Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2017

Wonder Woman

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

Feeling like Diogenes carrying around a lamp trying to find an honest man, I futilely search Amazon Prime and Netflix for 2017 films to nominate as best film, director or screenplay in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Based on recent results, including “Wonder Woman”, it appears that the flame in my lamp has died.

With a 92 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only $5.99 to rent on Amazon Prime, I hoped that “Wonder Woman” would pass muster. I wouldn’t have spent $12 for a senior ticket at the local cineplex but six dollars won’t break the bank. I understood that a lot of the left took strenuous objection to an Israeli IDF-supporter cast in the leading role but I wasn’t sure whether an American actress would be carrying lighter baggage. I say that as someone with a fondness for Israeli couscous, so there. If the film was at least some old-fashioned fun, why not? After all, there’s nothing more racist and reactionary than the Indiana Jones franchise, right?

There are many things wrong with the film but chief among them is to use WWI as a historical setting with the Germans being cast as stock character villains. Like most of these youth-oriented films based on apocalyptic showdowns between good and evil, dramatic impact rests on the need for a bad guy with heft. An emblematic figure would be Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men films or Lex Luther in Superman. Indeed, in the original comic book story that the film is adapted from, the setting is WWII. The author was both a patriot who hated Nazis and who hoped to deliver a feminist message.

A Syfy.com journalist endorses the time-shift since it supposedly avoids the reductionism associated with films that feature Nazi bad guys.

But World War I has largely gone unromanticized in mainstream American culture the same way World War II has. The internecine politics of the first modern war make it less ripe as a narrative to distort, lacking figures and sides easy to slot into the roles of heroes and villains. It simply can’t be twisted to serve the narrative need of the aforementioned rah-rah media narrative the way World War II can be.

On the other hand, Breitbart is annoyed because it failed to live up to their American nationalist expectations:

So, why the big switch? Why take the character originally introduced as a true American fighter of the Nazis and push her backwards into a whole other era in a war the U.S. had much less to do with when all was said and done?

It’s likely for the same reason that the new Wonder Woman will be dressed in a drab costume of earth tones instead of the red, white, and blue suit we are all used to. Today’s filmmakers want to erase as much of America from Wonder Woman as possible.

What the Syfy journalist missed was the obvious tropes about German perfidy redolent of the Nazi regime. Their troops are led by a stick figure named General Erich Ludendorff who might as well have been shouting “Heil Hitler” at the drop of a hat or telling Wonder Woman “Ve haf ways of getting information.” His chief assistant is a Spanish chemist named Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison, who is working on a formula to turn mustard gas into a super-weapon that could lead to the extinction of the human race, even if it was originally intended to be used against the British. Since this character first appeared in a WWII Wonder Woman comic, you would be led to believe that she was a premature Falangist. Her weapon is obviously a stand-in for the atomic bomb and consistent with the film’s pacifist message. Doctor Poison, like most of the secondary characters in the film, is underdeveloped. Facially scarred by experiments on herself, she wears a Phantom of the Opera-like mask to cover the scars. You have no idea why she ever involved herself with such a project since neither personal gain nor ideology ever enter the picture. All we know about her is that she has this thing about developing weapons of mass destruction. That’s what happens when you use WWI as a template. Motivation goes down the drain.

There is, of course, another way of seeing this choice. Starring alongside Israeli actress Gal Gadot, Chris Pine plays American spy Steve Trevor who has absconded with Doctor Poison’s notebook. Pine says that it was a great decision to use WWI since the helmets and uniforms look really cool. Pine graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 with a B.A. in English. Maybe you should think twice before sending your kid there.

The film opens with Trevor’s plane crashing into the waters off of the Greek island of island of Themyscira, where the Amazons have been living for millennia. They were sequestered there by Zeus who had plans to make one of its denizens the future killer of Ares who had pissed him off when gods ruled the earth rather than man. It seems that Ares, the god of war, was intent on using war itself as a way of solving the “human problem” and hoped to recruit his long-lost sister Diana (aka Wonder Woman) as a comrade in this cleansing operation.

