Monday, June 12, 2017

Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman

I didn't expect to have anything more to say about Wonder Woman after publishing my short review of it.  But in the week that followed, the film has stayed with me, particularly the ways in which it complicates (and fails to complicate) the conventions of the superhero narrative.  Partly, this is just the shock of the new.  The MCU--and particularly those parts of it that are a bit more politically engaged--has gotten more than a little top-heavy, constantly bumping up against the limitations of its genre when it tries to do anything interesting with it.  Wonder Woman isn't kicking off its own cinematic universe, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that we'd all be better off if WB wrote off its previous three DC movies and used Wonder Woman as its template going forward (and, at least until November, we can all pretend that this is what's going to happen).  Without the baggage that the MCU has accumulated, DC is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the earlier franchise's mistakes, as well as striking its own path.  The following are some thoughts on how Wonder Woman sets up some interesting ideas for that project going forward, and how the conventions of Hollywood, and of the superhero genre, are likely to stymie that approach.
  • It's been a little frustrating to watch the conversation around Wonder Woman coalesce around its feminism.  Not that I don't understand why that's happening, or that there aren't interesting things to be said on this front.  In particular, I've been struck by discussions of the film's visual language, and of its avoidance of typically male-gaze-ish approaches to depicting powerful women.  And, in the other direction, there have been some trenchant critiques of the whiteness of the film's feminism, the fact that, in the Amazonian utopia of its opening segments, women of color are mostly relegated to the background, and in the WWI segments, they are almost entirely absent even as non-white men appear in crowd scenes and as main characters.

    My problem, however, with talking about Wonder Woman as a feminist work is that most of that feminism is external to the film.  That is, Wonder Woman is feminist because of what it is, not because of what it does.  To be clear, I absolutely agree with the statement that being the first movie about a female superhero in the current, mega-successful iteration of superhero movies (and one of only a small number before that) is a feminist act in its own right.  But there's only so much that you can say about that, and that's a problem that is exacerbated by Wonder Woman herself.  More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy.  And while it's powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she's not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.

    I'm not as down on Wonder Woman as Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, but she's not wrong when she says that "Gadot's Wonder Woman doesn't fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero."  Diana's journey over the course of the movie involves learning to see humanity--or, as she puts it, "men"--for what it is, with all its strengths and flaws.  But left completely unacknowledged is the degree to which the cruelty of men is often visited upon women.  How does Diana's bemusement at the concept of marriage face up to the discovery that almost all of the people she meets in 1918 would consider it acceptable for a man to beat his wife?  How does her decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse change in light of the fact that she is moving through a rape culture?  How does her joy at seeing a baby withstand the knowledge that most women in that period have no choice in when or whether to have children, and that many of them die in childbirth?

    If DC and WB were actually serious about making their cinematic universe "dark", this is precisely the sort of material they could latch on to, instead of focusing on the angst of privileged white men like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.  As I've written, Wonder Woman already shows us a Diana who has more of a justification for despairing of humanity than either of her established fellow heroes, but it misses an important point when it ignores how much of that despair should be rooted in the world's treatment of women.  That's something that could change in future movies, but not if they continue to hold on to the simplistic notion of a woman who is a feminist idol simply for existing.

  • One of the few explicitly feminist moments in Wonder Woman comes when Diana meets Etta Candy, and, after learning what a secretary does, exclaims "where I'm from, that's called slavery!"  At the most basic level, this is a 21st century joke awkwardly shoehorned into an early 20th century setting.  As modern feminists, we are supposed to disdain secretarial positions (we shall leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether this is actually a feminist stance, and whether there are many feminists who still hold it), while in 1918 the profession, still largely male, would have been seen as prestigious and important (it is, in fact, entirely possible that Etta only has her job because too many of the men who might have taken it have been sent to the front).

