Holding Out For a Hero: An Essay About “Wonder Woman.”

I  Introduction

Forgive me.

I hadn’t intended to write anything about Wonder Woman, but then I stumbled upon my friend Mr. Butler’s review and I ventured to make a response (1). The response has now snowballed into the resultant work. Like Wonder Woman, it is chimerical and self-contradictory in its attempt to explore my own experience watching this film, and in trying to capture, if I can, precisely how it affected me. It is hard to objectively describe how the atomistic processes of memory, perception, and identity combine to bring a heightened experience to the process of viewing. It may in fact, be impossible. But since the subject matter at hand is a superhero, I may as well attempt, and hopefully somewhere along the way I shall at the very least address a few of the popular objections that have been placed before the film, such as those by Mr. Butler.

Let’s get this out of the way: the film stumbles mechanically because the script is a dud. I accede to ninety percent of the criticisms that Mr. Butler has attached to it:

  • The opening does a terrible job of establishing the actual mechanics of being an Amazon, and it relies on a clichéd training montage instead of exploring what makes Diana unique among her people.
  • Even after we have spent some time with them, we hardly know the Amazons. There’s strength, but there’s very little room for the female intimacy that is, presumably, the bedrock of Diana’s whole morality.
  • Once we reach the front almost all of the auxiliary characters are recognizable archetypes from other recent films (2).
  • And worst of all, we get some sense, but very little, by the reactions of the characters, of the sheer amazement of seeing a living breathing Renaissance sculpture bench press a tank. The script lacks a sense of, well…wonder…..

If this movie were forced to contend solely on the strength of its mechanics, it would be found wanting. Yet the movie has not been found wanting—at least, not according to the overwhelmingly positive testimonies of audience members it has reduced to tears. Mr. Butler attributes this to a certain historical novelty present in Wonder Woman, a convergence of cultural momentum and identity politics that have overwhelmed a properly “critical” consideration of the film. Mr. Butler’s approach relies on a sharp distinction between “important,” and “good.” I would like to present my own dichotomy: there are the mechanics of a film, and then there is the way in which a film accrues meaning for its audience. (3)

The mechanics of a film are all the carefully made decisions that are intended to impact the way the audience perceives and understand the story. These are determined by the scriptwriting, the shotlist, and the rough and final cuts. There are best practices for film mechanics that have accumulated over a century of making movies. Filmmakers continuously experiment with narrative structure and cinematic grammar, but audiences vote on their favorite shots and plot twists with their wallets, and the ones that make an impact reproduce themselves in pop culture with Darwinian ruthlessness. Different types of stories thrive on different types of narrative tricks, and eventually become different species, or, as we call them, genres.

Of course, no masterpiece in history has ever stood the test of time due solely to the solidity of its mechanics. The Odyssey has sloppy pacing and an abrupt conclusion. Don Quixote could stand to trim the fat. Nobody actually likes the ending to Huckleberry Finn. I realize I’m nitpicking some of the strongest works of the Western canon in terms of style and substance, but I’m not arguing that Wonder Woman is on par with any of these. I’m simply pointing out that the longevity of these works is not solely dependent on their mechanical soundness. Likely, most of the people who would appreciate allusions to them have never read them in an unabridged form that would make questions about their structure meaningful in any fashion. Instead, what people evoke when they evoke these works, is the sense of a meaningful aesthetic. It is likely you have never read an Agatha Christie book in your life, but her writings are probably the reason you know what an English Parlor looks like at nighttime with the hearth lit. That image may be accompanied by a sense of foreboding, or perhaps anticipation for revelation and the denouement of a mysterious conflict. (4)

Within each meaningful aesthetic is not just a sense of tangible details, but also a deeper accumulation of symbols into the fabric of those details. Star Wars is another franchise of enduring appeal and uneven structural execution. Everyone knows what Star Wars is supposed to look like, the deeper debate is always about what Star Wars is supposed to feel like, the ways in which lightsaber battles and astral dogfights evoke a sense of a certain moral framework to the universe.

The art of creating or tapping into meaning—part of what philosophers call semiotics—is what I’d like to explore in this essay. I do not believe that the meaningfulness audiences find in this film is entirely subjective or created in each individual’s mind. Rather, buried in the core of the film is a real truth about the character of Wonder Woman, that expresses itself in multiple ways, occasionally through happy accidents of the cinematic process, but often through deliberate choices of direction. There is a larger dialectical conversation being expressed through the film that audiences are picking up on, and which deserves to be explored.  Due to the success with which it essentializes the character and finds in her a response to previous questions about the nature of superhero narratives Wonder Woman is the most significant semiotic introduction of a superhero on film in a decade.

II The Semiotics of Superhero Movies

The last time we got a movie that captured so completely the full scope of what a comic book character could be and, more importantly, what he could mean was 2002. Sam Raimi reacquainted the world with Spider-Man, and the rest is history. Consider the film and the following questions:
1) What does Spider-Man fight for?

2) What types of people/mindsets is Spider-Man likely to find himself in conflict with?

3) What is it about Spider-Man’s powers that is so captivating/interesting/fun?

4) Who is Spider-Man, aside from a man with the powers of a spider?

5) What does Spider-Man’s wider world look like, and how does the presence of Spider-Man affect it?

You can answer all of those questions after seeing the first movie. In fact, you can sum most of them up with a helpful little quote, “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.”

Raimi’s Spider-Man does such a good job answering these questions, you might think it is inevitable that a superhero origin movie do so. But consider Man of Steel. Now answer question 1) What does Superman fight for?….

I’m sure there will be argument about this, but I’m going to say that 1) is self-defeating in that movie. This isn’t to say the movie doesn’t articulate an answer—on its own terms, Man of Steel says that Superman represents hope. But the movie immediately undermines any sense of hope by forcing Superman into a zero-sum scenario where he is forced to let millions of people die, before sacrificing the last members of his planet to extinction, and snapping Zod’s neck.

This is not an accident, this is not a glitch in the script, this is Zack Snyder deliberately subverting the moral aesthetic of his character (which he has accurately pinpointed), by showing that even with godlike abilities the chaotic and random nature of reality forces us to make choices in which there are no net-positive outcomes. For Earth to live, Krypton must die. (5) Hope is a lie. I don’t know if this is what Zack Snyder really believes, but you would have to admire his commitment to telling a superhero story that way, if it wasn’t so perverse and, more importantly, self-defeating.

But we will come back to that later. The point for now is to illustrate the semiotic requirements of superhero movies. Put simply, superhero movies must establish an aesthetic, cement a moral universe, and—most importantly—make these choices reflective of the superhero being portrayed. If the thematic elements the hero represents are not reflected/challenged by the world he lives in, no meaningful conflict can occur. Cities may be destroyed, lives may be jeopardized, Eldritch horrors may be combated, but it’s all just meaningless tangible details, like ballet reduced to a series of setting-less leaps, or wrestlers body-slamming each other without first establishing grievances . . . or like most of the Marvel movies.

My biggest criticism of the Marvel cinematic universe is that it presents a world where Norse gods and radioactive monsters battle side-by-side without ever really examining how that conflict affects anything.  New York gets destroyed, Sokovia gets flattened—there are geopolitical ramifications but you never get the sense that these events challenge the average man on the street’s identity or call him to reflect on his life. As a result, the films have no weight (6). Marvel films feel like action-oriented comedies: entertaining to a point but, as Aristotle said of all comedy, lacking catharsis. And catharsis is important for superheroes, because superheroes are inherently tragic figures. I don’t mean that only bad things happen to them (actually a great number of amazing things do). I mean they are designed to be larger-than-life figures whose travails teach us about what it means to be human and to weather the vicissitudes of fate. In ancient drama, that was a role reserved for kings and epic heroes; most superheroes are both, in one sense or another (7).

The Marvel films are very well-constructed. But most of them are easy to forget and they are all largely interchangeable in the ways their characters affect the world. The audiences within their films can’t be bothered to care about these heroes enough to be inspired by them to act differently, so I have to wonder why audiences out here should feel any differently (8).

This lack of in-universe moral or thematic grounding seems to have resulted in the illegible moral frameworks of most modern superhero films. Traditionally, superheroes do not kill, yet we now allow movies about godlike beings murdering people without ever questioning what moral framework they operate under. We managed to make seven movies featuring Wolverine before finally exploring how the character felt about stabbing people in the head. The second act of Guardians of the Galaxy ends with an elaborately choreographed mass-murder, complete with a soundtrack.

And then there’s Deadpool. (9)

Nobody asks how we got here, nobody writes think-pieces about maybe it isn’t so good that we have turned characters designed for children into casual murderers. Nobody questions how this transformation is creating a narrative dissonance that is slowly destroying the ability of superheroes to function. Returning back to 1), “why they fight” is the most important question to ask about superheroes, and the answer has to hold up.  The consequences of divorcing Superman from the altruistic narrative implied in his origin story result in nightmarish visions of indiscriminate slaughter. (10) Removing Batman’s bright-line restrictions on extra-judicial killing can only result in a fascist-empowerment narrative. These motivations were designed to be self-explanatory and self-propelling, and they serve a vital function when you consider the original audience for the stories. They transform these characters into parental figures capable of self-sacrifice and care. (11) The alternative is a universe full of gods who are eventually going to run out of reasons to care and inevitably turn abusive.

This is the future offered as a vision in the middle of Batman v Superman, one in which Superman has scorched the Earth out of rage, and one that reflects our own current dispositions to nihilism and selfishness in an era that seems given over completely to pointless anger and deep-seated mistrust of our fellow men.

Who then, is left to act on behalf of the better angels of our nature? And in what possible context could they meaningfully confront all the poison that has seeped into our world?

III The War to End All Wars

All the DC cinematic movies are war movies. Superman goes to war at the end of Man of Steel and finds he doesn’t have much of a taste for it. In Batman V Superman, Batman’s endless war on crime has morphed him into a paranoid and haunted sadist who distrusts anyone with an advantage over him, leading him to eventually declare war on Superman. Suicide Squad is about a black ops mission to assassinate a rogue agent. (12)  All of these movies deal in one way or another with the horrors of war: the collateral damage, the cost to the human psyche, the emotional detachment and moral relativity it produces.  I attribute this ugly, yet consistent, aesthetic largely to Zack Snyder (director of the main two films and producer on all of them). It is consistent with his larger oeuvre as each of his films comment on the savagery underlying human nature. Whether a zombie apocalypse or a Persian invasion, there’s always an enemy at the gates ready to take everything you love from you, and the only meaningful act of heroism is having the guts to stab at the foe with the first sharp object in reach. Any  pretense of nobility is revealed as propaganda or a fevered coping mechanism. (13)

The best surrogate for this worldview in any of the films he has directed is probably Rorschach from Watchmen:

God didn’t kill that little girl. Fate didn’t butcher her. Destiny didn’t feed her to those dogs. If God saw what any of us did that night, he didn’t seem to mind. From then on I knew; God doesn’t make the world this way, we do.

