“Wonder Woman”, and the limits of Hollywood representation

If you are concerned about being spoiled on the plot of the 2017 movie, “Wonder Woman”, please wait until after you have seen the movie to read this essay. Thank you.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Patty Jenkins-directed, “Wonder Woman” is a solid movie. Meaning that it is not without some major faults, but the stuff it does right…holy shit. Jenkins works with screenwriter Allan Heinberg, cinematographer Matthew Jensen, decorator Anna Lynch-Robinson, Production designer Aline Bonetto and several others in VFX/art direction to accomplish a movie that is fantastical and believable (for the most part). It provides an extended glimpse at life on the island of Themyscira in the first half that is more colorful, fun and interesting than anything in the previous DC Cinematic Universe movies, contrast with a detailed look at World War I that manages to convey the horrors of war without going for, “Saving Private Ryan” levels of carnage. Gal Gadot proves herself once again as the titular character, doing what is perhaps the best interpretation of an iconic DC superhero since Christopher Reeve as Superman, and Chris Pine proves himself adept as comic relief and straight man (literal and figurative) Steve Trevor, who even works as dramatic underlining of the movie’s theme: hard-won faith in humanity’s capacity to do good in the face of its capacity for evil (with gods thrown into the mix, of course).

If the movie inspires you, makes you believe in your own capacity for good and power as a woman (or, hell, just a human being), who am I to take away from that? The movie does a damn good job of putting a god in the middle of human calamity and having them learn how to be human in the process, so the character of Wonder Woman does double duty as both an icon and an actual character. And when you have sequences like Wonder Woman walking through No-Man’s Land, her extended training with Robin Wright as Antiope amongst other Amazonian women (including one played by real-life boxer and trainer Ann Wolfe), her cries of horror at the use of mustard gas on civilians, and even the Batman V Superman-inspired CGI calamity where an underwhelming villain is revealed as a thematic endpoint…hell yeah the movie makes you believe that you, too, can be Wonder Woman. Hell, Gail Simone wrote a tweet saying that she would consider trans women to be Amazonians as well, so one would definitely feel welcome and excited.

Provided you get past its limitations.

The thing about pop culture like this is that it does not exist in a vacuum. In this case, while the movie is quite empowering in theory, in practice the work is just as entangled in cultural influences, structures and, in this case, the Hollywood philosophy that reduces material it touches to hamburger, as everything else in this world of ours. Having Gal Gadot’s Diana traverse No Man’s Land and beat the shit out of a bunch of soliders through VFX and extended slow-motion portions just to save a local village? Awesome. Her strange origin as a being made of clay being altered for a thematic plot point that implies that the utopia of Themyscria pulled some Yoda-during and-after-“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” levels of deception on her? Not so much. There touches upon the biggest problem: the movie lets its star shine while undercutting them as it goes forward, having her traverse the simple rigidness of fate and the messy complexity of WWI-era reality but doing so in a way that feels route by the end.

So, getting right to the ending, and in part…there is a great moment where Chris Pine’s character makes a parting gesture from Diana, played without sound since Wonder Woman’s hearing has been affected by a powerful blow from the movie’s surprise villain Aries, where in the midst of Diana immediately rejecting the role of a tyrannical god there is a touching reminder of why Diana chose to go into the treacherous world of man to begin with. BUT, just to hammer home why Diana chose to reject Ares and fight on the side of humankind, the movie stops everything in the movie’s overblown finale just to play that scene again with sound. You know, because Pine’s character giving her an object talked about in the movie’s first act isn’t telling us enough. We need to have THIS moment explained to us. Just to cement the fact that for all of her power, she is ultimately here because of love for a man, not because of a desire to will some good into the world that invades her home one fated day, a desire that just so happens to have been awakened in her the more she learned of Steve Trevor and the war he comes from. A nuance the movie starts with and loses as it concludes with everything looking like a gaudy screensaver.

What makes this frustrating is that the movie does such a fine job telling us who Wonder Woman is and what she stands for from the very beginning. Sure it is all based on Greek mythology, but the movie is at its strongest when it just leaves it at that. Why is Diana’s home an island full of women with no men? Oh, because of a conflict between the gods of Olympus and Zeus’ dying breath in the aftermath, with the struggles of women sandwiched between it all. How can these women be so strong and powerful? Well, just look at them. What about Diana (played at the outset by Lilly Aspel and later Emily Carvey)? Well, she’s headstrong, determined and optimistic. One could say that she’s naive, sure, what with her assumptions of the outside world being driven by the same beliefs her homeland has (the source of many conflicts she has regarding the proper behavior of women in 1910s London, ethics during wartime, and the concept of mercy in the face of evil), but she’s not a dolt. She’s just someone who sees people as being fundamentally good, at first, and fights for that good. All in all, a solid start for a badass superhero, and her mother Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen) even tells her that she was sculpted from clay! Just like the original comics, right?

