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Wonder Woman: ‘To be human is to love’

 

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To be human is to love.

The superhero movie is many things: a reliable return on investment for producers and studios, a space within which the hottest actor/actress of the day can flex their muscles (literally) and ham it up, a bone for diehard comic fans to chew up and over as they argue about Easter eggs and continuity and elaborate theories. It channels explosions of energy and machines onto the screen, and provides some sort of entertaining catharsis; good wins the day, ultimately, after cheesy speeches about hope, and evil is safely put away, even if there is a hint (in post-credits scenes) that it will rise again.

bale With the glut of superhero movies and dramas reaching screens in the past few years, no filmmaker has left as indelible a mark on the genre as Christopher Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reminded viewers that superhero movies can be ‘profound’, and underlined this by drenching his screen in darkness, and giving his Batman a moodiness and pathos that sets him apart from the far more campy versions brought to life by Michael Keaton or George Clooney. Bale’s Batman was so successful, critically and commercially, that DC, Batman’s owners, decided they would continue this formula for their other films, with varying results. Most of DC’s efforts have been panned, with Batman vs Superman reach particularly low standards, but finally, they seem to have gotten the memo that not all superhero films need be extended meditations on heroism and goodness in a dark world. Some of them can be this, and fun as well.

Enter Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose previous credits include the Charlize Theron-starring Monster,  the movie stars Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel and a total badass. There was some griping when Gadot was cast (mostly because she was a relative nobody), but from the moment she lit up screens in Zach Snyder’s otherwise forgettable B vs S, I think most critics have been silenced. She is, to put it succinctly, effortlessly charismatic in this role, and brings Diana Prince’s blend of naivete, strength and integrity to life.

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Wonder Woman is a first for many reasons, most importantly its place as the first female-led and –directed superhero blockbuster in more than a decade, the first movement of a Queen in this elaborate game of chess DC and Marvel have suckered us into watching them play. How does it fare in these contexts, as a superhero movie in general, and one that stars a woman?

The answer: pretty damn well.

Wonder Woman is an origin story, a flashback shown to us after Diana Prince (Gadot) receives an old photograph from the seemingly-all-knowing Bruce Wayne. It’s a picture of her in her Amazonian armour, standing on a battlefield with a group of men. ‘Maybe some day you’ll tell me your story,’ Wayne writes. Diana reminisces, looking at the picture, and her memories unspool before us in the form of the film.

Wonder Woman, the comics character, has been around for decades, so her origin isn’t all that mysterious. She is an Amazonian princess, raised on the idyllic island of Themiscyra, by her mother, the queen Hippolyta. She is trained in warfare and combat by her aunt Antiope, trained ‘harder than any Amazon before her,’ though why is left unclear at first. The Amazons, a race of demigoddesses, were created by Zeus to promote a ‘greater understanding among men’, but retired to their mysterious island when Ares, God of War, corrupted the world of men and destroyed the gods. The Amazons hold Zeus’ last weapon to defeat Ares, and prepare for the day when they will have to rejoin the world, and destroy him once and for all.

Or so Diana has been told.

When Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy assigned to British Intelligence, crashes into the azure waters off the coast, he drags with him the fury and chaos of World War I. Diana finds herself confronted with what she sees as a ‘sacred duty’: to return to the world of men and save them from the corruption caused by Ares. She steals away with Trevor, asking her disapproving mother ‘Who would I be if I stayed?’ Self imposed duty and belief call her to arms, even if it means never seeing her mother, or Themiscyra, again.

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Thus begins Diana’s time in the world of men, a world that, Hippolyta claims, ‘does not deserve’ her. She and Trevor, accompanied by a band of misfits with their own sad stories, head to where the fighting is most intense: the Western Front. They are aided off-field by Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and the pacifist Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a Cabinet member who insists on funding their mission to destroy a secret German weapons facility run by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Maru has created a horrendous weapon that has the potential to wipe out ‘millions’; Trevor and Diana believe that she and Ludendorff must be stopped at any cost.

As with all stories, there are twists and turns, some surprises, but also sweetness and sadness in equal measure. Diana is shocked by a world that seeks to shut her out simply because she is a woman, where soldiers and civilians are killed with impunity by generals hiding out in their offices. But still, she clings tight to what she knows: that she has a job to do, as an Amazon, and she must do it, no matter what.

