Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

I know that title is a bit arch, so listen up bitches, cause I need to mansplain something to you so you’ll all manderstand where I’m coming from here. Also, fair warning, I’m going to spoil the fuck out of this movie, so if you haven’t seen it, you may want to stop reading now if my facetious meninism didn’t already turn you off.  

When I look at the ridiculously over the top praise of the new spectacularly mediocre Wonder Woman movie, I can’t help but think about Donald Trump. This is not because Trump is such a virulent misogynist, or even because the DCEU is the cinematic universe equivalent of his disastrous, insultingly treasonous administration and its offensive, un-American failure to do its job. Those are both true of course, but the real reason I can’t stop linking Trump and Wonder Woman in my head is because of that weird period before the Comey firing when everyone in the media seemed to be itching to legitimize the Trump presidency, constantly looking out for brief moments of normalcy, like when he made a whole speech without pooping his pants or bombed a sovereign nation without congressional approval, you know, like real presidents do. It was like there was this desperate rush to declare that finally Trump had “become the president”, and now everything would be fine and we wouldn’t have to worry about this petulant man child having the nuclear launch codes. This naturally brings us to Wonder Woman, the movie that technically didn’t poop its pants like the last three movies in this franchise did. So I guess everything’s going to be okay, right?

Wonder Woman is the story of Princess Diana of Themyscira, the prettiest and most specialest of all the Amazons, so special in fact that her fellow warriors arbitrarily adopt her obviously Israeli accent, as she journeys to the brutish smoggy civilized world to teach us men the error of our warlike ways…by killing people. But I guess she kills the right people, or kills them better? It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s all portrayed in that unwatchable gloomy funeral dirge Zach Snyder style, constantly jumping back and forth between slow motion and fast motion to distract you from the fact that none of the action sequences matter or progress the story forward, which itself barely gives you anything to engage with save the aforementioned action sequences. You say you want interesting characters that grow and change and give you cause to care about them throughout the narrative for more than their most superficial traits? Well fuck that, because half the time she isn’t even a person on screen, because every other time she leaps around, she magically transforms into an ugly CGI construct that flings itself awkwardly into faceless Nazis (one of her many ill-defined powers in the movie). Of course, they’re not quite Nazis, at least not yet, because this movie transplants her origins from WWII to WWI, so as to avoid too many reminders of how Marvel did basically this same story so much better in Captain America: The First Avenger like six fucking years ago.

Sorry, sorry, I know, I’ll try not to hurt DC fanboy feelings by making too many comparisons to the MCU, at least now that I’ve already earned that fat paycheck Disney sends out to all the critics. That being said, I do think it’s valuable to ask those who claim to enjoy this movie to try to actually, objectively rank it next to any of the Marvel films that DC and Warner Bros. have been chasing for the last decade or so. Is it even close to any of them let alone better than even the worst one? It’s arguably better than Thor 2, the only Marvel film that actually crosses the threshold into being outright bad, but even that had Tom Hiddleston’s Loki to liven up the proceedings occasionally. Even allowing for the argument that Wonder Woman surpasses Thor 2, is being slightly better than the worst Marvel film really an accomplishment? I guess it’s not as bad as Catwoman or Elektra, so clearly all of our daughters must be inspired by this blow for cinematic representation. Or at least be inspired to spend a bunch of money to see it multiple times in the theater and buy toys and DVDs and Halloween costumes that I’m totally sure will only serve to enrich the bank accounts of the minority of female executives rather than all the men who dominate the corporate culture behind the film, who now conveniently have a whole new demographic consumer base to shamelessly exploit. Because progress.

I think it has to go without saying at this point that the outrageously positive reviews for Wonder Woman have more to do with the meta-narrative of the first plausibly successful female-led superhero film (because I guess Lucy didn’t count) rather than the actual, punishingly bland narrative of the film itself. It’s understandable, at least in so far as it is always easier to create fictional heroes to look up to, who lack the complexities of real heroes who may fail us or fail to fit into our preferred oversimplified black and white view of history. Consider in contrast another war movie from 2017, Their Finest, a cute little female-centric indie about real life women doing what they could to break out of a man’s world and prove that they too could be heroes even if they weren’t allowed to fight in the trenches or conform to the traditionally masculine model of heroism. But fuck that noise, because only a woman can cross the No Man’s Land (get it, NO MAN’S LAND! GET IT!), not to mention block all the bullets the Germans shoot at her shield and nowhere else on her body for some reason. And doubly fuck all those complicated, often convoluted reasons for the war, because our hero is so without flaws save for her natural fish out of water innocence that she puts Rey from The Force Awakens to shame in the Mary Sue contest, winning the war single handedly by literally punching the living personification of the concept of War so hard in the face that we all become better people as a result. Bet she could fly the Millennium Falcon without any prior training too!

