Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(Gal Gadot in the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman)

DC's Suicide Squad led me to swear off superhero movies until I don't know when, ad indefinidum. Friends who recommended DC's Wonder Woman film (along with some free tickets), prodded me to give the latest film adaptation of comic book superhero a chance (though I did happen to see Logan in the meantime--but that's another story).

Does this latest film save DC's film franchise? Does it even provide an excellent story fans can rally behind?

(By the way, numerous spoilers about the movie are in this post, though down a bit.)

I don't actually care very much about my first question. Or I should say my feelings are quite mixed as to whether I actually want both Marvel and DC to be cranking out superhero movies in a vast array, each and every year. I actually hope they don't and superhero films become rare events. So I shouldn't even try to answer that.

As to my second question--"was this even an excellent story?"--it turns out I have mixed feelings about that, too.

This movie was pretty good for a superhero story--but superhero stories are mostly pretty bad in my honest opinion. I would say it's the growth of computer-created special effects, which can make what was only once possible in a pen-and-ink drawing come to life with real actors, which is the primary reason superhero movies are so popular today.

Part of any superhero story was always about spectacle. The superhero can do something no regular human can do. The audience gets a thrill imagining swinging through tall buildings like Spider-man or Batman, or straight out flying like Superman or Storm, or owning other amazing properties, like the ability to block bullets and outfight almost anyone on Planet Earth, like Wonder Woman.

We, the audience, watch with open mouths at the amazing stunts, often too overwhelmed by the spectacle to ask ourselves if the actions shown actually make sense in any kind of world, even the fantasy the superhero story presupposes. When we start asking questions, when we begin to think, most superhero tales melt like cotton candy in our mouths, leaving nothing more than a sugary aftertaste--in my honest opinion.

Actually, some superhero stories do considerably worse than leaving a sugary aftertaste--Suicide Squad certainly did worse. In contrast, I would say Wonder Woman did better than average.

Still, "better than average" is not necessarily great. I saw things that were good in the film, things bad, and things awkward or strange or goofy that I will lump together as "ugly."

1. Wonder Woman is shown to have pure motives. She really does want to rescue humanity. She is not obviously tormented, twisted, and half-evil herself.

2. She has a worthy goal. When Wonder Woman concludes that only Ares could set mankind to killing one another in WWI and rushes of to kill Ares in order to liberate mankind from war (although ironically a warrior woman herself), she assumes what all good-hearted warriors believe. That if I complete this mission, I will save lives, even if I must kill to do so. If killing Ares would be enough to end all war and return the human race to permanent peace, sparing all the innocents who are killed in war, it would certainly have been worth it.

3. In Wonder Woman's attitude towards Ares, the film draws a clear line between innocence and guilt. The innocent do not deserve to die, but the guilty DO deserve it.

4. The movie tells some important truths. Diana winds up discovering that the real causes of warfare lie in the human heart, not in Ares. VERY, VERY TRUE. She also is enraged at generals who callously send soldiers off to battle from places of safety behind the lines--I appreciated that attitude. There are some other points along these lines as well.

5. Diana (a.k.a. Wonder Woman), winds up in a climactic physical battle with the villain Ares (of course, that's what superhero movies DO) and defeats him. But along the way she spares the life of a German chemist building weapons of mass destruction for the Kaiser. In other words, she shows that mercy is a virtue and speaks of the value and importance of love.

1. The moral message about warfare is muddied to a degree by Diana remorselessly killing anonymous German troops on multiple occasions, as if Germany really IS more villainous than all the other warlike nations of Planet Earth and being German = guilt worthy of death. It's also muddied by the fact that even though Wonder Woman discovers the problem of warfare really lies in the human heart, she goes right along in having physical fights--as opposed to addressing what is really wrong with people, which cannot be done by slashing people down with a sword.

2. No God but a goddess: The film reveals Diana is in fact NOT actually an Amazon, but a deity herself. No, not just an Amazon named after Diana, but apparently THE Diana, since she is revealed to be a goddess. Some people may not care much about this, but since the God I believe in was not mentioned at all, while Greek gods and goddesses are mentioned, it's hard for me to imagine there is not some sort of substitution going on, even if unintentional.

Note that the God of the Bible/historical Christianity, who the vast majority of people in Europe believed in during WWI, would quite naturally be mentioned on at least two occasions, at least indirectly, but was not included at all (once was where Steve Trevor talks about marriage, which usually happened then in churches--but he only mentions a judge).

