When she first gets to London, Wonder Woman pronounces it “hideous.” “Yeah,” Steve Trevor says, “it’s not for everybody.” And at the time I thought, Huh…it almost sounds like these two are talking about a different movie. Or two. Or three…
Wonder Woman first debuted in 1941, the creation of psychologist William Moulton Marston, his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and their (shall we say) very good friend, Olive Byrne. Olive was, apparently, the one who like big, clunky bracelets. And getting interviews with her former professor published in nationally circulated magazines, like Family Circle. National Publications publisher Max Gaines read one of these, called “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” and thought, “What’s this? A psychologist who isn’t running around saying comic books are corrupting the minds and damning the souls of America’s youth? Who is, in fact, saying the exact opposite? That comic books have ‘great educational potential’? They they are, in fact, the descendents of ancient myths we used to give to children in order to tell him how to act right? We must hire this man immediately!”
So Gaines did, Marston pitched him Wonder Woman, and she’s been in continuous publication every since…except for a few months in the late-80s, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths remade her universe. She even had a three-season TV series in the middle-70s, entering a rarefied club previously occupied only by the likes of Superman and Batman.
It shouldn’t surprise you that forces within Warner Brothers (which owns National Publications’ successor company, DC Comics) have been trying to make a live-action Wonder Woman movie since at least 1996, almost beating Spider-Man’s 25-years in Development Hell. They did make an animated movie in 2009, of course, but it wasn’t a Disney movie and it released straight-to-Wal-Mart’s Electronics section, so it was promptly forgotten by pretty much everyone other than me. We’ll get there.
Today we have yet another Cruel and Unusual Production, though not even the most contrarian dickheads dare to make that joke. Directed by Patty Jenkins, writer/director of the Academy Award winning 2003 Aileen Wuornos movie Monster and…oh, gods, an episode of Entourage? Sweet shambling zombie Christ, the Oscar Curse is real! Granted, Jenkins really did take time off to raise a baby in the early 2000s, and she was one among the many who almost directed Thor: The Dark World, before leaving over unspecified creative differences. Which works out for us, since it let her take this job.
Screenwriter Alan Heinberg, apart from all the TV shows under his belt, has the benefit of being an actual comic book writer, which is rarer in Hollywood than you’d think. Less so now, though, since DC shut down the New York office and moved the whole mess out to Burbank. Most of my colleagues know him for the opening run on Young Avengers. But some of us also know him for the five issues of Justice League he co-wrote with Geoff Johns in the wake of Identity Crisis. And the issues of Wonder Woman he wrote a year later, in the wake of Infinite Crisis.
Evil Me: That paragraph will make no sense to anyone who wasn’t reading comic books ten years ago.
Hey, preaching to the choir, man. If I had my way (and Scarlet Witch’s superpowers) I’d walk into DC’s new offices and declare, “No more Crises!”
Evil Me: And the same problem persists.
Yeah, well, you fucked up that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” quote last time. It was Arthur C. Clarke, not Asimov.
Evil Me: …
Yeah, that’s right, sulk.
Heinberg’s Wonder Woman books were something of a soft reboot of the series, something Diana’s been through more than a few times, both before and since. Reboots are inevitable and we have no choice but to consider each in turn. Every generation thinks this is some new thing, but as Archmaester Rigney once said, history is a wheel, and what has happened before will perforce happen again.
I still remember a time when I had to explain Wonder Woman’s origins to self-professed comic book nerds who recoiled in terror from anything “too girly,” because they were afraid of girls. Seeing Diana become the most popular thing in the DC Movie Universe is…gods, what is this feeling inside me…could it be…pleasant surprise? It’s been so long I’m not even sure…tell me, Hunter, could this be joy?
Here, as always, she’s sculpted from clay by the Queen of the Amazons, had life breathed into her by Zeus, and super powers bequeathed to her, either by virtue of her godly heritage, or by an all-star tag team of Olympian goddesses. Here, as always, Diana’s raised on the island of Themyscira – a dot of land in the Aegean Sea (when its not in another dimension) that’s the last place in the world her people’s gods still hold some power. Zeus bequeathed the island and the immortality inherent in it to the Amazons at some unspecified time in the past, for reasons that shift with every remake.
This time, Diana’s mom, Hippolyta, mentions “a revolt that freed us all from enslavement,” but she doesn’t mention who did the enslaving. No one wants to blame it on Zeus’ bastard son Herakles these days, like George Perez and Greg Potter did back in the 1987, because – particularly to my fellow Americans – Herakles is Hercules and Hercules is either a Disney character, or Kevin Sorbo. Who’s become a god-bothering asshole in his old age, exclusively making terrible, Christo-fascist propaganda films like God is Not Dead…but we don’t need to talk about Kevin.