    If you look at this exchange more seriously, however, some troubling questions emerge.  How can Diana be completely ignorant of patriarchy, and yet also know what a slave is?  Where exactly do the boundaries of Themyscira's utopia lie?  It's a question that puts me in mind of some of Sarah Mesle's excellent writing about Game of Thrones, and particularly the way the show styles its supposedly badass, egalitarian women.  Who, Mesle asks, is pleating Daenerys Targareyn's skirts?  Who is braiding Arya Stark's hair?  No one who cares about that sort of thing can have missed the elaborate (if functional) hairstyles on almost all the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but even if we assume that the women braid each other's hair, in a show of sisterhood, who tanned Diana's leather training outfit?  Who dyed the bright blue gown of the tutor the young Diana escapes from in the film's opening scene?  The pre-modern Greek civilizations that Themyscira is modeled on ran on slave labor, and particularly when it came to styling high-status women, there would have been an army of lower- and no-status ones working to make the illusion seem effortless.  Is Themyscira perhaps run like a kibbutz, with everyone, low and high, sharing in even the most noxious of tasks?  But if so, then again, how does Diana know what a slave is?

    The answer, of course, is that this is not a thing that the film wants us to think about, and in this it is ultimately no different than most Hollywood products (including, of course, Game of Thrones).  But to go back to that scene with Etta, it's interesting to note what happens after the exchange between her and Diana.  The camera follows as they walk into the department store, and the musical score rises, but it is still possible to hear Etta, having agreed with Diana that she is the equivalent of a slave, go on to explain that "...the pay is rather good."

    So, on the one hand, we have Etta making a 21st century joke about how being a secretary is like being a slave.  And on the other hand, we have the film's obvious belief that Etta is a trailblazer for being a woman who works (with all the issues that attend that form of mid-century, mainstream-friendly feminism, which tends to ignore the fact that women have always worked, just not always in professions with prestige, good conditions, and good pay).  But most importantly, we have Diana falling in with both of these contradictory attitudes, when what she should be decrying as slavery is the very notion that one should have to work to earn the means of survival.

    When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, there was a lot of discussion of Steve Rogers's politics, with some persuasive arguments that Steve, the Brooklyn-born, working-class child of immigrants, would have been at least a socialist if not an all-out communist, in direct opposition to Tony Stark, the benevolent oligarch (four films later, Steve and Tony have devolved into subtly different variations on American imperialism, so it's no wonder that we're looking to Wonder Woman for a fresh start).  But, if we assume that Themyscira is the utopia that it claims to be, then Diana should be even more of a radical than Steve, and her feminism should be inextricably bound up with the kind of anti-capitalism that would obviate both Etta's pride in having secured well-paying work, and the idea that one's work would require you to be constantly at the beck and call of another person.  Obviously, this is putting more thought than the film ever expected me to into a fundamentally thoughtless gag.  But it also feels like the perfect encapsulation of the limitations of Wonder Woman's feminism--of the limitations of any feminism that begins and ends with representation.

  • I've written already about the similarities between Wonder Woman and The First Avenger--as I said on twitter, Wonder Woman feels at points as if it's retelling the Captain America film's story, from the perspective of a Peggy Carter who also happens to be the one with superpowers.  The more I think about it, however, the more it feels as if Wonder Woman is in direct conversation with the earlier movie, and deliberately attempting to address its flaws, particularly when it comes to the depiction of weakness, injury, and loss.  Wonder Woman's variation on the Howling Commandos stands out for its willingness to allow these characters to carry irreparable damage, and to contribute nevertheless.  But the film is perhaps most remarkable for its willingness to accept that people don't have to be able to contribute in order to be valuable--or that their contributions don't have to be related to martial prowess.  The moment in Wonder Woman that most sets the film apart from the superhero films that have come before it, and most effectively establishes who Diana is and what makes her a hero, comes when the shell-shocked sniper Charlie, who froze and was unable to carry out his duties in the previous battle, suggests that he stay behind, because he has nothing to offer.  Without missing a beat, Diana replies: "but Charlie, who will sing for us?"

