Thursday, 15 June 2017

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny. 


It may have taken four films to get there, but the DCEU has finally produced a good old-fashioned superhero movie. Wonder Woman opened last week and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The film itself has had its share of controversy though; beginning with male outcry concerning female only screenings (grow up, gentlemen), to the literal dark cloud that the DCEU seems to have built around its franchise. Wonder Woman is also the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman and it shows in a number of subtle, yet important ways. As tight as Gadot's outfit may be, Diana is always framed as an agent of power, rather than its object. 


Before getting to Gal Gadot excellent performance as Wonder Woman. I have to say that I never knew how much I wanted to see Robin Wright do a backflip off of a horse only to springboard off a shield and fire arrows into three German soldiers. Then, I saw Wonder Woman, and I immediately knew I wanted to see that again. Now, Gal Gadot is excellent. Dawn of Justice proved us she could handle the kicking and the punching, here, she gets actual honest-to-goodness dialogue and invests Diana with excitable exuberance, defiance and a disarming belief in doing the right thing. Gadot balances the toughness and confidence of a warrior with the childlike confusion of someone who's never known a world filled with hatred, hunger, greed, selfishness and even death. To go from that world to the devastating reality of WWII requires an actress who can just as easily embody childlike glee and unfathomable sadness. As it stands, this film is intermittently spot on, particularly in the pops of humour and romance between the exotically kick-ass yet approachable Gal Gadot and the supremely charismatic Chris Pine, as an American working for British Intelligence. 


It is no secret that the superhero genre is seen as a "boys club". Most female superheroes are either spawned from their male counterparts or started out as villains and become heroes. She-Hulk was spawned from her raging cousin after a blood transfusion. Batgirl was a librarian who had a crush on Batman. Catwoman started out as a straight-up villain but has evolved into a sort of anti-hero. And Wonder Woman herself was sort of inspired by male heroes. Plus, the history of superhero girlfriend is a long one, from Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacey to Natalie Portman's Jane Foster and Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes. These women are professional plot points more than people. 


However, with Steve Trevor, we have a fully realised character who is much an active participant in our heroine's journey as he is in the larger narrative; some will say that is because he is a man and not a woman but allow me to disagree with you here.       


Wonder Woman is clearly a female centred movie but let's talk about the men of Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor is, in fact, a fully realised character, who is much an active participant in our heroine's journey. Watching his onscreen journey, there was an instant realisation that he is a new entry in the superhero genre. In the case of this film, the presence of a fully formed protagonist does not come at the expense of the other characters. Moreover, ego does not get in the way of progress. Or, as Trevor succinctly puts it: "I can save today, but you can save the world.". Apart from that, General Ludendorff says to Diana "As magnificent as you are, you are no match for me.". Let's face it, it wouldn't be the first time a man has underestimated the potential of a better-qualified woman.  


As a woman, it is impossible not to feel a sense of ownership over the first female-led superhero flick since Catwoman in 2004. And it is impossible not to feel a warm swell of relief that she is a glorious badass, one who wears her femininity with the same pride and poise that she wears her armour plated-bra. Even if this film doesn't quite transcend the traits of franchise product as it checks off the list of action-fantasy requisites. This origin story, with its direct and relatively uncluttered trajectory, offers a welcome change of pace from a superhero realm that is often overloaded with interconnections and cross-references. 


Wonder Woman changes everything in the DCEU. And it does so by looking to the past, taking inspiration from the likes of Thor and Captain America. But the film's biggest debt is to Superman The Movie. Both structurally - the opening half-hour in Themyscira is the same as the Krypton segment of Richard Donner's movies - and tonally. Like Christopher Reeve's Superman, Gal Gadot's Diana is a bright beacon of hope in a world of darkness.


The masterstroke of this origin story is that it accentuates and celebrates Diana's feminine traits. Her secret weapon is not the bullet-repealing jewellery, not her swordplay and not her ability to fire shockwaves from her wrists. It is not even her luxurious swooshing hair. It is her empathy. Although now that I mentioned it, the hair is pretty impressive! Indeed, above all, what truly stands out about Wonder Woman is its ability to show love in all its forms. Whether it is the love between a mother and her daughter, the sisterhood and same-sex relationships of the women of Themyscira, the bond between sisters, the camaraderie between Steve and his friends, the platonic and romantic love between Steve and Diana, the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, love of a country, or an overall love for humanity; this film embraces and embodies love. 


Throughout the whole film, Lindy Hemming's superb costume designs are in sync with production designer Aline Bonetto's vivid locales. Contrasting the poetic, not-quite-real timelessness of Themyscira, the all female isle where Diana was raised, with the prosaic reality of early-20th-century Europe. The choice to set the action during WWII may make some uncomfortable. However, it gives Patty Jenkins a chance to play with themes of female empowerment, feminism and standing up against oppression. 


Today, the amalgam of industry awards and wall-to-wall press coverage routinely creates boy wonders who break and transcend the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. Girl wonders have been considerably harder to come by, not because there haven't been or aren't incredibly talented women of all ages directing critically successful films and making important contributions to filmmaking, but because the mainstream film industry and its environs have been resistant to acknowledge the contributions of women who make films, or have excluded them from the discussion entirely. 


Patty Jenkins and the screenwriters were tasked with giving audiences their first major female superhero onscreen in more than a decade. But, in the process, audiences got supporting characters and a love interest that wrestled with their own insecurities in a way that was unique within the crowded superhero space. This type of characterisation is the work of strong filmmaker, who has trust in their story and actors, as well as the audience. Because good filmmaking is about giving the audience things that they did not know they had always wanted. 


Patty Jenkins, after Katherine Bigelow before her, may be our next girl wonder. the early press coverage of Jenkins has started to construct her mythology. If these initial media reports are any indication of what is to come, Jenkins is well positioned to achieve girl wonder status, becoming an inspiration for future directors, who happen to be female. But Jenkins remains one director in a sea of men. 


Overall, Wonder Woman has been a symbol of strength for decades, and her time in the spotlight is long overdue. In a male-dominated landscape, Wonder Woman is poised to be the first female superhero that actually resonates with fans, both male and female. What really matters to me are the little girls who are finally going to see a strong female role model.

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