‘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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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.