Monday, 19 June 2017

Wonder Woman

At the very end of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), she is never referred to as Wonder Woman in the film, she doesn't need this title that was given to her by man, she simply is one, who is working at the Louvre in Paris, an interesting change from her previous incarnations who were mostly confined to English speaking parts of the world, goes up to the roof in her Wonder Woman outfit and leaps towards the camera flying off to save the world on her own. There is no romantic kiss goodbye from anyone, or a lover waiting in the wings, there is only Diana against the world. Superhero or not, it is rare to find a film that centres a strong woman who isn’t paired off at the end of it. There have been a few, but even Mad Max Fury Road had Tom Hardy's Max puppy eyeing Furiousa at the end of the film leaving it open for possibilities, and I'm pretty sure that in Star Wars: The Force Awaken, Finn will be waiting for Ray when she finishes being mentored by yet another father figure (Both film written and directed by men, even if talented ones). For the most parts, strong as they may be, the women of popular entertainment are hardly ever complete without a “husband” or a "father". 

Of course, the film does give Diana a love interest, Steve Trevor the original love interest of Wonder Woman of the comic books, but this love story is very small and quite minor in the great scheme of things. One tender kiss and some funny sexual remarks is all we get to see of this love affair. It isn’t grand, the earth doesn’t move when they, presumably, sleep together and while Diana's relationship with Steve helps her realise the "power of love", though not that alone, life and heroic duties go on after he dies.

Created in 1941 by psychologist, lawyer, inventor and an irregular man William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was famously modelled on a combination of his whip-smart tomboy wife Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway and the couple’s lover who lived with them, Olive Bryne, the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who is also cited as an inspiration to several of the Wonder Woman storylines. However, Elizabeth, who was an activist in the feminist movement as was her husband William and Olive, contributed more than just her looks to the character of Wonder Woman, including her famous phrase “Suffering Sappho” a reference to Sappho an ancient Greek poet known for poems where women professed their affections for other women. Her contribution to the character rarely gets mentioned if ever. It is interesting to note that nowadays, while the film was unfortunately still written by a bunch of men, it is director Patty Jenkins that is mentioned the most in reviews and receives the main creative credit and recognition from critics and audiences alike.

The unique lifestyle of the Marston family, which included bondage fetish and an interest in S&M, has earned William Moulton Marston the title of a weirdo and a creep. Even today this life choices are hard for many to accept. When reading about Marston's life he is often portrayed a hypocrite, a feminist on the outside and an offensive dominant male at home. It is difficult to find articles or accounts that describe the women's part in this family and therefore it is problematic to assume they were victims. The uncommon family had to hide their unpopular lifestyle from the world that continues to judge them to this day, and so for example, they pretended that Olive was a housekeeper. 

Marston was also the creator of systolic blood pressure test, which became a component in the modern polygraph, invented by Josh Augustus Larson. It was his wife Elizabeth that suggested to him the connection between emotion and blood pressure, though just as with her contribution to Wonder Woman, she did not, or could not, receive credit for her contribution to academic research. The lie detector was proved as non scientific and Marston was investigated by the FBI for lying about his lie detector in a Gillette commercial. However, it was a significant psychological research. Wonder Woman's lasso of truth is said to have been inspired by this interest of Marston. 

Wonder Woman was conceived to “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls for self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolised by men.” A progressive view at a time, especially for a man. In the comic Wonder Woman was often depicted in bondage, which indeed hints to the above mentioned bondage fetish, but it it is important to note that she was never a damsel in distress and always had to free herself from her shackles without help. In her final battle against Ares in the film, Diana finds herself on the floor restrained with some metal boards, an image that very much reminds those early Wonder Woman covers, she manages to free herself in fury when she realises Steve is dead. Perhaps a bit simplistic and yet symbolically freeing her from the control of any man, good or bad, love interest or enemy. 

Diana Prince is a woman from a foreign land, dressed in the colours of the American flag, protecting the values of a men her people decided to turn their back on. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman's outfit is less obvious American colours and while it is still a skimpy skirt, she spend most of the film covered up and only changes for battle. Her outfit feels more like that of a Greek warrior. The casting of Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress,  who speaks with a thick accent for the role of Diana Prince, is an interesting choice. Because Gadot has served in the Israeli army, the film has been banned in Lebanon. Gadot's political inclinations have often been a topic of interest and I would not be surprised if she received specific instructions to avoid the subject in order to promote the film. Wherever she may stand on the political map, her casting was a risky gamble and an unexpected brave move for a mainstream blockbuster film. Patty Jenkins has admitted that it wouldn’t have crossed her mind to cast a non-American for the role, despite the character being non-American. Luckily Gadot was cast before Jenkins signed back on to the film and so we get a Wonder Woman that looks and sounds different, who speaks hundreds of languages, who sees good and bad in everyone and offers a truly different point of view. 