By the logic of this movie, people like Harriet Tubman and the Suffragettes didn’t have superpowers, so they can all go fuck themselves apparently. I’m once again reminded of politics, specifically a tweet from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore sent back in October during the general election campaign in defense of History’s Greatest Monster Hillary Clinton, where he stated: “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps, or organized a school shooting.” The internet was quick to rebut his contention, providing several examples to complicate the narrative he was trying to push, and thankfully pointing out that placing women atop an impossible pedestal of moral perfection takes away their agency and diminishes their essential humanity. Wonder Woman leaps over this pedestal like the shitty CGI assisted gallop that provides the last shot of the movie, presenting an impossibly perfect, and therefore amazingly boring protagonist who can do no wrong, and for whom the entire world of the movie strains to fit her inherent rightness whenever her point of view would be considered wrong by any reasonable person, male or female. Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor spends a great deal of the film trying to calmly convince Diana that her “Ares Did It All!” explanation for man’s inhumanity to man is too simplistic, and instead of confirming this with, you know, fucking reality, it turns out she’s right, and once Ares is defeated in a terrible special effect sequence, everybody just decides to get along and forget why they were fighting in the first place. At least until Ares comes back to life for WWII I guess.

And speaking of Ares, it is kind of amazing that I’ve already gotten five paragraphs into this screed without even mentioning David Thewlis’s big bushy fucking mustache! Despite everything that I’ve said to the contrary, I am almost tempted to still recommend that you go see this movie so that you too can marvel at how ridiculously it falls off the rails in the third act, due in large part to perhaps the most miss-cast and poorly conceived villain in any superhero movie to date. Again, major spoilers abound – but if you don’t see the twist concerning the real main villain coming a mile away, you should consider it a symptom of mental disability. Towards the end of the movie, Wonder Woman straight up murders the guy she thinks is really Ares, only to find that he must not have been, because the war didn’t magically end with his death (never once considering that maybe the war might be happening for other reasons). But before the movie has a chance to maybe be interesting, we find out that Ares was really taking the form of a kindly old British guy from the first act played by David Thewlis, who appears for no reason to give a villain speech, in which he describes in flashback how he was cast down from Mt. Olympus. In said flashback, we see him in his previous godly form, and for some reason I still cannot fathom, he still has his big bushy mustache! It wasn’t an affectation to blend into British society, but rather something this GREEK GOD has always had on his goofy fucking face. I know when I think about the pantheon of Ancient Greek Gods, I always picture them with big bushy fucking mustaches. By the gods, if there was ever a time to turn your villain into a CGI monster, this was it, and they almost do, giving him magical armor for the big fight, but then he goes out of his way to claw open his helmet so you can see his face, just in case we forgot that he in fact has a big bushy fucking mustache! I know that this sounds like nitpicking, but it diminishes any threat or menace he might have otherwise had, and I defy you to watch this part of the film and not burst out laughing.

Of course if it were just a matter of one silly mustache, it could be forgiven, but this whole sequence is just embarrassing. Thewlis lazily flings special effects at our heroine in a fashion eerily similar to an actor who can’t be bothered to give a shit, and since Wonder Woman’s powers and weakness haven’t been clearly defined throughout the movie, we get no sense whatsoever that she is in any sort of danger, and have no frame of reference for when she suddenly develops the ability to absorb lightning in her gauntlets and shoot it out like a laser beam as if she could do it the whole time, because why establish that sort of thing before the last ten minutes? And just before killing Ares, right after delivering a defiant “Nooo!” rivaling Darth Vader from the end of the prequels, she’s tempted by Ares to kill one of the lesser villains and essentially prove his philosophy right, but instead she spares the minor villain, explicitly stating that she has learned the power of mercy, only to then kill Ares rather than spare him, which is kind of exactly the opposite of the lesson she just fucking said she learned. Easy fix, remove Ares altogether, reveal that humans are at war for complicated reasons rather than the curse of an evil deity, and make our previously na├»ve character deal with the consequences of that realization instead of having her magically idealistic conception of the world confirmed so she doesn’t have to ever question herself at all. You can still have a big fight scene by bringing back Dr. Poison, maybe augmented by some magic gas or some shit instead of just wasting her like the film does, but you also get that depth that DC fanboys insist makes these movies more rewarding than the mainstream Marvel formula. But then the man would be right and Diana would be wrong, and we can’t have that, can we?

And I could go on and on. There’s an entire team of boring ass side characters you will not care about who are all given dilemmas that beg for resolution but get none (a sniper who can’t shoot due to PTSD, and never does; an actor who can’t act because of his skin color, and only kinda does, badly). There are the Boris and Natasha cackling side villains and their weird gases, some that kill you, some that kill you harder, and some that make you super-strong somehow, one of which was developed in a dream after the macguffin notebook they claimed to need to make the gas was stolen, making the macguffin completely irrelevant! Okay, sure, it’s not the unmitigated disaster that was Batman V. Superman or Suicide Squad, but not being as bad as two of the worst movies of last year doesn’t make this movie good. All it had to do to be better than the previous entries in this franchise was have scenes that connected together sequentially in a way that made some kind of sense, and it does this, but that’s the bare minimum for any movie. A good movie also has to have an interesting story that you can engage with intellectually and emotionally in and of itself, independent of how long you may have been waiting for a story like this to satisfy your need for representation. It needs characters that develop over the course of the story with flaws and complexities that make them unique, rather than unstoppable, unassailable cyphers for our idealistic heroic fantasies. Good movies need to actually be good, not just better than the previous shitty thing! Demand more of your movies people. Lower your expectations, but don’t lower your standards. Be better movie goers, or don’t act surprised when this garbage is the best we get.
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