Monday, June 26, 2017

Bullets and Bracelets

Gal Gadot in Wonder Women

Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, that brought countless ills upon the scions of Germany. Many a brave soul did her ruinous wrath send down to Hades, many a hero did it yield to dogs and vultures. For so were the counsels of Zeus fulfilled from the day on which Hippolyta, queen of Amazons, and her thoughtless daughter first fell out with one another.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I watched the Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman religiously. I was 8 when the show premiered. It was one of the only times popular culture let me exercise my inner aspirations for my gender identity without betraying them to the world at large. I've heard a lot of women my age talk about how they played at being Wonder Woman in the 1970s using Underroos as costumes and jump ropes as Lassos of Truth. I didn't get to do any of that, though I might have wanted to. My neighbor across the street was such a girl and I was insanely jealous of the fact that she had a Wonder Woman tiara and bracelets. I had to settle for pretending to be Batman, which was acceptable to a point. I couldn't do the things I wanted as play activity, but I could watch the show, and watch it I did. Because it was superheroes and nominally an action show, it was permitted for someone who was perceived to be a boy. But it spoke to me as a girl. Wonder Woman was an aspirational figure: gorgeous, badass, invincible. Hell, even her secret identity, Diana Prince, worked for a spy organization. No life of motherhood and housewifery for her. Moreover, there was a transformational element to Wonder Woman that was absent in her near contemporary rival for girl power superheroics, The Bionic Woman. Jamie Sommers required six million dollars worth of bionic upgrades to become a hero, which was way out of reach to a lower middle-class kid like me. Diana Prince spun around and magically transformed into Diana of Paradise Island. There's a hardcore wish fantasy involved with Wonder Woman's spinning transformation, which maybe explains how Wonder Woman's fantasy gifts seemed more attainable than Jamie Sommers's technological ones. Magic doesn't have a price tag, after all. A lot of girls my age spent time spinning in hopes of becoming Wonder Woman. I did it myself in private moments every once in a while.

Wonder Woman #1 by George Perez

Wonder Woman comics in the 1970s were lousy, though. Her best stories generally appeared in team books like Justice League of America, where she was often sidelined in favor of male characters, or damselled. In her own book, the stories were often silly and usually pretty patronizing, even when the creators were aware of her status as a feminist icon. The first Wonder Woman series I ever bought was Kurt Busiek and Trina Robbins The Legend of Wonder Woman mini-series, followed closely by George Perez's revamp in 1987. The Legend of Wonder Woman was a loving pastiche of the original Golden Age version of the character, while Perez's book re-imagined her along more mythological lines. Perez's version is the canon from which the current character is drawn and it populates Wonder Woman's rogues gallery with mythological figures in preference to costumed enemies (though some of those show up too). It also changes Wonder Woman's mission in the world. She is an ambassador for both Themyscira and Amazonian ideals of peace and kindness. Moreover, the Perez comics largely avoid a male gaze when drawing both Diana and the other women who populate the story. The Amazons themselves and their island and Mount Olympus itself are rendered in loving pastiche of Hellenic art and architecture, often crossed with the gonzo spacial experiments of M. C. Escher. Perez provides Wonder Woman with an arch-enemy in Ares, the God of War. These comics are mostly pretty good. They are state of the art (in 1987) traditional comics. They stand out in stark contrast to the deconstructive versions of Batman and Superman and superheroes in general that are their contemporaries.

But they have their issues.

Wonder Woman by Azarello and ChiangMost comics created almost exclusively by men are going to step on their own dicks when writing about women eventually, and the Perez version of Wonder Woman is no different. In one issue, Diana's friend, Julia, goes off on the god, Hermes, with a righteous anger that's fully justified. At the end of the book, her outburst is written off by the character herself as menopausal, as if women's anger isn't justifiable if there's not an underlying feminine reason. Menopause, PMS, whatever. That's not to say that men can't write about women or Wonder Women specifically--Greg Rucka's superior version of Wonder Woman is largely free of this kind of shit--only that these things often happen when they do. The New 52 version of Wonder Woman, which debuted in 2011, is almost laughable in its anti-feminism. It's as if writer Brian Azarello went through the Perez origin story with the intention of demolishing its finer points, as if he wants to say, "Look! The Amazons are just as bad as Patriarchy." As if to establish a false equivalence between feminism and patriarchy. When Azarello revealed that the Amazons repopulated Themyscira by raping men and selling resulting male children into slavery, I should have checked out (the lovely Cliff Chiang art kept me reading for a while afterward, much to my chagrin). When the New God, Orion, slapped Diana on the ass and she failed to even attempt to rip his arm out of its socket, I did check out. (1) The New 52 more generally pursued a misguided romance between Diana and Superman that was just too much to bear. DC comics of the current decade really doesn't understand the appeal of most of their characters when they aren't brooding dark-night vigilantes.