And yes, Diana now can match Marvel's Thor in being a deity, albeit a limited one in some ways. And just as Thor still has modern-day worshipers delighted to see him on the big screen (some people may doubt this, but it's quite true), so will the modern worshipers of Diana likel be pleased. Which is not something I personally consider a positive.

3. Ares, once revealed, proves to be anti-climactic. He makes it plain that he is not really the one pulling the strings--he's merely facilitating. Humans are pulling their own strings to do evil. While I love this twist in regard to the truth it tells, it makes the final battle between her and him rather hollow. Killing Ares accomplishes not quite nothing, but very little.

Note that acting and film production were generally good. So things I note here are exceptional to the overall quality of the film.

1. Silly armor: Granted there are goofier version of armor for women, but Wonder Woman has legs exposed, head uncovered except for her nifty headband, arms exposed except for her bracelets, and plenty of neck and upper chest exposed, leaving her carotids and jugulars and other key stuff not very protected. Impractical.

2. Long leggy Amazons: All the Amazons except one pretty much look alike, conforming to just one concept of feminine beauty and fitness. I happen to know for a fact some short women can be in excellent shape and be good fighters...but you wouldn't know that from seeing Wonder Woman.

3. Germans don't speak German: You know that thing some movies do where they introduce you to what is supposed to be a foreign language by having people speak in a foreign accent, which you are supposed to take for being a foreign language? Or where some films let you listen to foreign speakers speaking their language for real? The Wonder Woman film does the latter for all languages OTHER than German--so you hear short bits of Spanish, French, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and Walloon in the film. But the Germans just talk with a German accent. Awkward.

4. Wrong details about World War I: Various details of WWI are all messed up in the movie. The final months of the war had more movement of trenches and battle lines than most of the rest of the war--yet the film talks about a unit being frozen in place for seven months. Also the Kaiser would not have a gala anywhere near the front lines during the war (trust me on that). And Wonder Woman pretty much single-handedly winning a battle would have attracted a lot more attention than one sole photograph--there were actually reporters covering the war at the time, believe it or not! There was also a real General Lutendorff in command of some of the German forces in WWI--who was nothing like the movie version. Among other similar goofs.

5. German machine gunners can't shift targets: One particular military detail bothered me more than others...there is a scene we would have to call iconic where Wonder Woman charges into "no man's land" towards the German trenches. They eventually direct several machine guns at her, which she blocks with her shield, the force of which is strong enough to keep her from moving forward. Since she is drawing fire, the men with her advance and a battle is won.

Visually the scene is impressive but makes little actual sense, not even in the fantasy world of Wonder Woman. Why no German thought to shift fire downward at her legs I don't know (she was standing up, albeit leaning forward, so her unarmored legs would be a prime target--hey, that's what you do in war, do what it takes to kill the enemy, nice or not). But even more I can't imagine why they would not stop shooting at her when it clearly wasn't working and mow down the men advancing in her wake. Duh.

Dumb enemies make the plot move along faster, but as a device it doesn't qualify as good storytelling.

6. Steve Trevor lacking: Chris Pine as Steve Trevor I found a bit unconvincing. A bit too convenient. And when the film kills him off, it does so with no real love story between him and Diana ever taking place. I think the story would have been better with at bit more fire. Just sayin'.

7. Men not needed for pleasure: Speaking of no real romance between Diana and Steve Trevor, in a conversation between Diana and Steve Trevor about sex, Wonder Woman says men are needed for reproduction, but are not "needed for pleasure." If that sounds like DC is saying Wonder Woman is bisexual, they clarified the issue in a press release. Yeah, that is exactly what they meant to say--Wonder Woman is bi. Which is all very modern of them, but I think was unnecessary to the story and something that I would say definitely belongs in my "ugly" pile.

I could add more nits to the ugly pile--but what I said covers the things that bothered me the most.

So, "Was this even an excellent story?" No. "Excellent" is too strong a word. It was good. Only excellent when compared to superhero stories produced of late...but that isn't fair to all other genres of film. In general, superhero stories I would have to rate as worse than average except for their computer graphics and special effects. In the murky slush of underachieving superhero tales, the Wonder Woman film floats close to the top.

That doesn't make it great. It
wasn't great--it had real limitations and shortcomings. But this movie was at least worth seeing. In my honest opinion.

Disagree with me? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments. :)