I just got back from the early morning showing of Wonder Woman, and I’m crushed.
It wasn’t just the brilliant visuals or the well-paced and intelligently thought-through secret origins story. Nor was it only the extreme attention to period detail or the well-crafted dialogue. Above all, the preposterous, extraordinary magical figure that is Diana, Princess of the Amazons – a figure it would be so easy to get wrong – is unbelievably believable.
I should make a confession. I grew up on DC and Marvel comics even though school friends sneered at the men in tights and teachers mocked their “simplistic moralistic tone”. Those teachers had never encountered the adaptation of the entire Ring Cycle in the pages of The Mighty Thor, in which an ambivalent creator-god embroiled his own son in a tale of incest and betrayal. Nor had they met a Bruce Wayne driven to attempt to murder his alter ego, The Batman, due to a mixture of psychosis and stress, as occurred in The Untold Legend of the Batman. “Simplistic moral tone” indeed. There were no safe places in these tales that had matured out of the old Silver Age comics in which there were indeed many a jolly jape, and Biffs and Thunks a-plenty.
Strangely, the most sneery voice of all was reserved for Wonder Woman. It was a girls’ comic, clearly. It had a woman as the central character and who did Diana Prince think she was, venturing onto the boys’ reserve? She was never going to be as tough or as badass as the big beasts also in her DC stable: Batman and Superman.
I didn’t agree with that assessment. There was something special about Wonder Woman that intrigued me. It wasn’t just that as a kid in my pubescent hypersexuality I responded positively to the line of a woman’s leg even if it was inked in four colours on cheap paper from the USA. The fact is, Wonder Woman was like no other female superhero.
Look at the others: Supergirl, The She-Hulk, the Spiderwoman. These female heroes were simply twists on established male counterparts.
Then there were the likes of Storm, Jean Grey and the Invisible Girl. These were in their different ways emblematic of what powers the male writers were comfortable in giving to women in their own right. Storm was elemental, a child of nature who worked at a distance on the weather – she was a nature archetype. Jean Grey, The Phoenix, was someone who messed with people’s minds and was not about physical power. The Invisible Girl, one of the first generation of female characters from Marvel’s The Fantastic Four didn’t have the brute power or physicality of the boys in the team. Nope, her big thing was she could make herself invisible. If ever there were an emblem of the traditional way that society thought women should be unseen and that their power should remain hidden and indirect, Sue Storm-Richards was it. Literally.
Yet Wonder Woman was completely different from these other female superheroes. Indeed, I am comfortable in calling her a superheroine, because she is so powerful and physical that there is absolutely no possibility that the feminine diminutive undermines her. What I always thought about the boys at school who sneered at her was that they were stuck in an old-fashioned view of what a woman might be. Wonder Woman was in a class of her own.
This is the starting point of the new Gal Gadot movie. From her early upbringing in the mythical Paradise Island of Themiscyra in which she is trained by a fearsome all-woman group of warriors to fight, there is a toughness and brutality in her story. The society of women warriors among whom she lives is visually believable. They have body language that is fast, no-nonsense, direct and harsh. In councils of war, they set their jaws and walk with a swagger one usually associates with men. This is an all-woman society conceived along Spartan lines.
There are many images from Themiscyra that stay with me. One is of an Amazon warrior jumping from a cliff and firing an anchoring arrow with a rope attached to it in order to swing into battle more quickly. The body language is direct and pragmatic and speaks of centuries of training. Another is seeing Diana’s Aunt, Antiope firing three arrows into three soldiers at once. The look of deadly concentration on her face is utterly real. This is no comfortable stars-and-stripes bikini-wearing 1950s image of domestic womanhood that I’m sure influenced the parents of my schoolboy friends and instilled their cultural references when it came to women. These Amazonians would only lift an iron to work out how best to kill you with it.
Gal Gadot herself is pitch-perfect as Diana. She enters the world of men with that simplistic moral tone my teachers thought she had. But her story is one of a Bildungsroman, in which the idealistic young hero who sets out to do good has her ideals broken by the complexity of the world – and yet continues to strive to do what she thinks is right.
At another level, she is funny and charming – and of course, she is beautiful. Long gone are the days when commenting on this woman’s physical attributes in any way undermines her seriousness. The whole DC Universe is indeed serious with flashes of light – and Wonder Woman epitomises that mixture – indeed, embodies it at its best.
