‘To be human is to love’: Wonder Woman review

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To be human is to love.

The superhero movie is many things: a reliable return on investment for producers and studios, a space within which the hottest actor/actress of the day can flex their muscles (literally) and ham it up, a bone for diehard comic fans to chew up and over as they argue about Easter eggs and continuity and elaborate theories. It channels explosions of energy and machines onto the screen, and provides some sort of entertaining catharsis; good wins the day, ultimately, after cheesy speeches about hope, and evil is safely put away, even if there is a hint (in post-credits scenes) that it will rise again.

bale With the glut of superhero movies and dramas reaching screens in the past few years, no filmmaker has left as indelible a mark on the genre as Christopher Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reminded viewers that superhero movies can be ‘profound’, and underlined this by drenching his screen in darkness, and giving his Batman a moodiness and pathos that sets him apart from the far more campy versions brought to life by Michael Keaton or George Clooney. Bale’s Batman was so successful, critically and commercially, that DC, Batman’s owners, decided they would continue this formula for their other films, with varying results. Most of DC’s efforts have been panned, with Batman vs Superman reach particularly low standards, but finally, they seem to have gotten the memo that not all superhero films need be extended meditations on heroism and goodness in a dark world. Some of them can be this, and fun as well.

Enter Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose previous credits include the Charlize Theron-starring Monster,  the movie stars Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel and a total badass. There was some griping when Gadot was cast (mostly because she was a relative nobody), but from the moment she lit up screens in Zach Snyder’s otherwise forgettable B vs S, I think most critics have been silenced. She is, to put it succinctly, effortlessly charismatic in this role, and brings Diana Prince’s blend of naivete, strength and integrity to life.

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Wonder Woman is a first for many reasons, most importantly its place as the first female-led and –directed superhero blockbuster in more than a decade, the first movement of a Queen in this elaborate game of chess DC and Marvel have suckered us into watching them play. How does it fare in these contexts, as a superhero movie in general, and one that stars a woman?

The answer: pretty damn well.

Wonder Woman is an origin story, a flashback shown to us after Diana Prince (Gadot) receives an old photograph from the seemingly-all-knowing Bruce Wayne. It’s a picture of her in her Amazonian armour, standing on a battlefield with a group of men. ‘Maybe some day you’ll tell me your story,’ Wayne writes. Diana reminisces, looking at the picture, and her memories unspool before us in the form of the film.

Wonder Woman, the comics character, has been around for decades, so her origin isn’t all that mysterious. She is an Amazonian princess, raised on the idyllic island of Themiscyra, by her mother, the queen Hippolyta. She is trained in warfare and combat by her aunt Antiope, trained ‘harder than any Amazon before her,’ though why is left unclear at first. The Amazons, a race of demigoddesses, were created by Zeus to promote a ‘greater understanding among men’, but retired to their mysterious island when Ares, God of War, corrupted the world of men and destroyed the gods. The Amazons hold Zeus’ last weapon to defeat Ares, and prepare for the day when they will have to rejoin the world, and destroy him once and for all.

Or so Diana has been told.

When Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy assigned to British Intelligence, crashes into the azure waters off the coast, he drags with him the fury and chaos of World War I. Diana finds herself confronted with what she sees as a ‘sacred duty’: to return to the world of men and save them from the corruption caused by Ares. She steals away with Trevor, asking her disapproving mother ‘Who would I be if I stayed?’ Self imposed duty and belief call her to arms, even if it means never seeing her mother, or Themiscyra, again.

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Thus begins Diana’s time in the world of men, a world that, Hippolyta claims, ‘does not deserve’ her. She and Trevor, accompanied by a band of misfits with their own sad stories, head to where the fighting is most intense: the Western Front. They are aided off-field by Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and the pacifist Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a Cabinet member who insists on funding their mission to destroy a secret German weapons facility run by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Maru has created a horrendous weapon that has the potential to wipe out ‘millions’; Trevor and Diana believe that she and Ludendorff must be stopped at any cost.

As with all stories, there are twists and turns, some surprises, but also sweetness and sadness in equal measure. Diana is shocked by a world that seeks to shut her out simply because she is a woman, where soldiers and civilians are killed with impunity by generals hiding out in their offices. But still, she clings tight to what she knows: that she has a job to do, as an Amazon, and she must do it, no matter what.

What really stands out about Diana as a superheroine is this, her lack of confusion over what it ‘means’ for her to be a hero. Diana does not see herself as markedly different from the people around her. Her gifts are not burdens she carries (like Cavill’s Clark Kent), but things she must put to use to help those who cannot help themselves. She does not waste time wondering ‘why’ she feels the need to help people, what it means in the larger scheme of things. She does not quibble over killing, if it must be done. She’s a warrior, a tool, and she has a purpose. Not for her existential mulling over being a dark knight, or a god among men. ‘I can help them,’ ‘I can do it,’ ‘I am the man for the job’: these are her phrases, and they capture her superheroine manifesto, as well as anything Nolan’s Batman might have said captured his.

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Is Gadot’s Diana a feminist? In an interview, Jenkins pointed to one scene in the movie, where Diana enters the Cabinet Room at British High Command, a place of power from which women are banned. ‘She doesn’t think she doesn’t have a right to be there,’ Jenkins said. She believes these men should listen to her, because she brings important information, and she, more importantly, wants to and can help with the war. Diana has been raised in a place where gender is not seen as something to be commented on, certainly not something that should act as a stumbling block to what one wants to do. Even her first stunned comment to Trevor (‘You’re a man!’) is made as a general observation, rather than loaded with judgment and predisposition of what a ‘man’ might be like. She cannot comprehend why the modern world would not ‘allow’ women to fight in battle, or that her armour is ‘inappropriate’ in any way. It is impossible to stress how refreshing this is, to have a protagonist (who also happens to be a woman) focus solely on her mission and ideals, and refuse to dignify what she sees as amusing, if not outright ridiculous, conventions.

On the flip side, Diana’s confidence and lack of faith in institutions like marriage and sexist biases comes not from any sort of enlightenment, but simply because she was never exposed to the same. She has not struggled ‘out’ of these bindings; she just never had to deal with them. While this works for the movie, it does sort of problematize the idea of her as a feminist icon, a fact that critics of her nomination as a UN ambassador seized upon. But within the echelons of pop culture, and this movie in particular, Diana’s position as powerful woman works. Personally, I loved watching her kick ass, and would watch many more scenes of her doing just that.