What really stands out about Diana as a superheroine is this, her lack of confusion over what it ‘means’ for her to be a hero. Diana does not see herself as markedly different from the people around her. Her gifts are not burdens she carries (like Cavill’s Clark Kent), but things she must put to use to help those who cannot help themselves. She does not waste time wondering ‘why’ she feels the need to help people, what it means in the larger scheme of things. She does not quibble over killing, if it must be done. She’s a warrior, a tool, and she has a purpose. Not for her existential mulling over being a dark knight, or a god among men. ‘I can help them,’ ‘I can do it,’ ‘I am the man for the job’: these are her phrases, and they capture her superheroine manifesto, as well as anything Nolan’s Batman might have said captured his.

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Is Gadot’s Diana a feminist? In an interview, Jenkins pointed to one scene in the movie, where Diana enters the Cabinet Room at British High Command, a place of power from which women are banned. ‘She doesn’t think she doesn’t have a right to be there,’ Jenkins said. She believes these men should listen to her, because she brings important information, and she, more importantly, wants to and can help with the war. Diana has been raised in a place where gender is not seen as something to be commented on, certainly not something that should act as a stumbling block to what one wants to do. Even her first stunned comment to Trevor (‘You’re a man!’) is made as a general observation, rather than loaded with judgment and predisposition of what a ‘man’ might be like. She cannot comprehend why the modern world would not ‘allow’ women to fight in battle, or that her armour is ‘inappropriate’ in any way. It is impossible to stress how refreshing this is, to have a protagonist (who also happens to be a woman) focus solely on her mission and ideals, and refuse to dignify what she sees as amusing, if not outright ridiculous, conventions.

On the flip side, Diana’s confidence and lack of faith in institutions like marriage and sexist biases comes not from any sort of enlightenment, but simply because she was never exposed to the same. She has not struggled ‘out’ of these bindings; she just never had to deal with them. While this works for the movie, it does sort of problematize the idea of her as a feminist icon, a fact that critics of her nomination as a UN ambassador seized upon. But within the echelons of pop culture, and this movie in particular, Diana’s position as powerful woman works. Personally, I loved watching her kick ass, and would watch many more scenes of her doing just that.

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Wonder Woman ends with (spoiler alert) Diana thinking that ‘only love can save the world’. It’s a curiously sentimental line, one that might seem out of place in a movie-verse where we’ve gotten used to darker pronouncements about man’s innate evil, and the futility of effort. But here, it makes sense. There is something hopeful and, well, clear about Diana. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who just does her job, something she’s basically trained all her life to do, because it is right. Not for her brooding or posturing, or staring into the dark skies, wondering about the personal and metaphysical implications of her actions. She cuts through all that bullshit with one flick of her lasso, and throws herself in headfirst, saving a world that might not always deserve her. But, as she herself says, ‘It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe.’ Diana believes she has to be there for the world, and do what she can to save it from itself. If that doesn’t make you love her without complication, I don’t know what will.

 

 

 

 

Heroes, Ladies and La La Land

Some years ago, I wrote about what I called the ‘Loving Hero Paradox’, aka what happens when a fantasy hero/superhero needs to go off and save the day, and for this noble purpose, breaks up with an extremely understanding girlfriend. The girlfriend usually has no choice in the matter (after all, she’s not the focus of the story), and displays almost fantastical understanding and support for his decision, an attitude I myself have never seen someone display when broken up with out of the blue (and certainly not at the sort of venues the men usually choose to stage said break up, like, say, a funeral of a close friend or mentor). Maybe this is the girls’ superpower, in which case, I’d say they’ve gotten a pretty weird deal, both man- and power-wise.

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The whole point of the Loving Hero Paradox is that it’s created to make the heroes look, and feel, good. They are sacrificing something, you see. They are giving up the thing that makes them who they are, and distinguishes from the loveless villain. And they’re doing this so unselfishly, so bravely. Saving the world is more important than a romance, after all.

The thing is, the men never get punished for their love. Yes, there’s usually the fear that the dastardly villain will force them into a horrible choice—love or the world—but often, the hero wins both. Except for poor Spiderman, who lost the light of his life, and the Amazing Spiderman franchise which lost the wonderful Emma Stone.

shalottNow, I’ve identified the parallel syndrome for women. Actually, someone else identified it centuries ago, I just did the lit student thing of finding his work and connecting the dots to more contemporary cultural products. I’m speaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott.

 I was introduced to the Lady in her tower in 2005, or thereabouts, an impressionable 11th grader, surrounded by fellow dying-to-be-artistic ladies in an all-girl literature class. This extremely imbalanced gender ratio meant that classes often turned into personal discussion territories, in a way that might have been hard if there were budding men about. We were all awkward adolescents after all, still figuring out love and hormones, no matter how we pretended otherwise with our dreamy fangirling over Sylvia Plath or Frieda Kahlo. Even the fact that we idolized these women, and men like Keats and Hughes, safely dead and gone, should tell you how not getting into formation we were. Beyonce would be yelling at us, if she had come across us then.