In any event, these are the poles of depiction that the new film version navigates.

There's a shot in the otherwise dismal Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that tells you all you need to know about Wonder Woman. She's just taken a hit from Doomsday. She wipes her face and grins as she gets up. She's enjoying the fight, and because she's enjoying it, the audience enjoys it, too. Alone of all the characters in Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman seems free of angst and moral conflict. She's there to kick ass in the name of righteousness, and kick ass she does. She kicks ass better than either of the nominal lead characters, as it so happens. Any fan complaints about Gal Gadot's suitability for the role are erased in a heartbeat. She inhabits the character completely. Her own movie continues in that vein. Right at the outset of Wonder Woman, when Diana is a little girl, she mimics the training she witnesses among her fellow Amazons, much to the disapproval of her mother. She wants to fight from the get go.

Connie Nielsen and Lilly Aspel in Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman (2017) strikes me as a women's movie in only the most minimal of ways. Directed by a woman, sure, and I don't discount that, but it was written by three men. The first act on Themyscira passes the Bechtel test and provides a plethora of strong, diverse women, but that first act only lasts, what? Twenty minutes? Enough to establish Diana's origins. If someone was to make a movie that spends its entire running time on Themyscira, I'd be down with that, because I want to know more about Hippolyta and Antiope and Niobe and Artemis and Nubia and the other amazons, most of whom only have a walk-on role in Diana's story as it breezes through her childhood and beyond.

The Amazons of Themyscira are a conundrum. Created by the gods to show man a the errors of their ways after they've been misled by Ares, god of war, they're a living avatar of the dictum, "Si vis pacem, para bellum " ("If you would have peace, prepare for war." ). Fighting war with more war seems to my mind a fool's errand, and the fact that most of the new film is set during the "war to end all wars," demonstrates that, on some level, the filmmakers are aware of this. The Perez comics are aware of this, too, and when Diana eventually confronts Ares himself, she doesn't destroy him with his own power, as she does in the movie, she disarms him with truth through the instrument of her magic lasso. She demonstrates to him that if his nuclear apotheosis follows to its logical conclusion, he will have lost everything. This is canny. This is Diana transcending her intended role as a warrior and becoming a peacemaker. The film botches this in every possible way. Her discovery of the power of love results in more violence? This seems wrong, somehow. She's attempting to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools, to paraphrase Audre Lorde. I don't know, maybe the film is aware of this conundrum, too, given the historical placement of the film's action. Maybe it's the point. The disaster of World War I was followed by World War II, after all. Ares may have lost in this film, but he wins in the end, doesn't he? He's planted the seeds of man's destruction, hasn't he? Is Diana's mission to weed the fruits of those seeds? I suppose it's possible.

If Themyscira is Eden, then Steve Trevor's arrival is the apple and the serpent. The war follows close on his heels, and suddenly "man's world" has intruded onto both Themyscira and Diana herself. The stories her mother has told her about the Amazons and about her own birth have primed her to leave the nest and hunt for Ares. She sees Ares's hand in the war. of course, and takes it upon herself to end him and to end war. Once the movie leaves Themyscira, it becomes more conventional. Diana's banter with Steve Trevor both on Themyscira and on their way to London is the stuff of rom coms. Of course Diana is familiar with the pleasures of the flesh. And of course the Amazons have determined that men are necessary only for procreation, but not for pleasure. And, of course, Diana falls for Steve Trevor. The movie stacks the deck here. Its version of Trevor transcends his usual role as Lois Lane in drag. He's a heroic figure. Played by Chris Pine, who has lately been discovering his own movie star charisma, he's an enticement to a male audience. He's the figure provided to the male viewer for their own fantasy identification, brave, "above average," heroic. The movie gives him feet of clay--he's a spy, so there's a certain amount of duplicity involved with his character--but never once does he transgress in a way that voids that identification. I like Steve Trevor in this film, but I'm disappointed, too, that the filmmakers aren't brave enough to encourage a male audience to focus their identification on Diana. Women have been asked to identify with male heroes for decades, after all. This is a problem that plagues the film until the end.