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Wonder Woman ends with (spoiler alert) Diana thinking that ‘only love can save the world’. It’s a curiously sentimental line, one that might seem out of place in a movie-verse where we’ve gotten used to darker pronouncements about man’s innate evil, and the futility of effort. But here, it makes sense. There is something hopeful and, well, clear about Diana. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who just does her job, something she’s basically trained all her life to do, because it is right. Not for her brooding or posturing, or staring into the dark skies, wondering about the personal and metaphysical implications of her actions. She cuts through all that bullshit with one flick of her lasso, and throws herself in headfirst, saving a world that might not always deserve her. But, as she herself says, ‘It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe.’ Diana believes she has to be there for the world, and do what she can to save it from itself. If that doesn’t make you love her without complication, I don’t know what will.

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Heroes, Ladies and La La Land

Some years ago, I wrote about what I called the ‘Loving Hero Paradox’, aka what happens when a fantasy hero/superhero needs to go off and save the day, and for this noble purpose, breaks up with an extremely understanding girlfriend. The girlfriend usually has no choice in the matter (after all, she’s not the focus of the story), and displays almost fantastical understanding and support for his decision, an attitude I myself have never seen someone display when broken up with out of the blue (and certainly not at the sort of venues the men usually choose to stage said break up, like, say, a funeral of a close friend or mentor). Maybe this is the girls’ superpower, in which case, I’d say they’ve gotten a pretty weird deal, both man- and power-wise.

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The whole point of the Loving Hero Paradox is that it’s created to make the heroes look, and feel, good. They are sacrificing something, you see. They are giving up the thing that makes them who they are, and distinguishes from the loveless villain. And they’re doing this so unselfishly, so bravely. Saving the world is more important than a romance, after all.

The thing is, the men never get punished for their love. Yes, there’s usually the fear that the dastardly villain will force them into a horrible choice—love or the world—but often, the hero wins both. Except for poor Spiderman, who lost the light of his life, and the Amazing Spiderman franchise which lost the wonderful Emma Stone.

Now, I’ve identified the parallel syndrome for women. Actually, someone else identified it centuries ago, I just did the lit student thing of finding his work and connecting the dots to more contemporary cultural products. I’m speaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott.

 I was introduced to the Lady in her tower in 2005, or thereabouts, an impressionable 11th grader, surrounded by fellow dying-to-be-artistic ladies in an all-girl literature class. This extremely imbalanced gender ratio meant that classes often turned into personal discussion territories, in a way that might have been hard if there were budding men about. We were all awkward adolescents after all, still figuring out love and hormones, no matter how we pretended otherwise with our dreamy fangirling over Sylvia Plath or Frieda Kahlo. Even the fact that we idolized these women, and men like Keats and Hughes, safely dead and gone, should tell you how not getting into formation we were. Beyonce would be yelling at us, if she had come across us then.

shalottThe story of Tennyson’s poem is tragic, and appealing in a way that is certain to make dreamy girls with artistic ambitions sigh longingly. A mysterious lady, placed in a tower on an island in a river, weaves beautiful tapestries day after day. A mirror is her only outlook on the world; she cannot look outside directly because a ‘curse’ rests upon her. What that curse is, we do not know, and neither does she, but in the way of women have been forced to do for so many centuries, she thinks it’s better not to tickle a sleeping dragon, and decides not to look.

Until Lancelot gallops by on his horse, singing a lusty song that goes like this:

 Tirra lira by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot

The stuff dreams are made of.

It’s too much for the Lady to resist, and when she dares to look outside, and feast her eyes upon his manly form, her tapestry floats out the window, and her mirror ‘cracks’ from ‘side to side’. ‘The curse is come upon me!’ she cries, and with great solemnity, she makes her way down the tower, into a boat, and floats to her death. When the boat reaches the banks of Camelot, and the citizens crowd about, wondering who she is, the oblivious Lancelot comes out to say ‘She has a lovely face’ and absently passes a blessing on her.

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If she wants to be an artist, and create things of value, one of the readings of the poem seems to say, the Lady should stay locked away, and not dare to fall in love, let alone lust, with a passing knight. A sacrifice, yes, but one made without even knowing what exactly it was she was giving up, and not even sure what the consequences would be.

This is not a weird idea to us, even now. We’re fed the idea, from various sources, that to be a truly great artist, you have to suffer. You have to be unhappy, and what more romantic (or Romantic) unhappiness is there than the pain of unrequited or sacrificed love? And while it’s a choice that male heroes often get to make consciously (after enjoying love’s fruits for a while), women have the decision take out of their hands, with society—the unaware but slightly stunned citizens of Camelot, for instance—passing the sentence of ‘who is this’ and ‘what is here’ when they dare to step out of bounds.

Now to turn to the more contemporary manifestation of this syndrome: Damien Chazelle’s much awarded movie, La La Land.

la la Let me get this out of the way: I love La La Land. I know this is a horribly mainstream way to respond to a movie that has a lot of problems, but I have now watched it three times and I have loved it more with each viewing. I try not to let this cloud my judgment of the way in which it treats gender and art, and I think I’ve succeeded. Besides, if I can do it with Harry Potter, I can do it with anything. After all, Sebastian is no Sirius Black, is he?

Okay, before we do this, warning: there are spoilers for the movie ahead.

What’s interesting about La La Land is how it braids the Loving Hero and the Lady of Shalott into the same fabric, and lets their syndromes play out equally well. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) takes on the traditional hero role, even going so far as to say that jazz is ‘dying’ and that he wants to ‘save it’. He wants to do this singlehandedly, refusing to listen to people who might know better than him (ie, John Legend’s character, Keith). His plan for saving it? Open a club where only ‘the greats’ will be played, though how he’s going to get the money to do this without lowering his standards, or getting off his high horse, is a question he’s struggled with. Until Mia (Stone) waltzes into his life, and provides the impetus he needs to join up with a more popular, contemporary group called the Messengers, selling his soul in the process. He’s going dark to save the world.

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For Mia, things are slightly different. Sebastian convinces her that what the world needs is her one-woman play, and when things take off for her, he tells her that she needs to go ‘do this’ unencumbered by anything else, including their relationship. She needs to Shalott herself, her tower being the movie deal she’s gotten, and refuse to look outside of it to see him singing tirra lira, or whatever the jazz equivalent is. Knowing Sebastian, it’s probably a brooding chord on the piano.