Rorschach dies rather than accede to a narrative that removes destiny from the hands of men and delivers it over to religious paranoia and fear of a very real god.

I bring all this up because it is impossible to discuss Wonder Woman without first discussing the rest of the DC Cinematic universe, and it is impossible to ignore the way that universe has evolved to explore a particular tangent relevant to our notion of superheroes, one rooted in the concurrent deconstructionist manifestos of Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns.

Superheroes invite us to think of them as soldiers, their actions constitute never-ending battles. But few storytellers in the realm of superhero fiction have ever been brave enough to confront the question of what a never-ending battle would do to the psyche of the soldiers in question, or how it might shape their view of the people on the home-front for whom they sacrifice. (14) This is the question the DC Cinematic universe explores. If Superman seems depressed and withdrawn throughout Batman V Superman, this is why. He’s been asked to fight forever on behalf of humanity, he’s not sure what good it will do, and, after seeing what humans are capable of doing to each other, he’s not sure that its worth it. You have to wonder if his demise at the end of the film doesn’t come as something of a relief.  This is what happens to superheroes when they can’t figure out what they are fighting for. Eventually they abandon us, or turn against us.

So we’re left asking “Who will save us now?” Who has a better godseye view of humanity than Superman? Who knows more about war than Batman?

Enter Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, changed from a World War II to World War I-era superhero. Initially, perhaps, this decision was merely to avoid comparisons to Captain America the First Avenger, but I find a happy significance in it. World War II enjoys the same place in popular fiction as the War for Middle Earth, a titanic clash between the forces of Darkness and Light where the heroism and sacrifice of democratic nations stood up to Fascism and saved the world. It is a narrative that tends to minimize the contributions made by the totalitarian Soviet Union, the firebombed civilian populations, and the leveling of two cities with atomic weapons. It is a world well-suited for Captain America, who “stands up to bullies,” who has no problem punching Nazis, and who would probably have been first in line marching into Berlin if he hadn’t been put on ice.

What side would Captain America be on in World War I? Judging from the popular conception, maybe no one’s side. I am not a war historian, so I don’t know how close to the truth the common recollection is, but the Huns of WWI certainly aren’t portrayed as being as bad as the Nazis. Instead WWI has become a symbol of pointless bloodshed, of young lives wasted for no good reason. Why would you set a superhero story here, where there’s no one evil to punch? (15)

As far as pop culture goes, World War II is about seeing ourselves as on the right side of a war. Vietnam is about seeing ourselves on the wrong side of one. WWI is about the notion of sides being entirely pointless to begin with. And here to prove it comes Princess Diana of Themiscyra. She begins her quest with an explicit quest, not to win the war, but to end it. Even more, she thinks that in ending this war she will end all war. This is something Captain America could never dream of.

Both Batman V Superman and Wonder Woman are about Diana inserting herself into a battle between two nihilistic powerhouses and saying “We can be better than this.” Wonder Woman is about the start of that journey, about finding the strength to stare down a seemingly never-ending battle and believe you can end it.

But it takes her a minute.

III The Big Bad

Ares is Milton’s Satan. He’s an immortal being, of similar image to mankind, angry at his father for creating us to the point of rebellion, and determined to show our unworthiness by perpetually corrupting us. (15) Milton’s Satan is generally considered one of the most compelling literary figures in the Western Canon, with the only real debate about whether he’s properly classified as a villain or an anti-hero.

People hate Ares in Wonder Woman and consider him rather ineffectual. Perhaps it’s the mustache.

More likely it’s the bad script again, it makes it difficult to realize just what Ares has been up to, and why he represents such a challenge to Diana’s worldview. Again, Diana thinks the Great War is Ares’ doing, and that by slaying him she will immediately bring about world peace. It’s a tempting image, and it establishes her as a true believer. Yet it’s one thing to claim the Devil has cast a spell over all mankind, and an entirely different thing to leave paradise to face him. This is why Ares final revelation is such a shock: Diana is convinced Erich Ludendorff is the God of War so she fights and kills him, only for gentle Sir Patrick to appear and reveal that he is Ares (16). Diana thinks she’s found the real God of War so she fights him, and then she’s shocked again to discover . . .

Ares isn’t the God of War either.

This is perhaps a slight break from the canon, both classical and modern. Of course Ares is the God of War, with powers ranging but not limited to stirring up fear and panic in the hearts of men and mind control. But the Ares of Wonder Woman is more subtle than that. He’s a whisperer, like Milton’s Satan who, while perhaps the mascot of evil, is not its god. He has planted the ideas of weapons of mass destruction in mankind, but he would never compel their use as this would defeats his purpose. He has no interest in destroying humanity, he wants to prove humanity was never worthy of existing in the first place by making it destroy itself. (17)

There’s a moment in this film that strikes me as the high-water mark of villainy since the Joker blew up a hospital for no reason in The Dark Knight. Ludendorff releases the new gas-weapon on the other German generals, and as he closes and locks the door he throws in a single gas mask. Doctor Poison looks at him with confusion. “The mask won’t save them from the gas.” Ludendorff smiles. “Yes, but they won’t know that.” Both of them laugh maniacally while we are treated to a brief shot of men desperately trampling over each other, fighting and probably killing each other, to get to a gas mask that only exists to taunt them.  This is evil, of course, an evil defined by its sheer gratuitousness. (18) It is the sort of villainy that might make you roll your eyes, until you consider the actual reports of sadism from around the world. Ludendorff genuinely believes it is the place of the strong to trample and make mockery of the weak. He’d make a great Nazi, he’s also probably the type of guy to take a selfie with the corpse of someone he just blew up. And Ares compels him to do none of it.

The point is simple: Gods don’t make the world this way, we do. 

Making Ares into a metaphysically unstoppable force would invite a chance to excuse ourselves. It gives Diana a chance to excuse us: we cannot help it, we are cursed, the devil makes us do it. The version of Ares that exists in Wonder Woman robs us of all such comforting generalizations, and forces us to contend with the same realization confronting Diana.

By the end of the film, Diana has seen trench warfare, she’s seen civilian populations destroyed by chemical weapons, she’s seen the precursors of the holocaust and Hiroshima, and she’s asked to save the world. She stumbles. Why shouldn’t she? Why don’t we, more often than we do?

We take it for granted that Earth deserves saving from the Chitauri invasion, that Ultron was wrong, that the next asteroid needs to be stopped and Godzilla sent back to the bottom of the ocean. This is easy to believe, in a pop-cultural simulacrum of World War II where you are always the allies. But Wonder Woman places even odds, at best, that we’re the axis. Steve Trevor is supposed to embody the best and brightest of us, but as the Chief points out, Steve is descended from genocidal men.

These aren’t the sort of questions blockbuster movies exist to explore. It takes a lot of courage, or cynicism, to bring them front and center. The DC cinematic universe has linked the problem of Superheroes inexorably to the problem of evil. (19). For human beings to be saved, we must first prove ourselves worth saving. I don’t know that Wonder Woman presents a convincing case that we are, but I’m not sure we have a better one than the one it lays out.

IV The Bigger Good 

I’ve previously criticized Diana’s “squad” for being two-dimensional but examine them again in the context of what they say about humanity: an actor who became a saboteur because there are no roles for brown people on stage, a sniper haunted by the faces of every man he’s ever shot, a refugee from American ethnic cleansing, and a spy constantly counter-balancing his own morality with a notion of the “greater good” that factors in civilian deaths as the cost of doing business. (20)

Diana inspires these soldiers, and in doing so proves herself to be inspirational. This is important. Remember that the relationship of the characters in the film bearing witness to a superhero should mirror the relationship of the audience to that hero. This is exceptionally true in Wonder Woman.

We never have to ask what the characters see in her, because the camera shows us. Steve’s first glimpse of Diana is as a silhouette through the water while he is drowning, she appears first as some impossible ideal glimpsed across an impassable expanse, and then she breaks that divide to save his life. While the film humanizes her after the point, it never debases or objectifies her. The essence of objectification in film lies in segmentation, the way a camera bisects a character to highlight their breasts or butt or legs. As a female director, Patty Jenkins refuses to engage in segmentation. Consequently Diana strides across the film unsullied by the male gaze, accorded an inviolable dignity that was previously afforded only to male characters. This, I think, more than any other thing is what women are actually responding to when they watch the film: the idea of a female form that will not compromise with men, the aesthetic equivalent of crossing No Man’s Land in one piece.

Diana offers a vision of perfection, and consequently of eternity. (21) My favorite insight into her character given by the film is her complete lack of a notion of time. “You let a little machine on your wrist tell you what to do?” she asks incredulously. Time and time-preference are important to human consciousness (22), but our sense of being limited by time also forces us to make compromises. Losing time, we lose bits of ourselves, and never is this clearer than in war (23). Diana seeks to restore time-taken attributes to her companions and thus heals their damage: Charlie remembers he is more than a body good for holding a rifle, and begins to sing, the hostage village finds itself for a moment restored to peacetime. It is an idea deeper than nostalgia: our salvation lies somewhere outside of time itself, in perfect moments locked forever into memory like panels of a comic book, or a single happy photograph.

There exists a weird metaphysical double-movie in Wonder Woman. Diana inspires a group of men to be their best selves, and is then inspired by their best-selves to carry on in their memory. “I wish we had more time,” Steve laments, and ultimately, Diana gives it to him. She carries within herself his notions about self-sacrifice and duty, stripped away from all the temporal concerns that demand compromise. She takes his “greater good,” and makes it simply good.  This desire to see the best in a person and want to preserve it, to give birth to a world that is better tomorrow than it is today, is always an act of love, and in discovering love Diana discovers what is worth fighting for. (24)

Of course the answer is love. What else could it be?

But did you think Batman was ever going to figure that out?

IV Mightier than the Sword or “Why is Wonder Woman Jesus?”

My favorite quote about Wonder Woman is not actually about Wonder Woman. It’s about an ersatz-Wonder Woman from a rival publisher, but we all know who is really being talked about:

Her presence in the greater world is a ritual thing, her people’s magical act of salvation for the world. She is sent out as ambassador and messiah, in its strictest literal and political definition: one anointed as liberator.

– Warren Ellis, Stormwatch.

Could any superhero do what Wonder Woman does in this film? Could Green Lantern, or perhaps Captain Marvel, have served the same purpose of making an existentially-optimistic statement in the face of horror and nihlism? I hope by now I have convinced you this is not the case.

Wonder Woman derives a lot of her unique cultural weight from her the fact that she is a female empowerment fantasy, but I don’t think it is fair to say that she represents any generic empowerment fantasy for women.

