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.

 

 

 

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Dr. Strange-fight

Dr. Strange-fight

I forget how hard titles are to come up with.

Anyway, Dr. Strange.  I liked it.  Are we done?
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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.  

Parasyte is the greatest anime ever Part 1-A: I Sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world

I’m going to be diving deep into spoilers from here on out so watch out if that kind of thing is important to you

Continue reading “Parasyte is the greatest anime ever Part 1-A: I Sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”