    By the end of the film, Charlie will of course have picked up his weapon again.  But it's important that this is not signposted as a huge redemptive moment for him.  As far as Wonder Woman is concerned, Charlie doesn't need to be redeemed, or even cured.  His value as a human being, and a friend, is not diminished by his inability to be a soldier.  As I've written many times in the past, I am deeply bothered by the way that superhero stories, and the MCU in particular, depict trauma and disability, often distinguishing good from bad characters by whether they are willing (or able) to overcome their past, and become fighters once more.  The franchise is profoundly uneasy with characters who can't overcome their damage, and particularly those who express their mental health issues in uncomfortable, unattractive ways--consider, for example, the way that Thor: The Dark World plays Erik Selvig's lingering trauma over having been brainwashed by Loki for laughs, while dealing very soberly with Loki's own, more photogenic emotional problems.  Let's not forget that The First Avenger itself is a story about a hero who is weak--one might say disabled or chronically ill--and who is magically cured of his weakness.  Or that the MCU's most consistently incurable character and most obvious analogue to Charlie, Bucky Barnes, is someone the films have never entirely known what to do with, literally sticking him in storage in lieu of facing head-on the full extent of the damage he has sustained.

    There's an obvious caveat here, which is that while Steve Rogers may be cured of his weakness, Diana was born without any.  It's easy for her to tolerate weakness in others when she is literally a goddess herself, and in fact one might argue that the former emerges from the latter--that to Diana, we are all so fundamentally weak that the difference between Charlie and Steve Trevor is essentially meaningless.  But even taking that into account, it still feels incredibly important for Wonder Woman to have taken the time to let Diana be kind, and to let characters like Charlie express their weakness without being expected to overcome it.  (Having said that, it shouldn't be ignored that the film also fails quite badly on the disability front with the character of Dr. Maru, who falls into the risible stereotype of the evil disfigured person.)

  • The more I think about it, the more it feels like the biggest flaw in Wonder Woman, not just as a feminist work but as a film trying to establish Diana as her own unique kind of hero, is the near-total absence of women after Diana leaves Themyscira.  The scenes on the island are powerful, not only giving the film an easy and meaningful Bechdel pass but establishing strong relationships between Diana and her mother and aunt.  But those relationships are effectively closed off when Diana leaves the island.  It is particularly frustrating to see how Steve repeatedly draws on the memory of his father for courage and inspiration, while Diana never even mentions Hippolyta or Antiope after parting from them.

    In the modern world, Diana's relationships with women are brief to the point of nonexistence.  Etta disappears almost as soon as she's introduced.  There is virtually no interaction between Diana and Dr. Maru.  Aside from all the other ways in which this is a problem, it feels utterly unbelievable for Diana, who has spent her whole life surrounded solely by women, to be so comfortable being the only woman in her circle.  She should be seeking out women wherever she goes, inherently more comfortable in their company than she could ever be around Steve or the other men in their group.  Nor should there have been any shortage of women with whom she could have interacted--WWI offered great scope for women outside the confines of the domestic, as nurses, factory workers, even spies.  If there's one thing that I want future Wonder Woman movies (or, for that matter, future Justice League movies) to address, it is the paucity of relationships between Diana and other women.

  • Like, I suspect, most viewers (who don't know a great deal about WWI), I assumed that the villain of Wonder Woman, Ludendorff, was an invented character.  I was surprised--and impressed--to discover that he was based on a real WWI general, and even more intrigued after I read his wikipedia entry.  The real Erich Ludendorff was one of the most influential figures in wartime Germany, essentially running large parts of the war and of the country's economy.  Unlike his film analogue, he supported an armistice, but only because he saw no hope for victory.  But he also saw Germany's defeat as a humiliation, both personal and national, and was further outraged by the Treaty of Versailles.

    Though not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff was absolutely a fellow-traveler to them.  He coined the "stab in the back" myth, which blamed Germany's loss in the war on internal sabotage by Jews and communists.  When the Nazis emerged in the 20s, Ludendorff was sympathetic to them, even having cordial meetings with Hitler, and he supported the abortive Beer Hall Putsch.  After the Nazi party was outlawed following the putsch, Ludendorff represented the National Socialist Freedom Movement in the German parliament, made out of former Nazis and members of the German Völkisch Freedom Party.  Even his personal philosophy sounds like the origin story of the Red Skull:
    Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized.[63] The historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.[64]
    I mention all this not just because it's interesting, but because it casts the film's depiction of its villains in a new and intriguing light.  There's been a lot of discussion of Wonder Woman's choice to frame Germans as the "bad guys" in WWI, with some commentators lamenting a simplification of history that depicts all German villains as Nazis, and others arguing that the film's choice of WWI as its setting was a deliberate attempt to avoid an easy categorization into heroes and villains.  But as Ludendorff's history shows, the issue is more complicated.  While not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff sympathized with and supported the Nazis' goals and philosophies.  What's more, his post-war career reminds us that the Nazis were not the only fascist, racist movement to emerge in Germany, and that the ideas that drove them found fruitful ground in many levels of society.