After Diana rescues Trevor from the water and discovers that WWI is at full tilt, she convinces him to lead her to the outside world in order to kill Ares who she holds responsible for this war and all others. Obviously, the film is not too heavy into political economy. The climax of the film that must have cost $25 million in special effects alone consists of her and Ares throwing army tanks and other massive projectiles at each other. If this is your thing, be my guest. I preferred “Menashe”, a Yiddish-language film about a single dad Hasidic Jew trying to retain custody of his young son.

For many critics, the film was a feminist breakthrough. It was directed by a woman named Patty Jenkins, whose last feature film was “Monster”, a 2003 biopic about the prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos, hardly a resume that would have led to a summer blockbuster like this. The screenplay was written by Allan Heinberg, a gay man with both film and comic book credits. His “Young Avengers” included two gay characters. With a creative team like this behind a film with a pacifist message, it was likely to garner favorable reviews from liberal or leftist critics. Sojourners, a liberal Christian magazine, effused:

Wonder Woman marks a feminist milestone, too, one that feels like artistic justice: it’s the first major superhero movie to feature a female hero, and the first to use a female director, Patty Jenkins.

But it’s also a mission statement. In addition to being about feminism and patriarchy-smashing, Wonder Woman is a movie about the hunger for justice for all oppressed people, women included. It tackles sexism, racism, and the horrors of war, all tied up in a mightily entertaining summer blockbuster package.

If only that was true. Sigh. I have heard such claims made on behalf of any number of blockbusters, including “The Hunger Games” and even films I considered progressive such as “Avatar” and the new Planet of the Apes movies. I doubt that any of them will ever have the impact of a documentary. Maybe this year I’ll stop wasting my time searching Diogenes-like for a worthy narrative film and just nominate 3 documentaries for best movie of 2017.

12 Comments »

  1. what a load of nonsense. A) it’s a movie B) well, it’s a movie. Have fun, enjoy it. It is unlikely to inculcate young people into “America” anymore than the rest of society and mixing WWI with WWII Nazis isn’t really the focus but one of mythology (the god of War). Women beating up on men is a healthier dose of fantasy than an incorrect timeline.

    Comment by mtomas3 — October 14, 2017 @ 6:29 pm

  2. mtomas3 – Film critics are not regular audience members, many of whom want to simply “have fun.” The reviewer here is doing his job as a professional writer by analyzing the film, citing points that the filmmaker may or may not want to deliver to the audience. “It’s only a movie” insults the people who are involved in the art form as though to say to them that they’d better not send political messages to the audience.

    Comment by harveycritic — October 14, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

  3. If art doesn’t incorporate some kind of cultural or socio-political critique then frankly I’m just not interested and consider it drivel sop for mindless consumerism, one of the greatest perils to sustainable life.

    Same goes with film reviews, which are art in their own right, and while Proyect will never achieve immortality in the Christian sense, since that’s all mythology, he will achieve it in the literary sense that all authors with a gift do.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 15, 2017 @ 2:09 am

  4. I saw Wonder Woman on a big screen and thought it was great. Besides Gal Gadot being gorgeous, she’s a very good actress and some of the dialogue is very funny and touching. However, I had the same reaction when it came to the Germans being singled out as uber-villains for the one billionth time in Hollywood until the suprise reveal in the film as to the figure Ares has been in human form. Hint: he’s not a German. It was a plot twist that truly surprised me. To omit it seems wrong precisely because the film expand the film’s critique from German-bashing to the broader issue of a deeply flawed humanity, something that Wonder Woman touches on in various sections of the flick. In short, I think a lot of the German stuff was a set up to pull the rug from under the viewer. (It also has to be said that the Ludendorff character is something of an outcast himself because the rest of the Germans want an end to the war, if I remember the party scene correctly.)

