Tuesday, January 5, 2021

What’s Wrong with Wonder Woman?


I offer this post as a vlog for those suffering from bibliophobia (fear of reading), along with anybody else who prefers to passively receive words rather than having to decipher them. If you tire of my face, I cannot blame you for closing your eyes and pretending this is a podcast. Be ready to open them, though, for the Wonder Woman photos sprinkled throughout.


To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Wonder Woman as a concept. And there’s nothing wrong with Gal Gadot. (For that matter, I don’t see anything wrong with Barbie, but that’s another post.) The problem is actually with Wonder Woman 1984, the new movie.

I recently watched this with my family (as we somehow have HBO Max now). I frankly didn’t expect to enjoy it much, but in the event found it surprisingly annoying.

To be honest, I’d probably be writing about WW1984 anyway, simply so I could include some photos. Like this one:

Admit it: you’re enjoying albertnet more than usual right now. In fact, you probably decided to check out this post simply because the photo grabbed you. I get that. I’ve noticed lately that my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has a tendency to build stories around Wonder Woman photos. I read one about Hollywood’s strategy toward blockbuster movie launches during the pandemic—and I confess, I was pulled in by the Wonder Woman photo more than the subject matter. (I’m sure that was the point in including it, as neither Wonder Woman nor Gal Gadot featured prominently in the story).

There was another Chronicle story recently about one of the WW1984 producers switching to decaf in the afternoons (if I’m remembering correctly). This ran, of course, alongside another Wonder Woman shot. Needless to say the latest humdrum story, about WW1984’s opening week box office take, gave us another great photo. I decided albertnet really needs to get in on this action.

But actually, I have a serious bone to pick with this WW1984 movie, beyond standard-issue lameness, so read on. Here’s another photo, just to fuel you. (Rest assured, there will be more.)

Typical flaws

Needless to say, the movie had the usual flaws associated with movies based on comic books. (I hope I can say this without offending comics lovers; consider that these movies invariably could and should do better at the job of honoring your beloved childhood memories.) As I said, I didn’t expect to love this movie; I only watched it because my kids wanted to (and because as a human I’m absolutely hardwired to enjoy watching Gal Gadot in her awesome costume). But it was a particularly lame movie, not nearly as cool as the first installment. WW1984’s story was needlessly complicated, there wasn’t enough action, and the whole magic-golden-rope thing was lame to begin with. (If the original comic books had Wonder Woman on a pogo stick, would the movie honor that, too? Who cares about fealty to the source material? Jettison the damn lasso already!)

What particularly irked me was the lost opportunity to have a truly strong female hero. This movie (and franchise) had a golden opportunity here and they inexplicably fumbled it.

(In case you’re wondering, my concern with strong female representation isn’t some attempt to be “woke” or selfless or self-congratulatory. As someone who has benefited from the wage gap, unconscious bias around gender, and the ability to pee standing up, you might assume I should be fine with the status quo. But as a parent of daughters, I naturally want humanity to get its act together.)

Is it fair to demand a strong heroine?

When I broached this topic with my 19-year-old daughter, she initially stuck up for the movie, arguing that it’s a comic book action movie, not a work of art or a public service. Does every movie with a woman in it have to be progressive? She’s right, partly—though frankly, one of the big flaws of this movie was how it tried to be deep and have some higher meaning, which goal was far beyond the capabilities of its screenwriters, and nothing the audience asked for anyway.

As the conversation with my daughter progressed (and her sister, who soon joined in), they cried foul as well. We all agree that things started to fall apart the moment the love interest, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) showed up. Look, I get that the movie needed to have eye candy for all viewers, and I don’t have a problem with Steve per se, but Diana just got all soft and mushy as soon as he arrived. She stopped being badass and was mainly clingy and needy, pining for him (I know, bad pun, I couldn’t resist), which was distracting and annoying.

Was this really necessary? Is it that hard to develop strong female characters? We’ve certainly seen a number of great ones. Right off the bat we’ve got Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max Fury Road; Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit; Judy Hopps in Zootopia; Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo, and Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina. These are not highbrow films designed fundamentally as social commentary; they’re just cool flicks with great female characters who more than hold their own. Furiosa, far from swooning over Max, isn’t particularly interested in him and has bigger fish to fry (and bigger asses to kick). Mattie Ross, at age 14, upstages all the adults around her, calling the shots and never flinching. Judy Hopps, though a tiny rabbit, refuses to accept the lame traffic cop job given to her after she’d finished at the top of her police academy class. Tiffany puts a roomful of retrograde men in their place with the greatest sports-based diatribe I’ve ever heard. Marge Gunderson is just generally badass, this big pregnant unflappable Midwest cop. (I won’t tell you about Ava in case you haven’t yet seen Ex Machina, in which case you should do that right away.)

So why shouldn’t Wonder Woman 1984 give us a character who’s a real leader? Why should we settle for mere eye candy, like what we see below?

Well, I will concede that as eye candy goes, she’s pretty awesome … so I would have settled for merely ho-hum. But what we get is actually insulting.