    Especially right now, it feels important to me to point out that Nazi-esque evil is not restricted to just those people who wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes (this is one of the reasons why the "Hydra are Nazis!" conversation that has emerged in response to Marvel Comics's bizarre pandering to the far-right has struck me as oversimplified and frustrating).  In every society, there are always going to be racist, authoritarian, anti-democratic groups, that worship power and believe that things like human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression are, at best, effete luxuries, and at worst, threats to the nation.  Whether they're the Nazis or the KKK or the alt-right, the danger that these groups pose is not in themselves, but in the possibility that the population as a whole will enable them, ignoring the danger they pose or even voting them into power.  The narrative of Economic Anxiety that most of us have been taught about the Nazis' rise isn't entirely inaccurate, but it elides the degree to which people wanted the Nazis in power because they wanted to feel powerful, because the allure of authoritarianism and violence is ever-present, especially when fanned with hysteria about Those People.

    To be clear, there isn't a great deal of this in Wonder Woman, and in fact I'm disappointed that the film leaves out so much of Ludendorff's actual personality (there's also the fact that with both Ludendorff and Hindenburg dead at the end of the movie, one might expect the history of the world in the DC cinematic universe to have progressed very differently from ours).  But I think the seeds of what I've described here are in the movie--the idea that it isn't one particular fascist philosophy that we should be worried about, but an entire cluster of nationalistic, authoritarian movements, and more than that, the impulse towards war and conquest.  It's hard to know how much we can expect future Wonder Woman movies to espouse the pacifist philosophy that the film ends on--this is, after all, a genre that runs not just on violence, but on the idea that violence can be good, even redemptive.  But Wonder Woman itself certainly comes closer to doing so than almost any superhero story in recent memory.

18 comments:

ddaise said...

I'm not sure that Diana wouldn't know what a slave is. While she may not have directly experienced slavery, the film makes the point that she has extensive knowledge of Greek history, mythology, biology, literature, etc. So I think she would be aware of what a slave is and how slavery operated as a form of involuntary servitude. It would likely have a different connotation for her than us, since she probably wasn't familiar with the American institution of chattel slavery. I think that one could make a similar argument for how she would know what patriarchy is, even if she wouldn't know it by that name.

Also, I think the film stressed that she was initially preoccupied with defeating Ares. Given this singular focus early in the movie, it would make sense for her to not concern herself with the issues of the human world beyond simply defeating Ares and leaving them to live as they please. That is, she might view capitalism as a silly human convention but not something to concern herself with as she is on a quest to achieve a particular goal. Of course, this kind of non-interventionism would bump up against the realities of the world she has entered but that is a lesson she confronts when she sees that humans don't need Ares to engage in war.

Brett said...

The movie is just very short chronologically once Diana and Steve get to London. From London to the death of Ares is maybe 3 days, during which she's largely focused on finding the front so she can find Ares and kill him. That doesn't leave much time for Diana to develop any meaningful connections to anyone who isn't around her constantly, or any deeper understanding of the society she's in. I would hope that Wonder Woman 2 does address some of that, since by then Diana will have been living in "Man's World" for more than a century.

As for "slavery", she probably knows about it from books. Same way she knew intellectually about heterosexual sex from books even though she's never seen a man before Steve shows up.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think you're both missing my point about Diana's knowledge of slavery. Yes, she could have learned about it from books (though in that case it's odd that she doesn't seem to know what marriage is). But then the question becomes, why does it take her so long to leave Themyscira? When Diana leaves the island, she does so in the belief that humanity is good, and that their evil acts are solely the result of Ares's interference. That is completely inconsistent with a Diana who knows that humanity has been practicing slavery for thousands of years.

