“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

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A Journey to the Stars: A Modern Mythos

A mythology for the modern age.
A mythology for the modern age.

It is often easy for us moderns to look with contempt upon the stories and myths of ancient peoples, wondering how peculiar and strange tales such as the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh could possibly have captivated the hearts and imaginations of the cultures that birthed them. Our stories, after all, are far more realistic, gritty and grounded; lacking of the fantastic supernatural events present in myths such as these. Although I might agree in the instance of Gilgamesh (certainly the strangest story I have ever read), it would be foolish of us to discard this human tradition of mythology. Myths and legends are a vital part of human society, and more often than not, it is science fiction that is the genre best able to tell such important stories.

Often times the modern reader can get so caught up and distracted in the old superstitions and pantheistic supernaturalism so prevalent in the myths best known to us (those of the Greeks and Romans) that they lose sight of the greater purpose of these stories. The late scholar Joseph Campbell believed that such myths are vital in both the personal development and societal development of human beings. Myths, Campbell argued, served to open people’s eyes to the wonders of the universe (something science fiction often does, as covered in the first article in our series), the lackings of science (our human fallibility), as well as inform us about, and often validate, social orders in society (another aspect of science fiction that Luke covered). Campbell considered one function of myth to be the most important, “and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human life under any circumstances” (The Power of Myth pg.38-39). Seth touched on this in his last post, for as science fiction can prompt philosophical questions in the guise of story, myth teaches transcendent virtues and morality.

“Very well then,” you might say, “myth is important, but I certainly do not want my science fiction to become as weird and peculiar as those ancient Greek myths”. This mindset neglects the fact that science fiction’s settings and premises simply modernize the role that the supernatural (and oftentimes unnatural) played in those ancient myths. The ancients did not fully understand the phenomena of weather and storms, and so, in their myths, they are attributed to gods and spirits, and islands are populated with Cyclops and Sirens. Today we may know that individual gods do not stir up cyclones to devour the ships of those they dislike, but we know very little of the planets beyond ours, or of how to reach them, and thus we think of aliens on far distant planets, with hyper-drives and warp-engines to power our craft. Ancient stories had the god-like Odysseus, while we have the powerful Luke Skywalker. From Star Wars to Ender’s Game, The Foundation Series to Dune and even John Carter of Mars (to a certain extent), science fiction presents larger than life heroes and figures in truly mythic stories and settings.

Are the battles of "Star Wars" really that different from the battles of the ancient myths?
Are the battles of “Star Wars” really that different from the battles of the ancient myths?

These science fiction stories, these modern myths, present their ideas and morality on a grand scale to draw greater and more dramatic attention to the transcendent virtues and philosophies that make them so significant. Friends of mine often complain that Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith, motivated by hubris and an intense possessiveness for and dependence on his wife Padme, is unrealistic. However, to condemn the story as such is to miss the point entirely. Anakin’s infamous betrayal may not be “realistic”, but it is truly mythic in scope. Is the power of a story simply driven by its realism? Certainly not! Achilles is not exactly a realistic figure in the Iliad either, but yet he is a timeless image of uncontrolled passion and power, not unlike Anakin. The story of Anakin is powerful because it warns of disordering one’s loves and desires and allowing those same desires to reign without check (echoing one of the main teachings of St. Augustine, interestingly), while simultaneously cautioning against the stoicism of the Jedi Order that proved incapable of foreseeing and stopping a tragedy on a galactic scale. These transcendent human truths are littered throughout the Star Wars saga, which presents the battle between good and evil in the classic mythological style, containing the mythic figures (the Skywalkers, the Jedi, the Sith, etc.) the mythic settings (Tatooine, Coruscant, the fires of Mustafar, space travel) and the elements of the spiritual and supernatural (The Force).

Kal-El easily fulfills the role of the mythic hero.
Kal-El easily fulfills the role of the mythic hero.

Star Wars is unarguably the pinnacle of science fiction in Western culture, if simply by the weight its cultural significance alone. But there is no mistaking why it has become so successful: it fills the mythological void that our society lacks and so desperately needs. Star Wars is not alone, though, in embracing the mythological roots of science fiction. The works of literature I mentioned earlier do this admirably, and even recently, the Man of Steel film embraces the mantle of mythology. Filled with visitors from another world, acts of god-like superhuman ability, underpinned by strong moral and spiritual elements that hold Kal-El up as an example of hope to us, Man of Steel too carries forth science fiction’s tradition of supplying us with stories with which we can make sense of the world. It truly is ironic that often it is the fantastic and unrealistic that helps us make sense of the normal and the real. When one learns to look beyond the futuristic technologies and exotic settings of science fiction to the mythic qualities behind each journey to the stars, that is when one will truly reap the rewards of science fiction.