But all of that unravels as time goes on. Don’t get me wrong, the movie gives plenty of time to let Wonder Woman BE Wonder Woman in the confines of the movie’s eventual warping of its source material into a standard, coherent plot structure. The sequence where Diana observes life in early 20th-century London? Hilarious, with some nice snark by Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, a fat woman who isn’t used as a cheap comedic punching bag and even contributes to the plot until she is ultimately shoved aside like villains Dr. Poison and Ludendorff are (yeah I’ll talk about them soon). A typical alleyway brawl is elevated by Gal Gadot’s physicality and use of Diana’s famous wrists. Her rapport with Trevor’s crew of misfits, played by Saïd Tightmaoui, Ewen Bremneur, and Eugene Brave Rock is fantastic, with each actor portraying characters who have all been affected by tragedy before and during the war in different ways (hell, Eugene’s character, despite being simply named Chief, gets to make a pointed comment about the genocide of Native Americans by colonists). Even the romance that develops between Steve and Diana is nice because it comes as a result of the two characters getting to know each other through thick and thin, with each other’s hopes and personalities fully developed by the time That Scene happens, not as an instant thing that occurs just because it has to. But when the movie reveals that it has fudged with the source material for the sake of fitting into a tidy 3-act structure, that is when the title character becomes less transcendent, which leads us to the underwhelming villains.

So, Dr. Poison (played by Elena Anaya), Ludendorff (played by Martin Short) and Ares/Sir Patrick (played by Martin Thewilis) are not very good villains, though at least they all serve a thematic purpose unlike that other, $400 million disaster that shall not be named. Dr. Poison and Ludendorff have interesting chemistry as they do evil, leading a war effort that could make World War I so much worse…only to be revealed as mere pawns of Ares. They serve as a collective bookend to the movie’s theme of fate versus free will and serenity versus humanity. Well-worn as far as themes go, but great stories have used it quite well from video games like, “Shin Megami Tensei 4” to…well, Greek myth. The misstep, however, is that the movie doesn’t give enough time for this breathe, and for any of its antagonists to be particularly interesting. There’s a great moment where Diana tracks down Ludendorff, believing him to be Ares, the architect of the gruesome war. She impales him with her sword and stands victorious…only to realize that his soldiers are still packing bombs full of the deadly mustard gas Dr. Poison created. You see her go through disbelief and despair, with her proclaiming her mother’s sorrowful words about the world of men being undeserving of women like herself, and Chris Pine witnessing her sorrow, trying to talk her out of quitting the good fight. A great moment that manages to not be too preachy and have her, a powerful character, truly face a challenge of the soul…only to be rushed through in favor of Ares teleporting to her out of nowhere, revealed to have been disguised as Sir. Patrick, Trevor’s boss. He delivers a speech about how he and Diana could work together to bring forth a peaceful world without humanity, but Diana decides to just reject his offer and then they fight. That’s it.

Again, this at least serves a narrative purpose. The origin of Diana’s homeland and her people mentions Ares being involved in the fall of humankind through the stirring of hate and violence, along with the creation of Themyscria through his ill-fated battle with his father Zeus. But it’s all called to the forefront way too fucking soon, undercutting the actually affecting, powerful emotional turmoil Diana encounters on her hero’s journey. A friend of mine who say the movie with me agreed in that the story was much stronger in using Ares as an abstract idea instead of an actual person Diana has to fight. Instead, the movie just has Ares reveal that Diana is not a woman made of clay but a child of himself and her mother Hippolyta (again, this movie pulls an, “Empire Strikes Back” on its own character), with this reveal stacked under a heroic sacrifice by Trevor to have Diana morph into the fighting force for the movie’s bombastic finale.

