Saturday, 3 June 2017

The comma after "bring us out from under" still matters

Wonder Woman (2017)

It's not that I don't like movies based on comics, it's that a lot of comic strip movies exist that I really don't like, and I have no doubt that the number of miserable experiences I've had watching comic book movies has prevented me from seeing some enjoyable ones.

But I got stung so many times. People keep saying, "Try this! You'll like this," and then I end up seeing something like Iron Man, which is a soulless addition to the world's sum of misery, or Avengers Assemble, a bloated self-indulgent mess, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which one of my favourite people strongly recommended to me and which bored me silly. Guardians of the Galaxy was fun to watch with my kids, on the other hand, and on that level, notwithstanding the single filthiest joke I've ever seen in a 12A certificate film, it succeeded admirably, being humane and breezy and good-natured and daft and, crucially, never quite feeling like you were watching somebody else play XBox for the last half hour. I haven't got round to seeing the sequel. I need an eight year old, see.

I don't have any time for grimdark superheroes. I've always felt that the premise of the superhero was so silly that you have to give it a light touch, a little set of signifiers that this is not the real world, and as a parent, I want something there that suggests a sense of basic decency, an underlying goodness.

I don't want a Superman who shrugs at widespread collateral damage. Give me Christopher Reeve in the original two movies from way back, or Michael Keaton in the overblown gothic fantasia of Batman or Batman Returns. You try to make a figure as daft as Batman gritty, you open yourself up to all sorts of problems, you start having to confront the whole "billionaire beating up poor people" thing and if you're not careful you end up making something outright fascist (and once again, Zac Snyder, j'accuse). 

This is not to say that you can't do a superhero that's grown up. I do read comics, I admit it. Back in the 90s I was very fond of James Robinson's Starman series, which was about a guy who was a superhero because he needed to reconnect with his dad, and it was mature and humane, without the adolescent nonsense of the Zac Snyder films. Not so well known in the USA but legendary in Europe, Valerian and Laureline has this breathtaking creativity on every page, and plotlines which at the same time undercut and queer the hero's masculinity – the supposed female sidekick is better, smarter, more principled and more competent than the notional protagonist (a well-meaning bumbling jerk) in every way. Please, please do yourself a favour and get yourself (and your kids) a copy of Ambassador of the Shadows, one of the best comics ever made, period, before the Valerian film, which I will pay to see, comes out next month and breaks my heart.

All of this is by way of explaining that I am not the intended audience for most superhero movies that come out these days, and that for me to enjoy a superhero film, it has to have a light touch, be humane and well-intentioned rather than cynical and bleak, and not turn into an endless CGI Boss Battle at the end. I want to use adjectives like "delightful" and "charming".

People keep asking me if I can't just enjoy a film, even a big formulaic superhero movie, without the Critical Analysis. The answer is a straight simple no. I'm actually unable to. I couldn't if I wanted to.

Which is a lengthy prologue to the third essay (of four, probably) about a Summer Movie I Didn't Pay To See. But there it is, and it leads to the question, did Wonder Woman meet my modest criteria?

And, well, sort of, most of them, yeah. Yes, it indeed had an endless CGI boss fight that made. me. want. to. die. at the end, which was more or less interchangeable with any other film of this sort and reminded me of how formulaic Wonder Woman actually was. But then, Wonder Woman was always going to be formulaic. It's a film called Wonder Woman. The trick lies in figuring out what was underneath that formula, and actually,  there was just about enough for me to feel I wouldn't have minded paying to see it, or, better, paying for my kids to see it.

So. Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up among the Amazons of on the Paradise Island of Themyscira, and she grows up special, because she's the only kid. Her mum Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Robin Wright) wants her to grow up at a reasonable rate as any good parent would, and tells her she was sculpted from clay and given life, but of course that's not true, and doesn't tell her she's actually a goddess, which is fair enough, I wouldn't tell my daughter that either. But Diana really wants to learn how to fight, so she does and turns out to be really good at it.

The Amazons, we are told, exist as a source of hope for the world outside, and that's one of my favourite things: that the world is better in a cosmic, moral sense for having a hidden and exclusive community on a Paradise Island populated by explicitly queer-coded women who don't need men. And this really is explicit: there's even a dialogue where Diana explains that yes, she knows all about men and the birds and the bees and stuff but essentially the Amazons don't need men for their fun. Suffering Sappho, indeed.

I like that. Having spaces for women, for queer people, enriches us all, the film says, including the people who can't be in them. But of course sometimes people living in these spaces need to come out of them into the wider context to make that enrichment work. This I can get behind.