The answer to this, of course, is that pop culture does not consider slavery to be an evil on par with war. War - and especially mechanized warfare of the type invented in WWI - is a disruption to the accepted order of things. Slavery is not. It's only in recent years that mainstream, non-niche pop culture has started to depict slavery as more than "a bad thing but it's over now", delving into its full horror and obscenity. But that's precisely my point - that where the film imposes on Diana the priorities of a modern Hollywood blockbuster, it betrays the character as it presents her to us. The Diana Wonder Woman constructs should not see a meaningful difference between war and slavery, and yet she does.

gareth-wilson said...

There are some odd implications if a feminist heroine comes from an all-female society. Like, Diana obviously has no model for how a man should interact with women. So if "feminism" means some standard for that interaction, it's Steve Trevor that teaches it to her, not vice versa.

ddaise said...

Gareth: I am somewhat loathe to be a dude mansplaining feminism to another dude but, alas, it needs to be said. I think it's a mistake to interpret "feminism" as some standard of interaction between men and women; rather, I think it's helpful to think of it more along the lines of a virtue (in the Greek sense) or a principle. In that sense, it can guide interaction but it has no single or necessary outcome, merely the stipulation that respect for the autonomy, selfhood, and/or equality of women be taken as the norm. I feel like I should be clear that this is not the same thing as "treating a woman like a man." Instead, it invites one to question how we address treating other people in general. I think the moment with the singing Scottish dude is a good example of this in that she treats him as valuable as a person and for what he can do, rather than for his ability to kill people from a distance.

ddaise said...

Abigail: I just want to start by being clear that you, of course and as you no doubt know, have no obligation to respond but I do thank you for your initial response. Okay, I think I understand your point. The way that I rationalized it at the time (seriously, it gave me pause because I'm Black and become wary or alert as soon as slavery is mentioned, especially in a context that it could be deployed in a sense that evokes or references a sort of White feminist oversimplification of the American institution) is that she was unfamiliar with chattel slavery since it wouldn't have been covered in her studies. Slavery in the Greek context wasn't considered an evil on par with war, but also they are just phenomenologically different things. While they are both forms of violence (in a broad sense), war is less ambiguously a form of violence (at least until we entered the cyber warfare stage of society). Also, the story of her birth prioritizes the malevolence of Ares, so I think that she holds him in a special regard. While she doesn't know that she is the weapon to kill Ares, I believe that she sees it as her special burden and a moral imperative. She could very well see slavery as not great, but as escapable or culturally relative (a silly human convention). Also, she had no plan to leave until Trevor was chased there and told them of a global war that they had been unaware of. The concept of slavery really only became deplorable in the way that we view it now in connection with chattel slavery. Prior to that especially egregious incarnation, it was generally less brutal and didn't rely on the use of a racial hierarchy. Maybe she would have felt compelled to leave the island to fight as an abolitionist in the 17th, 18th, or 19th century but we cannot say since they were not aware of it. It would actually be very interesting if, in the sequel, she reads through some history books and is horrified by what she finds because... there's A LOT to be horrified by. That said, I'm glad the movie made some form of lip service to the racism experience by the actor guy and I imagine that she later funded his acting career.

I don't really remember the marriage thing but that would be odd. Maybe she meant marriage in the form that Trevor was familiar with? I'd love to watch the movie with commentary by Patty Jenkins since she seems to be an insightful director who does grapple with the thematic content of her movies.

Chris said...

Related to your Ludendorff point: as a longtime consumer of World War Two movies and fiction, an ever-increasing pet peeve of mine is the number of them who sort their German characters by the algorithm of "Wehrmacht Good, SS Bad." (Where "Wehrmacht" usually gives off the vibe of "Prussian aristocratic officer and gentleman rooted in the values of pre-Nazi Germany and horrified by what the Germans are doing to his beloved Germany"). Which is... problematic... for a whole host of reasons. Because of this, I was kind of pleased when I heard that one of the bad guys would be Ludendorff, an icon of both the German army and pre-Nazi Germany (and finding out all the stuff that I did when I googled him only made me happier about this, as well - further confirming my opinion about the problems with whitewashing the German army).

Good point about the allure of authoritarianism and people wanting to feel powerful: it reminded me that Erskine's short explanation to Steve of how Hitler came to power is probably the only time the MCU really nailed fascism.

Lewis J. said...