I keep coming back to the sword.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Wonder Woman was. I remember a time not caring much about her, but I couldn’t tell you when the equilibrium shifted from apathy to curiosity to outright devotion. (25) I suspect it was accelerated by seeing Batman, and then Superman filtered through an increasingly dark sensibility that accurately reflected the rage, paranoia, and narcissism of our times at the cost of stripping them of all vestiges of inspiration.

I came to admire all the unique aesthetic touches about Wonder Woman, the way her lasso of truth winds through space around her like golden aura, the way she grapples with her opponents, the bullets deflecting off her bracelets…

…Which is why I was so concerned by the emphasis every Wonder Woman trailer placed on that sword.

The existence of the Godkiller undermines the original aesthetic of Wonder Woman. It implies that she is on a Tolkienesque quest to rid the world of a particular evil and then she can retreat back to her Island in peace. It undermines her traditional tools, her lasso and her bracelets One of my many disappointments in the script is the emphasis placed on the sword and the de-emphasis placed on the lasso, or “Golden Perfect” as it is sometimes called. It shifts her emphasis from ambassador to monster-slayer in a way that made me question if the people making this film had ever read a Wonder Woman comic.

Turns out they had.

When Ares casually destroys Wonder Woman’s sword, he destroys the very notion of a narrative in which all Wonder Woman’s problems can be solved with a sword. He forces her to confront a moral universe where problems must be faced up to without a cache of infinite violence to unleash as a solution. In the end, she must rely on her traditional tools of office. Her final victory comes when she reflects Ares’ own infernal energy and masculine aggression back at him with her bracelets. (26) It is the motion she was designed to make. In the moment after she descends from the burst of lighting, floating to the ground, she is the character a thousand comics have been written about for the first time.

It is an unfortunate fact that most modern female superheroes were created as counterpoints to more established male ones. Not Wonder Woman. She is not simply the reflection of a masculine power fantasy, she is a counterpoint. Where Superman saves the day through overwhelming force and Batman represents a sort of demonic intervention in the affairs of men, Wonder Woman represents love. Not the passive, ineffectual love traditionally assigned to women, but an active striving for perfection and utopia. The love of a divine mediator, which limits the destructiveness of man and brings out the truth of our best-selves. It was the opinion of her creator that war was a fundamentally masculine phenomenon which would vanish from the face of the Earth once women were given legitimate co-ownership of the globe. (28) That remains to be seen, but I can absolutely say that the despair and destructiveness which is slowly tearing apart any sense of moral decency in superhero films has been a particularly masculine endeavor. Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman have co-conspired to break that cycle. Her creators would be proud (29).

AFTERWARD

Perhaps it seems a little excessive to spend this much time and energy putting this into words, but these were all thoughts and impressions I experienced in some subliminal fashion while watching the film. I can’t speak for whether it raised the same associations in other people, but I’m going to gamble that whether they recognize it or not, people who react strongly to this film sense in some fashion that they are watching a myth unfold. In the same way that Greeks would gather around to hear about the wrath of Achilles, people are flocking into theaters to expose their sons and daughters to Diana of Themiscyra, and for the same purpose. Because myths and tales were never intended as simple entertainment. They presented archetypes to aspire to, objects of devotion to be worthy of, they were how we took the measure of ourselves, as superheroes are the inheritors of that.

We create myths to save us. And Wonder Woman is the only hero up to that task right now.

 

ENDNOTES

  1. There are so many great things being written elsewhere, many of which make the same points more concisely, and more elegantly with regards to the way this film explores altruism, and serves as a dialectical response to the previous thesis explored in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, and the effect which a female director brings to the cinematography. There are also several personal accounts which are quite moving in a way I would never venture to try and duplicate.
  2. I was reminded multiple times of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven, itself a pastiche.
  3. The question is similar to a dichotomy the Hulk lays out here: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2017/03/21/film-crit-hulk-smash-storytelling-vs.-movie-essence.
  4. It’s worth noting that there’s another end to this spectrum as well: What’s Agatha Christie’s greatest structural masterpiece? The answer, according to critical consensus, is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I bet none of you picked, and most of you have never heard of. Not enough trains or Indians.
  5. The locus of morality in Superman has always been the Kent family, and this remains true even after they become, in fact, anti-moral. Consider Jonathan Kent’s statement that in order for Superman’s family to be safe, sacrifices must be made, up to and including the death of a busload of school children. This is followed by a dream-sequence/parable in BvS where Jonathan extolls that every act of seeming heroism comes at a cost to someone, somewhere. If such extremely self-interested notions don’t strike you as anti-moral, then content yourself to live by Martha Kent’s words: “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
  6. I contrast stakes with weight, stakes are a mechanistic construction of narrative, weight is a thematic construction through which we derive meaning.
  7. In his book of screenwriting, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder argues that all Superhero movies should properly categorized as monster movies. The thematic connections between tragic figures and monstrous ones run deep.
  8. This is one sense in which the X-men movies are superior to the MCU. The existence of mutants is a concern to the everyman, and over the course of multiple films we see that concern filtered through lenses; prejudice, jingoistic paranoia, and most recently religious terror.
  9. I thought the movie was funny, but the fact that it has made what is essentially a slasher-movie monster into the most popular superhero in the United States should be taken as a sign of the impending apocalypse. The fact that no one is talking about it disturbs me a great deal.
  10. People are disturbingly fascinated by stories in which a Superman-type character “goes rogue.” See, Injustice for the political ramifications, but better to read Mark Waid’s Irredeemable for the catalog of meaningless destruction that would likely be the end result, and then ask precisely how we have lost our way that this is considered one of the richest and most fascinating directions to take this particular character in currently.
  11. Mark Millar’s Red Son serves as a thesis on this very point. He transposes Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to the Soviet Union, and shows how a different cultural environment shapes their particular values and motivations, but not their underlying desire to do good. As long as the most noteworthy elements of their origins remain intact, we can still trust the heroes to do the right thing.
  12. Directed by David Ayer, whose last movie, Fury, was about a tank battalion in WWII.
  13. Consider that the glorious actions of 300 are actually framed as an inspiring tale told after the battle has ended, or the role the “dance” sequences serve in Sucker Punch, or the “flight” opening from BvS, what Bruce calls “a beautiful lie.”
  14. This is why the Captain America films are dishonest. They acknowledge the uncanniness of coming home from a war to a Brave New World, but they don’t do much of a job of showing a resultant internal transformation. The idea that Cap is still just “Steve from Brooklyn” after everything he’s experienced is a lie that any number of books or films have debunked (see Joe Halderman’s The Forever War, for example).
  15. There is some precedent however. Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, written eight years before the debut of Superman in Action Comics has the super-strong, bulletproof Hugo Danner tearing up trenches in World War I. Alan Moore sets an issue of Promethea here, where she inspires the tale of the Angel of Mons, a reference to the widespread stories (now debunked as a propaganda effort) about angels actually appearing on the battlefield to fight alongside the Allied Troops. I suspect Wonder Woman knows about the Angel of Mons as well; if not this would be my way of explaining how Diana could appear on a battlefield and turn the tide before vanishing successfully into rumor and legend.
  16. This is probably the largest anachronism in the movie, the real Ludendorff survived the war and wrote a book afterwards justifying his actions throughout the conflict,
  17. Satan too, is a developer of armaments that filter their way down to mankind. Consider the following passage in which Lucifer’s forces deploy canon for the first time in their war against God:

From those deep-throated Engins belcht, whose roar
Emboweld with outragious noise the Air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foule
Thir devillish glut, chaind Thunderbolts and Hail
Of Iron Globes, which on the Victor Host
Level’d, with such impetuous furie smote,
That whom they hit, none on thir feet might stand,

Paradise Lost Book VI

18.  Ares is in many ways the better version of Lex Luthor in BvS. He’s angry at his father and he’s trying to make a point by shoving a terrible weapon into the hands of someone who feels they have become the underdog: kryptonite in that movie, hydrogen-gas in this one.

19.  Contrary to our modern notions of evil as a form of perverted self-interest, traditionally evil has been marked by a characteristic of excessive pointlessness: consider Aaron’s monlogue from Titus Andronicus:

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,—
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

20.  Of course: other comics books have explored the issue: http://moonheadpress.blogspot.com/2014/01/gods-end.html

21. Chris Pine’s character bears more than a passing resemblance to Cassian Andor from Rogue One.

22.  Its an important concept in both Platonic and some early Christian philosophy that the Good finds its perfection outside of time, where it cannot be corrupted by the ages.

23.  Arguably the definitive trait of human consciousness, re: Heidegger Being and Time

24.  Consider the sentiment of one veteran of the Great War: If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

25.  People may rightly protest that it is unfair to characterize Diana’s time on Themiscyra as “loveless,” either erotically or otherwise, but I would argue that there is a fundamental difference in the character of love between immortals outside of time and between the love that comes into being in man’s world. One of the most beautiful arguments of Christianity (also found in Milton) is that by introducing a temporal schema after the fall, humanity is afforded the chance to recognize a love that will evolve dialectically through Christ into something more beautiful than could have been realized without the lapse into time, essentially a metaphysical wabi-sabi.

26.  It has been pointed out to me that it is strange to characterize an endless current of lightning as anything other than an infinite cache of violence, to which I respond that Ares actually supplies the violence. All Diana provides him with is a moment of reflection, one which he uses to negate himself.

27.  I remember being particularly moved by her appearance in Darwyn Cooke’s the New Frontier where she’s drawn about half-a-foot taller than Superman, and twice as confident.

28.  This explains the metonmyic use of “man” for “humanity” in Wonder Woman comics, i.e. “man’s world.” It is intended to be disparaging, as one might imagine a colony exclusively composed of utopian women might use it.

29.  For a great look at the creators of Wonder Woman, I recommend The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.

 

 

 

How to Lose Friends and Criticize Movies: A Wonder Woman Review

How to Lose Friends and Criticize Movies: A Wonder Woman Review

This is going to be a spoileriffic review.  Consider yourself warned.

I am not sure how to write this review. I’ll confess that right off the bat. I saw this movie last night, and I cannot understand the amount if love that it is getting. It is not a great movie. It is a movie that was mostly in focus and was a step in the right direction toward a great female superhero movie, but if this is the best we are gonna get, I will be deeply disappointed.

The difference between important and good

Lets establish something here. This movie is important. It is the first major superhero movie starring a female protagonist of the modern superhero era, and was also directed by a female director. I hope that it is a first step toward more female voices being considered for director spots on these kinds of movies. I hope that we can have more stories that are centered around female characters. I hope that those movies transcend other movies, eventually.

