Movies: Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman [spoilers]
This is the 2017 superhero movie about an ancient amazon warrior who takes on a vicious German general in World War I.
I liked this movie.
Many, many of my friends loved this movie. Many were moved to tears by it. I don't begrudge them that enjoyment, or relief, or love, and I think I see where they're coming from. As for me, I had a pleasant time watching Wonder Woman, but I doubt I'll see it again.
I keep thinking that maybe superhero movies just aren't for me. I'll get back to that in a moment.
Wonder Woman got me thinking about the old pulp stories -- the radio serials and dime-store novels churned out in bulk in the 30s and 40s and 50s. We remember those stories, in a sort of collective cultural memory, as thrilling tales of hair's-breadth escapes and literal cliffhangers. Heroes and heroines (but yeah, usually dudes) have brilliant insights that let them outwit supremely capable villains. And even when they find themselves outmanned, outflanked, outgunned, and effectively doomed, they're brave enough to put their lives on the line and win the day.
The weird thing is, the source material -- the actual pulp stories themselves -- aren't really like that. Instead, reading a pulp adventure is a little like watching a speedrun of some adventure game being played with cheat codes. The hero is massively overpowered, and you basically follow them from one henchman to the next to the next. They easily knock out each of their enemies, find the next clue leading to the next henchman almost instantly, and so proceed until the final boss appears. The final battle is pretty much the same as the others, only it's preceded by a villain monolog detailing their plans.
So a lot of stuff happens, but it's not anything a modern audience would really recognize as a *story*. There's no 'darkest hour' where all seems lost. There's no excitement of wondering who's going to win this or that skirmish. There's no sense of transformation -- of the protagonist having to learn something or to grow as a person in order to win the day. It's just a virtuous, usually-clean-living hero, patiently picking off bad guys until it's over.
It's taken me time to wrap my head around the notion that people often write stories like that intentionally. That pulp story isn't really there to engross you in "how is it going to turn out?" Nor is it there to show you a character changing much. It's just there to show you a chain of events where the good guy steadily wins. Sometimes it's just nice to watch a hero being heroic.
And that brings me back to superhero movies. We've got traditional storytelling, with its dire adversity, harsh sacrifices, and personal transformation. And we've got pulp storytelling, where some two-fisted hero punches his way through all the baddies like a benevolent Terminator. And it feels like every superhero movie falls somewhere on that spectrum.
Weirdly, it's possible for superhero films to overshoot and go too far towards traditional storytelling -- prior to Wonder Woman, the DC Universe was mired in grimdark emo superhero nonsense, all maudlin self-pitying exercises in "being a superhero is *hard*!" And it's possible to overshoot too far towards pulp silliness -- Superman is supposed to be devilishly hard to write for, because you're stuck with a hero who can, by definition, easily overpower all his enemies, pulp-style.
So then there's the question of where this incarnation of Wonder Woman lands. Is it more like normal storytelling? Or more like pulp storytelling? I feel like it lands between the two in an interesting way.
I'd argue that the writers made an *attempt* at a traditional storyline. You can see the outlines of what they're going for, especially with the confrontation with Ares towards the end. They bring in a classic "devil's bargain" gambit: the villain offers the hero some enticement to join them in being eeeevil.
Ideally, the devil's bargain is presented in such a way that the hero, at the start of the story, may well have accepted the offer. If Luke's father had offered him the chance to rule the galaxy as father and son right at the start of A New Hope, our wet-behind-the-ears farmboy might've gone for it. ("Wow, Dad!") But by the time the final boss fight comes around, the hero has grown and changed as a person to the point that the bargain is no longer acceptable. The devil's bargain is an internal, or thematic, analog to the actual boss fight itself -- except the conflict is isn't between the hero and the villain, it's between who the hero was and who they've grown to be.
So from that you can piece together what the character arc for Diana would be -- she starts out blasé towards humanity, learns that mere mortals are valid and worth fighting for, and then finally puts her life on the line to save humanity. And you can still see traces of that in the script -- her horror at seeing London for the first time; a damn good speech from Chris Pine about "deserve has nothing to do with it"; then finally, fridging Chris Pine being the last thing that apparently gives her the strength to defeat Ares.
Again, I feel like the *intent* was there, but that story arc never landed. I never saw Diana not giving a shit about mere, pesky humans. I never saw virtue bloom in that character that was absent at the beginning. And honestly, that made those feints towards a traditional plot feel a little odd. "Okay, now Steve is, predictably, dead, so... so I guess she really, *really* wants to destroy Ares now?"
Instead, they go another way with the movie: it's more like pulp, with a virtuous character picking off a bad guy, finding the clue to get to the next bad guy, picking off the next bad guy, and so on, 'til the end. And from everything I've seen, this was a solid choice, and the right choice, for this film. As far as I can tell, folks who love this movie don't talk about being on pins and needles about how it was going to turn out. They don't talk about being all in on some engrossing character arc. They mostly talk about how awesome it is, and what a goddamn relief it is, to see Wonder Woman unapologetically kicking ass.
And again, that's what pulp storytelling is all about. But that style never rarely really grabs me. A superhero fight scene starts, and I'm all, "wake me when the CGI stops punching the other CGI."
And again, *that* is a sign that superhero films might just not be for me.