The story of Tennyson’s poem is tragic, and appealing in a way that is certain to make dreamy girls with artistic ambitions sigh longingly. A mysterious lady, placed in a tower on an island in a river, weaves beautiful tapestries day after day. A mirror is her only outlook on the world; she cannot look outside directly because a ‘curse’ rests upon her. What that curse is, we do not know, and neither does she, but in the way of women have been forced to do for so many centuries, she thinks it’s better not to tickle a sleeping dragon, and decides not to look.

Until Lancelot gallops by on his horse, singing a lusty song that goes like this:

 Tirra lira by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot

The stuff dreams are made of.

It’s too much for the Lady to resist, and when she dares to look outside, and feast her eyes upon his manly form, her tapestry floats out the window, and her mirror ‘cracks’ from ‘side to side’. ‘The curse is come upon me!’ she cries, and with great solemnity, she makes her way down the tower, into a boat, and floats to her death. When the boat reaches the banks of Camelot, and the citizens crowd about, wondering who she is, the oblivious Lancelot comes out to say ‘She has a lovely face’ and absently passes a blessing on her.

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If she wants to be an artist, and create things of value, one of the readings of the poem seems to say, the Lady should stay locked away, and not dare to fall in love, let alone lust, with a passing knight. A sacrifice, yes, but one made without even knowing what exactly it was she was giving up, and not even sure what the consequences would be.

This is not a weird idea to us, even now. We’re fed the idea, from various sources, that to be a truly great artist, you have to suffer. You have to be unhappy, and what more romantic (or Romantic) unhappiness is there than the pain of unrequited or sacrificed love? And while it’s a choice that male heroes often get to make consciously (after enjoying love’s fruits for a while), women have the decision take out of their hands, with society—the unaware but slightly stunned citizens of Camelot, for instance—passing the sentence of ‘who is this’ and ‘what is here’ when they dare to step out of bounds.

Now to turn to the more contemporary manifestation of this syndrome: Damien Chazelle’s much awarded movie, La La Land.

la la Let me get this out of the way: I love La La Land. I know this is a horribly mainstream way to respond to a movie that has a lot of problems, but I have now watched it three times and I have loved it more with each viewing. I try not to let this cloud my judgment of the way in which it treats gender and art, and I think I’ve succeeded. Besides, if I can do it with Harry Potter, I can do it with anything. After all, Sebastian is no Sirius Black, is he?

Okay, before we do this, warning: there are spoilers for the movie ahead.

What’s interesting about La La Land is how it braids the Loving Hero and the Lady of Shalott into the same fabric, and lets their syndromes play out equally well. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) takes on the traditional hero role, even going so far as to say that jazz is ‘dying’ and that he wants to ‘save it’. He wants to do this singlehandedly, refusing to listen to people who might know better than him (ie, John Legend’s character, Keith). His plan for saving it? Open a club where only ‘the greats’ will be played, though how he’s going to get the money to do this without lowering his standards, or getting off his high horse, is a question he’s struggled with. Until Mia (Stone) waltzes into his life, and provides the impetus he needs to join up with a more popular, contemporary group called the Messengers, selling his soul in the process. He’s going dark to save the world.

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For Mia, things are slightly different. Sebastian convinces her that what the world needs is her one-woman play, and when things take off for her, he tells her that she needs to go ‘do this’ unencumbered by anything else, including their relationship. She needs to Shalott herself, her tower being the movie deal she’s gotten, and refuse to look outside of it to see him singing tirra lira, or whatever the jazz equivalent is. Knowing Sebastian, it’s probably a brooding chord on the piano.

As they end things, they tell each other they will ‘always love’ one another, but this is it: this is the sacrifice. Love needs to go, for her art, for his savior mission. And tellingly, it’s him who tells her this; once again, man exercising Loving Hero muscle; once again, woman taking it, because he has a mission, and she has success to find.

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It just bugs me that he had to be the one to tell her that they had to end it, especially since it was him who caused so much of the trouble in the first place (not turning up for her play? Honestly). Some things even Gosling’s attractiveness can’t make palatable, and this is one of them.

At the close, we have a picture of Mia’s success: she’s a famous actress, her face all over billboards, people staring at her in awe as she walks into the same coffee shop she once worked in. She’s even got a partner, and a cute little kid. She’s done well for herself.

Seb? He owns his jazz bar. It’s packed, which means the music is probably good (though Seb’s made it very clear on multiple occasions that people’s opinions are ‘pishikaka’ to him). He’s clearly better off than he was at the beginning. Does he have a love life? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to care. The longing look he shares with Mia seems to indicate that those feelings are still there, for both of them, but hey, their sacrifice has paid off, so it’s all good, right?