I am saying all of this because I think a lot of these things get swept up into the film. There was a big swing against this film before it came out, with people complaining about female only screenings, that there wasn’t enough marketing for it, that DC wasn’t sure if it would connect. These are all narratives that I am glad were wrong. It had a huge opening, screw the marketing, and if you are pissed about the women only screening, you need to take a big old step back and think about what your problem is.

It was imperative that this movie do well. A lot of other things hung onto it, including the industry perhaps giving more credit to hiring people to direct who are not white dudes. I’m super glad that it made a whole pile of money. If it made you feel empowered and heard, I couldn’t be happier for you. As usual, art is subjective and your appreciation of it should not be influenced by anything but your engagement, and so, when the headline voice comes around again, I hope you will hear me out. Here we go.

As a movie, Wonder Woman was incredibly flawed and disappointing

Let us start with the plot. Now, as a person who is understanding of the fact that studio systems exist and they will only produce things that have relatively the same structure and form, I get it. It’s a hero’s journey. You can do some things to change it, but for the most part, it is set in stone.

The problem that I have here though is in all of the specifics. We start out in the utopic colony of Amazons, but we don’t know the rules of the island. Are they immortal? Do they age? Is Diana a different species, because she ages? Is it like that movie In Time? It seems like they stop aging at some point, so we will go with that. How long have they been there? Where is it geographically? Is it near Greece? How could a plane get there? Is it just if you get next to the barrier, you can go right in? Is this all in like a comic I was supposed to read before the movie?

Diana is the only child on the island and wants to be a warrior, but her mother wants to prevent her from becoming a warrior. She ends up secretly training with her aunt, becoming the greatest warrior of her tribe, and shows that she has force field generation powers during a fight with her aunt. Cool, chosen one narrative. Then, living inciting incident Chris Pine, aka Capitan Kirk, aka Steve ‘Captian Kirk’ Thomas, crashes his plane into the waters of the island and is rescued by Diana. There is a fight scene on the beach between highly trained women with ancient weapons against men with guns. Shockingly, the warrior teacher dies, sacrificing herself for Diana because thats what happens to the mentor in a movie.

Chris explains that he is a spy and that he stole a journal from a lady named Doctor Poison and a General of the German Army and he was escaping from the German army, when he stumbled upon the island as he was crashing. He explains that the Great War is going on outside of the island, and Diana, based on the myths that she was told as a child, decides that she is going to go kill Ares and end all war. She steals her people’s magical weapons, a sword, supposedly powerful enough to kill a god, shield, lasso of truth and armor, and her mother gives Diana her aunts crown helmet thing, so she will remember that her aunt is dead.

So, here is our first act break. She has answered the call and is going into the wide world. It is fine. It follows the Campbell beats, it does the work needed to get her off the island. Chris is a fine sidekick. There are some major questions, but they are mostly lore related, not plot related. I have already forgotten most of the characters, but, that is fine. We have our good guys and our bad guys.

You may have noticed that I am really flogging this idea of a Campbell mono-myth.  That’s because I think that it is probably the most important film making concept that this movie uses.  It follows it to an exactness that is so clear that you can see exactly what is coming from miles away.  Every single character who is introduced is needed for the plot to go forward, and every single one serves their purpose and has zero depth past that point.  Diana doesn’t struggle with being something different than her peers, she’s just supposed to be better, and that is fine.  Steve isn’t concerned with killing people for killing people’s sake, he’s just concerned with the massive slaughter of people.  Which, sure, that’s terrible, but it’s the same issue that Man of Steel had, with a group of protagonists who are fighting for the “greater good” of a bunch of people whose lives they are not involved with at all.  Steve even says that he isn’t necessarily a good guy in the film.  It’s super weird.  Anyway, back to the plot.

London is where this really started dragging for me.  Somehow, they get from the island’s location, by sail, to the Thames over the course of a cut.  Sure, fine, weird, but fine.  It seems a lot like Steve and Diana haven’t talked for the entire trip, because everything seems to be greeted with incredulity by Steve, even after he spent ? time on the island of the amazons.  As we get into London, the first line out of Diana, the presumably sheltered girl who is completely not world weary is “It’s so ugly.”  Which, sure, it’s a joke, but it’s also kind of insane.  There needs to be some acknowledgement of it’s size and a bit of wonder.  By undercutting the setting of London, the viewer (or I guess just me) assumes that it’s not impressive or grand in any way, which is then immediately undercut by a sweeping under shot of Gal Gadot wondering at London Bridge.  You can’t have it both ways, you can’t be unimpressed and over-impressed back to back.

For her part, Gadot is great!  She’s naive and enjoyable, and pulls off some incredible little action scenes that look wonderful.  Her accent is still kind of ridiculous, especially for someone who has apparently studied a thousand languages, but she does a great job in the film.  The director serves her well, and films her like she is an action star.  It would be fun, if it weren’t trapped in a DC movie nightmareverse of grey and brown tones.  It’s a lot brighter and more colorful than Bv.S (May that movie go to hell), but we’re still not halfway up the Schindler’s List to Enter The Void scale.

We have a pretty standard trying on period clothes and figuring out how to fit in scene, fine.  We introduce a criminally underused character who is Steve’s secretary, who should be the most competent character in the film, and underappreciated by her male peers, but is instead relegated to silly faces and cheap laughs.  And then we barge into a closed door meeting of Parliament? The War Council?  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen who cannot believe that a woman had the audacity to even enter their room?

While Steve and Diana are attempting to get the attention of the superior officer in London, a background character is talking about peace.  Now, for those of you who are not close watchers of movies, I’m going to let you in on a secret.  The best way to hide your villain in a movie is to introduce them being the voice of reason about whatever the threat is.  This can be done well, or poorly.  In this movie, it was fine, but it would have been better to bury it a little deeper.  Oh, and another flag is an actor who you sort of know, and seems just a little to big for a single day extra role being featured prominently.  But hey, this is the kind of shit the studio does to movies, I can’t really blame anyone for this.

So, we’re introduced to Sir “I’m Totally Not A Villain But I Am Totally The Villain” who listens to Steve’s pitch that there is a new gas that is being developed that would eat through gas masks and says, “Don’t do anything” but then comes to them and says “Go do whatever you were proposing.”  Glad that was in there!

And now, the problems start piling up.

War, huh?  What is it good for?

Hey, maybe you were forced to read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school.  In it, a group of German soldiers confront the reality of trench warfare, and how it’s a suicidal, insane form of war, disgusting and disturbing, and tons of people got sick just because of the conditions that they were living in.

It is possible you have taken a gander at The Guns of August which chronicles the dynastic and political ties that preceded World War One.  The war is portrayed as a huge domino effect of interlinked issues compounded by insane decisions, to the point that a relatively minor Archduke’s assassination could envelop the whole of the world in war.

So, why on Earth would you pick this conflict to put your superhero into?

World War Two is considered the peak time of the superheroes for a reason, and that reason is that Nazi Germany was rounding people up into camps and killing them for no reason other than racism.  So, when Captain America punches Hitler in the face, we say hooray, that guy is evil as shit!  When Cap says that he doesn’t like bullies, and that he wants to fight Nazis for that reason, our cultural narrative supports that.  World War One does not have those connotations for us.  World War One is mostly remembered for Franz Ferdinand, trench warfare, huge losses of life, and an ambiguous ending that leads into a bigger sequel.

While on their way to the front Diana and Steve recruit two characters, a linguistics expert/con man and a Scottish sniper to come with them to the front.  The linguistics expert/con man gives a solid performance, the sniper not so much.  As they are boarding the ship to go toward the front, they encounter a huge number of wounded soldiers going the other way.  It’s supposed to be the moment that we get on board for Diana’s mission to kill Ares, who she has concluded is the general working with Dr. Poison.

This can work.  The innocent seeing the horrors of war for the first time is supposed to be incredibly affecting, and Gadot does a good job of creating a bit of that tension.  The problem is, the visuals are not particularly bloody or reflective of the true horror of war. By seeing soldiers on the other side of the channel first, we are already prepared to see the full horror on the other side, which takes away the shock of that full horror.  When we cut to the European side, they have bandages on, or are having a bit of a bloody amputation, but it never sinks in that these people are in danger.  Weirdly, the civilians who are behind a trench that, we’re told, has been in place for more than a year, and seem like they are just now attempting to flee, like they just thought about it for the first time.

As we get over to the front side of things, we are also introduced to our final member of the team.  “Chief” is a Native American who smuggles things across the lines.  I am fine with his performance, but his line readings could have used some work.  But hey, whatever, he’s a tiny character.  I did like the moment where he said that his land was taken by white people.

Because World War One was such a mixed up war of alliances, as a viewer, I didn’t think that the Germans were the kind of evil that requires a superhuman effort to overcome.  The German high command is currently considering an armistice, as is the British high command.  Diana doesn’t make a major change in the course of the war, except charging into a German trench and gaining a bit of ground for the human troops against the gas-masked bad guys.  See, if her and her team aren’t killing anonymous troops, you might have sympathy for the other side.

Imagine this story from the German soldier in the trench’s perspective.  You’re in your trench, picking lice off yourself and slowly starving to death, as rumors of an armistice swirl around the entire battlefield.  As you are feeling weak, a person climbs over the top and starts charging you, dressed in a uniform that you’ve never seen, but coming from the far side.  You shoot at her, but the bullets have no effect.  Your whole platoon opens fire, but nothing comes of it.  And yet, when this person has arrived to the top of your trench, what do you do?  Oh, yeah, keep fighting in the trench.  Don’t surrender to this superhuman person.  Don’t give yourself up and show the awe that would inspire you to stop conflicts.  Make it so she can kill you, without consequences.

They then go into a town and essentially recreate a battle from Saving Private Ryan.  This part worked for me.  I like the dynamic fighting style, and instead of focusing on quick cuts with zero cohesion, it did a good job of showing what she was doing in long slow motion takes.  Good stuff.  We learn that the Sniper cannot shoot his gun anymore, because sniper no sniping.  Then, the non howling commandos use a platform to recreate a move from the Amazon fight at the beginning so that Diana can destroy a cultural relic in a war torn city, by smashing a church steeple that seems to have been in that town for hundreds of years, and also incidentally murder the shit out of a sniper who can’t hit shit to save his life.

As this ends, the people around her start cheering as if she has saved them, and maybe she has.  I don’t know, because I don’t know if the Germans in this town were terribly oppressive or if they were just soldiers doing their duty to their country.  I do know that Chris Pine executed a bunch of them after they were knocked down, and Diana killed a lot of people, Man of Steel style.  The weird part is this could be fixed with like three lines of dialog.  “The men on the other side are the most vicious unit in Germany.  They will be the last to surrender and their commanding officer has told them that they will not go down without a fight.  They constantly take advantage of the civilians behind them, leaving a swath of destruction wherever they go.  So, no Diana, we need to focus and not cross here.”