As they end things, they tell each other they will ‘always love’ one another, but this is it: this is the sacrifice. Love needs to go, for her art, for his savior mission. And tellingly, it’s him who tells her this; once again, man exercising Loving Hero muscle; once again, woman taking it, because he has a mission, and she has success to find.

It just bugs me that he had to be the one to tell her that they had to end it, especially since it was him who caused so much of the trouble in the first place (not turning up for her play? Honestly). Some things even Gosling’s attractiveness can’t make palatable, and this is one of them.

At the close, we have a picture of Mia’s success: she’s a famous actress, her face all over billboards, people staring at her in awe as she walks into the same coffee shop she once worked in. She’s even got a partner, and a cute little kid. She’s done well for herself.

Seb? He owns his jazz bar. It’s packed, which means the music is probably good (though Seb’s made it very clear on multiple occasions that people’s opinions are ‘pishikaka’ to him). He’s clearly better off than he was at the beginning. Does he have a love life? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to care. The longing look he shares with Mia seems to indicate that those feelings are still there, for both of them, but hey, their sacrifice has paid off, so it’s all good, right?

That’s a matter of personal opinion. Me? I teeter between yes and no. For what it’s worth, I don’t see why Ladies and Loving Heroes have to exist in today’s world, but that’s just me with my newfangled notions. Also, I accede that yes, there is no pathos like lost love, and pathos is what makes a movie ‘profound’, even in the vague manner in which La La Land is profound. As long as people want that, Ladies will weave away tragically, Heroes will give up lovers bravely, and 15-year-sold readers will sigh at the beauty of it all, only wondering why more than a decade later.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry must buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

How does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

eddieFantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

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If the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that goldsteinsthere is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

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Pocahontas, 21 years later

I have wanted, and continue to want many impossible things. I look up to more fictional characters than real people, and they have changed in the course of time. But the first one I remember having any ‘real’ effect on me, the first person, male or female, animated or not, to have a deep and lasting impact on my life, was Pocahontas, the eponymous heroine of Disney’s 1995 film.

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When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Pocahontas. I can tell you why, too. In some ways, the story is one that is familiar to many ‘poco’ kids around the world, longing, if not always consciously, to see themselves in western pop culture entertainment. I saw the movie when I was 5 years old, and from the moment Pocahontas burst onto the screen, I was in love. She was so amazing: she was beautiful, smart, and so rebellious, jumping off waterfalls instead of timidly climbing down them, refusing to marry the warrior her father had selected for her and instead, trying to cement peace between two peoples. Plus she had that whole mystical goddess-like connection going on with the world around her, with winds carrying secrets to her, and trees giving her life lessons in the absence of other maternal figures.

And needless to say, she had great hair. This is the worst kept secret in my family: that at the age of 5 I decided to grow my hair as long as possible, not because tradition or my mother dictated it, but because I wanted to be like Pocahontas.

meekoI was a fangirl. In fact, I don’t think I’ve fangirled as hard for anyone since. I dressed up like her for Halloween, I danced to ‘Colours of the Wind’ for my school talent show, I got my mother to buy me all the ‘kid’ history books she could find about her, as well as any other merchandise she could afford on her graduate student salary. This included chocolate, picture books, stickers, dolls…so when people talk about a new generation of kids and the Frozen craze, I totally get it. I was on the other side not too long ago.

One of my most crushing disappointments came two years after seeing the movie. I was used to people calling me ‘Pocahontas’ by then, playing along with my extremely modest opinion of myself. I was ‘Indian’ after all (who cared for political nuances, like whether I was the ‘right’ kind of Indian?), and she was, at the time, one of only two ‘brown’ princesses on the Disney pantheon. So it was a bit of a shock when, at a summer camp, a counseler, when he heard my fellow kids calling me ‘Pocahontas’ said ‘Pocahontas? No, she’s Jasmine.’ I assume, since he was a very nice man, that he meant nothing but the best with that statement, but I was crushed. I didn’t want to be Jasmine: she was spoilt and pampered and she had to be rescued. Pocahontas was so much cooler. Even as a seven year old, I could tell that choosing to stay behind with her people rather than sail off with the dreamy John Smith was revolutionary, and therefore, raised Pocahontas to a level far, far above her fellow heroines. It was also my first experience of being stuck into an identity not of my choosing, simply because I happened to look more like one kind of princess than the other, but as far as such profiling goes, this was one with relatively gentle consequences; after all, my ego is not the biggest casualty.

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Can a kid’s obsession with a questionable fictional character yield good results? Research has shown that reading fiction increases empathy, leading to the spectacular conclusion that reading things like Harry Potter makes kids better human beings. I agree—through fiction you live in other people’s heads, see perspectives that would otherwise remain closed to you. you learn the world is not centred around you and people like you, or that it shouldn’t be.

Fiction can also open the doors to topics and events that you would never have known of otherwise, whet interest in things that you never knew about. For instance, a friend of mine, an English student, grew extremely interested in the American recession of the early 2000s, and continues to slake that interest through movies about it (thanks to her, I watched the treasure that is Margin Call). For me, Pocahontas did the same. I began to read about American Indian history, starting with the ‘kid’ versions available. The ‘true’ story of Pocahontas devastated me; even the briefly told version I had left me angry and disbelieving. As I grew older, I read more—novels by American Indian authors, histories, interviews with activists. I began to view the Disney movie with a more critical eye, and while the experience of writing a paper on it and its historical/anthropological inaccuracies broke my heart a little*, I still continued to love it.

Pocahontas answered some deep-seated need in me to see a liberated, cool brown woman doing things on screen. She also opened my eyes to a whole new world, something no other Disney person managed to do. So if I never knew her, I have no doubt my life, and my interests, would be quite different, to say nothing of my appreciation of the voices of the mountain, or the colours of the wind.

*I learned, for instance, that Pocahontas, for all that she’s touted as an ‘American Indian’ princess, does not look anything like one. Artists consciously created her as a composite of a different races, using elements from ethnicities around the world to build this ‘ideal’ human being.

Watching the Watchmen: Part I

(Part II of this post will happen post-Captain America: Civil War. Spoilers for both Daredevil Season 2 and Batman vs Superman going ahead.)