"Why does it take her so long to leave Themyscira?" Probably because Themyscira is completely isolated from the rest of the world and the Amazons are completely uninterested in anything that is happening off the island. In fact, they appear to be completely ignorant of everything that's happened since the war between Zeus and Ares.

Since they're supposed to protect us from Ares, I wonder why they don't send out agents or scouting parties to keep track of what's going on. This whole aspect of the film was confusing. What if Steve hadn't crashed his airplane? Would Ares have won? How are the Amazons supposed to fulfill their duty if they don't engage with the world? How are they supposed to know when Ares has returned? When they learn about the war, why don't any of the Amazons volunteer to go with Diana? If there is a god of war, isn't it reasonable to suspect he might be behind the such a massive conflict? Wouldn't the Amazons want to go and check it out, as part of their duty to humanity? How come Diana is the only one who seems to care? Do the filmmakers want us to see them as flawed protectors who have lost their way? The only criticism Diana makes is isolated, and Hippolyta's reactions to it are contradictory. First she wants Diana to stay, then she's fine with her leaving. Does Hippolyta really think Ares might be alive or is she worried Diana won't want to return after she's seen the world? I felt the filmmakers should have been clearer during this section, especially since it sets up the rest of the plot.

ddaise said...

Lewis: I think they're traumatized from being enslaved. Diana was the only one who didn't experience that period of their history and the prominent responses seem to be either avoidance or defensiveness, which correlate to common responses to trauma.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

ddaise:

I take your point about the difference between Greek- (and Roman-style) slavery and the kind practiced in the 17th century and onwards. Though I think that brings us back to the question from the original post: are we to assume that Themyscira practices slavery? In a different genre (and at a time when this genre wasn't the main tentpole of Hollywood moneymaking, and thus extremely calculated in its politics) it might be interesting to assume that it does, and confront Diana's moral authority with its blind spots. But in this setting, and given the kind of figure the film is trying to position Diana as (which feels consistent with what I've read about her comics incarnation), I don't think it works. I can see arguing that the existence of slavery might have seemed abstract to Diana while the war was a concrete evil brought to her doorstep by Steve, but that brings us back to the point made be Lepore, that the original Wonder Woman was a warrior for justice, and that that's not exactly the same thing as being a warrior against evil.

Lewis J. said...

When were they slaves? I assume it was mentioned briefly during Hippolyta's exposition at the start of the film, because it's never discussed by any of the actual Amazons. They're presented as strong, independent warriors. Where's the trauma? If it's supposed to be part of their motivation, why isn't it onscreen? If the Amazons are afraid of being enslaved again, why don't they mention it? Bad writing?

ddaise said...

Lewis: During the myth of the origin of humans and the Amazons, Antiope describes Hippolyta as "led a revolt that freed [the Amazons] from enslavement." They have become strong warriors but they were brought into existence to influence the world through love and restore peace. I imagine that part of Hippolyta's role in leading the revolt was to make them into being warriors somewhat against their nature. I saw the trauma in their fear upon hearing about the war and reticence to intervene. We have no reason to believe any of them have died since they first entered Themyscira and they have been re-traumatized by having to bury their dead. So that's onscreen. I'm not sure what you mean about them being afraid of being enslaved again, where that idea came from, or why it would be mentioned in the movie. That said, the movie was already almost two and a half hours long so I'm not sure how much else could have fit. Bad writing seems strong.

ddaise said...

Abigail: I would LOVE for the movie to grapple with a social hierarchy within Themyscria. I think the reason that wouldn't happen is the same reason the movie Wonder Woman isn't a warrior for justice, viz. the flat, simple morality of the DC film universe. I appreciate that they introduced compassion as a value with the Scottish dude singing and the No Man's Land sequence and they were definitely giant steps to introduce some complexity but it could have definitely gone further. That said, compared to Man of Steel's supposed dilemma over killing, which it's hard to imagine isn't a somewhat regular occurrence when he just finished destroying an entire city, Wonder Woman is a huge step forward for DC. But, you know, that's part of what I respect about the Marvel cinematic universe, they have displayed much more patience and respected chronology. Presumably the next Wonder Woman movie will show her withdrawal from the world but it'll be odd to see that after we've already seen Justice League.

bellaswann92 said...