That’s a matter of personal opinion. Me? I teeter between yes and no. For what it’s worth, I don’t see why Ladies and Loving Heroes have to exist in today’s world, but that’s just me with my newfangled notions. Also, I accede that yes, there is no pathos like lost love, and pathos is what makes a movie ‘profound’, even in the vague manner in which La La Land is profound. As long as people want that, Ladies will weave away tragically, Heroes will give up lovers bravely, and 15-year-sold readers will sigh at the beauty of it all, only wondering why more than a decade later.

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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Mild spoilers for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the  Beast ahead.

beauty-and-the-beast.16844I don’t remember the  first time I watched Disney’s classic Beauty and the  Beast, but my parents do. My mother tells me we had a pirated version of the  movie, recorded off a broadcast on Indian television, and my sister and I would watch it over and over. When we moved to the States, apparently one of the  ways in which the  first world proved its awesomeness to us was through this very same movie. It played on TV, and, my mother says, we sat before it entranced, exclaiming over how beautiful and bright the  colours were.

What a fitting way to open my relationship with the West. No wonder I continue to be so entranced, if that was my introduction.

Anyway, that should give you some idea of what an important role Beauty and the  Beast and its fellow Disney movies played in my life. I’ve written about this more than once, but today an occasion arose yet again, in the  form of a revisit to an old classic, the  movie that’s been ruling the  box office the  world over, Disney’s live action remake of one of its arguably best ever creations.

Let’s get right down to it. Yes, Emma Watson is a good Belle, even if her singing isn’t as full throated as Paige O’Hara’s. Yes, Dan Stevens, who’s doing such amazing work on Legion, still holds my attention as an actor to watch and possibly follow (my broken heart still needs fixing after Hiddleston trashed it). Yes, Luke Evans is arguably the  best of the  three, because he throws himself heart and soul into his role as Gaston and looks like he’s having a blast. His table-dancing, bar thumping number, ‘Gaston,’ made me wonder how much fun the  crew had filming it. It definitely looks like the  kind of thing you’d want to be there for, everyone embracing this ridiculously normal villain, whose evil is so mundane you can almost forgive it until it unmasks its more sinister side.

So yes, I really liked the  movie. Certainly much more than I expected to. I went in with cautious optimism because well, it’s not the  original you know. It’s not the same hand-drawn animation. It doesn’t have Angela Lansbury crooning ‘Tale as Old as Time’, and it’s missing the sheer audacity of its predecessor, which made its heroine one of the  first recognisably ‘feminist’ Disney princesses. This version is revamped, a little better updated, with a Belle who’s not just a reader, but also an inventor. Her father is an artist, the  more traditionally ‘sensitive’ profession of the two, still suffering from a trauma that keeps him silent on what exactly happened to Belle’s mother. Indeed, when she takes his place in the  Beast’s castle, Belle constantly worries about her father and tells the Beast, ‘He’s never been alone.’

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#SubvertingExpectations, right?

Sure, the  movie has its flaws. Some of the  new songs are meh, and pale sadly in comparison to Menken and Ashman’s original work, which they have the  (mis)fortune of standing beside. I’m not sure what exactly the  knowledge of the  Beast’s mother’s death had to do with anything, unless it was done to show yet another (tragic) similarity between the  two outcasts. The  lyric ‘Life is so unnverving/For a servant who’s not serving’ has not aged well, and for the  first time I found it a bit weird. Oh, and the ‘gay moment’ is not as in your face as some people, notably certain drive-in owners in Alabama, would have you hope. Or maybe that’s because our glorious Censor Board went ahead and did the  needful for us, protecting our delicate sensibilities. Who knows.

But for all these nitpicky little details, I enjoyed myself. Disney has a magic that no one can touch. Time beautyand again, they churn out these perfect stories, and create characters who, in the  span of literally 90 minutes, become immortal. Perhaps I’m biased, because I grew up worshipping and wanting to be these women, craving that ‘adventure in the  great wide somewhere’. But it’s not just me; literally thousands of people across the  world love and worship them too, and find themselves turning to these retellings of old stories in low times and good alike, so clearly, there’s something there.

If only I could bottle that magic, and figure out what it’s made of. Oh the power I would have.

Clearly Sauron was doing it all wrong, seeking dominion through brute force and the  One Ring. He should have been working towards writing magical, musical movies stuffed with feisty women and singing household utensils instead. Bet those Elves would have been humming ‘Be Our Guest’ even now, like the  rest of poor unfortunate souls.