There’s a virtual flood of superhero-related things coming to the visual medium, both in the form of TV shows and movies. I’d barely finished digesting Season 2 of Daredevil before dragging people to a showing of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or Just Us, if you’d believe this incredibly well edited trailer), and it seems like I’m only going to be waiting  a few more weeks before Captain America comes back with all his blonde-haired, blue-eyed prettiness in Captain America: Civil War.

To me, the glut of superhero sagas can only be a good thing. More epic battles, more eye-Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shouldercandy prancing about doing noble (and in Loki’s case, not so noble) things on screen, increasingly more women kicking ass (my favourite things about Daredevil and B vs. S were Elektra and Wonder Woman respectively), and energising music. Also, more fodder to compare to others in its category. It’s evident that the three major superhero releases of the first half of the year—the ones I’ve outlined in the para above—share similar themes: not what the individual does with ‘great power’, but how the world around them can (and maybe should?) put a check on it.

Daredevil Season 2

What’s arguably the most oft-quoted line from superhero movies is Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s homely adage: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It interests me that instead of focusing so much on individual ‘responsibility’, Daredevil and B vs. S (and the Civil War comics) looks at the broader question of what forms the ‘responsibility’ of the community in which these powers are being used. Daredevil brings this question to gory punisherlife in the figure of the Punisher, a rogue self-designated vigilante who assuages his personal grief and loss by killing off what he sees as ‘scum’ who ‘deserve to die’. Frank Castle, an ex-Marine with a celebrated war record, uses his training and expertise to gun down gang bosses, rapists, murderers, drug pins, child pornography distributors—in short, anyone who threatens the safety and sanctity of Hell’s Kitchen (though Castle’s own house is far off in some suburban outskirt, and he is from Queens). Unlike Daredevil, who uses much less lethal methods, Punisher does not look to reform or rehabilitate his prey. He seems to believe that the system is broken, and given how events play out in the show, he may have a point.

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Daredevil takes it upon himself to stop the Punisher, but in an ironic spin, he finds himself defending him as Matt Murdock, understanding that putting away one vigilante (who, no matter how violent and misguided, was only trying to do the same thing he is) might have serious repercussions on his own actions as the devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s willingness to use the law, the very system he skirts around as a vigilante, in order to exonerate Castle, is striking. Throughout the series, Murdock’s actions as a costumed superhero plague him with doubt and guilt, which he looks to the Father at his chosen church to assuage. His stint as a lawyer, and his upbringing as a Catholic combine to give him a load of questions and a need for forgiveness, that forms a complete contrast to the amoral Punisher. Indeed, towards the middle of the series, when things seem to really be spiralling out of control and Murdock sees his hard work unraveling around him, he says, ‘I thought it could work, the law, but it feels so useless. Everything I’ve done just gets undone.’

daredevil-season-2-episode-3-new-yorks-finest-review-where-do-we-draw-the-line-500x281

Even then, Murdock/Daredevil refuses to go all the way and take up the sheer butchery espoused by the Punisher. ‘You cross over to my side of the line, you can’t come back from that, ever,’ Castle tells him during one of their longer nightly conversations, and Daredevil seems to keep that in mind. Daredevil leaves open-ended the question of supervision of vigilante figures, with the Punisher’s excess almost excused and justified (horrifying as his methods are, there seems to be a general consensus, whether among the ‘heroes’ or the jury members at Castle’s trial, that they are effective), the show moving on quickly to its second storyline with Elektra, but it leaves those questions in viewers’ heads: how much vigilante-ism/power is too much, and who can you trust with it?

B Vs. S

Though it’s opened to largely negative reviews, I quite enjoyed Batman vs Superman. Sure, there were some stupid moments, but it was entertaining, and like I’ve said before, Wonder Woman’s entry was well worth the build-up. I also liked Affleck’s turn as a dour Batman, despite his rather flip-flopping morals when it came to killing people.

batfleckI thought Affleck’s Batman provided a nice parallel to the Punisher. He seems to have no qualms with mowing down people he believes ‘deserve’ it, literally doing so while chasing a shipment of Kryptonite. What’s interesting is that here, the Punisher figure is the one suspicious of the man lauded as a hero, a ‘god’. While it’s a suspicion partly fuelled by what he knows Superman is capable of (destroying an entire city centre is a fair demonstration of his ‘gifts’), it’s also more than a little obvious that Batman’s dislike of Superman is also a product of envy. Though the movie never outright says it, Batman seems to have little going for him personally—shutting himself away from emotional entanglements outside of his taciturn manner with Alfred. Luthor is able to play on his guilt in order to drum up his hatred of Superman—there’s a strong implication that Bruce feels himself responsible not only for his parents’ death, but Robin’s as well. To see someone else being hailed as a hero, when he sees the cost of the man’s powers probably doesn’t do wonders for Batman’s self esteem (hey, no judgement here), and he ends up taking it upon himself to bring him down.

Batman-V-Superman-Armored-Batsuit-Costume-Comic-Con

In both Daredevil and B vs S then, there’s a sense that people who seek to protect others, when not appointed to do so by the law, must be answerable to it, and their methods ‘approved’ by some sort of governing body. Daredevil is largely able to get away with his hijinks because he does not veer into the territory of taking life— a decision that only ‘God’ can make (he seems to imply as much in one of his tete a tetes with Castle). Superman, who has God-like powers on Earth, must be made accountable to some kind of committee, that seeks to discipline him for his irresponsible use of them, a theme that will be taken up, presumably, in Captain America. Though the Marvel movie (if it stays true to the central conflict of the comics) will take this question one step further: should a community curtail the freedoms of its superheroes/individuals in an effort to protect the many? What does a superhero do when the law says that his actions, even if they be saving a bus full of children from a grisly end, are illegal if he does not submit himself to government-sanctioned registration? It’s interesting that Daredevil, who stands ‘for the law’ (as much as any vigilante can be said to) in the Netflix series takes the side of the rogue heroes led by Captain America in the Civil War comics, becoming, in the process, a criminal.

These are all questions that have a sort of relevance in a world of increasing surveillance, questions of identity and protecting individual rights over those of the community. It’s quite fascinating that superhero movies and shows are doing their bit to answer them, some more and some less satisfyingly.