Then, Diana and Steve get a bit drunk and go bone, consentually. They have a lovely cute moment where Diana sees snow for the first time, and the Scottish sniper does his most consequential action of the movie, singing a song.  It’s cute-ish.

Third Act Problems

In screenwriting, one of the major things that studio executives like to say is that a movie has “third act problems” according to Tom Lennon and Ben Garant, who wrote How to Write Screenplays For Fun And Profit, a fantastic book that tells you why Die Hard is perfect. (Which, by the way, it is.)

The third act is the landing of the movie.  Your climax, your falling action, and your resolution all have to be in the third act.  For a classic example of third act problems, tell me which one of your favorite endings to the Lord of the Rings movies was in the comments, and then count them, and then realize that that movie ended like seven times.

Third Act Problems are incredibly hard to overcome, because they have to be right, or they ruin the movie up to that point.  I have massive problems with the third act of this movie. Here is a brief telling of the third act of the film, Wonder Woman, but we’ll go into the nitty gritty breakdown in a second.

The team hatches a plan to go to a gala ball that is cover for the unveiling of the new super weapon from Dr. Poison.  Steve and Diana sneak in separately, Steve trying to honeypot Dr. Poison and Diana having one of the most awkward interactions with the general.  Steve stops her from killing him at the party.  The general fires a test shot of the new gas onto the town that Diana “saved”, and kills everyone.  She is unaffected by the gas.  Steve shows up, she’s pissed at him because he stopped her from killing the general.  They track the general to a gigantic airfield where they have rigged up a gigantic drone plane that will destroy London with the new awesome gas, on a timer so it cannot be stopped by grounding it or something else.  Diana kills the general, expecting that since he is Ares, everyone will stop fighting, but lookie here, it doesn’t stop.  Ares shows up and it’s Sir “Hah, yeah, I turned out to be the villain” and they fight.  In the middle of the fight, Steve boards the plane and Captain America suicides himself, saving everyone.  Ares tries to recruit Diana into destroying humanity, but she remembers that Steve said he loved her, and so she is going to fight for love, and she beats Ares by using the same disco fighting powers that were used in Bv.S.  We see her back in England where they are having the VE-day celebration from a WWII movie.  She says goodbye to Steve on the memorial wall, and then we flash back to the Future, where she works in the Louvre, in their ancient armaments department.  And then she flies into the sky.

The third act is a mess.  A third act should have a nice little bow around it, to create a cohesive story that wraps things up.  If you’re ambitious, you do a little sequel set up, but I like a good solid ending to my comic stories.  Logan doesn’t have third act problems.  Logan’s third act pays off everything that came before, and does what you want it to with some nice little twists.  Way to go, Logan.

Okay, sorry, got off track here.  Let’s take it from the top. We have a nice little period party sneaking scene, where Chris Pine nearly humanizes or seduces or manipulates the villain into giving up her plans, but is distracted when Diana shows up.  Fine, okay, but then the General walks up to Diana and essentially has a one on one conversation with her with barely any prompting, where he chews some scenery and speaks in English?  I mean, she speaks tons of languages, shouldn’t they be speaking German at the German party?  Steve stops Diana from stabby stabby on the General by grabbing her hand, which 1. She’s super strong, you really think that would stop her? and 2. Why?  She’s following the general into the hallway, and there are maybe a few more guards than there were when they got mugged in an alley (Bee Tee Dubs, they got mugged in an alley in London.  It was… a scene that exists. [Yes, I know this is a recreation from a panel in the comics.  It was fine, Third Act Problems just hurt it for me]

The Non-howling commandos see the general about to test the weapon from the German high command castle, and thank god the sniper can’t snipe, because he essentially has the general in his sights.  If he shot him, the whole movie might be over.  Instead of following the general, Diana jumps on a horse and rides up to the gas cloud, which, thank god they tested the thing on a day without wind, because if the wind kicked up and blew back over the castle, boy would their faces be burnt off by mustard gas.  Diana, showing the prowess of someone who has incredibly little regard for their own self worth, charges headlong into the gas cloud.

And we have reached another point where an issue raises it’s ugly head.  And this is a big one.  There is a term in movies called stakes.  You need to have high stakes in a movie, or it is just a long series of images (Which can be great.  Check out things like the aforementioned Enter the Void and Koyaanisqatsi for some stakes-less film-making.  I guarantee you won’t watch either one twice! [That’s not a real guarantee, for all I know someone out there watches Enter The Void every day because reasons or something.  I just know that I won’t be revisiting it for a while.  Or until I write about it here, I guess.  I mean I’m sort of doing it now.  It’s good.  Interesting.  All of the Lights’s video by Kanye is based off it’s opening credits.  It might be a little long, but it definitely out there.])

Is there anything that hurts Wonder Woman?  We see her get injured in the initial battle against the Germans, but her wound heals quickly.  Poisonous gas doesn’t do anything.  She can apparently take unlimited hits from machine guns and small arms, and deflect a mortar round very close to her, and it doesn’t do anything.  Explosions can knock her back, but they pretty much have to be hundreds of grenades to do anything to her.

I’ve heard it said that Marvel has flawed heroes overcoming the odds to do great things, while DC has Godlike heroes doing Godlike things.  I can get on board for that, if there are stakes.  “Steve will die if you kill the General.”  “If you kill the general now, all the people in this castle will die.”  “Keeping me alive is the only thing that will save your precious island.”  There needs to be a threat to something that can be threatened.  If the hero of your story is invincible, give them something incredibly vincible to care about, then fuck that thing up.  John Wick has his puppy and his friend taken away from him.  He is unstoppable, but they know they can hurt him through others.  Hey look, I’m on board.

So, when we get to the airfield, and she kills the general.  I don’t know what to feel.  He was a super strong dude (given powers by a magical gas from Dr. Poison [Crazy idea, why not just make that make you go psycho and drop that shit on the battlefield.  Make the group of soldiers on the German side of the trench into Berzerkers who have taken that gas, and want to rock and roll, making them feared and hated.], but he’s not anywhere close to her league.  She stabs him right through, but luckily no blood gets on the blade.

This was perhaps the best acting by Gadot in the movie.  Her look of horror when the war doesn’t immediately end is fantastic.  Chris Pine coming up and saying that war might be in him too is also great.  I like this part a lot.  In fact, it would be cool for this to be the end of the climax.  She tried to stop the war, but she couldn’t.

I’ve been spending most of this review trying not to write that they copy-pasted the script for Captain America: The First Avenger, but they copy pasted, replaced with WWI and took out the middle bit where he was an actor.  Of course there is an experimental self flying German super weapon pointed at an allied city.  Of course, it is on a timer so someone has to sacrifice themselves.  Of course the hero of the movie does it for the greater good…  Oh wait, no, the slightly con man-y, liar, smuggler, thief sacrifices himself in an act of bravery while the hero of the movie trades blows in a fight that doesn’t matter.

There is a big fight scene and she wins, cause yeah, of course she wins.  And then, in what might be the most objectionable part, the German soldiers, who just recently were loading a huge plane full of weapons of mass destruction, have a moment with the non-howling commandos, like they are all friends now.  What the fuck?  The people that they were just fighting just committed a war crime.  How do you humanize them after the suicide of a good man to prevent the massive destruction of a city?  Why the fuck are they being treated like people now?

Well, you think you can do it better?

Yeah, I do.  Here is my ending.

We stab the general.  He dies, but the war continues, briefly.  Steve is sacrificed to the greater good, but because he is the only one who knows how to redirect the plane by flying it.  Anyone else could crash it, so he takes it up to height and dies, like in the movie.

However, the general’s death ends the hard line pressure against the peace, which then allows it to go through.  As people celebrate the peace, Diana ends up in a small cafe drinking tea, watching couples go by, thinking, obviously, about Steve and his sacrifice.

And Sir “Oh, you thought that the villain would have a fight scene, didn’t you” sits down with her, and says

So, Diana of Themyscria, how are you enjoying your time in the world?

She looks shocked.  “You know who I am?”

Oh yes, of course.  I have been watching you since you arrived.  You see, I know your mission, and I wanted to offer my assistance.

“You know where Ares is?”

Oh, darling, haven’t you figured it out yet?  I’m Ares.

She is baffled. “You… you argued for peace.  You wanted this war to end.  You cannot be…”

Oh, but Diana.  I know this world so much better than you.  Eons I have sat and watched these people learn to destroy each other.  Your friends on the island merely gave me time to perfect my art.  This time, I have assured my greatest work yet.  Yes, there will be peace, for a time, but we have made peace too costly, and the weapons that will be used in the next war, well, let’s just say I have some ideas.

“No, there will not be war.  I will stand against you, and I will destroy you.”

Young lady, do you think no one has tried?  I have been dead hundreds of times, I have seen the other side and yet, every time, these mortals bring me back.  I am Ares, I am war, and they cannot prevent themselves from summoning me.

Diana is silent.  Thinking.

You see, it was not my father (he spits the word out) who created me.  No, he cursed me into existence when he created these weak creatures.  When they first fought, they birthed me.  When they take up arms, they strengthen me.  And when I am stopped, the seeds will always be there. And no one, can defeat me.

And in a quiet voice, but powerful, Diana says “No.  I am Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, Princess of Themyscria, trained by Antiope.  I may not be able to kill you, but I will show man that your path is not the only way.  I will protect the innocent, I will defend them from evil, and I will end you by showing them that peace is possible.  I swear this by my lariat, my bracelets and my crown, that I will protect people from your evil, and eventually turn them away from it.”

So be it, sister

He spits his words at her, and walks away.

Brief other nits to pick

Why is Wonder Woman Jesus?

Why does Ares use lightning?  Wasn’t that a Zeus thing?

Wonder Woman sure kills a lot of people for saying that she is fighting to end war, is that like a moral choice?

Is the implication of Man of Steel that no one remembered the incredibly attractive woman who spearheaded an attack that resulted in a full retreat by a German division?  Were all those people gassed?

Do you think that Wonder Woman will get a sequel in WWII?  What about Korea?  Vietnam?  Latin America Narco Conflicts?  Iraq?  Iraq again?  Afghanistan?

Chris Pine, good actor, but only for one role?  Or bad actor, who can only play one role well?

When Wonder Woman was a child, was her mother derelict in her duty by not allowing her to train?  Or was there a reason why she shouldn’t train?  Wouldn’t it have been better for her to be controlling her powers earlier?

Was the implication that Wonder Woman gave Scottish Sniper hope, so he started singing again?

Costuming people, did this movie feel like they got all the costumes from a WWII movie and said, fuck it, good enough?

Am I writing this review this way because it’s actually not great, or because I am a Marvel fanboy?  I know that some people will accuse me of it.