    With these action films the endings are almost always problematic because, obviously, the hero/heroine can’t be completely defeated but there was enough of a sense of tragedy (popcorn style) to give the death of one main character some kind of impact. Also the more touching issue is that as an immortal, Wonder Woman has already outlived all of her friends as the film opens when she is in Paris during a contemporary period. This idea of humans as fragile beings goes back at least to the Iliad with Achilles and the Horses and it was wonderful to see the same theme being conveyed more than a few thousand years later in pop iconography.

    Wonder Woman is not high art but it’s not meant to be high art. It’s meant to be fun and dazzling and in many ways it achieves both goals. The reliance on special effects especially in the last 20 minutes detract from the earlier parts of the film because it’s a rigged fight between Ares and Wonder Woman. But this is the same problem in 99% of all films and almost all art. No one wants to see Sam Spade fail to solve the crime. But Wonder Women is witty and poignant and surprisingly good for a pop culture superhero genre done almost to death by now.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 15, 2017 @ 6:12 am

  5. “It was a plot twist that truly surprised me.” If the creative team was really looking for a way to defy conventional thinking, it should have made Steve Trevor Hans Von Trevorff and the British working on a super-weapon.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 15, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

  6. I didn’t see the movie but Ares is a longtime Wonder Woman foe in the comics (as is Dr. Psycho).

    The earliest WW comics take place during WWII, but there was one very good reason to switch the setting to WWI — to avoid comparisons to Captain America, whose earliest adventures will *always* be stuck during WWII, as they were in the first Captain America movie.

    I remember “Monster” being a great movie, BTW.

    Comment by jschulman — October 15, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

  7. By making Ares you know who is to take it out of a “political read” and get to the deeper layers of the way myth reveals human truth. The film was looking to defy conventional thinking by the switch to shift the dialogue further on to the mythological. I think the film can be criticized on the grounds that the switch happened too late because the full impact of it was somewhat swallowed up in special effects overkill. I personally didn’t have a problem with it (in fact I really liked it precisely because it got past simple German bashing) but I think it would have been even more powerful if it was less rushed.

    I also think setting the film in WWI and NOT WWII was a deliberate attempt to make a larger point about human brutality and get away from WWII since to most of Wonder Woman’s target audience, WWI happened sometime back in the Middle Ages. It is also why they make the point in the film that Ludendorff (in this version) is actually not the leader of the military but someone who is trying to sabotage the surrender.

    Now imagine the same switch happening with Hitler as the immediate stage villain and then a reveal in the last 20 minutes that Churchill was Ares and that Ares was manipulating the mass killing all along.

    Ain’t gonna happen.

    As for Doctor Poison: She is a psychologically far more interesting figure than Ludendorff as she is operating on some deep and much more dark level than Ludendorff who, at the end of the day, is trying to win a war. Without Doctor Poison, Ludendorff is a nobody. Her genius makes him possible. I was hoping she would be more featured as a real female rival to Wonder Woman. But to make Doctor Poison the real focus of the film (as opposed to second banana to Ludendorff) would really have challenged both patriarchal bad guy [Ludendorff] good guy [Steve] cliches as well as conventional bourgeois feminist reads. But few capitalist corporations are going to bet a hundred million dollars or so on such a plot twist especially in the launch of a franchise character.

    Now that the film is a mega-hit, maybe they can be more daring in the sequel. They need some villain who, like Heath Ledger in Batman, is more psychologically compelling, and I hope that figure will be a woman like Doctor Poison although I fear WW will be so stuck in conventional thinking and big money considerations they won’t risk it. So I agree with you in spirit that they have to be more daring or WW will become yet another horrible money making machine and lose the considerable charm of the first film.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 15, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

  8. Hylozoic Hedgehog,
    I have not seen the film Wonderwoman but you comments about women villans remind me of the last season of Fargo and my hopes that in the next season Ruby Goldfarb is revealed as the real master villan of last season

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 15, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

  9. #6 — Since WW is immortal, she might pop up in WWII but I think for the launch you are completely right that starting the franchise in WWI allows her to dominate the entire film where if it’s WWII she is just one of a number of super heroes.

