Monday, 12 June 2017

Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)


I've been meaning to write up a blog post on Wonder Woman ever since I saw it last week, but there's so much to say, I hadn't yet had a chance! I'm going to focus here on Wonder Woman as portrayed in these films (this one and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice). I'm dimly aware of some aspects of her comic-book origins - created in 1941, not long after Batman and Superman, and so on - but I don't know enough about them to go into any detail. I also think it's worth considering the film on its own merits, since movie makers have fairly free reign over how much they take from a comic book tradition anyway (Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is fairly far removed in terms of detail from the comic-book versions).

OK, so I guess I'd better start with the Classics stuff, since that is the purpose of this blog! While her superhero identity is as the red, white and blue-bedecked Wonder Woman, Diana of Themiscyra is actually an Amazon, a race of warrior women from ancient Greek mythology that I've talked about here and in substantial detail here.

The Amazons in Greek mythology exist to be tamed. They are both a menace from nightmares - a race of powerful, warrior women, a threat to patriarchal Greek society - and magnetically attractive, Achilles falling in love with the Amazon Penthesilea at the moment of killing her (or, sometimes, with her corpse after death). Sameer's line in this film, "I'm both frightened and aroused", sums it up rather well.

But ultimately, in ancient mythology, the Amazons exist to be tamed. Their threatening aspect, their military skill and physical prowess, must be conquered and brought under control. Similarly, as women, they must be taken out of their all-female society and brought under the control of men - hence Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, ends up married to Theseus, King of Athens (and promptly dies leaving a wetter-than-wet son who gets cursed to death by his own father due to the evil machinations of his step-mother).

Wonder Woman's Amazons, unsurprisingly, have a very different purpose. Diana's story arc in this film is not to be tamed, but to discover her own power and strength. Indeed, if anyone is to be tamed in this film, it is men, who have gone completely out of control in their drive for destruction. In an interesting reversal of the ancient myth, the Amazons exist in this reality in order to tame men.

I have to confess I felt there was something a bit uncomfortably Rape of the Sabine Women-y about the Amazons' backstory and purpose. I'm going on my rough memories of one viewing of the film here, but the initial drive to create the Amazons, if I remember rightly, was implied to be Zeus trying to stop men from fighting (egged on by Ares) by placing wives, mothers and sisters around them, and I seem to remember an image used in the film inspired by the famous Jaques-Louis David painting of the intervention of the Sabine women.

The story of the Sabine women is that early Romans, lacking wives, kidnapped women from the local Sabine tribe, raped them and forcibly married them. By the time their brothers and fathers got their act together to rescue them, the women had children with the Romans and, motherhood being the most essential aspect of a woman's life as far as ancient societies are concerned, the women leapt between the men begging them to stop fighting because they loved them all equally as family. It's a political tactic the Romans continued to use in real life, using marriages to try to hold together fragile political alliances (not always successfully!). Women and their fertility become a tool to hold men together - in some real-life historical cases, if the woman dies, so does the alliance. However, the women themselves have no real agency - they are married off where their fathers and brothers find it useful and if their husband later rejects them, they are helpless then too.

Fortunately, the backstory of Wonder Woman's Amazons develops in a rather different way. Rather than non-combatants with babies, these Amazons become warriors themselves, intended to end warfare with... warfare. They live by the sword and in some cases die by the - well, bullet. They are fighting fire with fire. Umm, I'm not how I feel about that either. But they're awesome, kick-ass women so what the heck, let's go with it.

Warfare need not be their only role. Diana is, of course, the Latin name for the virgin huntress goddess, Artemis (nothing much to do with the Amazons in mythology), goddess of hunting, wild animals, childbirth and young girls up to the age of marriage (about 12-15). In Greek mythology, goddesses are generally only allowed to get involved in masculine things like war and hunting if they are virgins - and so, not really women, as they never have children (except for that one time Hephaestus tried to rape Athena but only got stuff down her leg, which resulted in her son, Erichthonius).

Thankfully, Diana defies this by allowing Captain Kirk to show her this thing called love, and implies she wasn't without options on her all-female island anyway (the line about men being essential for procreation but not for pleasure got a good laugh out of me!). In this film, she is able to be a sexually active woman without necessarily becoming a mother - one of society's (and science's, if we're talking about heterosexual sex) big steps forward since ancient Greece!

These Amazons completely defy the idea of motherhood as an essential characteristic of women, without which they are incomplete. Only one Amazon is a mother, but while Diana's note that men are essential for procreation might imply more of them might have been mothers if they had men around, none of the Amazons seem to be crying out for volunteers - they seem perfectly happy in their almost child-free environment. Women have an entirely different, very specific role in this world.