The world of male superheroes offers a variety of heroes, from the squeaky-clean symbols of courage that are Superman, Captain America and Thor, who take pride in their heroic duties through the in between, sarcastic, but righteous inside, Iron Man, to the darker broody heroes like Batman, the Hulk and Wolverine. The female superheroes are usually more reluctant, dark and must sacrifice themselves. Black Widow, the only female Avenger in the Marvell Cinematic Universe, was trained, tortured and most importantly sterilised, which makes her a monster in her own eyes, joins the Avengers to clear her conscious. Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy wants revenge against her father and to clear her own name and even Buffy (all hail the amazing Buffy) is a reluctant hero who only wants a normal life, often walks the dark side and has sacrificed herself to save the world more than once. While darker superheroes tend to be more interesting and attractive, the world has embraced male heroes compelled by their sense of duty, honour and morality like Captain America and Superman. Wonder Woman is the first female superhero that corresponds with those qualities by being motivated by love. Furthermore, her most iconic moment, the first time she is revealed in her Wonder Woman outfit and the first time the theme comes on, when she is crossing No Man's Land, is an action sequence made primarily of deflecting fire and defence. Unlike Captain America, who very quickly turns his shield into a weapon, Diana hardly uses her shield as anything but protection. Her greatest power is defence and deflection and it is with that power that she eventually defeats Ares. 

Whatever the problem the Wonder Woman film suffers from, which in my view are very few if any, its achievements and firsts not only make up for it, but make it a great superhero film that for the first time in the long history of superhero films, was not frustrating to women. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Beautiful on the Inside?

It is extremely frustrating and worrying to find so few, non mainstream reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that refer to the unsettling portrayal of new character Mantis and her relationship with Guardians’ muscle man Drax 

It is true, I am a DC kinda gal and have recently tired of Marvell’s Cinematic Universe (MCU), whose superheroes are so sleek, witty and sharp it is exhausting me trying to come up with the kind of metaphor that would measure up. They are as quick with their tongues as they are with their, shield, iron suit, arrows or kicks and even when they are broken and tormented like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and Captain America… well… pretty much all of the time they never lose that clever touch which makes them so annoyingly perfect and untouchable. The MCU battles are as clean as their superheroes hair, clothes and face and as aesthetically pleasing. But in the end, they become repetitive, tiresome and as boring as the villain from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, so forgettable his name and evil plans escape me. Indeed, I like my heroes like I like my battles, bleak, violent occasionally angry and always gritty and dirty. The DC superheroes are less likeable, not always witty, occasionally heavy, and if there is anything DC could improve on is sense of humour, which most of their superheroes lack, they are usually too busy suffering to be able to come up with one liners. None of the DC superheroes have got it easy, they hurt, they suffer and their heroism is often a burden and always have consequences, which are usually dire.

There are of course exceptions, DC has created Suicide Squad, which was their pathetic attempt to compete with Marvell’s ensamble films and I choose to pretend it never happened. Marvell have produced Logan which was exceptional and a lot more DC in nature than MCU. 

But while this can be put down to taste and preferences, there are a few sins that MCU cannot and should not get away with, no matter how much flashy witticism and “cool” they throw at us, and one of them is their frankly embarrassing representation of women, superheroes or others. Starting with the fact that no Marvell female superhero has yet to get her own film, even though they spit out as many films as Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits, which is more than twice the amount of films DC has brought out, while DC is making history with a second female superhero film (the first is Supergirl in the 1980s) or perhaps even a third one if you count Catwoman from 2004, but perhaps it is better, like with Suicide Squad, to ignore that one. The women that do grace the Marvell films, usually as part of a group like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, or as superheroes’ girlfriends, function mainly as either a plot device, or to allow men to develop their characters. Black Widow’s greatest achievements include support for Captain America in Winter Soldier and Carer/love interest to Bruce Banner/Hulk. In Ant-Man the much more qualified and capable Hope must step aside and train the barely adequate Scott Lang and also provide him a love interest. Pepper Pot is mostly there to tut and point a reproaching finger at Tony Stark and Thor girlfriend played by Natalie Portman… well… I can’t even remember her name, what does that tell you? At least Captain America’s love interest, Agent Carter, who barely exists in the films, found life in the world of television, as did Jessica Jones, agent l Agent Carter was created by a bunch of men mind, but that’s something.