What is it that makes Wonder Woman so impressive in this film? It dawned on me that in this version of the DC story, Wonder Woman is pre-eminent, the foremost beast in her stable. She has the brawling capacity, the speed and the fight training demonstrated by the Batman, and the brute strength and godlike presence of Superman. Indeed, she goes one better than Superman. She is a goddess. Literally. Thus Wonder Woman combines the very best of these two heroes into one exquisite, brilliant, intelligent, charming, idealistic, thoughtful, brutal package. When she hurls men across the room with a flick of her hand, it looks real. She looks like she means business. There’s no ironic flick of the eye, no sense that this woman could not do this. And yet, you also don’t doubt that she also really does speak hundreds of languages and have a literal Classical education.
I said at the outset that I was crushed by this movie. I am. There were moments when, upon seeing all the potentials I have always known Wonder Woman possessed coming to life on the big screen, that I was close to tears. This story is cruel, beautiful, tough and harrowing. It is a suitable introduction to the world of Diana Prince, Princess of the Amazons. It is by far the best movie from the DC Universe to date.
So, as a childhood Marvel and DC comics fan, over the last decade or so I’ve taken great delight in the fact that CGI in movies has progressed so far that you don’t actually have to suspend disbelief. I remember seeing the back projection outline when people were thrown off buildings, or the strings when The Invisible Man lifted things up. No wonder they didn’t make that many superhero movies back then. At least not convincing ones.
That it’s all possible to do seamlessly is old news, and the only thing that now holds writers and filmmakers back is their imagination and budget.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has both in full measure. Here are 7 things picked at random as to why it rocks:
1) Little Groot. Okay, so it’s a merchandiser’s dream, but supercute Groot is joyous to behold, with his big eyes, his innocence and joyful naivety, there is so much potential for the bundle of laughs here. He’s the wide-eyed fool, and he’s hilarious.
2) That opening sequence that subverts the heroic form sets the tone. The show starts with the Guardians protecting some super-duper batteries for a race of gold skinned Sovereign aliens from an interdimensional monster made entirely of teeth, blubber and super-thick skin. But instead of doing the usual thing and focusing on the fight, it focuses on Little Groot’s dance routine. The juxtaposition is hilarious.
3) Drax’s one-liners. Boy oh boy, the writing team have really gone out of their ways to work up the characters for best comic effect. Drax, the alien who doesn’t understand metaphor goes through the show offending, irritating and genuinely making comedy gold. The deadpan delivery adds to the effect. I haven’t been in a cinema for a long time in which the audience is howling with laughter. Drax does it.
4) Rocket, the trickster. Rocket the Raccoon (“I’m not a Raccoon!”) is as super-sneaky, clever and selfish as ever, but now you start to see his “human” side. For a writer, this archetype is a gift. He’s straight out of Carl Jung, and he adds an element of chaos to the whole show. The script, indeed, the whole story arc, starts with one transgression from him – but he’s not all selfishness, as later events show. He intrigues and delights and builds wonderful empathy.
5) Nebula. Ok, I’m going to make an admission. I got through the entire first Guardians without clocking that the blue-faced semi-robot alien with a psychotic streak was none other than Dr Who’s Amy Pond, aka Karen Gillan. It was only when the name jumped out at me on the credits that I clicked – and even then, I thought “Ah, maybe there’s a different actor with the same name, in the US”. Her American accent is pitch perfect, but more impressively, her angry, downtrodden, rage-filled character has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Amy Pond. I genuinely wouldn’t have picked these two characters out as the same person. That is a tribute not only to the make-up team, but to Gillan’s skill in acting.
6) The visuals are sumptuous (as the picture above attests). There are so many visual delights in this show, it’s difficult to know where to start. Apart from the extraordinarily lifelike cgi, which means you genuinely think you’re watching interactions with real talking trees and real talking raccoons, the part where the designers let themselves go is fabulous. That is on the planet Ego, in which we are treated to a massive vista of impossible things that are beautiful and straight out of dreams. From wonderful colour-popping bubbles that greet them as they leave the spaceship, through the incredible animated fountain to the sumptuously designed interiors of the palace, everything is designed to a “T”. This show should win awards simply for visualisation.
7) The plot is both taut and hilarious. It’s a fine balancing act to get a genuine sense of comedy in a script balanced against a driving plot. If you watch many tv comedy shows, you’ll see that the plot is paper thin, while the comedy simply comes from the characters rubbing together. This has both. Add in the asides with Stan Lee (which are outside the plot for sure) and the extra elements that feed in to future episodes, and it is a work of brilliance.
So, there it is. Needless to say, I’m going back to watch it again with a friend of mine who writes comic books. Discussions after that should be joyous!