‘Fancy’? As IF!

iggyIggy Azalea is all over the place these days, whether she’s collaborating with the biggest divas in the business like J-Lo and up and comer Ariana Grande, or being raked across the coals for her ‘appropriation’ of hip-hop, a traditionally black space. To be fair, she’s not the only white person who’s done this, but since she’s among the most successful, it’s only expected that she take some flak for it.

The song that really put her on the map is her collaboration with Charli XCX, ‘Fancy’. Here’s my take on it and its video, which is a rather obvious homage to the teen cult movie, ‘Clueless’.

What’s so Fancy?: ‘Clueless’ is based not too loosely on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) trying her best to make Tai (Brittany Murphy) a more presentable, acceptable girl in her high school clique. Paul Rudd plays a rather incestuous Mr. Knightley figure, intermittently warning her of the dangers of her superficial,teenybopper lifestyle. At the close, she realizes there’s more to life than ‘fancifying’ other people, and grows up enough to kiss her step-brother.

clueless Iggy dresses like Cher, wearing the iconic yellow plaid skirt and blazer that Cher debuts in the first few scenes of the movie. The video opens with her putting this outfit together on her Ipad, a contemporization of the PC Cher uses to do the same. Many of the other scenes in the video, including the crazy drive, the physical ed class and the debate are also riffs on the movie. iggy az

The role reversal: It’s kind of cool to see that Iggy, who sings the more ‘ghetto’, gritty part of the song (saying things like ‘want a bad bitch like this’) is the uptight, ultra-rich Cher, while Charli XCX is the more clueless Tai, who constantly sings about how ‘fancy’ she is. This does however make a certain kind of sense, since Iggy is the one who prescribes and dictates, while Charli simply sings the same refrain. Also, rap does tend to sound more assertive than pop tunes.

Royal satire: ‘Better get my money on time, if they no money, decline’ Iggy says—money is all in the lifestyle she and her friends lead. How else are they going to trash hotels and get drunk on the mini-bar? Sound familiar? It reminded me irresistably of Lorde’s ‘Royals’, only she sings about how ‘trashin’ the hotel room’ isn’t for her set. Where Lorde soulfully upholds the dignity of her small town dreams, Iggy brashly satirizes the set that can afford to get drunk on the minibar. They’re singing about the same things, only using different registers to do it.

iggy-azalea-charli-xcx-fancy-clueless-600x337 Cultural appropriation: Yep, this is something we hear a lot about, and Iggy’s definitely high on the hit list of those who appoint themselves poltically correct watchdogs. I have quibbles with this—it seems to me that the moment you start policing what people do or do not have a right to incorporate into their work, you open the floodgates to all sorts of censoring and boundary making. As long as it’s done respectfully enough, with no intent to slander or mock the culture it’s being borrowed from, should we really worry about it?

But I guess we then get into murky waters of what constitutes ‘respectful’ use, and that’s not somewhere I want to go.

To be fair, I don’t think Iggy’s use of the hip hop genre in this song is meant to signal some sort of stealing away from its ‘rightful’ utilisers. I think she just used what suggested itself to her in order to satirize a way of life/class of people – the point of the song being that satire rather than laying an exclusive claim to a kind of music.

Conclusion: ‘Fancy’, ultimately, is a satire. There’s no way anyone can take Iggy’s claims of being ‘the realest’ girl seriously; instead, we look on in mild amusement as she and Charli go over the top in their emulation of high school ‘cool girls’, Charli very obviously lip-syncing with her own lyrics. It’s a sort of prolonged parody of a film which already seeks to parody a certain group/ethos, and works thereby as a homage to it. After all, two negatives cancel each other out, don’t they?

as if!

Confessions of a Thranduil Fan

Confession 1: When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I did so without reading The Hobbit. As a result, I had no idea of Bilbo’s journeys, no clue who the hell Gollum was, or get any of the allusions the characters made (especially in The Fellowship of the Ring) to the adventures chronicled in that book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first brush with Tolkien immensely, and closed the covers quite satisfied with my foray into Middle Earth.

Didn't get half of that, but i liked it!

Didn’t get half of that, but I liked it!

Confession 2: That first journey into Middle Earth was not entirely without some annoyances. The number of songs in the book threw me off a bit. I didn’t understand why these people, who were supposedly going off on a dangerous quest, spent their energy singing ridiculous songs about leaving home or, even worse, sometimes singing in another language. The Elves particularly irritated me in this regard.

Confession 3: Being someone brought up on tales of tiny elves, like those that helped the shoemaker, I was meandering through LOTR picturing tiny people whenever ‘elven’ characters showed up. This may account for my confusion when presented with descriptions of Legolas the Elf ‘standing tall above’ Frodo and shooting down a Nazgul, or even trying to figure out how on Middle Earth Arwen could be seen as a likely candidate for the hand of the human, Aragorn. I confess that this might have made them look more irritating to me.

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Confession 4: This sort of fits into the earlier point, but it stands out so clearly in my literary memory that I just had to allow it its own space. Remember that part where they’re all struggling up Caradhras in Fellowship, getting snowed under by a terrible storm, and Legolas is the only one jumping around and making sly digs at their unfortunate inability to walk on snow? And then he runs off to ‘fetch the sun’? I thought he was such a b*tch. If I were in the Fellowship, drowning like the hobbits in all that snow, or toiling under the weight of packs and weaponry like the others, I would have hated him so much right then, rubbing his privilege in my face.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

The point of all these confessions is to set the stage for this, the ultimate one: When I read The Lord of the Rings I had a very definite image and impression of the Elves. They were weird, not very likeable people, and I thought they tended to lord it over the others with their unfair advantages. Obviously perceptions changed as I read on, and once I had seen the movie adaptations. I became an ardent Elf-fan–possibly spurred on, like most girls my age and older by Orlando Bloom’s undeniable gorgeousness. I learned Sindarin and attempted Tengwar, and The Silmarillion became, and remains, my favourite Tolkien book.

But the impression lingered, only fostered by the The Silmarillion. I thought the movies were not entirely true to text in their presentation of the Elves. All of them were depicted as beautiful, gracious, skilled in some particular way. But none of them reeked of the raw danger and slight unhinged-ness that was my overriding impression of them. Come on, are you really telling me that immortal beings with a crazy past have no sort of otherworldly neuroses that make them seem downright weird to those less in tune with the music of the spheres?

Enter Thranduil

I'm so fancy.

I’m so fancy.

