Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: Fury Road

Diana, Princess of Themyscera, getting ready to stab some guy.
The thesis of DC’s Cinematic Universe (and the Marvel Universe, as well) is it’s grinding, dark authoritarian streak. Superman wrestles with his god-like powers: he can do anything, even rule the earth, but he chooses to spend a lot of his time brooding over the loss of his planet and his inherent outsider status. Batman is the nearly omnipotent paladin alter ego of a billionaire who uses his immense wealth to endlessly right the wrong done to his parents and holds himself as a force above the law. They are damaged, self-regarding, nearly schizophrenic men, fighting through childhood trauma, allowing their losses to define everything about them.

What if we had a superhero who has none of these issues? What if she was here because she chose to be here and is here to do good— not to psychologically play out some personal loss, but because it was simply the right thing to do?

Now we have the antithesis to the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. Finally, after a nine-year development cycle and a dizzying number of deals, we have Wonder Woman, directed by Patty (2003's Monster) Jenkins. The title character is played by Israeli actor Gal Gadot, absolutely majestic in the role of Diana, Princess of Themyscera. (nobody in the film calls her “Wonder Woman.”) Jenkins has rendered a marvelous superhero tale, a breezy, often thoughtful film that is centered on a fascinating hero both capable and naïve, loving and fierce, a warrior for peace. It is not a perfect film— but as an entry into the superhero genre it is way above average.  Go see!

Diana going "over the top" into No Man's Land. This sequence is
incredibly great, indescribably thrilling and unexpected, worth the
price of admission, even.
The basic story: Diana is a princess of a mystical island, made invisible by the intervention of the god Zeus, inhabited by immortal Amazon warriors. Into this idyllic world flies Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) a WWI allied spy on a mission to stop the Germans, lead by General Eric Ludendorff (A real historical figure!) from developing a new and extremely deadly form of mustard gas. When Steve describes the war (via the magic lasso of truth) Diana is so outraged that she sets out with him to end the conflict, which she believes could only be the work of Ares, the God of War, who is influencing men to fight. On the way they visit London and wide-eyed and innocent Diana learns the ways of early 20th century western society. Undeterred, with the help of Trevor and the blessing of a rogue British War Secretary (David Thewlis) they assemble a small cadre of (what can only be described as) helpers and Diane sets off to end the First World War…

A few notes:

• The film’s setting— Europe in 1918, the final months of The Great War— was a marvelous decision on several levels. There is a genuine surprise in the opening act— set on a timeless island magically protected from the outside world— when the lovely azure sky is literally pierced by a German Fokker monoplane. The film then fixes on World War I, the description of that war’s terrible scale and carnage motivates Diana to leave her idyllic home and end the conflict. The setting of the war— the muddy trenches, the damaged Belgian villages, smoky, bustling London— are rendered with incredible detail.

The decision set the film in 1918 follows a smart precedent: Captain America: the First Avenger (2011). That film was set mostly in the Second World War, which—while accurate to comic-book origin— was an unusual choice, not entirely necessary. Same goes with Wonder Woman, the WWI setting of which was an even more of a whole-cloth invention, as the comic book was first published in 1941. Both of these movies could have started in media res, set in our contemporary time, like the majority of comic-book movies are (Spider-Man started in 1962: in the movies he never saved John Kennedy, not even once) but instead chose to introduce our heroes in historical contexts.

Why? Because it effectively de-contextualizes the conflicts that informed their origins. We get to see heroes fight the Hun and Nazis, and the wrecked and ambiguous current state of geo-politics has nothing to do with it. There are no satellite phones or pocket nukes or stealth anything. The battles were more intimate and close those days, and they required guts and battlefield valor, not pinpoint drone missile targeting. It makes our heroes seem all that more pure.

Furiousa takes charge, defending the war rig from the forces of the malignant
patriarch Immortan Joe. Max Rocketanski (Tom Hardy) helps as best he can.
• Guys: I hate to say it, but Wonder Woman proves the jig is up. This film had a singular precedent, and it wasn’t Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), even though Diana’s late appearance saved the finale and maybe the battle. No, it’s the purely male action movie paradigm that is showing signs of being played out. That’s been evident since the phenomenal success of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). George Miller’s action masterpiece proved that audiences are thrilled by strong female leads, and in Fury Road the film series' namesake takes a backseat to Imperator Furiosa (Charleze Theron). It also proved that feminism-- in this film, this means the exposure of the destructive nature of patriarchy-- can be the underlying philosophy of an all-out action spectacle, and this new emphasis just makes the story that much better. (This was followed by the last two Star Wars movies, also notable for having strong female leads, and again: it just seems to improve everything about them.)

It also advances a worldview unheard of in major action films: that maybe patriarchy is a system that causes most of the destruction in the world. Maybe having men run things is a recipe for violence and war and climate destruction. It may even be bad for men in a patriarchy, who tend to define themselves in ways that limit the human potential of everyone in it, including themselves. Violence may be the ultimate catharsis, the red blood that powers action films, but the time may have come when the pleasure of violent catharsis can be questioned and challenged.

Wonder Woman advances this strong feminist theme. Diana comes from an island with no men, and when she leaves it she sees the world in all it’s sexist extremes. Naturally, she is outraged by this, and takes it upon herself to set things right. All her male cohorts can do is follow along as best they can. Steve Trevor, who in any other movie would be the stoic, capable lead character, is quickly reduced to a “feminist ally:” Her agenda becomes his agenda and all he can do is educate Diana on the complexities of modern warfare and social morés. Diana’s motivation is moral outrage against the Great War that men have started and wage without mercy against each other-- and the innocents caught in it’s grasp. The nature of evil itself is held up to question in Wonder Woman— is it an innate thing, part of human nature, or is violence a tragic flaw of the male psyche, or is it caused by something else entirely?

It’s not a perfect feminist manifesto: Wonder Woman definitely tries to have it both ways in places. These are plenty of scenes where Diana is ogled, and her presence as the most beautiful and capable person in the room eases over from admiration to voyeurism. This manifesto suffers especially with the big battle finale (no spoilers) which is more in common with the other titanic, lengthy CGI battles at the end of other DC and Marvel movies than this particular tale. It’s a well-crafted spectacle, a clash of immensely powerful super-powered beings, but after the real-world ethical dilemmas exposed and discussed the film before the finale hits I felt a little disappointed. Punches are being pulled a little, I think. If the film had ended a little earlier, with Diana realizing that war (especially THAT war) was nothing more than a form of nationalistic madness brought on by the belligerence and pride of the interconnected patriarchal royal houses of Europe, I think she would have discovered a deeper truth, and the audience would have left the auditorium wiser and maybe a little outraged, but outraged in a good way.

*Program note: there is NO easter egg tag at the end of Wonder Woman. Feel free to leave when the credits scroll starts.

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