Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review of Wonder Woman: Betrayed By Love, Yet Again

[Warning: Some plot spoilers below]

Makers of superhero movies probably dread the likes of me. As a 50+ year old superhero fan, I'm rather hard to please, because my comics collection dates back to the 70s (the Silver Age, if not the Golden Age), and I grew up imbibing the spirit and the values of that era of superhero comics. Most moviegoers today are under the age of 40 and have probably never even read the original comics, so the movies are likely to be their very first introduction to so many iconic superheroes. I therefore believe that moviemakers have a fiduciary responsibility to faithfully translate the original ethos of the comics onto the screen, so that the new generation of fans receives the same experience of values that mine did.

I critiqued the Superman movies earlier, with the help of an allegorical framework that I discerned, and now it's time to look at Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins. This is not a conventional movie review, because I'm not going to be talking so much about the movie itself, but about whether it is true to the spirit of the comics. I see that most conversations about the movie are from the angle of feminism, which I have no problem with. My concerns are more basic and relate to how faithful the narrative is to the genre. I have an emotional relationship with four DC superheroes -- Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. It affects me personally if any of these characters is misunderstood, misrepresented or unfairly criticised. And of them all, it would not be unfair to say that the softest spot I have is for Wonder Woman. You'll see why.

My Favourite Four, who occupy pride of place in front of my TV

Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a faithful portrayal of one of my favourite characters in most, but alas, not all respects

Let me first touch lightly upon Zack Snyder's treatment of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a terrible movie, and the reason is the same cardinal sin Snyder committed in Man of Steel. The main DC superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Aquaman, etc.) do not kill anyone, not even the most terrible super-villains. To base an entire movie on the premise that Batman would even think to kill Superman is inexcusable.

Leaving that aside, Snyder's introduction of Wonder Woman hit exactly the right note. There was an initial air of mystery about a woman acting suspiciously, then a wonderful sense of recognition and joy as the viewer realised it was not another villainess but a much-loved superhero. Wonder Woman's role in Batman v Superman was also pitched just right - neither an empty adornment nor a damsel in distress but a strong and independent character in her own right. (Superman: "Is she with you?" Batman: "I thought she was with you."). One more character-revealing act of hers was that she subdued the monster Doomsday with her magic lasso. Subduing, not killing, is her signature style.

Coming to Patty Jenkins's latest movie 'Wonder Woman', I must first tick off all the positives.

The first and foremost item is that the movie got the character's appearance just right. Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and her backstory is based on Greek mythology. It's only fitting that the character is played by Israeli Gal Gadot, because a Mediterranean appearance is what is called for. I'm so glad Wonder Woman's character was not "whitewashed" by the casting of an Anglo-Saxon actor (like The Ancient One was in Dr Strange with the casting of the otherwise excellent Tilda Swinton).

Second, Wonder Woman's primary motive is strongly on display -- love and caring. (It's good that director Jenkins took Kurt Vonnegut's first rule of creative writing to heart, "Every character must want something, even if it's just a glass of water"). There is no doubt at all about what Wonder Woman wants -- an end to war and strife. All her actions are transparently guided by that motive.

As in the comics, Diana's soft-heartedness comes across in the movie too. That's a major part of her appeal.
('Paradise Island' refers to the Amazons' secret island of Themyscira.)

Third, she is strong and independent. The only man who manages to influence her is Steve Trevor, who is as much her foil as Lois Lane is to Superman.

That ends the positives.

I will discuss the negatives using references from two comics in my collection.

Two of my Wonder Woman comics, from 1966 and 1975/76 -- It's important to understand a superhero's character (portrayed consistently over a decade or more) before beginning to critique a movie portrayal. (Click to expand)

My first objection is to the excessive violence in the movie. Wonder Woman comics feature a lot of action, but it's not always violent.