And so I was pleasantly surprised by Lee Pace’s Thranduil. I thought that, unlike all the other Elves, he came loaded with a sense of dark charisma. With a sense of history, of the woes of Middle Earth that the Elves, especially the older Sindarin and High Elves, have been witness to.

The Silmarillion is a history mainly of the Feanorian and High Elves, but it does make brief allusions to the Sindar. Before the Noldor returned to Middle Earth, the Sindar dealt with the ‘darkness’ of Morgoth all on their own, in the days before ‘days’, before the moon and the sun were set in their place in the sky. They have always had to fend for themselves, never had the Valar to shelter behind. As a result, they have a certain defiance and pride that is missing in the Noldorin, or manifested differently. They are known to be more secretive, less trusting of outsiders, especially non-Elven folk, and act first and ask questions later. Certainly, that’s what happens many times in The Silmarillion, with characters like Eol and even Thingol being great examples. Defend your boundaries before you help others—that is their logic.

Thranduil perfectly personifies this brand of Elf in The Hobbit movies. He is twisted by his time in Middle Earth, has learned a lot by living through the early wars of Beleriand, and is probably one of the few remaining Elves who can remember an Age before men. He even mentions having faced ‘the great serpents of the North’, no doubt a reference to the wars around Angband—Morgoth’s northern fortress, where he unleashed his dragons.thranduil snow

Thranduil, more than any of the other Elves, came layered with history and a sense of remotenesss from the present. Galadriel too has lived through a lot, and played a great role in the shaping of Elven history, but somehow, this wasn’t communicated to me over the course of the movie. But a few minutes with Thranduil acting weird and unpredictable and I was convinced that this was someone who had dealt with more sh*t than Thorin could ever imagine. ‘Do not talk to me of dragon fire!’ indeed.

And the weirdness, the flouncy hand gestures and rather ‘androgynous’ behaviour that he displays: perfect. The Elves are not human. They are a completely different species. They don’t subscribe to the codes of behaviour and ‘manliness’ that we do. Just look at the fact that it’s completely normal for them, in the movie-verse at least, to have a female head of the Palace guard. Besides, all these weird gestures and eye-rolling and utter disgust he displays for the lowly, dwarven folk just fits in with the image I had of the Elves as, sometimes, being downright annoying and rubbing their superiority (both physical and ‘cultural’) in others’ faces. Hence the whole ‘A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I can wait.’

hehe gif

Thranduil freaked me out; he came with a sense of raw power and charisma that only Galadriel overtly displays. Thranduil thrilled me because he was undeniably beautiful, but in a way that was remote, unreachable, utterly inhuman. He was deadly, he was devoid, seemingly, of emotion and compassion, reacting to protect his own before extending his arm to shield others, and overall, layered with an aura of loss and history that, I think, Tolkien describes best after all. The following lines were used by him to describe Frodo’s impression of the Lady of Lothlorien, but I think they work as well for Lee Pace’s Thranduil:

‘Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’

with retinue

Considering the King of Kings: Watchmen’s Ozymandias

Warning: Spoilers for Watchmen and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias ahead.


Before_Watchmen_Ozymandias_Vol_1_1_Variant_AThere’s no graphic novel/comic book character who has impressed me or made me think as much as Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) from Alan Moore’s classic, Watchmen. As a power hungry, megalomaniac figure, his type is familiar in the superhero universe. Nor is his ‘damning the world for its own good’ an entirely new concept—what makes the difference in his case is that, unlike many of his fellow antiheroes/straight-out villains, Ozymandias’s scheme, so far as we can see, is successful.

I read Watchmen close to two years ago. The experience was, to say the least, unsettling. Moore’s novel has been called many things: a ‘tour de force’, a ‘masterpiece’, ‘gritty and realistic’ and a ‘watershed’ for superhero comics. It portrays a close-to-realistic universe, New York during the height of the Cold War, where scientists watch a ‘doomsday clock’s’ minute hand move closer and closer to total destruction. The United States government has hired the services of two ‘vigilantes’: a sociopath who calls himself the Comedian (a sort of deranged Captain America type) and Dr. Manhattan, an omnipotent being whose quantum powers have been bestowed upon him by a (wait for it) scientific experiment gone wrong. In a world of rising suspicion and fear of nuclear holocaust, one retired vigilante takes it upon himself to ‘save’ humanity by creating a faux war and, regrettably, losing a few million lives in the process of saving the whole.

That man is Ozymandias.

I suppose it’s not very surprising that I ‘fell for’ this character the moment his scheme became clear. Not only is he power hungry and super intelligent, but he also confesses to having found the inspiration for his scheme in classic science fiction. I also love those corny scenes where the villain explains his ultimate agenda, though they usually end in the hero besting said villain and ensuring that agenda never gets fulfilled (and I do have a well-known soft spot for charming megalomaniacs, like Blair Waldorf and Magneto). In Ozymandias’s case, the ‘heroes’ (always a questionable term where Moore is concerned) realize there is nothing they can do to foil his plan. What’s the point of telling an already panicked world that a well-known businessman, the ‘smartest man in the world’, is terrorizing them in order to achieve peace? AdrianVeidt

Yeah, no one would buy it.

At the close of Watchmen, the remaining superheroes are divided. Nite Owl and Scarlet Spectre II have taken off to try and eke a normal life together, gathering their scattered and damaged selves in a mutually supportive relationship. Rorschach is dead, Dr. Manhattan has taken off to outer space, unable to care any longer for the ‘microcosm’ that humanity constitutes; and Ozymandias is staring, teary eyed at his own success, watching as channel after channel broadcasts the devastation his crazy scheme has wreaked in New York City. 

In a world as grimy as the one Watchmen portrays, Ozymandias is a scarcely believable idealist. This is a world where the ‘heroes’ have lost faith, where they’ve, one by one, been hunted into darkened, rat-infested corners and, where they’re not killed out of hand, withered away in cynicism. Ozymandias, arguably, has a much more privileged  background than any of his fellows, being from a well-to-do family and then, after years of self-inflicted hardship, rising to  become one of the richest men in the world. He seems a reimagining of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, both billionaires who invest their time and energy in making the ‘world a better place’ in their own way. Unlike them, Ozymandias is not content to fight local crime in hand-to-hand combat. The ‘smartest man in the world’, his vision is much more universal.