Of course, the film also features an appearance from the Greek god Ares, god of war. David Thewlis' Ares is a very interesting take on the character. I've heard a few suggestions that, while his casting works very well for the sections in which he whispers subtly in people's ears, portraying the creeping influences that bring about warfare rather than the fighting itself, people seem to be less sure about his performance as the revealed Ares at the climax. I was fine with it, to be honest. The traditional depiction of War embodied as the epitome of masculinity and strength gives War characteristics that I'm not sure it really has. I have no personal experience of war, so I may be completely out of line here, but it seems to me that the real, lived experience of warfare, rather than featuring strength and power and impressive feats, is more a nasty, insidious, unpleasant experience of pain and suffering that leaves its mark whether it results in physical injury or not, and Thewlis' performance did manage to imply some of that.

The World War One setting is also a very interesting choice. Wonder Woman's comic book origins place her during World War Two, but there are several reasons for choosing World War One instead. Probably most significantly for the film-makers, the story is already similar enough to Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger, set in World War Two, as it is (right down to the fact they both feature a white man called Chris playing a man called Steve who goes down in a plane!).

But a World War One setting has other, thematic advantages as well. During the earlier part of the film, I was rather bothered by Steve's casual insistence that the Germans were the bad guys and the Allies the good guys. It's bad enough when World War Two is over-simplified in this way but at least the actions of the Nazis make that a little more reasonable. World War One, however, was a giant mess in which pretty much all parties were as much to blame as the others - explained here!



But of course, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that this is actually the point. Ares has been whispering into the ears of people on all sides. There are no good guys and bad guys, just humanity in a mess. I think the film could have done with emphasising that a bit more, as I feel like it got a bit lost in the final act, and it's not helped by the presence of Ludendorff (a real person who, in fact, resigned in October 1918, became very anti-Semitic and was for a while associated with Hitler, but later split with him and died in 1937) and Dr Maru, who seems to be a sort of proto-Josef Mengele. Still, if the ultimate messiness and pointlessness of war is one of the themes the film wants to drive home, the First World War is certainly a much clearer example of that than the second.

World War One is also an overwhelmingly masculine war. Wars in earlier periods of history featured men doing most of the actual fighting, but women and children frequently becoming collateral damage in raids, sieges and other attacks. From World War Two onwards, although women weren't on the front line, there were many more of them involved in the armed forces. In World War One, women were on the front line as nurses and ambulance drivers, and women and children were killed in French and Belgian villages and in aerial attacks. But the trench warfare that formed the greater part of World War One (something rather nicely explained to a generation who have never known veterans of that war in this film) was overwhelmingly masculine. This makes Wonder Woman and her mission really stand out, as, apart from the presence of her evil counterpart Dr Maru, she is a woman striding into an almost entirely masculine arena.

I seem to have talked about gender rather a lot here, but the fact is, at the moment, it's a conversation that's impossible to avoid. This is not the first female-led superhero movie, but it is the first to be well received. It also follows Marvel's mystifying lack of Black Widow merchandise on the release of Captain America: Civil War last year, on top of their continued refusal to give Black Widow her own film, so it's impossible not to have a conversation about its portrayal of gender and its female protagonist.

Wonder Woman has outperformed the female-led superhero movies that came before it at least partly because although Wonder Woman is beautiful (which is commented on) and wears revealing clothing, she is not shot as an object through the leering male gaze, but as an audience identification character, by a female director. It's also, quite simply, a good movie. It is one of the most frustrating truths about Hollywood executives that they don't seem to understand, no matter how much they are told, that audiences don't want "comic-book movies" or "sword and sandal movies" or "science fiction movies" or 'non-science fiction movies" or "movies in which Johnny Depp plays a pirate" or anything else in particular - they just want good movies, about whatever, starring whomever.

Of course, this is also the best-received movie in the DC Extended Universe. I have to confess, I didn't think it was as desperately amazing as some have found it (honestly, I've also seen Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and The Mummy in recent weeks and enjoyed them all) but I did think it was a good, solid comic-book movie that did exactly what I wanted it to. My favourite moment was, I suspect, the same as many others' - the moment when Wonder Woman rose up out of the trenches to cross No-Man's Land. I was blubbing already by that point, and Chris Pine's performance at the climax had me going again. It's a good film. Asking it to reinvigorate the DC universe, educate a new generation on the basics of World War One and prove to studio executives that women can carry action films seems like a heck of a lot - but I think this film can do it. Good for Wonder Woman!

4 comments:

  1. I saw it and loved it, reviewed it in my blog a few days back. I think placing the bulk of the story during the First World War was appropriate- in many ways that war was even more vicious than the one that followed it, even though the number of casualties were lesser.

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    1. Yes, I think putting Wonder Woman in the middle of trench warfare was a really powerful image

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  2. Great review Juliette! I've been dying of impatience since it doesn't come out in Spain until the 23rd!

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    1. Argh how frustrating! I hope you enjoy it when you eventually get to see it!

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