What is the theme of this movie?  Conflict is inevitable?  Everything is shades of grey, and who knows if you are helping?  Love defeats war?

Am I going to lose friends over this post?

I really hope not.  I respect a lot of people who love this movie.  But I just was disappointed.

Everybody Shut Up, Oliver Stone Has An Opinion

Everybody Shut Up, Oliver Stone Has An Opinion

Apparently, it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt Month.

We’re going to talk about Snowden which is a shitty reboot of the delightful and astonishing Citizen Four.  I liked the movie, and have deep political opinions about the whole thing, but from that first sentence and the titles, you can tell where your intrepid author is at about this.

JGL is once again, great.  He does a very solid Edward Snowden impression, to the point that when the real Snowden shows up, there is a moment of uncanny valley. The story is decent and well displayed.  Much of it is either true or at least needs to be true for the narrative that the movie is trying to tell.  These are not truth.

Snowden is complicated

and is more complicated because of Oliver Stone. Stone is known for a bit of a political leaning, and a bit of screaming very loudly whatever opinion he has about what is going on as loudly as he can directly into your eye holes.  In a movie with a brilliant, subtle performance by an actor who does great work, we also have characters that loom over him, Big Brother style, Nic Cage at his most unhinged and unrestrained, and stereotypes about nerds.  Stone deeply believes that Snowden is a hero and a patriot.

And that’s my major problem with the movie.  I think that it’s more complicated than that.  I think that Snowden did the right thing, at least from my political perspective, but I also understand the arguments against him.  He did have an effect on the world, and people working with his data may have not been as responsible as they could have been with it.  I can appreciate that it is a heroes story, but a little nuance, a little doubt, a little anxiety afterwards would be greatly appreciated.

When you have Nic Cage giving the kid a pat on the back, after an unhinged performance, you gotta go back and look at it.

In the long run…

Just watch Citizen Four.  It’s a better film.  It has better moments of tension.  Snowden is great background material, and can be added to your understanding of the superior film, but trusting it too much would be like trusting the US government to not spy on American citizens after 9/11.  Too political?  Yeah, maybe.  I’ll just shut up now.

The High School Dame Wore Red

The High School Dame Wore Red

First, a bit of housekeeping:

Hey everyone.  I know, it’s been a bit.  I’m working on my thesis and a class on the American Revolution right now, so it’s going to be a little bit between essays, and they won’t be particularly long.  I know that I promised a lot with all those essays in a row, but… hey, wait a minute, I’m doing this for free, and I’m barely watching movies for free.  I don’t owe ya’ll anything.

Why does Brick work?

It shouldn’t.  A neonoir movie set in a high school, focusing on a murder investigation by a kind of dweeby dude?  A movie that creates it’s own slang and narrative drive out of thin air, making high school kids talk in a way that no high school kid would ever talk, and destroying all ideas of realness in cinema?  A high school that has it’s own Kingpin, muscle, and places where people eat, codified like adult life?

On the surface, this movie seems like an over the top, kind of dumb premise.  A noir movie in a high school could have been a Zac Efron vehicle, where they make dumb jokes and it’s all played for laughs.  Brick doesn’t do that.  It has too much respect for the form of things to do that.

Brick is interested in telling a serious story.  The death of a high school student who got involved with drugs and the wrong people and paid the price.  The movie plays with noir tropes, like the police who come down on the detective, the brain who knows all the information, the moll and the big bad.  The movie wants you to know that all of these things are profoundly serious for the characters, and that in this high school, all of these things matter.  Everyone has an angle, everyone is looking for something, and eventually, everything is going to go sideways.  So, how do you make this sort of silly idea serious?

Joseph Gordon Levitt is Incredible

In some ways, this movie should be called Joseph Gordon Levitt can carry any movie you want, but that title is long and uninformative.

JGL invests a richness and depth to his character, that we believe that he believes that all of this is important.   Some other actors would do this film with a smirk, acknowledging that this is a bit silly, but we’re sold that it is completely serious because JGL is totally invested.  The complex and strange dialog sounds smooth as silk coming from him.  He is always one step ahead of us.  He anchors the movie, appearing in nearly every scene that isn’t a  flashback.

JGL gives everything to this movie.  Every time he says something wry or biting, he shows this inner turmoil and pain, and completely sells that these are actually high school characters.  Every time an adult gets involved, we see the complete separation between the world of the kids and the world of the adults.  It rings true because high school is a time of profound distance between kids and adults.

When we think about high school, we remember the feeling of alienation that comes with being a child.  High school is the first time we had some autonomy, so it was finally a time that our parents couldn’t understand us.  The fads, ideas, music, even work separated us from the adult world, even as we were on the cusp of joining it.  It’s that vague familiarity that truly locks this movie down.  You are nostalgic for a time that never existed, and this movie plays on that nostalgia.

“I Don’t Want You To” 

I caught a movie that I wasn’t anticipating on HBO this week. The movie is called The Crash Reel. It’s a brutal and insane look into a human being’s addiction to action sports and the lifestyle and problems that come with it. I quite enjoyed it. You should check it out. 

I wanted to talk briefly about the documentary format, because I think it is an interesting avenue for filmmaking. The question if what makes a good documentary has puzzled me for a long time. It’s actually one of the most elusive ideas, not only because the judgement of the fineness of a product is subjective, but also because it requires so much for a documentary to be good. 

A documentary has a ton of different moving peices. First off, you need to have a subject. Your subject is going to require interest and a good story. The best subjects have a story or journey that they are already on. They have to agree to show their whole lives in a camera. They need to be exposed and real. They have to create a world with their own action. 

Then, you need to have something happen. Something goes wrong. Something requires more and more space. Someone has to make a change. And it is in that turn that things become interesting.

Kevin Pearce was a major snowboarder, who participated at the highest levels, hit his head very hard, and struggled to recover. We watch someone’s livelihood and personality change and be destroyed. We see the world that he lives in. We hear from other stars and the people he came up with. His family, friends, and others. 

We see how people are destroyed by the injuries, and yet how these people are so devoted and desirous of these lifestyle. They want to get higher and do it better, and yet… 

It’s a shattering documentary. You see people at their lowest. You see relationship shops broken by damage and by people who have decided to dedicate themselves to pushing themselves. You can see their devotion and dedication. And you see them get destroyed. 

This is not a political blog, and this isn’t a blog that is devoted to that kind of discussion, and I am not a health professional. Please, don’t hit your head over and over. I know that the most exciting things can happen when you are on the edge, but God, I want to take care of you. Please, take care of yourself.  

Bv.S or Go Watch Fury Road Again, Friends

Bv.S or Go Watch Fury Road Again, Friends

Editors Note:

This was the first review I wrote long form.  I wanted to put it up today for two reasons, I’m proud of it, and I didn’t write anything over the last week or so.  So here we go!

So, today I went to see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I’ll probably get into spoilers for this, but I think that this is the last Zach Snyder thing that I can possibly see myself watching. It sucks that I was so right in my predictions of how joyless and depressing this movie was, and how easily it could have been avoided. So, if you don’t want spoilers, they end here. It’s not “the worst thing ever” and it’s not “good” in any sense. It’s mediocre, and wears it’s mediocrity as if it is the greatest thing ever, and as Immortan Joe has shown us, mediocrity is worth nothing. So, spoiler country lies ahead.

I wanted to talk about this because I think that Superman vs. Batman could be a great thing. It could be a fun, enjoyable, interesting look at a superhero movie, that shows what happens when the Dark Knight of Gotham meets the Boy Scout of Metropolis. It’s not going too far to say that the meeting of these two individuals is essentially the rock upon which comics church is based.

But I don’t think Zach Snyder has ever actually watched a movie that makes sense, or read a great comic that wasn’t also a best seller. Yes, Mr. Snyder, we get it. You read the last 25 pages of the Dark Knight Returns and think that you got it. And you read the Wikipedia article about the Death of Superman. I have also read those things. If we both have read them, they must be good, right!?

No. That’s not right. The Dark Knight Returns fight between Batman and Superman is established by several comics worth of set up. Batman doesn’t just hate Superman because he could potentially be a threat to the world, as shown through dream sequences of all things. Batman and Superman square off because they have differing approaches and different upbringings. Superman literally bows down to the government in the comics, which sends Batman into retirement. The entire storyline is Batman coming out of retirement, older, slower, and more willing to hurt people (and yet, he still attempts to follow his golden rule, of do not kill, something that the brief skimming of the comic wouldn’t make apparent).

The Death of Superman sold like crazy because it was a shocking event that DC sold as the killing off of one of their most important properties. This was in the early 90s, when comic book collections were starting to sell for a great deal of money, and people were into collecting them. The briefest glimpse at the hype surrounding it would show you that the story line was interesting, but not because watching Superman die was such a fun time, but because it shook up the world. Superman was always seen as the ultimate deterrent in the DC universe. If he was intervening, things had gotten truly bad, but dying wasn’t ever what you expected from him. Shock value is not that character.

But, hey, that comic stuff is for nerds, right? That kind of analysis doesn’t do film justice. I mean, Tony Stark wasn’t in a cave in Afghanistan in the comics. Film franchises are based on the idea that you steal whatever surface level ideas you could get from the comics and then build on top of it whatever movies you want to, right Marvel? Marvel? Are you going to give Zack a high five or what? Don’t leave him hanging! (This is not what makes Marvel Movies work. Marvel movies use iconic characters in no win situations overcoming things, and yet giving a shit about the people around them, and not in the “Well, this part of the city is deserted, so it’s okay to blow up entire swaths of a manufacturing district” way.)

The Good

Affleck is the bomb. Seriously. Affleck might be my favorite portrayal of Batman on film. He’s probably only second to Kevin Conroy from the Animated Series. Affleck does everything he needs to with actual movie star charisma, puts every single acting choice on the screen, and conveys more in his voice than any other Batman on film. I genuinely loved his performance, and would have been excited if this was a film only about him.

I liked Affleck witnessing the street level destruction of Man of Steel. I felt like it gave it the weight that the former movie needed, with the ludicrous amount of civilian death that had to happen for that fight scene to make sense. He looks older and tired, and pissed. It’s great!

Alfred was decent, and they didn’t even have to take him out of the Batcave set.

Eisenberg does his level best to fucking lighten up these proceedings. My God, he has the most brutal time of it, but he gives a unique take on Lex Luthor, and given the direction and material, I quite enjoyed what he did with it. He turns the quirk up to 11, which could get annoying if he wasn’t the only person on the screen that seemed to have a plan. It’s a dumb plan, for dumb people, that will essentially result in the complete and utter destruction of whatever cinders he wants to rule at the end of it, but whatever, it’s a Luthor plan. Luthor plans involve Otisville usually, and that’s fine with me. Nowhere near as good as Affleck, but I get where he is coming from.