Ozymandias combines the skill set of Bruce Wayne (and the assets) with the benevolent dictatorship espoused by a figure like The Avengers’ Loki. Like Wayne, he is a loner, a recluse who hides aspects of himself and his final plan from everyone. Fittingly enough, according to the non-Moore written prequel Before Watchmen: Ozymandias he takes up crime-fighting in order to avenge the loss of his lover, Miranda. After Miranda, his relations with women (and people in general) seem few and far between, surface at best.

Like Loki, Veidt is ‘burdened with glorious purpose’. His role model and personal hero is
Alexander the Great, the near-legendary warrior king who conquered most of the then known world at the age of 33. As the alleged ‘smartest man in the world’, he believes he has a duty to helping humanity, to guide it towards a better future, one not wracked by petty conflict and ensuing misery. Like Loki, he believes that taking the freedom of choice and knowledge from his ‘herd’ is a good thing, and only helps humanity. Unlike Loki, he is doing this not to obtain open and obvious power. The world does kneel to Adrian Veidt, but it does not know it. Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shoulder

Interestingly, I think Tom Hiddleston might have done a great job as Ozymandias. He gets that tortured genius thing so well. Then again, I think Tom Hiddleston could do great in most roles.

The superhero universe is filled with characters who are driven, ruthless, charismatic and romantic. Ozymandias has all these qualities. But Ozymandias towers above his fellows, in my opinion, because he owns his power and potential in a way that many don’t. He has an almost inhuman sense of duty, one that flogs him on to devastating acts. He is both so in love with humanity and thoroughly disgusted by it. He is the worst kind of sociopath—one who believes that everything he does is for the ‘greater good’. Albus Dumbledore couldn’t match up to this guy, Elder Wand or no.

tumblr_mg3d7kyvlL1qfxwtoo6_1280Is Ozymandias a hero or a villain? He is both. Moore intertwines his story with that of the tortured castaway from the Black Freighter, a man who damns himself and all those he loves out of his own despair. Watchmen’s narrative ends before we can find out the long-term effects of Ozymandias’s scheme, so we don’t know whether he did wreak more evil than good, but perhaps the story is an indicator, from Moore, of where things will go. Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world, but his very name indicates eventual ruin. After all, it’s the name given to the statue of king, fallen in a desert and scoured by the sand.

I AM Harry Potter

Imagine being famous for doing something you can’t even remember, or did when you were a child. It’s a little horrifying.

Kill Your Darlings screening - 57th BFI London Film FestivalI remember reading an article years ago, headlined with the provocative words ‘I AM Harry Potter’. The piece was one of those generic ones about the up-and-coming Daniel Radcliffe, written shortly after the second film had been completed. Radcliffe had gone on to sign for the remaining Potter films in that time period—that was the article’s main focus.

When I first saw Daniel in the various newspaper clippings and magazine articles that came out before the filming of Philosopher’s Stone, my one thought was: ‘Yes, he’s cute, but why does he have blue eyes?’ I was shocked that no one had disqualified him on that basis (shows what I knew about the movie industry, or any industry, for that matter). I decided to dislike him, no matter how cute he was, or how adorably he tried and failed to bring Harry to life. The Harry I saw on screen was NOT, i thought, the ‘real’ Harry Potter. For all his Englishness and cuteness, Dan Rad could never do justice to my childhood love.

This is, in retrospect, a very uncharitable feeling. I refused to take into consideration the fact that this boy was my age, struggling under the weight of expectations that most 11 year olds never have to bear—that of starring in the leading role of a franchise that was still very new, whose first readers were very much alive and waiting to judge what a big-budget studio would make of their favorite books. As he signed on for more films, Daniel agreed, whether he knew it or not, to grow up in the public eye. He might have known what this entailed at the age of 12. If so, he was a prescient child and wise beyond his years. Certainly, I would have seen nothing but the glamour and appeal of being a movie star.

Because of my (unfair) expectations and (unjustified) disappointment, I dismissed his claims of ‘being’ Harry Potter. ‘He wishes’, I’d sneer, and dive back into contemplation of my Harry who had, thankfully, the proper emerald eyes so reminiscent of fresh pickled toads. It was only years later that I began to appreciate Radcliffe at all—after I matured and decided not to sit around being bitter about a little boy’s inability to deliver exactly what i wanted. Instead, i realized that he had been right. He was, still inescapably is Harry Potter. Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334

What makes Harry different from many of his fantasy hero brethren is the fact that he is famous before he even enters the story in any conscious manner. Frodo, Rand, Arthur—these heroes are perhaps prophesied and awaited, but they have to consciously do something in order to earn that approval and mantle. Harry becomes a hero almost by default, because of the actions of someone else, and he grows up entirely unconscious of this before being thrust summarily into the public eye. Once he enters the magical world, he becomes somewhat of a celebrity, stalked by the paparazzi (in Goblet of Fire), recipient of hate and fan-mail both and, later, gets painted as a major terrorist in a sustained media campaign. Harry’s actions and words are constantly judged and scrutinized, with little or no heed paid to context. Even his time in Hogwarts, within the school walls, is marked by this celebrity-dom, at least for the first half of the first year.

Harry, for these reasons, grows up aware of his importance, and is never entirely able to escape the weight of expectation that comes with it. Everyone is waiting for him to do great things, based on an event he remembers only as a flash of green light. This first encounter with Voldemort quite literally marks him for the rest of his childhood, and despite his decision to let it go at the close (by giving up the Elder Wand), I doubt his success, especially since he went ahead and joined the Aurors.

Dan Rad is, in many respects, similar to Harry. He got a HUGE role at the age of what, 11? That role defined his life for the next ten years. The world watched him grow up and through the films, scrutinized his relationships and decisions and wardrobe choices. He’s gone on record saying that he wants to shed the image of Harry Potter, a desire that prompts him, perhaps, to take up more ‘adult’ and ‘dark’ projects like Equus and Horns. But despite all he does, the distance he tries to put between himself and that first role, I think he’s pretty well marked. As long as he, and the generation he brought Potter to life for are alive, he won’t be able to run away from that first step.

Grandiose claims, maybe, to call himself Harry Potter. But you have to admit that guy’s got a rather bittersweet truth to his statement. The fact that he seemingly bears up under the weight of that label is impressive and, acting be damned, I think I like him just for that.