Chris Pine, Gal Gadot, and Lucy Davis in Wonder Woman

Once the film moves to London, the roles of women diminish. Steve's secretary, Etta Candy, briefly provides Diana with another woman to act as her foil as she navigates Man's World as a fish out of water. The film has some fun adapting her to the role of women circa 1918, with its ridiculous and constricting fashions. The scene where Diana mistakes corsetry for armor is cute. Etta makes a throwaway line about women fighting with their personalities that notes that women don't have the vote just yet. When Diana follows Trevor into a meeting of parliament, she brings the deliberations to a halt with her very presence. During these scenes, the filmmakers "get" it. It's in these scenes that the film is at its most feminist, but it's feminist in a way that will not discomfort a male viewer who is neutral on the subject of feminism. It's assertions that women should have the vote or shouldn't have to bind themselves into corsets are uncontroversial, though perhaps these things need to be reasserted at the present political moment.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

Once the film moves to the war proper, Diana becomes a smurfette. Or, maybe more accurately, she becomes Snow White. She's the center of attention, sure, but she's the center of attention for an all-male supporting cast. Worse, she's a Madonna figure, too, an object of admiration and even worship. She's a principle more than a character. Placing a woman on a pedestal--especially a character who is described at one point as "the most beautiful woman you've ever seen"--rather than letting her be a character unto herself is a problem. This portion of the film mitigates this some. It gives some of her supporting cast foibles that humanize them while giving nods to the broader DC comics universe (I never, ever, expected to see Apache Chief as a character in a film, but this film does a good job of imagining him for this particular milieu). Moreover, if Diana is to be an archetype rather than an actual woman, then this film does a splendid job matching her to archetypal images. The scene where she crosses no-man's land is as iconic a display of super-heroics as you're likely to ever see on a movie screen, as is the subsequent scene where she takes out a sniper in a bell tower (a scene that echoes a scene on Themyscira earlier in the film when Antiope takes out a trio of well-concealed German soldiers that may be equally iconic). Superhero films are action films, after all, and the stuff that's derived from World War I provides splendid cinematic action. It also provides the film with the opportunity for Diana to ignore the dictates of men, as she does what's right in spite of the weakness of the men around her. These scenes tend to highlight the dichotomy of Wonder Woman as this films imagines her, though. She's an emissary of peace, but she murders the hell out of a bunch of German soldiers here, though maybe the film has a point to make from this. After she dispatches her main human enemies, she's shown the goodness men are capable of in Steve Trevor's final flight. Greater love hath no man, and all that. Certainly, this is necessary after Diana realizes that Ares isn't necessary for men to find reasons to kill one another. This act is an act of redemption for Trevor, too, who has fallen from grace with Diana.

The relationship between Steve and Diana leads inevitably to Diana's sexuality. The film takes some time out of the action for a romantic interlude between them, in which she "learns" to dance, and then is delighted by her first encounter with snow. After which, she takes Steve to bed. I'm okay with this, I guess. I like the idea of Diana as a woman in command of her sexuality, fucking whoever she wants and screw anyone else's judgement of who she should take to bed. I'm even okay with her taking a man to bed even though I know she's queer as hell. The film incorporates this better than most of its canonical elements. I think this scene, and the scene in which Diana first sees Steve naked, and the scene where they discuss sexual mores on the boat to London, are the areas where having a female director are most evident. The sight of naked Chris Pine is a female-gaze shot if ever there was one, and he's more undressed in this scene than any woman is in the film. The double entendres in this scene are also focused on Trevor's, um, physique, which is refreshing. In the scene after Steve and Diana dance, Diana is clearly neither naive or compliant to Steve's desires. She wants him on her own and she takes him, even if the film is mercifully reticent about showing the actual act of their lovemaking. This is all in the control of her agency, not the agency of some man. Of all of the film's nods to feminism, this is perhaps the most important. If we must have romance, this could have gone much, much worse than this.

I am disappointed by the villains in Wonder Woman. I mean, General Ludendorff is a cartoon Nazi twenty-five years before the fact. That he's played by Danny Huston, who specializes in such roles, is almost lazy given the actor's career anima. When he dispatches of the German high command and throws them a useless gas mask, then has a good laugh about it with Dr. Maru, the film has crossed over into mustache twirling. Ludendorff was a real person, by the way, and maybe the movie has the right idea about him, given that after the war, he was a prominent Nationalist (later the Nazis) and took credit for the victories of others while promoting the idea that Germany lost the war because they had been stabbed in the back by Jews and Bolsheviks. Having Diana stab him with the Godkiller sword may be historically dubious, but it IS cathartic. He was a piece of work. Doctor Maru--aka Dr. Poison--is one of Wonder Woman's oldest villains in the comics. Originally a Nazi scientist in the comics, she retains that role here. She's more complex than Ludendorff. There's something broken inside her that's teased to the surface by Steve Trevor in their scene together at the Kaiser's ball. Elena Anaya gives a more layered performance in this scene than she does in others. The film's conception of her motivations, though, is deeply troubling. Maru wears a mask over part of her face, and when that mask is removed by Ares as he urges Diana to despise human beings, there's an equation of disfigurement with evil and beauty with virtue. Diana has every reason to destroy Maru, but she chooses the right action in spite of the film's troubling implications more to spite Ares than because it's right action. But right action even for the wrong reasons is right action, right?