“Man of Steel” Review

ManofSteelMan of Steel certainly had some high expectations to meet, following up on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy, and featuring Nolan himself in the writing and producing role, with Zack Snyder helming in the director’s chair. The reboot had to face the daunting tasks of bringing Superman back to life in a more serious and weighty fashion while also satisfying the Superman mythos and tradition both in film and comic-lore. Though I do not pretend to be an expert on the finer details of the Superman character, from my knowledge the film succeeds at both. Man of Steel is a rousing success because it takes utterly seriously Superman’s role as a shining beacon of hope, a man unlike us, a man far more powerful than us, but a good man, a moral man unshakable in his resolve, an example that we can look up to.

Man of Steel opens up on Krypton’s final moments, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife oppose General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) military coup against the ruling council (which has foolishly doomed Krypton by mining the planet’s core for energy) while also secretly having the first natural child born on Krypton in years (Krypton has instated intense population and genetic controls). In the midst of both military and natural disaster, Jor-El sends Kal-El, his son, to Earth, with the codex of the Kryptonian race infused within his genes.

The story then moves on to tell the story of Jor-El’s son, now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), on Earth. Clark is introduced as a man, thirty-three years old, as he discovers the truth behind his past and mysterious powers and abilities on a wrecked Kryptonian spaceship, while the story of his childhood on the farm of the Kents is told in flashback form. Not long after Clark puts all the pieces together and accepts his role Zod shows up, desiring to raise the Kryptonian race to supremacy once again, needing both Earth and Kal-El’s genes to do so, and a showdown for the ages is set.

The execution of this storyline is by no means flawless. Unfortunately, the scenes of Clark’s childhood feel as if they could have been fleshed out more, a situation made unfortunate because those childhood scenes that do appear are done so well. Kevin Costner does an excellent job as Clark’s earthly father, and the inner conflicts within Clark as to his freakish nature, and also his remarkable ability to absorb and take abuse and mockery without retaliation, is fascinating and touching. The flashback style of telling the story also interrupts some of the narrative flow at times. Also, some of the action sequences towards the end of the film go on for just a bit too long. The god-fights between Superman and his Kryptonian enemies are a stunning sight to behold, but one can only take so much.

However, these are small flaws amongst a larger and grander overall picture. The opening sequences on Krypton are some of the most stunning science fiction scenes in recent memory, rivaling even this year’s Oblivion. Breathtaking images of a world in its death throes, accompanied by the powerful choral undertones of Hans Zimmer’s pounding score, captivate the viewer and will thrill any fan of sci-fi. General Zod is an extremely well-thought out and menacing villain, presenting a fantastic opponent to everything Superman stands for and represents, traveling through space and sky in menacing Kryptonian craft (do not even get me started on the body armor he and his fellow defectors wear; some of the scariest stuff I have ever seen). Throw in Zod and company’s drive to preserve their species at all cost, a “survival of the fittest” neo-Darwinian philosophy, and they provide the perfect foil for the morally idealistic Christ-like protector of the weak manifest in Superman.

As a matter of fact, these similarities to Jesus Christ are played up in the film to a remarkable degree, so much so that the film at times feels like a very cleverly disguised allegory. I will not go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that the fact that Clark is thirty-three years old when the events of the film transpire, and that a critical scene in his character progression takes place in a church with the image of a praying Savior prominently featured alongside Clark, suggests strongly that such parallels were intentionally played up. In fact, Snyder has acknowledged that the Christ parallels are a natural part of the Superman mythos, and “rather than be snarky and say that doesn’t exist, we thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through”. This adds extra weight to Superman’s role and purpose, while also making a few of Zod’s actions and demands echo the Biblical Satan in some intriguing ways.

Ultimately, Man of Steel is a triumph, proving that it is in fact possible to seriously present deep and morally weighty ideas while still holding onto the more thrilling, adventurous and optimistic side of comic book heroes. Snyder walks a fine line in his direction of the film between the oppressive seriousness and gravity of The Dark Knight on the one hand, and the light whiz-bang action of The Avengers on the other. Man of Steel presents a shining moral hero as an example for the audience, a frighteningly understandable villain, a stunningly imagined science fiction backstory, soaring action, and a few spiritual allegories and philosophical concepts to stimulate the mind long after the movie is over. Now that is something worth getting excited about.