Also, Wonder Woman is surprisingly effective in a fight, and holds her own among the boys, actually (in my opinion) contributing more to the final fight than Batman. Which is great! Wonder Woman should be that bad ass.

The Bad

The Plot, or what would be called the plot if the movie had one. Inner eight year old, what is the plot of this movie?

Batman’s family dies in an alleyway again. (Jesus Christ, more on this later.) So we know he is serious about fighting crime. Then, Batman in his Bruce Wayne flesh mask goes to Metropolis during the end of Man of Steel and watches as his building is cut the fuck up by the Snyderian symphony of destruction that was the end of Man of Steel. (Wow, eight year old me is quite eloquent.) He concludes that Superman is a dick hole for blowing a city the fuck up, after saving a guy who got his legs trapped under a steel beam. Then he saves a girl and watches superman fuck up another building. A year and a half later. Batman is angry at superman, and has determined that the best way to figure it out is to figure out who is importing a “dirty bomb” that is actually kryptonite. Lex Luthor wants the us government to give him Zod’s body and access to the ship that crashed in the middle of metropolis. Also, metropolis is right next door to gotham. Lex manipulates them into fighting, and blows up congress around Superman right before he testifies, which makes him go on a spirit quest to a mountain to talk to his dad. Lex kidnaps his mom and Lois, pushes Lois off a heliport, gets his attention and tells Supes to fight Batman and bring him his head in an hour. Batman beats the everloving shit out of Superman, and is about to kill him with a kryptonite spear, when he says their safe word, “Martha”, and Batman is forced to reboot after BSODing. Then Lex births Doomsday, who Superman kills with the spear, killing himself in the process. Then superman isn’t dead because they Inception top his grave, showing dirt rising off of his casket. The end…?

That’s the shortest version I can do. What I didn’t mention is Wonder Woman, who is in the movie to not wear a bra and seem like she is going to skip the battle, but doesn’t. The Flash, who appears in a “dream” telling Bruce that he was right about him all along and that he came too soon, and then beats the shit out of a guy without dropping a bottle of milk on a security camera, and Jason Momoa, confirming what we already knew, which is that Aquaman is lame and looks hilariously stupid menacing the shit out of robots. We also find out that Cyborg was a third of a torso, a head and a arm kept alive by the black guy from Eureka (you’re a great actor, Joe Morton. Why did they drag you into this?), and was reanimated by what can only be described as the fucking All Spark from the other Dicks to Sense, Let’s Make Splosions director of our day.

I didn’t mention that you can make Kryptonite scalpels to peel off the fingerprints to activate Kryptonian machinery, which is a thing that happens. I didn’t mention that our main antagonist, recruits the guy who got his legs cut off and is justifiably pissed about Superman screwing his life up to be a suicide bomber in the Capitol building. I didn’t mention that this suicide bomber is revealed when a sitting junior Democratic senator from Kentucky smells pee in a mason jar that was put in front of her, which is labeled with an idiom that she said to Lex Luthor scenes ago. I didn’t mention Batman’s sexy ass crossfit WOD in the middle of the movie, or Superman irresponsibly overflowing a tub to protect Amy Adams’ modesty, or that Superman apparently stood by while a CIA mole was executed in front of Amy Adams, but intervened when she was in danger. I didn’t mention the two dream sequences that Batman has, where Batman sees a fucking demon from hell come out of his mother’s bleeding casket, or where Batman turns into bad ass Malcolm Reynolds with a cowl, and executes like 15 people before being inundated with mantis creatures who stop him, before Superman executes two prisoners who have been chained up in cold blood, and then the Flash might or might not tell him some stuff. I am still not done listing things I didn’t mention. This “plot” is fucking insane.

Hey, I didn’t even mention that the entire movie hinges around the fact that “They are going to kill Martha” is said out loud at a critical point. Cool line, right? Except it’s Superman’s mom, who he has called mom, and hasn’t really called Martha as far as I remember in the movies so far, but fuck it, it BSODs Batman and that is what the plot needs.

Or that to prevent Batman ever killing Superman, Amy Adams throws away the weapon that will stop him, and then psychically goes to get it, then almost drowns, then is saved by Superman, who then almost drowns because of Kryptonite, and is saved by Amy Adams throwing the weapon away.

Or that Pa Kent tells his son in a “dream sequence/spirit quest/message from beyond the grave” about the time he saved his own farm to only drown a shitload of horses on another farm, which inspires him to… come back and be a hero again?

Or that, the one true moment of hilarious levity comes when Ma Kent says that she knows Batman is friends with her son because he is wearing a cape. Which makes you hopeful that they know what they are doing after sad sad sad for two hours, and then the only other intentional laugh comes along and it is upstaged by music, and was revealed in the trailer (I thought she was with you [HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH AREN’T WE CLEVER!]).

Or, hey, how about the fact that Batman kills like 50 people. And when I say kills, I mean kills. No dream sequence. No rubber bullets. Kills. He opens up with a Gatling gun from his airplane to shoot people. He blows up vehicles. He dive bombs his car through a truck, after his car (no joke) just went through a brick wall like butter. There is a person standing on that side of the truck. That person is dead because of Batman’s direct actions. And, best of all, Batman shoots a man’s flamethrower backpack with a fucking gun, and dives to save Martha Kent from the fire, killing two people. Straight up. Killing them, with the barest Rube Goldberg explanation that, well actually, it was the explosion that killed them.

Or, man, what about whatever genius screenwriter who figured out that as long as you say that parts of the city are deserted, obviously it’s okay to destroy huge swaths of it.

Or that over the express advice of the military, the president nukes doomsday and Supes in orbit, with nary a mention of the potential consequences of such an action. No fucking janitors ever work nights in Metropolis, as far as Anderson Cooper knows!

Or shit, Charlie fucking Rose, of interrupting people to ask his fucking self important questions on PBS fame, and Andy Coop, and Soledad O’Brien and Nancy ‘Screaming Opinions [Remember When Ben Affleck Was In That Movie That Made Fun Of My Journalism]’ Grace lend their talents to this. Neal DeGrasse Tyson is in this movie.

Or hey, that Thomas Wayne takes a swing at the guy who is currently pointing a gun at his family. He takes a swing at him, directly resulting in the guy shooting him. Instead of it being a tragedy, where he tried to comply and the incompetent robber destroyed Bruce’s world, no, we need him to fucking show that he’s a man and fuck that guy up.

Oh, and how did the pearl necklace that is a part of the Batman mythos end up on the ground? It got caught , on the gun, between the hammer and the pin. Seriously. It was inside of the hammer, so Martha Wayne was shot at point blank range. Luckily she was shot with one of those bullets that doesn’t do a ton of damage, so we could still see her face when Thomas ‘Fighting Jack Murphy’ Wayne calls her name for the last moment of his life.

I can keep going, but I think you get it. Oh wait, one more, Laurence Fishbourne, a newspaper editor, isn’t interested in a story about a man who dresses up like a bat and is terrorizing criminals in a city that is adjacent to his. What? That’s newspaper gold. Wait, this guy has been doing it for 20 years and no one figured it out? What? Oh, and he calls him Smallville, which is hilarious until you remember that that town was flattened 18 months ago by monsters from outer space. And then, you start agreeing with Lex Luthor that both of these heroes sort of deserve to get what is coming to them.

It’s so hard to stop. Because every choice makes no sense. Everything serves the purpose of the camera. Everything is for the coolest shot possible, not the necessary shot.

Everything is based on getting to the next action set piece, but not in a fun Avengers sort of way, but in a depressing Man of Steel sort of way.

Conclusion

Fury Road was great. It was fun to watch, it had action and adventure. Go watch that.

What?

You want me to talk about what I have written?

Fine.

This movie is mediocre. Affleck gives a great performance, and in the right hands, a Batman movie with him would be fun as fuck to watch. He moves brutally, and conveys a world weariness that really sells the character. Cavil looks like he just realized that being a hero is boring and he wants to go fuck supermodels, and every heroic action looks like he is genuinely constipated. I think this is a directors choice. Lois Lane is pointless. The Kents make a contractual appearance. Eisenberg twitches up the screen, but at least gives a performance.

The movie is so concerned with looking cool, it forgets that Superman is cool because he is ultimately powerful AND GOOD. He’s a GOOD GUY. He acts to save everyone, to the point of everyone thinking he is too good! When you have him standing at the center of a suicide bomb, at the US Capitol Building, and then going on a vision quest, it seems a lot like he doesn’t give a shit about anything. Remember Truth, Justice and the American way? Well, I hope you like watching Captain America, because that is the only place that you are going to get it. And if you think that GOOD GUY doesn’t work anymore, Cap is actually doing it. He has attempted to save peoples lives. He keeps the collateral as low as he can. And he gives a shit about people, and tries to save all of them. And he can’t. He can’t save all of them, and it looks like it hurts him that he can’t. Superman is supposed to try to save everyone. Remember? He got cats out of trees between burning buildings. He is the pinnacle of good.

Batman doesn’t kill people. It’s not his place to be the executioner. I know you saw Batman Begins, because Nolan sat you down to see it, Mr. Snyder. He doesn’t kill people because he witnessed his family getting killed on a street. I know you saw that, because you had to do it again. And also make it more violent, and way more ambiguous.

So, I’m done with Snyder. 300 was a fun myth thing that worked. Watchmen was visually accurate and missed the point entirely. Sucker Punch (loses consciousness, drifts in a haze for days, finds corporeal self and consumes it, like an oroboros). Man of Steel was the 6 year old power fantasy with zero consequences that Superman didn’t deserve. And now Batman v. Superman (it’s so fucking pretentious to me that it is v. I don’t know why that bugs me so much, but Jesus it does) is the grey brown nightmare that concludes my watching of the DC universe. Have a great time making the Flash brood quickly, guys. I’ll catch it on HBO.

Who is excited for Civil War, am I right? I’m excited to see colors on screen!

The Campy Space Opera That We Deserve, Not The One We Need

The Campy Space Opera That We Deserve, Not The One We Need

Talk Franchise To Me, Baby

My history with the chronicles of Richard B. Riddick is a long and loving one.  I love these movies.  All of them.  It’s okay that you don’t love all of them, and it’s okay that you’re not into how weird the middle one got, and how the last one was the same movie that the first one was (in a lot of respects, even though I disagree).  The Riddick movies are a great example of what a cool, personal, and ever evolving franchise should be, and I think, over time, they will be reevaluated as better movies than you remembered.  These are not art films.  They are not filmed to be particularly moving.  They are great for a totally different reason.

