“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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“Logan” Review

Logan_2017_posterIf the typical comic book movie is one that is light on its feet, quippy, sterile, and sanitized, Logan operates as the direct inverse. Directed by James Mangold, this entry into the X-Men franchise is bleak, dirty, and fixated on violence. Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe also is obsessed with death and destruction, but while Disney covers its sadism with a sickly sweet sheen of special effects, Twentieth Century Fox’s Logan hurls mutilated bodies at its audience with a focused and unrelenting consistency. On the surface, this may sound like a necessary correction to a genre that increasingly cowers from the consequences of its own carnage (note the critical skewering of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) but Logan functions as little more than a reactionary explosion of over-the-top violence that, aside from its nihilism, offers nothing substantively distinct from the numbing parade of big-budget blockbusters.

In a strange way, Mangold seems to have adopted a mirror position of fallacies typically made by religious fundamentalists in judging artistic merit. The fundamentalist will view a film and reject it out of hand because the work contains content (actions, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc.) which the individual objects to, neglecting how those aspects of the story may be utilized in a manner that is both artistically compelling and humanly truthful. Likewise, Logan confuses the mere presence of horrific violence as a sufficient response to the glossing over of said violence in countless blockbuster franchises. Forcing the viewer to witness innumerable skull-punctures and dismemberments (all depicted in graphic detail) does nothing in itself to justify its own existence, and therein lies the chief problem with Logan: it offends, but it offends with no purpose.

Logan may depict violence, but it offers no meaningful questioning of that same violence. The brutality simply exists. The film is ostensibly an exploration of the modern fear that in a capitalist society we have all been reduced to weapons and tools at the mercy of corporations. Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the eleven-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) are saddled with powerful claws and regenerative abilities, yet the film never presents the opportunity for either character to solve conflict with anything other than the very tools of weaponization the narrative purports to hold in disdain. Scene after scene of slaughter is put before the audience, culminating in a dizzying massacre of nameless bad guys that we’ve seen two-dozen times too many (and this time at the hands of children, a fact that the breathless film never seems to seriously mourn but instead plays as cool and exciting). This climactic battle sees the film perform perhaps its most egregious act of moral jujitsu: it celebrates freedom for children born in test tubes and weaponized in labs while simultaneously reveling in the violent and repeated annihilation of X-24, a mutant clone of Logan also born in a test tube and weaponized in a lab. The obvious parallel is disregarded by a film too obsessed with its own faux-seriousness.

Mangold does certainly know how to direct actors, and Jackman works extremely well with the small-scale material (it’s undeniably refreshing to have a superhero movie where the world/galaxy isn’t at stake), while Patrick Stewart makes quite the impression as an aged and unstable Professor X. Hints of novel ideas, like this theme of aging, pepper the landscape, but Logan is so obsessed with its own brutality that it literally eviscerates every shred of creativity as soon as it threatens to emerge (the excessive and casual disposal of a kindly farmer’s family should sear the most hardened conscience). The cinematography is of the competently mediocre variety that most comic book movies tend towards, an anonymous succession of mathematically consistent close and medium shots that fail to use visual language in any meaningful way other than to linger over a shattered skull or bleeding stump. Its villains are of the cartoonishly predictable and one-dimensional variety, one a soulless scientist, the other an insecure rank hopper who feels lazily plucked from Mangold’s far superior 3:10 to Yuma.

Mangold’s sense of character and moral complexity is alive and well in that also-violent Western, while Logan is content merely to beat its audience over the head with cruelty and refuse to provide any artistic form to the proceedings. Most offensive and concerning of all, Logan seems to think that this shotgunning of brutality with little rhyme or reason is in fact its primary virtue. It is a film that can be considered worthwhile only in relation to the recent slew of obnoxiously safe Marvel titles. Because it is essentially an exercise in excess without craft, Logan often feels like the once repressed child of sheltering parents gone overboard in teenage rebellion. If you find yourself wanting a thoughtful exploration of violence and nihilism, pulling out No Country for Old Men from the DVD pile may prove more worth your time.

Deadpool and Moral Perversion

We watch a movie or read a book because we think it is worth engaging with. While “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” may have its merits, I don’t think it would demonstrate a great deal of worth to me, so I don’t watch it. As a result, art reflects what we find to be valuable. Art also changes our understanding of what has value. Consciously or unconsciously, we are changed by our art.

