Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Wonder Woman (2017) Top 100
When I was a kid my favourite superhero was Wonder Woman. I remember being teased about this on the playground as we played super heroes because boys weren't supposed to like girl superheroes and I was made fun of for not picking a male hero to emulate. But I wanted to be the boy Amazon and fly my own invisible jet. I loved her connections to Greek mythology which eventually spawned a deep interest in the study of those myths. I think I was also drawn to how she stood out when so many other comic book characters just seemed like variations on the same theme. Fortunately I was confident enough to continue my love of the Amazon Princess despite taking a lot of bruises over it.
Fast forward a few years when my family had their first VCR. I discovered the 1974 Wonder Woman movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby was going to be rerun in the middle of the night. I was a huge fan of Christopher Reeve's Superman The Movie (still one of my favorite movies) and so far the only Wonder Woman movie ever made was this one. I wanted to see it no matter how bad it was. I set the VCR to record it eager to finally see a Wonder Woman movie even if it was very old and featured what I knew then was a very "different" take on the character. Unfortunately I set the time to record as p.m. instead of a.m. so when I woke the next morning I discovered it hadn't recorded. I waited for another re-airing but it never came. I worried I had missed my chance to see it... ever. I also worried that in an era when female lead action movies were just not a thing, there would never be another Wonder Woman movie. Superman, Batman, Spider-man movies would come and go and still no Wonder Woman movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe arrives and they only make movies about white men heroes. Sure there was the Wonder Woman TV series which I have always enjoyed but a TV series isn't the same thing.
Finally all of this is changing. The movie I have been waiting for since I was 8 is finally arriving in theatres and I couldn't be more ready. And to top it all off I have downloaded the original 1974 film featuring Cathy Lee Crosby to watch in advance of seeing Patty Jenkins' more traditional take. I am sure the 74 version will be terrible but the child inside me that missed that opportunity so many years ago doesn't care. He's ready to finally watch Wonder Woman the movie. And then watch the new Wonder Woman movie. It is a little like coming home, giving that younger version of me a real treat. Especially that I now live in a world where men, women, and anyone else can watch a movie about a female hero and enjoy it, idolize her, and watch the story I have imagined many times.
Only a few days left til I see the movie I've been waiting a lifetime for...
And it was everything I'd hoped it would be.
My favorite Wonder Woman stories in the comics are when she is presented as the antithesis to war, when her struggle involves wrestling with the ways humans deal poorly with conflict. So I was thrilled that not only is Wonder Woman an origin story, finally bringing the world of Themyscira (Paradise Island) and Diana's journey to "man's world" to bold vivid life, but that the story centred on that classic Wonder Woman tale. Director Jenkins and story writer Heinberg has crafted a movie that feels not only classic in its approach, echoing the best of superhero origin stories (like Donner's Superman the Movie) but radical in its feminist approach to story telling. Diana's journey is classically a hero's quest, where she struggles with her flaws and overcomes that to succeed in her mission. But it also centres the story in a way that is different from the traditional masculine heroes and their epics.
First off, Wonder Woman works straight up as an action adventure blockbuster. It's constantly engaging with exquisitely executed set pieces spaced between naturalistic exposition and character development scenes. It would be hard not to enjoy this film. I've seen it twice so far and both audiences I saw it with were alive with excitement during and after the film. But it is how Wonder Woman goes beyond that to create something special, in the way certain Hollywood tentpolls create that sense of silver screen magic that reminds you you aren't just seeing the latest in a string of forgettable movies, but something extraordinary.
Much of this comes through the themes the film is exploring while entertaining us. As I mentioned early on, the anti-war message is fascinating. It wrestles with the tension between a warrior being and "end to war." The choice to set the film during the "war to end all wars," a war the world thought could not be topped in its horror (and were horribly wrong) is brilliant. The idea that mankind is imperfect and not deserving and yet choosing to save it anyway, choosing to stand in the way of war. The film, like the best Wonder Woman stories, forces Diana and us to look at our complicity in that fighting. "We are all to blame. I am to blame." Steve Trevor says. We have to accept that blame as well.
There is a popular myth in western culture, especially popular in the U.S.A., that there is a nobility to war, that soldiers died saving freedom. Many need to cling to this to be able to sleep with the fact that their nation in its imperialistic agenda is complicit in the deaths not only of innocents but of human beings in general. The idea that there are "bad guys" that need to be stopped is an essential part of this rationalization. Wonder Woman looks that directly in the face and makes us question it. She questions it and we do. It is something that rarely happens in summer blockbusters.
Then there is the way the film overtly and subtly critiques gender assumptions. The film, like many Wonder Woman stories before, constantly reminds us of her beauty, a feature which is supposed to render her inert to a certain effect, yet shows us she is so much in addition to that. In her fish out of water act, Diana is oblivious to the expectations around her and her reaction to the absurdity of it highlights that absurdity. Again position this in the pre-women-voter era makes this even more powerful. There is no pretense of women's equality as there is today. She is the foil to that and the film's humour makes this part of the story even more delicious.
There is also a subtle critique of colonialism. While it's not perfect it is clearly there. From the multiracial amazons whose society doesn't stratify based on colour, to the whiteness of the war mongers on both sides, to the fact that Diana's allies in her campaign are all marginalized individuals (with the exception of the "above average" Steve Trevor), the film is sending us messages about power and privilege. "I am the wrong colour" she is told at one point. Another character points out that despite Trevor being held up as an example of a "good man" it is his people who have taken everything from her Blackfoot colleague. There are also subtle references (perhaps they could have been a bit more explicit) to the sexuality of the Amazons. Diana isn't not ignorant of sexual pleasure and there is even a joke about men not being essential for sex. Clearly the film is referencing queerness. It is little touches like this that took the movie from being more than just an exciting "superhero" movie and into something that meant even more to me.
I also want to mention how strong the performances are of the leads. Gal Gadot has shined in this role in BvS but here she truly comes into her own as an actor, embodying the Diana I have read about my whole life. Also especially strong is Chris Pine playing one of the most nuanced and well drawn Steve Trevors I have seen. He shows his talent for balancing pathos and humour perfectly. Robin Wright and Connie Neilson also bring the pitch perfect level of tragedy to the tale. I also especially enjoyed Said Taghmaoui and Lucy Davis.
All my life I have imagined what a live action Wonder Woman film could be. I no longer have to imagine. Patty Jenkins has made that film and it is real. And I love it.
It turns out despite it being a big cheesefest, Cathy Lee Crosby's Wonder Woman film was enjoyable in spite of everything. I think my young self would have loved it, although certainly Linda Carter's eventual TV take was far superior.
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Neilson, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Alan Heinberg