The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Subversive Film

Wonder Woman

Produced by Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, DC Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allan Heinberg
Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs
Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures

A presumably biologically male individual – for reasons that shall become apparent I cannot call him a man – named Steve Rose, was not impressed with the new Wonder Woman film, and while some of his criticisms – “bludgeoning special effects”, “a messy, often wildly implausible plot” are technical, his primary objections are political. Writing for the left-liberal Guardian newspaper, Rose blasts the movie for failing to be the “glass-ceiling-smashing blockbuster” that he had been anticipating. Later in his review he laments the fact that it left its potential for “patriarchy upending subversion” as an unexplored avenue.

Anyone paying attention to the silly controversies that surrounded the release of this film, from the jeremiads over the heroine’s shaved armpits to the demands for women-only showings, will know that feminist ideologues had high hopes for this film. Not only is its protagonist a female superhero – the female superhero, for that matter, as no other has come remotely close to the same stature as William Moulton Marston’s legendary creation – its director was a woman as well, Patty Jenkins. Surely such a film would not only be a step towards redressing the gender imbalance in the superhero genre but would also be a vehicle for proclaiming the feminist gospel of strong, independent, women who do not need men?

Perhaps the production team had such thoughts in mind as well – finding somebody in today’s Hollywood who is not heavily programmed with left-liberal ideology including feminism is like finding a needle in a haystack – but they had other priorities. They were, after all, making the fourth in a series of films leading up to this fall’s Justice League in which DC hopes to achieve the same kind of success that their rival Marvel has had by tying in movie versions of all their main characters to the Avengers franchise. Apart from the character’s cameo in last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this was to be the big screen debut of the character who comprises, together with the title characters of the aforementioned film, the triumvirate of DC heroes that have dominated the world of comic book superheroes since the Second World War – a full two decades before Stan Lee became the Edward Stratemeyer of cartoons and ushered in the Marvel Age of Comics with the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, etc. Clearly a lot more was riding on the success of this film than satisfying the demands of feminists.

It is possible, however, that what really has Mr. Rose’s panties all tied up in a twist, is that the film is subversive after all – subversive of his own beloved, if entirely unrealistic, beliefs. Although this is purely unintentional on the part of the film’s producers it is nevertheless the effect of the story’s plot. Note that to explain how I will have to give away that plot in its entirety so if you have not seen the film and wish to do so without knowing how it ends, go and do so now before reading any further.

The film begins and ends, shortly after the events depicted in Dawn of Justice, with the title character, portrayed by Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot, reflecting on her personal history in response to a message from Bruce Wayne. She was raised on the island of Themyscira – a tropical paradise where nobody grows old, hidden from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, and populated entirely by women – the man-hating Amazon warriors. Diana, the future Wonder Woman, is the princess of the Amazons, being daughter of their legendary Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Her father, as she discovers at the end of the movie, was Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. Her mother keeps her paternal heritage hidden from her, telling her that she had sculpted her from clay and begged Zeus to bring her to life.

Note that if you are looking for “patriarchy upending subversion” in a strong, female, warrior character, it rather defeats this purpose if the character is both an Amazon and a goddess. From Homer’s Iliad onwards, these have always been exceptions to the patriarchal rule that only men are warriors.

So why did Hippolyta deceive her daughter about her origins? Well, it turns out that Zeus had a particular purpose in mind in siring Diana. In the backstory to the movie, an interesting synthesis of Greek mythology and the Biblical account of the creation and fall of man, Zeus had created man as a just and kind being, but man was corrupted by the god of war, Ares. Zeus then created the Amazons as a positive influence but they were enslaved. Hippolyta led them in revolt, but Ares killed off the gods when they came to the Amazons' defence until Zeus, himself fatally wounded, forced Ares into retreat and then created Themyscira for the Amazons and sired Diana so that there would be someone powerful enough to finish off Ares should he return. Hippolyta gives her daughter an abridged version of this story, leaving out the information that Zeus was her father and that she herself was the weapon intended to be used against Ares.

Hippolyta clearly does not relish the thought of her daughter performing the task for which she was sired. She is reluctant to allow Diana to be trained as a warrior at all, relenting only when it becomes evident that she cannot prevent it. While this is partly maternal concern for the safety of her daughter, she also does not believe the world to be worth saving. When Diana leaves the island during World War I with the intention of hunting down Ares Hippolyta tells her daughter “be careful in the world of men – they do not deserve you.”

The reason Diana left the island is because she had learned of the “war to end all wars” from American Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) whom she had rescued from the ocean after his plane crashed just off the coast of Themyscira. Having become convinced that Ares is behind the war, she arms herself with the Amazonian body armour that would become her Wonder Woman costume, a golden lasso that compels people to tell the truth, and a sword she has been deceived into thinking is the god-killer. She makes a deal with Trevor – she will help him get off the island and back to the war, and he will take her to the front where she can confront Ares. Convinced that a particular German warmonger is Ares in disguise she slays him – but the war still rages on. Trevor explains that people are not always good and share in the responsibility for the evils of war – there isn’t just one bad guy to blame. When she repeats her mother’s words he admits that it may be true, but tells her that it isn’t a matter of deserving, that if she truly believes the war should end and that lives should be saved, she should keep on fighting but she turns from him in disillusionment.

At this point the real Ares (David Thewlis) reveals himself to her. She attacks him with the sword she thinks is the god-killer, but he easily destroys it. He then reveals to her everything that Hippolyta had kept secret – and tries to persuade her to join him in his hatred of mankind. When she hears her mother’s sentiments again, this time from the mouth of her archenemy, she repeats the arguments of Steve Trevor, whom she has just seen sacrifice himself to save thousands of innocent lives, and blasts Ares to smithereens with lightning. Lightning was, not insignificantly, the weapon of her father.

So how best do we encapsulate all of this? To become Wonder Woman and defeat her archenemy, Diana had to leave her women-only island, reject the philosophy shared by both her mother and the villain, and discover the father her mother had hidden from her and choose the path he had set for her. To do all of this she had to meet, fall in love with, and draw inspiration from the man whose judgement she ultimately accepts over that of her man-hating mother.

Yes, this film is subversive all right – subversive of its own feminist message. For that it deserves an award.

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