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, cinema's Captain Kirk) lands on the island, explains that the Great War is going on and he's got to get back, but not before a German flotilla lands on Themyscira. Cue the best battle scene in the film, where balletic, graceful Amazons on horses wipe out German riflemen with swords and bows, but not without losses. There's some back and forth about what to do with the blue-eyed hottie Diana rescued, but eventually Diana leaves with Steve and goes to war.

Much is made by the camera of the luminous beauty of Gal Gadot. But let's be frank, Chris Pine is also beautiful. More than once in dialogue we are told straight out that one or the other is gorgeous (the film does a lot of telling. You'd think it didn't have faith in the audience's ability to notice). Still, it's Pine who, naked, is coolly assessed by the female gaze, and that's a good thing; and look, every review I've seen has mentioned how much of a knockout Gal Gadot is (sometimes to a really creepy extent), and of course she is, but seriously, that's actually far less important than people seem to think. It's not like Warners were ever going to cast anyone ordinary looking, after all.

When I wrote about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a couple weeks ago, I mentioned Astrid Bergès-Frisby's apparent inability to deliver convincing lines in a language other than her own. Gal Gadot is similarly heavily accented, but rather than ignore it, the film makes a virtue of her accent, presenting it as a signifier of her outsider status (and has all the Amazons speak with the same accent, including Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen in solid supporting roles). And Gadot really holds her own, delivering every line like she really means it.

Hollywood has, let's face it, no shortage of actors who can look like a goddess; in Gadot we have an actor who can convincingly sell to you that she is one, bringing kindness and wrath with equal conviction. She isn't given a whole lot to work with in the script, of course, and Wonder Woman is never going to be a complex character, but then she isn't supposed to be. Nonetheless, Gadot carries the film with her performance and her charisma. She's really good.

But also, she's good. It is sort of miserable to realise just how refreshing it is to see a superhero movie with a protagonist who behaves compassionately, is driven by basic decency, rather than just talking about it. This shouldn't be the exception! But Diana is likeable. You root for her. You believe in her basic goodness.

When Steve smuggles her to the front line, he brings a ragtag group of mercenaries with him, and they're all from groups oppressed or colonised. Charlie (Ewen Bremner, and it's always good to see him in films), a working-class Scot with war trauma; Sammy (Saïd Taghmaoui), a failed actor from Egypt; and the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), a Native American. Diana connects with each in turn, and each has a story through which she confronts the problems in the outside world. And it's important that each marginalised face is given a name, because that's how we learn, from people we know, from individuals whose stories lead us to understand better than any theoretical knowledge.
The most fun and rewarding parts of the film are the ones where Diana navigates around the complexities of the Man's World. The scenes where she's doing things like enjoying ice cream (apparently a running joke in the comics) and bonding with Steve's secretary Etta (Lucy Davis, Dawn from The Office) are consistently fun, culminating in a lovely scene where she's bought some everyday clothes and they're trying to explain to her why she needs to put her sword down as well. There's a certain catharsis in Diana barging into men's spaces and giving typically incompetent and callous WWI British generals the talking to you always dreamed someone should.

There's a lot more that the film could have done, though, and after all the great build up, I sort of felt the film squandered it on an entirely formulaic and interminable fight at the end with an entirely predictable resolution. You want to see more of Doctor Maru (The Skin I Live In's Elena Anaya) and while you get hints of something beyond what you get, you never get to see her become a complete character, beyond a couple of lines where Anaya completely sells what could be in the hands of a less talented actor a formulaic and obvious character beat. David Thewlis, likewise, doesn't get as much as he should, and while I'm sure he had a blast playing his character's role in the climax, it just doesn't work and he's wasted. Lucy Davis, too, could have been given so much more. So many great actors, just a tiny bit wasted.

I suppose some mention should be made about how the film moves Wonder Woman's origin back from the second World War to the first. I think part of that has to be because the first Captain America film cornered the market of the WWII superhero who enters the present, and a line of difference needed to be drawn. But also, I think that having an Israeli star (and one with well-known and controversial political views) play in a superhero film where the architects of the Holocaust are reduced to supervillains would cross a line of taste that is impassable, even for Hollywood. There are some things that you don't do. 

On final analysis, though, I think Wonder Woman is a win. While its climax is dull and it could seriously have less telling and more showing, and it's not a great film, any superhero film that has me coming out of the cinema not just not consumed with depression but actually saying "huh, that was pretty OK," is probably worth a punt. Granted, the test it had to pass was "better than Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad" which is a phenomenally low bar to jump. On my superhero movie wish list, it ticks most of the boxes, escaping the leaden tone of its recent predecessors and actually having some charm, and not mistaking adolescent grumpiness for maturity. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, if you find that a useful metric. Also, it's got some interesting subtext. All told, I'm glad I saw it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is back on because harassment and frankly this is why you can't have nice things.