I have been a Vin Diesel fan for a long time, which is something that lots of people find odd about me.  I appreciate his dedication to working hard, hustling for movies, and making movies that bring him joy.  As an actor, he has played some interesting roles, and Torreto from the Fast and Furious movies.  Now, for a controversial statement, the FF franchise is one of the best in the world at what it does.  It is shallow, stupid, has dumb as bricks plots, and will vicerally excite you if you buy into it’s stupid premises.  Every frame is designed to be as testosterone driven and insane as possible, and I love that about them.

Weirdly, I hear of the Riddick films as testosterone driven murder porn, in the same vein as FF.  This, I believe, is false.  The Riddick films have some of the best world building, interesting premises, and weirdest ideas that you will ever see in a mainstream movie.  They are a space opera, set in a dirty future world, where the entire universe is a frontier, and we are focused on the small stories of a brutal survivor in a harsh and terrible future.

Yeah, you didn’t think I was going to make it sounds like that, did you?  It’s a movie about Vin being awesome right?  Sure, there is some Vin being awesome stuff in there, but for a wider view, let’s look at the history of the space opera.

What is a space opera?

I am glad you asked, heading me.  A space opera is defined as a story that is set in space (duh), having the qualities of an opera (also, duh).  The world of space is given weight, with people and creatures interacting on multiple worlds, creating a gigantic backdrop for the stories that are going to be told.  Each world is defined by it’s differing characteristics, and this allows the universe to constantly be expanded, confronting new challenges and ideas.

The opera part of space opera refers to the kinds of stories that are told.  The stories are those of great people in terrible situations, overcoming, changing, and defying the odds to triumph.  The stories are huge, fighting gigantic battles and moving from planet to planet, creating worlds that matter, but they also are focused on characters who are dedicated to their own goals and ideas.

(And now, for my favorite sentence I will ever write) Let’s talk about Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I love the extended universe, I love the original trilogy, and I love The Force Awakens.  I love the ideas that Star Wars cultivates, and I love the worlds that it is on.  Let’s write about Star Wars without all of the space stuff.

A young man discovers that he is the inheritor to a great power, is called to fight a greater fight, he meets interesting people, learns to control his power, and with the help of his friends, overcomes huge odds, using his power, to destroy a huge threat to his world.  He joins a small power, helps that revolution through his action, learns more about his power, and confronts his opposite, and fails.  After he fails, he learns more about himself, confronts the evil, and through his will, guile, smarts and power, defeats it.

That’s a story.  It’s not a new story. It’s just a good solid base for a story.  What makes Star Wars great, in my opinion, is that that is just one story that is going on at the same time.  There is also the ambivalent rogue, who discovers that running at the first sight of trouble isn’t the path to getting what he wants, and his growth and change to become a better person through love and compassion.  There is the terrible villain who decides to change his ways from hate and fear in his final moments.  There is the love interest who is more than just a love interest, who is clear-headed and driven for a goal that she wants.  There are two observers who are more important than they realize.  There is the ultimate evil, tempting and sewing dissent at every turn.

Each part of Star Wars is designed to get you thinking about who you want to be.  These characters persist in culture because they create impressions of who they are, make choices that are defined by those character traits, and eventually overcome weakness to be greater than they are.  Star Wars is the kind of movie that makes people feel things.

Additionally, the Star Wars universe is designed to be intriguing.  Every one of the bounty hunters that Vader hires on the Devestator (his Star Destroyer) is an interesting design and looks like they have a story from before that moment in time.  When someone sees the Mos Eisley cantina scene for the first time, you get a glimpse of a couple of different stories that you could follow through, that Luke and Obi-wan are just one story in this universe.  We see ancillary stories end, like Greedo’s, on camera.  We hear about other things that you could do in the universe (Kessel run, “I have death sentences on twelve systems”, the band, “We don’t serve their kind in here”). We hear about the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and we think to ourselves of stories that could be told about them.

This is the power of the space opera.  Let’s move on before I write another 6000 words about Star Wars.

Why is Riddick like that for me?

Well, first off, we’re talking about three movies.  Let’s deal with them in order.

SPOILERS FOR PITCH BLACK AND CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK AND RIDDICK TO FOLLOW.

Pitch Black is an odd little horror film set in a space opera enviroment.  If you’ve never seen the film, what’s wrong with you, but I’ll do a quick story recap.  A group of people are travelling on a ship together, and the ship breaks up over a charted, but out of the way planet.  When it crashes, the survivors realize that the planet was once colonized, has breathable air, and set about trying to figure out a way to signal for a rescue.  The planet is odd, seemingly peaceful, but after a couple of people are killed and it is discovered that there are creatures who are hurt by light, the planet moves into alignment with the three suns of the system, creating a feeding frenzy from the creatures who live below the surface.  There is a workable ship, but the survivors must band together to get home.  They are picked off one by one, until there are only a few remaining, and eventually, they reach the ship, and some of them escape.

Not a complex story.  Well, as usual, it’s in the details.  These people are moving from one place to another for odd reasons.  We have a miner, looking for work.  We have a man and his two sons on the hajj.  We have the co-pilor, who was going to jettison the passengers before the crash.  We have a young boy.  We have a cop. We have an antiquities dealer. And we have Riddick.

Pitch Black lives and dies on Riddick’s presence.  Riddick is the center of the movie, because it seems like he is the threat at the beginning.  Everything we hear about him suggests that he is going to be the horror movie villain, taking the people one by one.  And yet, he ends up being much more of an anti-hero than a villain in the film.  His decisions and ideas are important to survival, and over time, it’s revealed that he actually has a moral code.  He kills the cop, but the cop wants to kill a girl to provide bait for the creatures.  He mourns the loss of the actual hero of the movie.  He is the character with the biggest arc in the movie.

The movie is also visually stunning.  The creature designs are unique, in that the creatures have no eyes, sense through heat, and are damaged by light.  This gives the director David Twohy, the ability to play with colors as markers of distance and time.  We start with ever present light, and slowly lose it to up the tension.  The bottleneck scene is incredibly tense from start to finish, and the light enhances that. The use of color is also glorious, and the film uses its smaller budget to create amazing terror in darkness.  You never know where an attack might come from, because outside of the light is all dangerous.

Additionally, there are suggestions of a larger world.  Old Earth is still a thing, as well as France.  The Hajj is a space faring trip.  Mercenaries and miners have jobs.  People who pilot ships are prized.  There are police, prisons, and more.  The world feels lived in.  People strike out to find new worlds.  If you kill people, get sent to a prison where the sun never shines, you can get a surgical shine job that lets you see in the dark.  Not only is this awesome, this is the start of a space opera.

Building a Bigger World

Chronicles of Riddick is much more in line with a traditional space opera. Riddick is brought back into the action because someone put a price on his head.  He has been out of the universe for some time, but he is tracked down by mercenaries.  He finds the imam from the first movie, runs into Judy Dench as an elemental (sort of an oracle and air being, having statistical based calculation powers) and fights the Necromonger army.  The necromongers are an inspired villian, bringing people into eternal half life, creating a zombie army with a hierarchical structure that is based on “keeping what you kill.”

The worlds span interesting ideas.  There is an ice world, a world so close to the sun that the surface is scorched every time it faces it, a prosperous world being devoured by the necromonger fleet. The beings are well designed, creating interesting characters, and memorable people to run into.  We see more of the universe.

Riddick starts as an anti-hero and suffers a great tragedy in losing his protege and friend from the first film, who he distanced himself from to keep her safe, only to find her in the same position as him.  He ends this movie on the throne, ruling the necromongers as a living person.  The world expands.  We wonder what his next moves are.

Karl Urban (who is a solid actor and does good work in almost every movie I have seen him in [DREDD]) does a lot of heavy lifting in this movie, acting as our character inside the necromongers.  He is ambitious, doubtful, and trying to achieve his own goals.  He has risen through the ranks.  His wife, played by the glorious Thandie Newton, has her own turn as his Lady Macbeth.  She is ambitious, sees the way to move up in the society, and chews scenery.

The Lord Marshal of the necromongers, played by Colm Feore, is revealed to be a genocidal maniac, fearful of prophecy and deeply committed to his stated goal, which is bringing about a necromonger empire.  They have their own beliefs and thoughts, and Riddick becomes a thorn in his side.

Riddick is also given greater depth.  He is revealed to be the last of the Furyans, a race that was wiped out by the necromongers.  He was to be strangled with his own umbilical cord, but he survived.  The elemental said that a Furyan was going to take down the Lord Marshal, and he was the fulfillment of that prophecy, but in that moment, he lost the one person he thought he cared about.

It works, for me, because Riddick is an evolving character after this.  He is still a murder machine, but he did a lot of the things in this movie in the interest of others.  He stopped the planet of his friend from being destroyed.  He tried to save Jack and the others from being abandoned in the prison.  He killed a guy with a cup.  He was attempting to join the good guy side, and for that, he was pushed into a role that gives him power, but loses him everything else.  I think that is a just end to this movie, and a good way to make the character lose and win at the same time.

What about Riddick?

The third film in the series, Riddick in many ways seems to suffer from sequelitis.  He’s trapped on a foreign planet again, with an unstoppable, unthinking alien force.  We introduce a bunch of non characters, who are after the bounty on his head, who slowly get picked off one by one.  This time, when the rains come, everything goes to shit, and the monsters come out.

However, that’s only on a cursory viewing.  There are two mercenary leaders, one, a man who is only there after wealth, and one who is seeking closure for his son’s death from the first movie.  Riddick is attempting to get everyone off safely, but because of who he is, they doubt and people die.  He raises something to be his ally.  He loses that thing.  He shows that he has a code of honor.  He works with people to get them all safe, and his investment in trust is rewarded by being saved by them.

I like this movie, because I think that it is another continuation of his arc.  It’s not as glorious as the first two, but it creates a nice book end to the full space opera Chronicles is. It works because I want to see this character in different situations.  I want to see him succeed in harsh environments.  I want to have characters who are interesting, fascinating and worry about different things.  I find the turns and twists to be satisfying, and create a huge desire for the next film.  I like that the first half of the movie has one character.

Is this movie as good as the first two?  Probably not.  But I think that it is aiming to be a turning point movie.  We’re finally seeing what humanity has to offer in a world that is plagued by terrible things.  We get action and adventure.

Where do we go from here?

Furyia, which is a movie that exists and is going to happen, is coming out in the next couple of years, hopefully, it seems. I hope that this one is more in line with Chronicles and not Riddick.  I think it would be interesting to see what has become of Riddick’s world since the entire population was killed, and I want to see where he came from.  I hope that there are really interesting character designs, and I hope that we get to see Riddick do awesome stuff.  In the long run, though, I hope that it embraces it’s space opera with an anti-hero destiny, and creates something that expands and creates new worlds for my imagination to play in.

But, I’ll see it either way.  Because of my love for these movies.