Not that DC is clear of those or all other charges, though both Smallville's Lois Lane and Amy Adams' Lois Lane from the recent Superman film are a vast improvement on the 1980s Lois Lane and any of the Marvell "girlfriends", but in Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 a line has been crossed and left a bitter taste and a foul feeling that continued to bother me long after the film. The almost complete silence in the media, which generally praised the film, over this issue has made it more disturbing.

In the film, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is an alien slave to Ego, the main villain of the film, who raised her since she was a larva. Kurt Russell is very good as Ego and without a doubt an improvement on whoever it was who was the villain in the first film. Mantis never questions Ego and his evil plans or motives, she does what he tells her to do, until our heroes, the Guardians, come to save her and show her the way. We know very little about Mantis and her life with Ego other than she has some empathic powers, which, in order not to be completely useless in a fight, she is able to use against Ego. Then there is Drax (Dave Bautista, who I usually like and was the best thing in the first film), Guardians’ muscle man, big and cuddly and a little bit silly. He thinks Mantis is ugly and a pet and he never misses an opportunity to tell her so. He even gags in disgust at the thought of being physical with her, which was that extra touch to make this interaction disturbing. This is supposedly hilarious because of course we know that Mantis, who finds Drax’s repulsion of her hysterically funny, is actually really beautiful. For Drax women should be big to be beautiful. And so, the first main interaction of a woman who was raised as a slave, with those who are suppose to save her, is that of insults, which she doesn’t understand and are to do with her value as attractive or beautiful in the eyes of a man who is a potential romantic interest. But because Drax is just a big child, it has been established in the first film that his thinking is literal and he doesn’t understand metaphors and says what’s on his mind with no filter, it is OK for him to insult Mantis with not but a pathetic reproach from Gamora (Zoe Saldana), quite possibly the most boring Guardian whose main function, once again, is to provide Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a love interest and in the first film a punching bag for Drax, who blames her for the death of his family and keeps calling her a whore. 

Furthermore, Mantis is supposed to be an alien, yet her character is largely and suspiciously drawn from the stereotype of a submissive Asian woman/wife, a servant who laugh at insults because she doesn’t understand them and speaks funny. The film suggests a possible love story between her and Drax, a dominant man who treats her badly, why would she betray Ego then is beyond me.

Despite not liking the first film very much, I did not go to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 looking for flaws and I definitely did not want to get as angry as I did with the film. All I wanted was good music, some decent action and the joy that is Baby Groot! And there was a lot to enjoy about in Guardians 2, Yandu proved to be pretty damn awesome, Kurt Russell, as mentioned, was excellent as Ego, a tiny yet great David Hasselhoff cameo and indeed Baby Groot! The real star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Then Mantis appears and the abuse from Drax commences and the film regresses into an unwatchable terrible joke.

The character of Mantis becomes even more jarring and grating when digging in to her origin in the comic. A former Avenger, Mantis is a half Vietnamese human woman who was raised to be a celestial Madonna whose destiny is to give birth to the celestial Messiah, the most important being in the universe. Judging on her Wikipedia page alone, which granted is not much, her story seems to rely heavily on her role as a companion/love interest to some male hero and/or a mother to another. It is disappointing that MCU did not consider improving this potentially incredible character, who at least in the comic has not only empathic powers, but also some precognition and superb martial arts fighting skills, she even defeated Thor at some point. Instead the film reduces her to an idiotic trophy wife. It is hardly surprising that creator of the character, Steve Englehart was unhappy with her cinematic portrayal.

The excuse for Drax's behaviour is that he is not but a child who speaks his mind and doesn’t know better, does not make it better. Throughout history men have always been allowed to make comments, rude, flattering or otherwise, about women’s appearances and women’s value was measured by how attractive or useful they are to men. To declare that Drax “doesn’t know better”, “Is not human” “He is childish” "is stupid" is simply another way to preserve this appalling status quo.  