The crux of the matter

So what exactly do I take such objection to? I shall now explain (and yes, there are tons of spoilers here). The basic plot of the movie is that there’s this “dreamstone” that works like a genie in a bottle. You ask for a wish, and you get it, but there are consequences such as becoming really weak eventually, just like the movie. The main villain, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), whose looks must appeal to somebody because he gets way too much screen time, is all clever so his wish is to become the dreamstone, so he can grant wishes to others, with the caveat that Lord will now take whatever he wants from the person. (It’s even dumber in the movie than I’m making it sound.) Lord takes to the airwaves over military satellites to grant virtually everyone in the world their wishes, which almost causes a nuclear war. Diana thwarts Lord by lassoing his ankle and declaring to the world (by proxy, over the airwaves) that everyone needs to voluntarily rescind his or her wish and get back to truth and love etc., which backs out the bad magic.

So, this willingness to freely give up your big wish is the entire moral center of the movie, and the simple communication of it makes a bigger difference than all the punching, kicking, lassoing, and flying around that Wonder Woman could ever do. And yet, she never would have survived long enough to deliver this message if it weren’t for Steve. You see, Diana had her own wish, which was to have him back (since he’d died in the first movie). So he is reincarnated, inhabiting the body of some random guy (and by the way, this was in no way consensual, but the movie doesn’t seem concerned with that).

So after Diana moons over Steve for at least half an hour, while her strength gradually ebbs, he realizes that to continue on, and save the world, she needs to renounce her wish and give him up. She refuses. She becomes, in fact, stubborn and irrational and petulant about it (just like a woman, we’re apparently meant to conclude), and Steve has to very sternly mansplain the whole thing to her until she eventually capitulates. Only when she obeys him does her strength return. And then she takes his message and saves the world with it. Yay Steve! Way to save the day since obviously Diana was just botching the job!

What the hell is going on here?! Steve isn’t even a superhero! How does he have so much sway, and since when do superheroes rely on average joes to save their bacon? Imagine if Superman became paralyzed with anxiety and indecision until his life coach came and gave him a pep talk, or if Captain America became listless and dissipated and stopped being heroic until some glib politician reminded him how special the USA is. Ridiculous.

Meanwhile (and as my daughter pointed out), how realistic is it that the absolutely gorgeous Diana would be voluntarily single for forty years because she’d been so in love with Steve? Wouldn’t she move on? How heroic is it to be lonely for ever and ever because you heart belongs to one man (whom you knew only for a matter of days), who’s dead and gone? I think it’d have been so much cooler if Steve had shown up suddenly in 1984 only for Diana to say, “Uh, sorry Steve … I’m actually in a relationship.”

But wait, there’s more!

All of this would be bad enough by itself. But there’s also a weak female villain in the movie, which just stinks everything up even more. She’s this meek, nerdily pretty character named Barbara Ann Minerva who is very sweet but awkward, and her wish is to have the same charm, strength, and beauty that Diana has. This being granted, she immediately becomes totally evil. Huh? How does that work? Is that the natural consequence of empowering women—that they become total bitches?

There’s one scene in particular where Barbara, who is gradually turning into The Cheetah (no, she doesn’t seduce a younger man, this is apparently some pre-existing DC Comics character), is walking down a dark alley and some dickhead man, who appears to be homeless or close to it, starts coming on to her. (He’d done this before and Diana saved the day with a single punch to his solar plexus.) Furious, Barbara beats the crap out of the guy. She doesn’t just stop him, she proceeds to give him a total beatdown, kicking the shit out of him for what seems like several minutes. I don’t know how we were supposed to react to this, but it was as awkward for me as the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Granted, I don’t know what it’s like to field unwanted advances, but my daughters and wife were weirded out, too.

Again, there’s no reason this movie, with its $200 million budget, couldn’t have done better. Think of the great female villains we’ve enjoyed: Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates) in Misery; Greta (Isabelle Huppert) in, well, Greta; Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) in Sherlock Holmes; Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; and May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to a Kill. These are intriguing, multi-dimensional characters or at least a lot of fun, or both. In the case of A View to a Kill, Grace Jones was the only good thing about the movie. Is WW1984’s Cheetah good for anything besides running around, beating on people, and shrieking? Well, she does fall in love with the other villain, the douchebag Lord, but that’s hardly endearing. The audience has zero temptation to root for the Cheetah, and I say this as someone who found the character of Satan oddly beguiling in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

To make matters worse, the Cheetah in this movie isn’t even fun to watch. She doesn’t have the grace of a cat (which many ballet dancers totally do); she takes you into uncanny valley territory; and she’s pretty much the opposite of eye candy:

Look, WW1984 people, why go for anything like verisimilitude? It’s a person who’s also a cat … could that ever be realistic? Why try, when the viewers of this movie obviously have a weakness for pleasing images and that’s mainly why they showed up? You could have made the Cheetah more like Catwoman:

Sure, this Catwoman doesn’t look much like a cat; I’ve never seen a cat wearing leather. And yet, there’s something catlike—or, if nothing else, something awesome—about the Catwoman above. And speaking of eye candy, let’s have another look at Wonder Woman:

Why is she shushing us? Beats me, but I’m really not complaining. The modern Wonder Woman looks so good … how did they screw this up?

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