So, fine. Let’s talk about Ares. Who some say created the Amazons, though Queen Hippolyta tells a different story – giving full credit to Zeus – and why shouldn’t she? Ancient Greek historians were pretty damned biased against the Amazons for pretty obviously sexist reasons, and they usually blamed Ares for all the shit they didn’t like in the world. Plus you could read this whole movie as a critique of everyone’s religious biases.
Diana grew up home-schooled in a (for obvious reasons) very devout family, so her naivete in the face of “man’s world” and her conviction that all the hideous things happening out there must be the God of War’s fault is entirely fitting. Her eventually love interest and native guide – Steve Trevor – is American…and about the only philosophical thing we learn about him is a credo from his dad. “If you see something wrong, you can either do something, or nothing. And I tried nothing.” Hey, same here, dude. But Doing Something doesn’t always help, either. Especially when it comes to the realm of foreign policy. You might, say, liberate a Belgian village from German occupation and that might be fine for a night and a day…but it’ll leave the Germans with no compunction about bombing said village from the next town over…
And then, of course, there’s Ares – the God of War who considers himself a God of Truth because of course he does. Nobody like Ares, not even back in the day. He was always the stupid, whiny, man-baby of the family: a god of mass-casualties and burning cities. Zeus even says, in the Iliad, “If you weren’t my son, I’d throw you down under Tartarus, with the Titans!” It’s no wonder every subsequent civilization has tried to make Ares more threateningly badass, usually by adding armor, or horns, or red eyes, or decent villain monologues. Or all three, as here.
So Diana grows up chafing at the provincial nature of her life until, one fateful day, an American pilot crash lands just off shore. Diana rescues him, he tells the Amazons how fucked up and weird the outside world’s gotten in their presumably-thousands-of-years-long absence, and together the two of them to journey into man’s world to try and make it a better place. The outline is still here, which was all I prayed to the old gods for. Only the details change.
For one thing, Zeus and the other gods are dead – killed by Ares, according to Hippolyta and the very Paradise Lost-as-illustrated-by-William-Blake flashback sequence that illustrates her story near the start. Sad to see the Olympians won’t be hanging out to make trouble for the mortals of this DC Universe, but hell, they’ve been dead before. And if gods never died, they could never be reborn.
So Steve Trevor informs Themyscira that a massive war’s consumed the outside world. In the most obvious change from previous Wonder Woman origins, this war is World War I instead of its more popular sequel. He even calls it “The War to End All Wars,” a corruption of the title of an H.G. Wells book of essays from 1914, when all the “smart” people of the world still thought World War I would be over by that Christmas. This change of setting caused a minor tempest in a tea-cup among good, upstanding, righteous people who were hoping to see Diana punch some Nazis, and among complete and utter morons who blamed the lack of Nazis on the phantom that lives in their heads called “political correctness.”
Nine times out of ten, when a person’s bitching about “political correctness” – especially in a multimillion dollar summer blockbuster movie – what they’re really bitching about is capitalism. But don’t you dare say that to their face, unless you’re prepared for a several-minutes-long screed about how
Evil Me: Capitalism’s the greatest and bestest idea that ever chewed its way out of humanity’s head, and how dare you criticize it you trecherous pinko, commie scum? What is that in your wallet? Money? Hypocrite!
It’s the most “politically correct” thing you can say in the English speaking, capitalist world, but since “politically correct” is a slur conservatives invented for everything they don’t like, everyone just calls that “common sense,” or “conventional wisdom.”
Here’s some “conventional wisdom” from the movie industry, then: if you’re going to make a $150 million dollar Wonder Woman movie, it’s going to need to make at least twice that much just to break even. Which means you’re going to have to ship it to as many countries as possible, including countries that have rules about how much Nazi shit you can put into your supposedly all-ages sci-fi/fantasy summer blockbuster. Like France…or Germany. This is why, in case you were wondering, Captain America’s movies contain no more than one swastika per film, and they only appear on screen for fractions of a second.