Diana's final battle with Ares is disappointing, too. Ares's dialogue in this section of the film is awful, base-standard super villain stuff. Ares is an uncomplicated villain, even if he does unfold uncomfortable facts about Diana's origins. As an action sequence, this is very much of a piece with the battle with Doomsday in Batman v. Superman. While I understand that Warner Brothers was leery of this film and obviously didn't plan for sequels (foolishly, as it turns out), I wish they had more foresight. Ares is a threat that should have continued into another film (set, perhaps in World War II?), with his minions as the big bad in this film. The Perez books set Diana against Ares's sons, Deimos and Phobos (Terror and Fear), before they ever brought Ares on stage. For that matter, there are a host of related female villains that would have suited, too. Eris (goddess of discord) for one example, or Enyo (a related goddess of war). Admittedly, one theme of the film is Diana vs. Patriarchy, and that means Ares himself, but this is a missed opportunity.

The presence of Ares, and to a lesser extent Zeus, highlights one of the film's odder lacunae. Where are the female gods in the Greek pantheon? The film intimates that Ares has killed them all, but surely Hippolyta would have told Diana about their role in the creation of the Amazons. Not only are the female gods absent from the screen (save for a couple of silhouettes in Hippolyta's picture book), none are even named at any point in the film. Not even Diana's characteristic exclamation of "Great Hera!" This suggests to me a film that is really a boy's film. The filmmakers have done the bare minimum to suggest this is a women's film, but if it's unnecessary to the broader virility of the film, feminine elements like goddesses and major female villains have been stripped from the film.

If I sound ambivalent toward the film, I'm not, really. I liked it enough to see it twice, so my ambivalence falls on the side of affection and admiration. I like it a lot more than I like any other film based on DC comics going back twenty-five years or so. A comparison between this film and its companions in the DC extended universe is instructive. Unlike the other films in the series (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad), this film has a very clear three act structure. It's almost classical in comparison to Suicide Squad, which has so many characters that anything approaching a "structure" to the narrative is virtually impossible. That film was downright clumsy in its unfolding, giving each character a snippet of exposition, then giving them another snippet of exposition, and finally still another snippet of exposition. It wastes a ton of time on this before it comes anywhere near an actual plot (though whether the film has an actual plot is debatable). Much the same complaint can be laid at Batman v. Superman, though it's not nearly as profligate with its exposition. It's so intent on sewing together two intractable and incompatible source texts while occasionally taking time out for franchise building that its good qualities are swamped by its own narrative incoherence. Wonder Woman has a plethora of origin stories, so it could be forgiven for rendering her movie origins incoherent, but the movie itself is crystal clear on this point. Moreover, each act of the film flows into the next in a way that provides narrative continuity. The action of the previous act has consequences in the next. I will admit that the transition between Diana and Steve's conversation on the boat and then waking up in London was jarring; where exactly IS Themyscira? Off the coast of Turkey? That would make sense with the backstory Trevor is given. Off the coast of, say, France? That would jibe with the movie time elided in the cut between Steve and Diana's conversation about sex and the next morning. But whatever. Most blockbuster movies are impatient with time and geography anymore.

The element of the film that most yanks this away from the domination of men is Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman herself. This is a star-making performance, at once nurturing and feminine and hard as steel when required. The scene where Wonder Woman is revealed in full for the first time is a scene that has to have an actor to match it, and Gadot inhabits the role so effortlessly that you never question whether or not she's Wonder Woman, because she IS Wonder Woman. She's the best match of actor and role in superhero movies since Christopher Reeve in the first Superman film (a film to which this film pays homage in one of its best scenes). In truth, this film is well-cast in depth. The actors who play the Amazons are all suggestive of deeper stories (the brief scene of Niobe besting all comers has a narrative to it). This is especially true of Robin Wright as Antiope and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, two sisters with ideological differences regarding the mission of the Amazons. If the producers of this film were to take all of these actors and make a Game of Thrones-style TV series about Themyscira, I'd watch it. The male cast makes less of an impression, Chris Pine excepted, but they mostly fill their roles in a way that adds texture to the film. Make no mistake, though, this is Gal Gadot's movie. (2)

This all comes back to representation and little girls twirling around in circles hoping to transform into Wonder Woman.