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Louie, I think this is the beginning of a horrible habit.

The way some people will be shaped by certain art will be different, and it is important to be cautious about critiquing art too broadly. It is unwise for a compulsive smoker to watch “Casablanca,” and it is unwise for a particularly violent person to watch “Gladiator,” but that doesn’t make these films particularly evil, it makes them unwise viewing material for some people.

If films can contain content wicked enough to exclude some audiences, can there be films that have content wicked enough to exclude all audiences? Can we ever say with confidence that “No one should see that movie”?

Operating under the assumption that we can make this claim, I will declare (with China, apparently) that no one should see 20th Century Fox’s “Deadpool.”

PRODUCT PLACEMENT
This film was made totally independent from corporate interests, just like how Suburbans are the most reliable and efficient Sports Utility Vehicles on the market that will keep you independent from automotive trouble on the road.

This film, based off of the beloved comic book mercenary Deadpool, has been given an extensive marketing campaign, all trying to reassure comic book fans that this Deadpool will be the character they know from Marvel comics, not the confusedly mute and stoic character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

All of my observations have been based off of the handful of trailers that have come out for this film. The fact that the trailers themselves have thoroughly condemned the film to my moral sensibility shows that I am either a fuddy-duddy (possible) or the film is deeply wicked.

Deadpool is a character based on perversion and irreverence, a comic hero in a tragic setting. In the trailers alone the character strips away meaning and value from important things, leaving only cynical humor and gore.

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Don’t worry, at least he can do cool tricks.

Nearly every trailer for this film is a comedy trailer. Comedic trailers have patterns, beats and pauses, that demonstrate when the content is telling a joke. When this trailer pauses, once even with the stereotypical comedic record scratch, it is during scenes of brutal violence. We are to laugh as a bullet crashes through several brains, spilling a bloody mess. We are to laugh when Deadpool hoists up a human being with his two swords, crowing that he has turned him into “a f***ing kabob.” Violence is a joke to Deadpool, but we are not asked to be disgusted at him, we are asked to laugh with him as he dances in scenes strewn with carnage of his own making, laughing at human dignity, laughing at the value of life.  

After graphic scenes of death, Deadpool declares that he is “so turned on right now” and “definitely touching myself tonight,” as if violent disposal of human life is a matter of sexual titillation.

Deadpool also perverts sexuality, sexualizing nearly everything with juvenile efficiency. The trailers, complete with strippers, feature the protagonist making every possible reference to sex. As he stuffs an enemy’s mouth, he taunts “I never say this, but don’t swallow,” after a female villain punches someone he quips “I so pity the dude who pressures her into prom sex.” Sexuality is a joke, and the only women not strippers or his love interest seem to be immediately sexualized.

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Freud would have a lot of uncomfortable things to say about this movie.

This film is set in the context of the most generic plot imaginable. “When your worst enemy is after your best girl” seems to be the extent of this film’s conflict. This basic plot is a vehicle to portray the hero’s perversion. The film seems to act out a Freudian adolescent daydream where the hero is invincible, dominates everyone, and rejoices in objectification and lechery.

But why have I bothered to write this article? Obviously this film is trashy, it bills itself as such. But humans have been making horrible art forever, and we have to expect evil at the box office.

I am writing this article because I have seen many of my friends, Christians even, expressing overwhelming excitement at this film. Given that the film is unabashedly advertising itself as perverse (one advertisement consists of Deadpool cursing and making sexually charged comments to children), I cannot reason why anyone should watch, much less be excited for, “Deadpool.” What virtue or value can come out of this film?

Some may say the film has merit as an exploration of a wicked character, but Deadpool is not a character as much as a combination of internal desires, a bundle of lusts that is clearly made to be rejoiced in.

Some may answer that the film will be a fun action film purely seen for base enjoyment. But when a film intentionally uses graphic and wicked means to portray “fun,” the very act of watching the film is demeaning.

I may be missing something. Perhaps my frustration at what I have seen has blinded me to real merit and value, and I would welcome correction in the comments, but I can see no reason or acceptable excuse for watching the bloody, carnal circus “Deadpool.”

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Maybe the totally interesting and original jokes about chimichangas justify the horrific violence and sexual objectification.