Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Origins of greatness

We've seen the origin story of Batman enough times that people actively joke about the inevitable shot of Martha Wayne's pearls falling to the ground.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you should. When young Bruce Wayne's parents get killed by that thug (a pre-accident version of the Joker) in an alley outside that theater, Martha Wayne is inevitably wearing pearls, and those pearls inevitably cascade to the ground after she is killed, as a kind chaste yet fairly indulgent signifier of her off-screen death. The most recent time this occurred was in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, when Zack Snyder actually has this punk (it may not always be the Joker) pull the pearls away from Martha's neck with the barrel of his gun before delivering the fatal shot (again, off screen). I'd almost say this was a case of winking at the famous Batman-specific trope if I thought Snyder had a sense of humor.

And maybe you knew that but hadn’t heard anybody joke about it. If so, you aren’t listening to The Next Picture Show podcast on the Panoply network, in which they joked extensively during the episode pairing Tim Burton’s Batman with The Lego Batman Movie that there were “no pearls harmed during the making of this movie,” and so forth. The book is out on Martha Wayne and her pearls, in any case.

I tell you all this to draw the following striking contrast: While a character like Batman can have his origin story told so many times that elements of it can actually become clichéd, I had to wait until the late date of 2017 to even know the broadest strokes about the origins of Wonder Woman.

I suppose I knew the broadest strokes, but most of those details were things I’ve forgotten. In fact, I’ve forgotten enough about the origins of Diana Prince that I thought of her more as a Batman (a superhero who has cool gadgets but no superpowers) than a Superman (a god). Well, gadgets like the lasso of truth and the invisible jet aside, Wonder Woman is not a Batman – she’s actually, literally, a god. In fact, in a fight between Wonder Woman and Superman – which we may get in the DCEU if we wait long enough – I don’t even know who would win.

And I tell you this because I’ve just seen Wonder Woman on Monday night, and it is quite simply one of my favorite superhero movies of all time.

The fact that this is a character whose origin story I didn’t even know is, frankly, shameful.

Not blaming myself here folks. Blaming Hollywood.

Given the outcome of Patty Jenkins’ movie, I might argue that it’s good we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie before now, because then we wouldn’t have gotten this exact Wonder Woman movie, which I would never want replaced with another one. Even if getting an earlier WW movie would have meant that the studio bosses had been enlightened enough to give one of the world’s most famous superheroes a cinematic showcase before now.

Then again, arguing in the abstract about the regrettable delay in bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen is not mutually exclusive with being glad that this exact moment in the history of cinema has delivered us this exact Wonder Woman movie.

For one, if they’d given it to us earlier or later, Gal Gadot would probably not be Wonder Woman. Five years ago, at age 27, we wouldn’t have really known who she was yet, and the casting directors who had seen her only as eye candy in Fast & Furious movies might not have envisioned her in an iconic role like Wonder Woman. Five years from now, at age 37, she’d be too old. So only because Wonder Woman was made in 2017 did we get the Wonder Woman we deserve. There’s a lot of talk about just desserts in this movie, and whether we actually deserve the iconic hero Gadot has given us, I’m so glad we got her.

The love I feel for both Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman is strong enough that I feel like I could splinter this post off into a dozen subheadings, each of which could touch on a different reason why this movie is great. Instead, to rein myself in a bit I’ll just try to jam the things into this one paragraph, and only some of the things. 1) I don’t know how Gadot managed to be both powerful and vulnerable, fierce yet unspeakably kind, mature yet disarmingly innocent, and at every point absolutely beautiful, but she pulled it off, and it’s a damn fine trick that results in one of the best heroes I’ve ever seen on screen. 2) Chris Pine is also trafficking in opposites here, displaying perfect comic timing but also gravitas, strength but also a traditionally female need to be saved, moral courage and yet bearing the guilt of a legacy of cowardice. 3) The action set pieces are as rousing as any I have seen in a superhero movie since the MCU was created. 4) The period setting is even more perfect than the similarly appealing period setting of Captain America: The First Avenger, and bless this movie for having the courage to stay in it. 5) I never full-on cried, but I did tear up twice in this movie.

As I said, I truncated that paragraph. Heavily.

One other origin of greatness I am wondering about (pun not intended) is that of Patty Jenkins.

While being overjoyed that I didn't end up being that male critic that did not like Wonder Woman, I'm complicating this gender politics win by having a hard time fully crediting Jenkins for its success. I'll try to explain why.

Jenkins has directed only one other feature, which is Monster back in 2003. There's no doubt Monster is a good movie -- not a great one, but probably a very good one. It won Charlize Theron an Oscar, after all. But it's completely different than Wonder Woman, as different as two movies could get, probably. Which certainly makes it fit right in with the strange directing choices particularly for movies in the MCU, most of which do end up working out. The choice of Jenkins has been possibly the most successful of all of these.

But why Jenkins? Why did it take her 14 more years to get another movie, and why was it this one? And more importantly, was it her influence as an auteur that made this movie great, or should we actually credit the creative vision of DC, finally getting something right after so many misfires?

If you prefer to look to the screenwriter, well that's a head-scratcher too. As much of a headscratcher as anything is that it's only one screenwriter. His name is Allan Heinberg, and though he has a history with DC comics, his only history writing for the screen is in television, on shows such as Party of Five, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. He was also involved with the Wonder Woman pilot shot for the CW back in 2012, but that was not even picked up.

For the sake of simplicity let's set Heinberg aside and focus only on Jenkins. It would be tempting to say she was installed only because of her gender, and worse, that this particular woman was hired because she does not have a body of work that would cause her to demand greater creative control, and DC could easily manipulate her. That would also be following the MCU model of directors who are willing to toe the company line.

I, of course, want to give Jenkins all the credit but am just trying to find the path to doing so. If this movie looks and feels nothing like Monster, and if it in fact does resemble other DCEU movies in substance, style and approach -- the difference being that it does everything right with these choices rather than everything wrong -- and if Jenkins has not made another film in 14 years, are we really crediting the right person if we credit Jenkins? Or is DC really the auteur here? Or is it some perfect marriage of studio and individual sensibility?

Perhaps there is a third option: Jenkins is a great director with an incredible understanding of the nuance of how to make a great movie, and it's only because Hollywood is a horribly sexist institution that she is only just now getting her chance to make a second movie. (I'm reading now that she was actually hired by Marvel to direct the Thor sequel but was dismissed after less than two months for that eternally vague but extremely common reason: "creative differences." Is it possible that DC is actually less sexist than Marvel? Or maybe just less controlling.)

Whatever the reality is, I'm so thankful to the two women who seem to be most responsible for this -- yes, I'll say it -- masterpiece.

The timing was right for Gadot and Jenkins, and as a result, it's right for all of us.

Go see this movie.


Wendell Ottley said...

Given DC's track record, I will give them credit for seemingly staying out of the way. Jenkins made an excellent film and got a masterful performance from Gadot.

Derek Armstrong said...

Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Out of the way they stayed. A hit they finally got.

I just pray that I don't ever have to see Wonder Woman in the same movie as the Suicide Squad ...