Warner Brothers apparently had no faith in the film, and projected it to do relatively modest business compared to other superhero movies. They failed to sign Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins to long-term deals for subsequent films, which is going to cost them a lot of money when both women come looking for bigger paychecks next time. Meanwhile, out in the real world, women are going to see this film in actual packs. To an extent, this film is a cultural bellwether. It appears at a time when many women feel under siege by the new patriarchy of the current political reality, and Wonder Woman stands as a heroine for the present moment. She's the zeitgeist in a bottle. Ordinarily, I would have seen Wonder Woman with my brothers because it came out in the window of time when we go to movies together to celebrate their respective birthdays, but instead, I found myself in a first-weekend audience with a veritable posse of other women. A friend of mine booked an entire block of seats and rounded up lady friends to fill them. I look at this film and I marvel at how dense male film executives can be about women headlining action films. Mad Max: Fury Road was a mere two years ago, after all. It wasn't men who bought all those Twilight tickets, or all those Hunger Games tickets, or all those Titanic tickets. Make a good movie in which women can see ourselves as something other than an accessory for a male hero and we will come to see your movie.

I've all but accused this film of being a boy's film in disguise as a women's film, but the experience of seeing the film in the theater runs counter to that impression. I've mentioned the scene early in the film when young Diana mimics the training she sees the other Amazons undergoing. That scene has a specific real-world resonance for me, because the first audience I was in for the film had a fair number of young girls in it. There was a girl in the row in front of me who was behaving exactly like young Diana as the credits rolled, miming Wonder Woman in action. There were two more out in the lobby as I made my way to my car. There's obviously a deep and atavistic pleasure in seeing someone like you in the role of hero, and girls and women are starved for this kind of representation. Many long years separate Ellen Ripley from Imperator Furiosa and Wonder Woman. So who am I to call this a "boys' movie" then? Because if women and girls are taking it to heart, then it belongs to them.

(1) If you want an example of how this might have played out, I would suggest the second issue of Joe Keatinge and Sophie Campbell's version of Glory. Glory was a Wonder Woman knock-off created by artist Rob Liefeld for his creator-owned universe. Keating and Campbell radically re-imagined
Glory in 2012. In the issue in question, Glory ends up ripping the arm off of Supreme, Liefeld's Superman knock off. It's gory and cathartic.

(2) I am aware of the controversy surrounding Gal Gadot's nationality and perceived Zionism. I acknowledge this concern, but I am not equipped or prepared to engage in a discussion of this issue. I think one could just as easily take the film to task for being an American film as you can for having an Israeli star. I'm concerned that accusations of "zionism" are often a means by which the left can indulge in anti-Semitism under the cover of social justice activism. There are legitimate reasons to criticize Israel, but there's a knife's edge to walk here and I don't feel like trying to walk it. If this bothers you, I encourage you to research the facts and form your own opinion on the matter.

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1 comment:

Deborah Lipp said...

I don't mind at all Diana desiring and sleeping with Steve. If living in this society cannot erase our queer desires, then living in Themyscira cannot erase straight desires. Honest to God, plenty of queer women would want to try it if they'd never seen it before!

I cannot figure out what you mean by the homage to Superman, which makes me sad because it's one of my favorite movies.

There was, by the way, a brief mention of a goddess: The Lasso of Truth is called the Lasso of Hestia.

Thanks for saying that about antisemitism on the left. It is frankly driving me crazy. Zionism is the belief that the state of Israel should exist. There is nothing inherently oppressive about it. I utterly reject any statement that Zionism is racism; it is itself an antisemitic statement.

By comparison, being anti-Israel versus being against the oppression of the Palestinian people is like being anti-America versus being anti-Trump. Much of the left is rather disgustingly interested in being anti-Israel, and yes, I feel threatened and infuriated by that. This story made my head explode:

Seriously, we'd just gotten back from NYC Pride and we were so tired we could barely walk, and reading the article made me stand up and shout.

Besides all of that, Israel has compulsory military service for all 18 year-olds. It's ridiculous to assume someone who has been in her country's military wouldn't have a somewhat pro-military perspective. That shit is excellent brainwashing. So if you are "pro-Israeli" but against any Israeli with a military POV, you're functionally anti-Israeli. Forgive me for noticing that's probably the point.