You could also make the argument that the character arc, or transformation, is about Diana "discovering her power". And again, I can see the chisel-marks where the writers have tried etching that in. There's a delightful moment early on where Diana realizes she can climb a sheer wall by literally punching handholds into the rock with her hand. And the final confrontation with Ares is the big reveal that she is -- <dramatic chords> -- a god herself. And Diana does go from beating down individuals, to small groups, to giant groups, to Ares himself -- though that may just be the natural heightening of action movies. You don't see her *learn* to take on larger groups of enemies, or suddenly realize she's capable of such a thing. There are just hints of this, perhaps the leavings of an earlier draft. Faint shadows on the palimpsest.
And lots of other superhero movies do that same 'pulp' thing: say, Captain America doesn't waver in his virtue in The First Avenger. The weird part is seeing that feint towards more traditional/less pulpy storytelling in Wonder Woman, like it couldn't quite decide which lane to take.
Even if the story didn't quite grab me, I still found a lot to like in the movie.
It's delightful to see Wonder Woman pull the DCU away from its worst Zack Snyder tendencies. The movie has jokes, and the jokes are funny. The (apparently improvised) chat about sex during the boat ride away from Themyscira is delightful -- and perhaps because of the improv, it provides a nice moment for the characters to breathe, and, for a spell, to do something other than push the plot of an action movie. I wouldn't cast Gadot in a comedy, but the movie ably builds comedy *around* her. (It reminded me of Angel, in that regard.)
Director Patty Jenkins retains many of Snyder's tics. There's lots of teal-and-orange. Somehow she makes modern-day Paris look drab and dark and grubby, which seems inappropriate unless you're doing the Parisian equivalent of The Wire. They do the "ramp down into slo-mo, then ramp-up into full speed" action gimmick.
But Jenkins uses a color palette that isn't nearly as "teal and orange but mostly black" as most Snyder movies. And yes, she uses the slow-down/speed-up thing, but not nearly as often as Snyder does. She's willing to let her movie just be normal a lot of the time, instead of acting like every five-second shot has to be some overwraught, immediately-GIFable, "big badass moment".
I liked Diana's allies.
It felt like a miscue that, after the island, the secondary characters were almost all dudes, as if the writers were trying to palliate some splenetic reddit MRA: "It's okay! It's okay! I know we have a lady heroine, but don't worry! There are dudes! SO MANY DUDES." But the dudes they brought in were interesting and distinct. Chris Pine did ably with a flatly written character, though I wish the movie had given him less focus. (Hint to screenwriters: I go to a movie called Wonder Woman to see Wonder Woman, not some random pilot dude.) That said, Lucy Davis as Etta Candy blew them all away. The woman delivered two lines and I was like, "I am *ALL IN* for a 3-season BBC comedy about this lady."
The villains, on the other hand, were just painfully bland. For the longest time, the only bad guys are Erich Ludendorff and Isabel Maru (I had to look up the names), who merit no further description than "eeeeevil". They had no charisma, no interesting evil plot, and no thematic resonance with the journey that Diana was on. Ideally, they should have been some evil mirror to Diana, showing the dark side of some good quality of hers. Instead, they were just standard-issue baddies.
"Ah, but Peter, they weren't the *real* villain. The real villain was Sir Patrick Morgan, who seemed to be on their side all along!" Well, voice-in-my-head, I'm not totally convinced that Ares *was* Sir Patrick Morgan -- it seemed just as likely that he was taking Morgan's form in that final scene. And even if it *was* him all along, he's only the villain in that last scene. The rest of the running time, he's a well-meaning British official. And while David Thewlis is amazing (everyone go watch Naked no time for questions just do it), there aren't any hidden depths to Morgan's portrayal that make it some nuanced study in villainy. The bottom line is, you're stuck with Ludendorff and Maru as your villains for most of that movie. And then at the end, you're stuck with the supreme awkwardness of 54-year-old definitely-not-an-action-star Thewlis doing a climactic fight scene.
You can make a case that -- and I hate that this is the only way I can think to phrase this -- that the *real* villain here is institutional sexism.
I dug how the movie portrayed sexism. I loved that there was no moustache-twirling villain saying that "Ooh, no *woman* will ever get the best of meeee, mu hu ha ha ha." And mind you, I have no problem with that storyline -- Jessica Jones felt a lot like that, with Kilgrave as the apotheosis of a kind of gaslighting abuser that women face far more than men. But that didn't mean Wonder Woman was shying away from sexism.
Instead, it depicts a world that just doesn't *get* women-as-heroes. Steve Trevor means well, but he struggles to recognize that Diana is the hero of the movie, and should be deferred to as such. And Trevor's journey gets mirrored by the rest of their cohort as they all go behind enemy lines. Even Etta Candy conveys "stop it with all that heroism" as she fusses over Diana. I like the message that you don't have to be an awful person to further the iniquities of an awful system. It's heady stuff for an action tentpole, but it's presented smoothly.
And again, Diana shoves past all those impediments with little-to-no trouble -- another sign of pulp storytelling, where it's not so much about the struggle as it is about the relief and joy of seeing the hero easily knock aside everything in her way.
Again, I liked Wonder Woman. I liked it enough to go spelunking through my brain to sort out why I didn't love it. And thank god we've got a female-led superhero movie that's good -- if there's any justice in the world, Wonder Woman will kick open the door for lots more exciting, fun, female-led adventures.
Also, it'll ideally kick open the door for DC movies that don't suck.
Dare we hope.
For next week: I have so much backlogged now. I have to finally finish my reviews of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, OJ: Made in America, and BoJack Horseman. (All of them are amazing, so it's taking forever to gather my thoughts.) I'm watching The Carmichael Show (also great) and (for my upcoming improv run) reading a ton of Tennessee Williams plays.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none