All of these words I’ve typed haven’t even touched upon how the movie gives you a glimpse of Themyscria that is awe-inspiring but leaves one wanting on many levels. It is to the movie’s huge credit that it makes you wish that it was longer, for Themyscria truly does look and feel like absolute paradise even with Diana’s strongheaded personality and the conflicts between her mother who wishes her to be peaceful and her sister who wishes her to be a fighter. It is indeed a nuanced and beautiful paradise propped up by great production design, cinematography and an interesting take on Greek mythology. I just wish that it was more diverse and less tokenized in places. I’m sorry, but seeing just a few black women be Amazonians while being given little to no speaking lines only inspires me so much. I’m not sure if its due to production struggles (after all, director Patty Jenkins had to fight the studio to film a sequence where Woman Woman actually gets into the shitty parts of World War I) or what, but it is distressing to see the live-action movie be less inclusive and interesting in its world building and characterization than the Bruce Timm-produced animated works released years ago. Not helped by the fact that when the movie does include more characters, it uses archetypes like having the one indigenous man played by Eugene Brave Rock be called, “Chief” and nothing else. Yes, I know, the context of the movie makes it look like Trevor just gave the man that name as a backhanded show of comradery, but at least let the man tell uou his actual fucking name. At least let Ann Wolfe do more than just nod her head at Gal Gadot when her magic wristbands are activated. Who says a movie focusing on a strong Israeli woman can’t have the other Amazonians be interesting as well?

Not to mention, Gal Gadot is a veteran of the IDF and she props up her experiences within that as a preparation of sorts for her role of Diana Prince, which can’t help but affect how her character relates not just to Palestinians but other persons of color in the global south, a significant population of which has been protesting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years alongside organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. This version of Diana Prince may be empowering for folks in Israel who support the IDF, but what of everyone else? The movie doesn’t address that at all given the setting, but if folks plan to make more movies with this version of Diana in movies like, “Justice League”, which takes place in a modern setting that looks very much like our own but has superheroes, there is no way to dodge these things without coming off as dishonest. To say nothing of how the movie dodges the question posed by, “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” where Diana just disappeared for years after World War I, having not been seen anywhere during, say, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Holocaust, The Civil Rights marches, The Sexual Revolution in the U.S., Stonewall, The RAF attacks in Germany, the Korean War, The Red Army conflicts in Japan, The Vietnam War, The Cuban Missle Crisis, The Detroit riots of the late 1960s, The Rodney King riots, Brazil’s Tropico Dictatorship, the U.S.-funded Right Wing coups in Latin America in the 20th Century, The Khmer Rouge, the genocide in Rwanda, the atrocities of colonial Britain…why the fuck did she disappear for so long? Was World War I really the thing that make her just slink away from humanity after a while until she saw Doomsday in, “Batman V Superman”, and only after THAT declare humanity to still be good? This movie ends with Diana flying into the sky with nothing addressing any of that, so either one has to treat all of that as one big plot hole or just treat, “Wonder Woman” as its own movie…which, well, may be the better decision if one wants to dodge the cognitive dissonance the DC Cinematic Universe’s horrid continuity leaves you with, but given that we are dealing with pop culture which deals with the real world, it would be a cowardly omission at best.

“Wonder Woman” is both the most inspiring kind of the movie and also the most frustrating. Inspiring in that it gives extended moments where it lets itself breathe, having the viewer take in the weirdness, power, brutality and heart of its source material. Frustrating in that it slowly undoes itself in the name of fitting in so many narrative boxes of other multi-million dollar blockbusters. It is far-removed from the cynicism, wrong-headedness and dumbfounding plot contrivances that leads to Pa Kent telling Clark to not go out and save people before getting sucked up by a tornado, Batman and Superman being the biggest hypocrites in the history of Superheroes before fighting Doomsday for….some reason, and Jared Leto sending rotten meat, condoms and dildos to his fucking co-stars just to get, “In Method” for his role as The Joker. At the same time it makes you wish it was even better than it already is, even as someone with only a rudimentary idea of the moviemaking process and how to make an excellent movie. After all, “No one knows anything”, to quote William Goldman, and often the consumer’s desire is only just that.

Then again, making you want more is one hell of a bigger positive than one can get a lot of other, worse blockbusters as of this writing, the majority of which are directed by men. So, for now, let’s embrace this version of, “Wonder Woman” while understanding that we must never, ever, settle for what the big corporations give us. In order for our cries of inclusion and diversity to mean anything, we have to also be critical when we get what we claim to want. In order for our pleasure and gratification to be truly satisfying, we have to question the walls they are housed in so we can break out of them.  “Wonder Woman” is, at the end of the day, just a movie, flawed like any human endeavor. But at least we got to see it break records, and at least we now have a solid foundation to build more great things from.

Provided we don’t fuck it all up.

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