a difficult time being objective about this movie simply because its emotional impact on me was so overwhelming. You've mirrored a lot of my own thoughts and feelings here, so I won't rehash, but I would like to quickly share what this movie meant to me.

Like you, I wasn't even sure I wanted to see the film based on DC's recent track record and was waiting for reviews/ word of mouth. By the time we bought tickets it was receiving some good early press and I was cautiously optimistic.

I didn't know much I needed this movie in my life until Diana stepped out of that trench and it was that realization that caused me to tear up multiple times. Sure, there have been plenty of other female superheroes in film, especially recently, but always in a supporting or team role. I hadn't realized how much of a difference it would make to me to have a female character front and center, focusing on her journey, sympathizing with her thought processes. It was also incredibly refreshing to watch an action film where the camera did not linger on the female star's physical "assets". To that I credit and salute Patty Jenkins who did a superb job directing.

I can forgive a lot in a superhero movie if it's entertaining but above all else stays true to the character. Was it a perfect movie? No. But I adored it nonetheless because it and Gal Gadot got Diana right. The essence of what I love about Wonder Woman as a character is her compassion and how that compassion only strengthens her power. It's a great lesson for all humanity, and not just the female half.

Jake Shore said...

I loved the movie. I don't know if it's a great movie, but I loved it.

In my view, it's DC's most superheroey movie since Superman Returns, only better. Christopher Nolan's batfilms, while great, jettison the mythical and inspirational in favor of hyper-realism and utilitarianism, which to me, isn't superheroey. In contrast, Wonder Woman is mythic, fun and uplifting. There is no trudging through the perpetual twilight of Zack Snyder's films.

I loved Diana's relentless and piercing sense of right and wrong. The film kept hinting that Diana's innocent view of the world is just childish naivete, but in nearly every case her earnestness was vindicated. It seemed to me the film was acknowledging, through the other characters, what a difficult and complex problem the war is; full of gray areas, but ultimately came down on the side of moral clarity.

I recalled this same sentiment in the original Superman when Superman explains to a cynical and incredulous Lois Lane his dead serious commitment to "Truth, Justice and the American Way." I think the same cynicism which permeated 1970s America is very much back en vogue today. Will Diana's determined compassion, and unapologetic virtue be embraced the same way Superman's earnest boy scout was? I don't know, but it should.

Another thing I appreciated was the way the film acknowledges, if not explicitly, that women are not men, and men are not women; that we both have different and complementary traits, even while we are not bound by them. This may seem a strange takeaway given that the movie is about a demi-goddess from an island of Amazons who are the physical superior of men and kick ass. But the conceit is the film's treatment of Diana's character. Her martial skills are really secondary to who she is as a character (as opposed to defining her).

Ryan, I too got teary-eyed when Diana climbed out of that trench, but it started a few minutes earlier with the compassion she had for the suffering she encountered on her way to the front line.

Part of what makes Diana's "emergence" from the trenches so dramatic is that she is compelled by her refusal to stand idly by and accept (as Steve and the others had) the horrific suffering taking place all around her. She is driven, above all, by her compassion. And I think women (generally speaking, of course) are just better at this. I think that comes through in the film.

By the way, anyone remember another superhero film where compassion plays such a central role in the hero's motivation? Most are motivated by anger, revenge, duty, justice, stopping a villain, personal growth or responsibility, but compassion? I have to go (again) back to Superman: The Movie. That was 1978. Meanwhile, Snyder's Man of Steel is motivated by an angsty identity crisis.

Diana has empathy for those suffering, a trait we most often identify with women, most acutely in mothers and peacemakers. That's a good thing! It is no coincidence that men start and fight wars. Nor is it a coincidence that men make up more than 80 percent of violent crime committed in the U.S. We ARE different.

I am old enough to remember when feminists believed women had inherent, unique qualities to offer the world. Today we seem hell bent on erasing the distinctness of male and female from the public square, so it is refreshing too see a super hero movie which pushes back against this, consciously or not.

Jake Shore said...

Another fundamental element of Diana's mission in this film which struck me like a thunderbolt was the theme of women civilizing men. That probably feels like hot metal to the ears of third-wave feminists, but it's pretty much scientific fact. Women civilize men. Moreover, Diana does what no man could do. She ends war. Brings peace.

And isn't that vastly more interesting than another girl punching her way to victory in the same tired way so many male heroes do? Isn't it lame to always associate heroism with physical prowess? And therefore, isn't making female characters more male decidedly non-feminist? I mean, who wants to see another Black Widow, Elektra, Jessica Jones, Catwoman, Gamora or Mystique on screen? Or the Wonder Woman from Batman vs. Superman, for that matter? How about more Agent Carters, Jean Greys or Supergirls (the new one) who are a whole lot more like the women I interact with everyday?

By the way, after seeing this peacemaker role played out on the big screen, I am a bit dumbstruck why this isn't a more common theme in superhero movies. In fact, only the original Superman films evoke the idea of peace (although Superman IV, while well intended was ridiculously heavy-handed and even authoritarian). And while it works better on a large scale with powerful heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, I don't see any reason why "smaller" superhero movies don't emphasize the understanding and reconciliation in everyday life.

Despite a few critics who thought her acting wasn't up to the task, I think Gil Gadot was fabulous. I can't help but wonder if some of the criticism is due to Diana's wide-eyed innocence at times. I will have to see it again to make more substantive criticisms, but I could have done without, particularly for the sake of kids, the awkward naked Steve scene and phallic jokes. Same with sleeping with Steve. Why? Is it necessary? Perhaps younger kids won't put it together. I mean, it not as explicit or awful as Superman II.

Jake Shore said...

As for what this means for women, I can only speak to it esoterically. There is no shortage of female heroes in cinema. Think of Ray in Star Wars or Katniss in Hunger Games. So, my guess is it means most to women and girls who love the character and the genre. But in terms of super heroines, let's be real. Wonder Woman makes the rest look small. It's pretty cool seeing new generations of girls introduced to the character in a way previous generations never did (not to discount Lynda Carter). My wife loved the character as a kid, so I'm excited to see how she reacts to it.

Patty Jenkins deserves a ton of credit. I think this film needed a woman at the helm who could drag DC out the dark, cheerless Zack Snyder swamp of cynicism and scowling. To Jenkins' credit she avoids the fad among superhero flicks for more than a decade, which you have pointed out for years and articulated so well -- the antagonists or crisis at hand is always the result of the hero's doing, and rather than being motivated by a selfless regard for the greater good, he or she is trying is simply trying to clean up his or her own mess.

If I could come up with one word for this film, it would be: sincerity ("... as far as the eye can see." - Linus). Patty Jenkins articulates this beautifully in her New York Times interview:

"Q: This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

A: Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world."

Mic drop. Amen.