The Curious Case of Gwen Stacy

Caution: Massive spoilers for The Amazing Spiderman 2 movie ahead.

emma stoneI love my superhero movies. They are (usually) so formulaic, with those dependable bits like hero discovering his powers, hero going through some angst related to parents (this can come before or after the discovery of powers), hero falling in love with plucky, ‘independent’ woman, hero’s nemesis being born, hero’s nemesis pursuing whatever shady goal he has, hero confronting nemesis and being thrashed (this can go for two rounds), hero going through dark phase of self doubt until someone says something inadvertently wise and hard-hitting, and finally, hero defeating nemesis and peace reigning. All set to epic soundtracks, usually crafted by Hans Zimmer.

The latest instalment in Sony’s reboot of the Spiderman franchise, The Amazing Spiderman 2, follows this pattern.  It’s well-made, entertaining and has exactly the sort of humor and emotion that one can expect from a big-budget superhero movie. Spiderman has always been ‘lighter’ in tone than Batman (especially the latest avatar of Batman, Christopher Nolan’s s triplets), so you can expect less philosophical reflection on the state of man’s existence and more feel-good quips and homely spiels about bravery and hope that go well with the popcorn.

What’s different about Amazing Spiderman 2 (and AS 1 for that matter), is the hero’s ‘love interest’, Gwen Stacy. I know it’s unfair to compare Emma Stone’s sassy, smart, science-loving Stacy to Kirsten Dunst’s more ‘traditional’ girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, but the differences between them, really, is where the former’s importance lies in superhero (comic and especially movie) canon. I, for one, fell hopelessly in love with Gwen in this instalment, and this post is going to function both as an obit and a love letter to her.

Gwen Stacy is a living, breathing negation of the Loving Hero Paradox. She looks it in the face and she seems to say, ‘to hell with it’. At the start of the movie, Gwen confronts a dithering Peter, who is going on about how he ‘cannot lose her’ and hence ‘cannot be with her’. She calls him out on the stupidity of that statement straight up, before going on to say that she’s had enough of it and is breaking up with him. ‘I am breaking up with you,’ she stresses, highlighting who’s taking the final call in this case.

And then of course she goes about her life, meeting her friends, applying to kickass Oxford scholarships, and generally ignoring poor lonely Peter, who skulks about in Spiderman gear spying on her. Finally, it is she who takes the decision to meet him ‘as friends’, she who calls him and says she’s gotten into Oxford and that’s she’s leaving (note: she does this on her way to the airport, stating that it’s ‘easier this way’, reversing the usual equation where it’s the boy who summarily cuts off the beloved with a phone call) and inciting him to come after her and state that he will ‘always follow wherever [she] goes’. It’s her career and location that is important, he stresses; there will always be crime to fight, no matter where in the world he is, so he is completely at her disposal. Amazing-Spider-Man-Peter-and-Gwen

All this is great, and a very refreshing change from the usual girlfriend in superhero movies, wherever the girlfriend does exist. Compare Gwen’s assertiveness, for instance, to Natalie Portman’s Jane in Thor (1 and 2). Jane is a brilliant physicist, doing cutting edge work in her field, very attractive and certainly not lacking in a support circle. Yet, she is the one who is left waiting for Thor to show up, who rails at him rather ineffectually for a while (in Thor: The Dark World) for not calling, and then needs to be rescued because the ‘ether’ has, rather conveniently, infected her mortal system. Jane then gets hauled around the Nine Realms whether or not she wants it, and forced to undergo various treatment attempts.

As far as I’m concerned, Gwen’s greatest moment (in a series of great moments) is when she cuts herself free of the webbing binding her to a car (this after Pete’s declaration about ‘following’ her everywhere) and turns up to help him fight Electro. ‘This is my choice, mine!’ she declares and then proceeds to be as indispensable and instrumental to the villain’s destruction as her boyfriend. After all, it’s she who finally releases the electric charge  that gets rid of him.

And then, after all this rubbing in of her awesomeness and general ability to fend for herself and make her own decisions, Gwen…dies.

Anyone who’s familiar with the comics knows the fate that awaits her. Editors at Marvel remarked that they had ‘killed Gwen because [they] didn’t know what to do with her’ any more. She was too close to Peter, too much of a dependable source of support. The only way in which the relationship could progress was for the couple to get married, and that didn’t sit well with anyone in the publishing house. Marriage, they felt, would be a betrayal of ‘everything Spiderman was about’, dissing the notion of ‘personal tragedy’ that forms the motivation for Peter’s whole superhero gig. Of course, in the comics, there is the added detail that Gwen doesn’t know Peter’s secret identity, and marriage (and greater closeness) would entail divulging this to her, again something the bigwigs at Marvel didn’t want happening.

gwen 2What does this say, really? Here we have a girl who’s willing to take risks, to stand up for herself and not just be the passive following girlfriend, and she gets axed because there doesn’t seem to be a future for the man. Not  Gwen, but Peter. Who cares if Gwen wanted to go to Oxford and be a famous molecular biologist; what matters is that Peter needs more tragedy to fuel his Spiderman-self and the only way we can have that happen is by killing her off.

Considering that the comic is called ‘Spiderman’ and not ‘Gwen Stacy’, this might be expected. But I can’t shake off the feeling that, coming after all Gwen’s insistence and desire to be a part of Peter’s Spiderman-life, her death is more than a little disturbing. Does it add credence to Captain Stacy and Peter’s agreement to ‘leave her out of it’? Does it somehow insinuate that the men were right after all, that they knew better how to police and direct her life than she herself did?

By giving her a degree of agency and then killing her almost as a direct result of her own choices (after all, if she hadn’t cut herself free and come to his aid, Gwen wouldn’t have been around the electricity grid for the Green Goblin to kidnap), the makers and writers of Spiderman seem to be saying that yes, you can defy the Loving Hero Paradox, but only at a great price. You can ‘become hope’, as Gwen says memorably in her valedictorian speech, but only for someone else, and at a great cost. After all, it’s so poetic  when a beautiful, independent woman becomes the fuelling memory for a male superhero and the core of his angst; so much neater than if she lived, went on to do great things in her chosen field and (heaven forbid) married said hero and ‘forced’ him into dreaded suburban domesticity.

Whatever, Peter Parker. I hope you make Gwen’s ‘sacrifice’ worth it in the next movie. I won’t count on it, though. She was and is my favourite part of the rebooted franchise (in fact, the entire franchise) after all.