Plus, before Wonder Woman came out – right after the first full trailer hit the internet, in fact – I remember quite a few original and creative thinkers making some variation of the same joke: “Wow, can’t wait to watch Captain America: The First Avenger!” See, Diana has a circular shield – an aspis, she probably grew up calling it – and she uses it to bash German people about the head. And if that joke occurred to so many random people on Twitter, it’s safe bet it occurred to at least some of the people working on this movie’s development. It probably made someone higher up in the corporate food chain concerned about what they call “brand confusion,” and what we civilians call “ripping off their only real competition.” As if that’s not going to happen anyway.
I’m not sure if any of these considerations led to the temporal setting change alone, or if all of them did in aggregate, and I don’t really care too overmuch because the change works in some surprising ways. Moving the action back to World War I softens the explicit nationalism you’re gonna find if you go back to Wonder Woman’s 1942 origin, introducing a degree of moral ambiguity that would’ve been impossible to sell in that other war. It also allows the movie to pull a fast one on cynical, comic book nerds like me who think we can call all of a movie’s shots by watching the trailers. Artistic works must defy audience expectations. It’s the only way to create space for the sublime to flourish in the average punter’s festering, calcified soul. Not that it’ll always work…but what’s better? Defying expectations and being remembered for pissing people off, or satisfying expectations and getting forgotten about in the time it takes someone else to shake some keys in front of our eyes?
So Steve Trevor is a spy with the American Expeditionary Force who found a secret Central Powers weapons factory in what’s now Turkey, overseen by the head of the German war effort, General Erich Ludendorff. Steve stole a book of secrets, including the location of other weapons factories in Europe, stole himself a plane, crashed, and the rest you know. Over the course of the film, Diana becomes convinced that Ludendorff is actually Ares in disguise, and the movie does a very good job selling this fake-out. Special props to the Villain Monologue Ludendorff makes at Diana later on. About how war is a god that requires regular human sacrifice and “peace” is just a temporary reprieve between wars. Which are, of course, a “natural,” and inevitable part of the human condition that should be celebrated, because they allow “men” to transcend their petty, everyday concerns and subsume themselves to a Greater Cause and blah, blah, blah…
This may be nothing like what you’d hear out of Classical Ares (too articulate), but it’s pure, undiluted comic book Ares. Unfortunately for everyone who died in World War I, it also passed for conventional wisdom among the European ruling class of the time. You think anyone (outside of Austria and Serbia) really gave a fuck about the Austrian crown prince getting shot in the streets of Sarajavo? No. But the dumb fucks in charge really did think war was a generational right of passage, which is the kind of thinking that gets entire generations killed or maimed. Especially now that we in the world outside Themyscira all worship machines, like Enchantress said back in Suicide Squad.
Of course, Ludendorff isn’t Ares in disguise – that would be too easy. He’s just a dumb asshole, like he was in real life, though why no one made Danny Huston grow a mustache I’ll never know. Sure, he’s hopped up on some kind of super-steroid, invented by his Mad Scientist in Residence, Dr. Poison, but her presence (and the new hydrogen-mustard gas she’s working on) provide a better reason for Ludendorff’s famous pigheaded stupidity than he ever had in real life. Plus Dr. Poison’s a Golden Age Wonder Woman villain, and Diana’s rogue’s gallery needs all the publicity it can get. Not that Dr. Poison gets much in the way of characterization.
There is one scene where she almost gets some, again at Ludendorff’s preemptive victory celebration…but that scene’s more about showcasing how Steve, much to my surprise, has some decent spy skills…other than the standard, action movie spy skills of blowing shit up real good and shooting people. He can blend into a party, saddle up to his target, and start a conversation about fire and its resemblance living things that – if Dr. Poison’s expression is anything to go by – actually peaks her interest. Only his wandering eyes, noticing Diana Across a Crowded Room, ruin things at the last minute, and can you really blame him?
Well, yeah you can, but I won’t, because this is the first time I haven’t outright hated a Chris Pine performance. Might have something to do with the actress he’s working with. Or the fact he’s not doing his bad Shatner impression. But it has more to do with the fact that he plays Steve as a world-weary vet, accepting of all the mystical shit he literally crashed into, but skeptical of its implications. So when Diana’s impaling of General Ludendorff fails to end the war, Steve’s there to at least try to help her through a crisis of faith. It doesn’t help in the moment – the real Ares has to show up and do the standard “with our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict” speech before it takes – but Steve’s example of someone who still fights to prevent mass casualties in the face of a godless world full of assholes provides Diana with a counter-example to Ares’ genuinely cynical reading of the human condition. Especially after Steve makes a Noble Sacrifice to stop the eleventh-hour gas bombing of London.