Lesson #1 from Wonder Woman -- An action hero need not necessarily engage in violence.
(Note my adolescent signature at the top of this issue. I've been in this game a long time :-).) (Click to expand)

My second and much more serious objection is the same one that I had towards Zack Snyder's portrayal of Superman in 'Man of Steel and of Batman in 'Batman v Superman' -- an easy attitude towards killing. Moviemakers, as I said before, have a fiduciary responsibility to their viewers to preserve the values of the characters whose stories they narrate. There is something almost spiritually noble about these superheroes in that there is no blood on their hands. They never kill even the villains who they know would kill them and others without hesitation.

Patty Jenkins committed the same crime that Jack Snyder did. She made Wonder Woman kill General Ludendorff without a pang of guilt. At least Superman was tormented when he felt forced to kill General Zod. Turning Wonder Woman into a cold-hearted murderer was nothing less than a crime. Jenkins has failed in her fiduciary responsibility.

As evidence, consider these scenes from the comics and see how Wonder Woman deals with her adversaries.

The quality of mercy, exhibit 1: Wonder Woman spares Giganta the Gorilla

The quality of mercy, exhibit 2: Wonder Woman rehabilitates Giganta (now transformed into a human)

The quality of mercy, exhibit 3: Paula von Gunta's henchmen drop a steel girder on Diana from atop a building, followed by red-hot rivets, but when they themselves fall, she doesn't let them die. (Click to expand)

The quality of mercy, exhibit 4: When the villainous Paula von Gunta is herself in danger, Wonder Woman saves her too. (Click to expand)

The quality of mercy, exhibit 5: Dr Cyber turns Wonder Woman into a raging, snarling beast by doping her food with a psycho-chemical, but the Amazon's basic nature overcomes the drug. (Click to expand)

The quality of mercy, exhibit 6: Even when villains die, it's because they did not trust her enough. (Click to expand)

The comics make explicit mention of Wonder Woman's code of non-violence.

Wonder Woman is only violent when she has to be. (Click to expand)

As Dr Cyber points out, Wonder Woman's code of non-violence is part of her Amazon heritage. (Click to expand)

With that background, look at Patty Jenkins's movie. The screen Wonder Woman is unrecognisable as she kills soldiers left and right in fight scene after fight scene. She takes sides too easily (with the Allies and against the Germans), whereas the real Wonder Woman would see them all as human beings. As if that were not enough, she finally floors the evil General Ludendorff after a climactic fight and sits astride him. Then she kills the defenceless man with a mighty sword thrust into his chest.

I ask you, having seen the excerpts from the comics above, is this scene in character at all? I'd say the movie has committed the terrible crime of character assassination, because Wonder Woman does not kill!

I will say this with the strongest of emotion -- If a person does not understand the spirit of a genre, they must not be allowed to ruin it by making a travesty of a movie. Millions of young people who have never read about the real Wonder Woman will go away thinking she can take lives without a second thought. How terrible!

This is my strongest complaint against the Wonder Woman movie, but there is at least one other omission. The ballroom scene in the movie shows Diana without her bracelets. I don't think the moviemakers realised the significance of the bracelets of submission. Without them, Wonder Woman becomes a raging, uncontrolled beast.

Wonder Woman needs to have her bracelets on all the time to be able to control her enormous strength. They're not just there to deflect bullets. (Click to expand)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the movie character is flawed and unlovable. Quite the opposite. It would be impossible not to love the endearing person Gal Gadot portrays, and it's not just because I'm hopelessly biased.

Who can resist that smile?

I do have to conclude on a sad note, though. Many villains manage to get the better of Wonder Woman (at least temporarily) by taking advantage of her loving side and then betraying her.

Note the classical allusion to Hippolyta's seduction and betrayal by Hercules. We never fear for Diana in a fair fight, but we always fear that her trusting heart will be betrayed -- as it is again and again. (Click to expand)

It seems to me as though Wonder Woman trusted director Patty Jenkins to tell her story truthfully and honestly to a new generation of fans -- the story of a kindhearted and courageous superhero sworn to non-violence. Alas, in spite of an otherwise sympathetic portrayal, with regard to the one core element of her character, she has been betrayed yet again.
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