A few comments on your WW review:

- You mention the action sequence on Themyscira, but overlook the same thing that every other reviewer did: there was nothing villainous about the Germans (who were just chasing a spy), so when the amazons ruthlessly attack them without provocation and slaughter them to the last man, it arguably sets a much darker tone than anything we've seen yet in the DCEU. Contra their self-rhetoric, the amazons seem to revel in warfare and killing and make sport of it (after all, their whole raison d'etre is to hunt down Ares and kill him); note that unlike Batman and Superman (who fight with grim determination when the situation demands it) Diana actually smirks cheerfully as she slices terrified German infantrymen to mincemeat, even though they're just anonymous people fighting for their country. This was a very shrewd, very dark take on "empowerment" as an excuse for celebrating morally gruesome behavior.

- Despite Gadot's indifferent performance (she apparently went to the same acting school as Daisy Ridley: "Open your eyes wider! Scrunch your brow up! Good, now pout! pout!"), the character of Diana likewise undermines well-worn superhero tropes. She is first notable for her feminine passivity and receptivity; powerful she may be, but nothing she does is self-willed. She merely fulfills missions and directives handed down from Hippolyta and Steve, without knowing or particularly caring about the larger picture (what middlebrow critics are calling "innocence" and "moxie" is really blithe naivete and ignorance). The one thing she does do impulsively is to leap up and gratuitously slaughter some Germans when the opportunity arises, but like I said, the amazons clearly love killing. Her lack of serious inner struggles or personal flaws to overcome throws her in sharp relief against the other superheroes on offer these days.

- Other tropes are undermined. There is almost no cliche more overworked these days than the Hollywood-diverse 4-quadrant-optimized squad of sidekicks, but the striking thing here is that they are portrayed with wicked wit as mostly-useless caricatures: the grumbling Indian helps by providing SMOKE SIGNALS, the Muslim poses as a bumbling servant, and the Scotsman just babbles and gets in the way. The fact that the writers slip this by without being called out on these problematic blackface performances shows the true subtlety of imagination that went into the script.

- Similarly, Diana's mission ultimately fails. Yes, she kills Ares, but so what? It doesn't end the war, it doesn't prevent the next (far worse) war, it doesn't prevent the development of horrific new weapons, it really doesn't do anything. This leads to the savagely cynical ending where Diana asserts that "only love can save the world" while retiring from heroine work to a life of obscurity (note how when she reappears in BvS no one has ever heard of her). Meanwhile Steve Trevor actually saves the day by destroying the poison gas (a threat Diana repeatedly made clear she didn't care about), making the ultimate heroic sacrifice to actually save lives and change the outcome of the war.

- Back in Man of Steel Clark overcame humanity's mistrust of his alien nature by proving his willingness to abandon any loyalty to Krypton and fully assimilate to human (and specifically American) society; the movie ends on a hopeful note that he'll be able to use his power to guide humanity toward a brighter future (as he does in BvS, with yet another heroic sacrifice for the greater good). Wonder Woman ends with Diana more alone and alienated than ever, withdrawing from the world having failed to save anyone or change anything. Again, this is the kind of brilliant subversion that Suicide Squad was supposed to have.

bellaswann92 said...

Couple more minor points:

- You're wrong about Danny Huston, he looms over the whole proceeding as a scenery-chewing (albeit very generic) face of evil. I definitely think the filmmakes made some bold choices, but they are far from making "warfare itself" the villain; if anything they provide a postmodern critique of that approach by showing how trench warfare -- so horrifying to the men who fought it -- is basically a fun game to Diana. Huston's deliberately underwhelming and absurd fight with Diana is a blackly comic take on the bloated 3rd act showdown these movies always feel obligated to provide (this is then FURTHER lampshaded by actually giving us a bloated 3rd act showdown, against a literal mustache-twirling Dark Apparition with less gravity than a Final Fantasy villain).

- Lastly the Germans are absolutely Nazi-fied, not sure how you missed this. This itself comments on the absurdity of the whole concept of putting a superheroine (especially a cheesecake lingerie-model superheroine in a padded leather bustier) in the middle of a horrific meat grinder historical event like WW1. The point is that the studio is saying "WW1, WW2, Nazis or not Nazis, what's the difference? You think the proles in Dayton (and Beijing) will care? They're Krauts! They deserve to die!". This is black humor at its finest, and makes a trenchant jab at the similar dehumanization of the Other seen in movies like Saving Private Ryan.