    8# I sure hope we get a woman villain. I think in the launch they were terrified of WW and an island of independent female Amazons (i.e., lesbians). This is why I believe they had to engineer a night of clearly heterosexual passion with Steve to remove all doubt from the popcorn masses that WW might be gay. In the original comic, this would not be a problem just as in the original Batman the idea that Batman and Robin might be gay was equally unthinkable.

    If you had a strong woman villain playing against a strong female lead especially in the franchise launch, the fear might have been that the patriarchy would have been too destabilized for both men and women.

    Ironically, Marston — the guy who created WW — was into the notion of female supremacy and superiority over the useless hapless male.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/wonder-womans-kinky-feminist-roots/380788/

    I think there may well be a connection between some comics and “noir” in Hollywood as they all gave emphasis to darker motivations of humans. This is why people like Frederic Wertham pushed to censor comics as “harmful to children” although I think a lot of adults and teens read complicated comics that would have little appeal to young children. By the mid-1950s, noir was out and Doris Day was in while the Comic Book industry gave birth to the abomination that was “Archie.”

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 16, 2017 @ 2:01 am

  10. I have little interest in the razzle dazzle special effects and comic book heroes of the current Hollywood blockbusters. I loved comic books as a kid, and still appreciate them, especially the early Dr. Strange. The Marvel Silver Age comics were wonderful. The 1970s Swamp Thing and Mike Kaluta’s brief “The Shadow” were great as well.

    But something has been lost in bringing them to the big screen. Whereas the comic book encouraged me to fill in the narrative gaps, to visualize beyond the page, the big screen CGI canvas does the opposite. It eliminates any imagination by seeking to make the superhero world realistic.

    Like Louis, I also appreciate the thoughtful documentary, the low budget character driven drama, especially given what can be accomplished with a relative small budget these days compared to 40 years ago. In this, I guess I’m like someone who kept bleating about how much better the theatre was compared to motion pictures 100 years ago.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 16, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

  11. I don’t feel I have to choose between documentary films and small films and pop Hollywood. I’ve been going to Anthology Film Archives since it was on Wooster Street and Film Forum when it was up by Columbia. I just saw both “Tom Tom the Piper’s Son” and “The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel,” an Estonian sci-fi from 1979-80 based on a book by two Soviet sci fi writers (the Strugatsky Brothers — one of whose books Tarkovsky used for Stalker) at AFA and films by Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren at Light Industry that were accompanied a talk by P. Adams Sitney on the American film avant garde. I could have watched Tom Tom on U-Tube but I’m a film purist dinosaur who believes you must see certain films in theaters for various reasons.

    But there is a crisis of CGI and it’s particularly deadly when it comes to action hero movies. I think the strength of WW was that it tried to avoid too much CGI but they fell into CGI hell when they had to end the film with a climatic fight between WW and Ares. But I think CGI used well can pay off but weak films use it to razzle dazzle distract when the writing and plot are stupid. But I didn’t have a problem with CGI overuse in Lord of the Rings or the latest Star Wars.

    Again, I think a huge amount depends on the script, acting, and direction. When you start really noticing the CGI, you know the film has failed.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 17, 2017 @ 3:22 am

  12. “I could have watched Tom Tom on U-Tube but I’m a film purist dinosaur who believes you must see certain films in theaters for various reasons.

    But there is a crisis of CGI and it’s particularly deadly when it comes to action hero movies.”

    I share both sentiments. On TV, I find that the episodes of Doctor Who that integrate CGI into the background are more effective than the full blown space opera ones.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 17, 2017 @ 2:43 pm


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