When discussing this point, which truly bothered me and pretty much ruined a film I was enjoying until then, I was told that people will tell me that the problem is with me, that I am seeing things that aren’t there because I don’t like the film or Marvell or whatnot. While this might be partly true, I was genuinely taken aback and surprised by this display of misogyny and racism, I didn’t think this would pass in these days’ Hollywood who is desperately trying to prove with diverse gender swap remakes (Ghostbusters) and an array of films, still made by men mind, that put a strong badass and awesome female leads (Star Wars: The Force Awaken, Mad Max Fury Road and others) to the world that it is progressing. What happened with Guardians 2 and how come no one is outraged? The sad truth is that I don’t think this was in any way intentional or malicious, it is so inherent that it almost seems natural and therefore OK.

Following the extremely uncomfortable controversy of the Doctor Strange casting, of which I admit I was completely ignorant to when I watched the film despite a much wider media coverage, a certain ugly pattern emerges in recent Marvell films, or is it Disney? And underneath MCU's shiny, cool fa├žade an ugly picture is revealed. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

La La Land Afterthoughts.

There are quite a few things that started bothering me after watching La La Land. To begin with it is somewhat disappointing that musicals are so rare these days that there are no singers-dancers-actors of the levels of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse, who perhaps wasn't a great singer, but have you seen her dance? And she was a fabulous actor too. So in order to get funding the one musical of the year stars who, while adequate in dancing and singing, actually pale in comparison to some of their background dancers. have to recruited, There is a charm to the fact that they are not professional dancers no doubt, and if one is going to make a musical these days it is definitely the thing to do, I mean both Emma Stone and even Ryan Gosling are quite an improvement to the travesty that was Russell Crowe being allowed to destroy one of the best characters in musicals or Pierce Brosnan butchering Abba, but I can’t help imagining how amazing this particular musical would have looked with better dancers and singers  

However, most of the flaws in La La Land are to do with Ryan Gosling, a weak actor at best, who plays a pretty awful character. To be fair to Gosling, his singing and dancing are adequate and his piano playing looks like lots of fun, maybe he should do that instead of acting. To begin with he never convinces me as either the broody type, he always looks too content, or the struggling artist, it is even worse when he struggles with his conscience. Perhaps the worst bit of acting from Gosling was the scene in which he makes Mia, Emma Stone’s character, dinner. It is the beginning of the end of their relationship and it is agonising to watch, but for all the wrong reasons, he’s just not in it! Luckily Emma Stone is an incredible actress and it almost doesn’t matter how bad Gosling is.

Not all that is wrong is Gosling’s fault. His character, Sebastian, is not the best white dude out there. Let’s say I’m OK with his mansplaning of Jazz, while doing exactly what Mia says people do with Jazz music, talking over it, but fair enough Jazz is his passion it is not hers and he explains it passionately. Let’s say I’m even OK with a white dude claiming to be the “real deal” of Jazz over the one black dude in the film, the one true Jazz artist who would "save" Jazz and bring back its roots. I’m actually not that OK with that, but over the years there were many great white Jazz players and for a long time Jazz music kinda belongs to everyone. But the thing that is somewhat grating is Sebastian, the musician, mansplaining Mia the actress how to be a better actress and how to fulfill her dream.
Judging by the two films I have seen by the rather talented, I must say, Damien Chazelle, Whiplash and La La Land, artistic success and love do not go hand in hand for him. It seems that in order to achieve artistic perfection one has to give up love in order to dedicated themselves completely to their art.

And yet, despite all the issues with La La Land, I find myself going back to my instinctive gut reaction to this film and like all great musicals this film aims to the gut and hit it well. My gut reaction was and still remains a kind of joy and great love for this film. Simply because there is so much love for musicals in this film and that is something I crave in this musical-less world. I could never understand people who, usually without actually watching any, say they don’t like musicals, but even less so could I understand people who say they don’t usually like musicals, but they enjoyed La La Land, a film which could not exist without a rich history of brilliant musicals. It is elating to see a film that so unashamedly celebrates musicals without trying to be cynical or edgy about it, And it’s not just the wonderful and mandatory homages to great past musicals, but the whole feel and brilliant energy of the films gives it its sparks. It is a film that wants to be beautiful and it does it. But even as a great lover of the genre I managed to be emotionally surprised by La La Land and I absolutely loved it! So I forgive its problem and embrace that joyous gut feeling.