Overall an interesting review of a very interesting movie. Keep them coming!

P.S. I'll admit some of your comments confused me. You do realize that, just a couple decades PRIOR to the events of this movie, England was literally ruled by a woman? Or that this woman was then and is now considered one of the greatest European rulers of all time? Or that this incredibly famous, powerful, and beloved woman once famously said "Feminists ought to get
a good whipping. Were woman to 'unsex' themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection"?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

When Queen Victoria said "feminists ought to get a good whipping", she was talking about Suffragettes. That is, women trying to extend the voting franchise to all genders, which - I hope! - we can all agree was not only a good thing, but a necessary component of a just democracy. I mean, surely you didn't come into my blog arguing against women's suffrage and expect to be taken seriously?

Either way, I've never understood why "this (powerful, privileged) woman was anti-feminist" is somehow an argument against feminism. I'm no more obliged by my feminism to listen to Victoria's blatherings against voting rights than I am to take seriously the politics of Margaret Thatcher, Ann Coulter, or Serena Joy from The Handmaid's Tale. To suggest otherwise implies that a very shallow understanding of what feminism is.

As for the rest of your comments, since they do not involve actually engaging with my essay but are simply a very long-winded way of saying "you're wrong", I will return the favor, and do you the courtesy of being brief: you're wrong.

Gabriel said...

Very interesting analysis -- thanks for this. There's certainly a lot to think about in this film.

I don't have much to add, but something that left an impression on me was the Native American character, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). When I left the cinema last night I wasn't sure if the issues he raised about land ownership / race / war and history have been explored more fully, or not at all. I also wasn't sure if the moment he uses smoke signals to communicate was a bit... reductive (?).

On the other hand, it's cool -- and unexpected -- to see a Native American hero in a superhero movie.

Vincent Schilling wrote about the portrayal of the character here: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/culture/arts-entertainment/film-review-eugene-brave-rock-speaks-blackfoot-wonder-woman-dcs-best-film-ever/

I love how they got the language and look of the character right (thanks partly to the actor).

This isn't a fully formed idea or argument, just something I left the cinema thinking about...

Chris said...

I like this analysis and the movie (although some of the historical stuff in the film did make my skin itch). To further develop your comments regarding the film's mishandling of real people:
1. As you mentioned, Ludendorff and the German high command were basically in charge of Germany from about 1916 onwards, and were completely responsible for the strategy which led to its ultimate defeat and disaster. In real life, during the time period depicted in the movie, Ludendorff was actually undergoing a psychological breakdown under the stress of Imperial Germany's defeat, to the point of being unable to make any complex decisions. He may have thought of himself as a kind of proto-ubermensch (and the movie makes him an outright cartoonish bad guy) but it seems that his embrace of the stab-in-the-back myth was due to his inability to accept his own and Germany's total and complete failure- hence his need to blame it on some kind of external enemy. He was a villain, but I think the movie could have done something with that which would have been a more subtle and pathetic depiction of evil than, well, a comic book bad guy.
2. Another point regarding the shadow on Nazism. Whilst Hitler had a mass following, he couldn't have achieved and held onto the power he did without the support of the top-level German officer class. It's important to realise that these guys had the same relationship with the Nazis basically that the GOP has with the Alex Jones. They disliked the Nazis for being unreliable loose cannons and for believing some crazy conspiracy theories, but when it came down to it, they basically were opposed to the same things- the working classes, democracy, Slavs, communists (often conflated with Jews). As a result, immediately post-WW1 they started looking for first, scapegoats, and second, some kind of chance to, well, make Germany great again...Hence jumping on the Nazi bandwagon as soon as possible. I think it's impossible to understand WWII without understanding what these guys were about.
3. Final point- it's not very surprising that Germany only spent 14 years as a democracy before slipping into a totalitarian dictatorship. Germany had no history as a democracy before WWI, and as mentioned a lot of the upper classes and the military class were fiercely opposed. Dictatorship might not have been inevitable, but so long as the philosophy in the army was what it was it was more likely than not, I think.

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