Ares, then. Turns out he really has been pulling strings behind the scenes, disguised as Sir Patrick Morgan, the (entirely fictional) token peacenik in the British Imperial War Cabinet. When Steve’s superiors forbid him from destroying one of Dr. Poison’s factories in Belgium, lest his cowboy antics endanger on-going Armistice negotiations, it’s Sir Patrick who comes through with the cash and the travel papers Diana and Steve need to get a team together and get across the Channel. The way he’s framed and shot and played by David Thewlis lulls you into a false sense of him as kindly Uncle Moneybags, while the twist of his identity rewards a second viewing by bringing up all kinds of questions. Did he recognize Diana the moment she and Steve barged into the War Council meeting? Probably. Is his pose as a peacenik simple dramatic irony? Or does he know what the upcoming Treaty of Versailles is going to do? Plenty of people did at the time, without the benefit of godly insight. If so, Ares villain plot boils down to “cause World War II,” which is entirely in keeping with all his previous incarnations.
As is Diana’s response. That “only love can save the world.” Not the romantic love Hollywood’s been selling from it’s inception – though there is some of that here, too. (And good on you, Diana – get some! Happens less often than you’d think.) No, we’re talking about compassion – which some would define as “unconditional love” and consider it essential to any superhero’s life. “Unconditional” as in “not limited, without qualifications, a diamond absolute.” Love even in the face of assholes, capable of the greatest horrors, because they’re still human and what other options are there? Narcissistic divinities, who viewed humans as their finger puppets? Pulling our strings, putting whims in our heads and then washing their hands of the consequences? Fuck all that noise.
This championing of such love is essential to Wonder Woman’s character, and to see it on the big screen in this era of misery and death was one of my favorite movie moments of 2017. As much as the sight of Diana wrestling Ares – in full armor – across an air base. All I wish is that it didn’t come so late in the film, and Steve didn’t have to be the one to illustrate it to Diana. That kind of thing used to be a tenant of Amazonian philosophy because, of course, it was a tenant of Wonder Woman’s creator’s philosophy. But that was long ago, and compassion is now so far out of fashion, I’m amazed even vestigial bits of it crop up at the end of the climactic battle, when all but those who really care have usually stopped paying attention.
The Amazons demonstrate love – certainly for Diana – and I suppose that’s more important than speaking it. May we all have aunts as cool as Antiope, gods rest her, who teach us to kick ass and take names. And may we have moms who are better than Hippolyta, who tell us about our ability to absorb and redirect the energy of the Olypian gods before we need to use them. And may the next Wonder Woman movie be better than this one.
Evil Me: Oo, very poor choice of words. There’s no way anyone would take that remark out of context, no.
*sign* I mean, look, nothing’s perfect. Everyone who isn’t Diana or Steve is unfortunately flat, much as I like the team Steve puts together for this mission to drop Diana off at the front. Everyone’s got their signature personality trait, and their signature weapon, ready to become the action figures they pretty much already are. There’s a bit of a directing disconnect whenever action scenes crop up, and my critic-senses tell me that’s the sign of the second unit taking over. Speed-ramping – that action movie director habit of slowing down action shots for emphasis and then speeding them back up – has returned to comic book film, and I don’t like it any more than I did when it was Zack Snyder’s trademark…but since he didn’t direct this (only produced it, and he gets story credit) no one else cares, so fuck it.
What I mean is, we should all know how this goes by now – how it has gone since 2008. Companies make the first movie a by-now-standard superhero origin story in the hope that their second movie will become a billion dollar, Dark Knight-level blockbuster. And unlike Batman, Diana’s got 100 years of in-universe history to play with and 75 years of real-world history to fit in there, somewhere. The frame story reveals she’s got a job in some basement of the Louvre, in Paris – a city where statuesque, polylingual brunettes are so thick on the ground she blends right in – so they really could go anywhere from here. They could bring in Cheetah, Circie (the sorceress, not the Lannister), Eris, Dr. Psycho, Devastation – hell, if the gods that overthrew them really are all dead, what the fuck happened to the Titans? Are they still under Tartarus, waiting for some asshole to set them free?
I don’t know. All I know is, it’s fun to dream and there are now two good Wonder Woman movies in the world, which is two more than I ever dared dream about. When the 2009 movie came out, I nearly had a heart attack it was so good, and…
Evil Me: Don’t even start.
Evil Me: You’ve been far too positive for far too long. Never forget: I am here to see you suffer.
How the hell could I?
Evil Me: I feel a reminder is in order. Yes. It’s high time something you despise emerged…out of the shadows.
Oh, Suffering Sapho.