Saturday, January 9, 2021

From the Writer's Studio: The Vacuous Morality of Wonder Woman 1984

Welcome back to the inscrutable Gauntlet of Balthazar for yet another foray into the depths of screenplay writing and media review - and a hard look over the perplexing filmic disaster known as Warner Bros. & DC Comics Wonder Woman 1984.

For those of you who may stumbled upon a Gauntlet superhero review before, you may have noticed the repeated disclaimers specifying a general preference for Marvel over DC comics and films, but in this the self-titled Wonder Woman (2017) was head and shoulders above most of the other recent films in the DC universe, and easily stands alongside Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy and The Joker as the top drawer of DC outings. 

If anything the first Wonder Woman presented a morally principled hero who literally felt that she, and everyone else, should endeavor to make the world a better place. While she focused her energies on the wrong target for much of the film, and her dualism was a little too on the nose, the film was in general such a pleasant surprise, and was so incredibly likeable, that its train-wreck of a sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, makes the latter all the more disappointing.

So what, pray tell, is just the matter with the damn thing? Well, the list is pretty long, so let's begin. Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Wonder Woman 1984 begins with a flashback sequence depicting a very young Diana competing in a Olympic game of sorts on her home island of Themyscira, with the point of showing her disqualification from the event for taking a shortcut in the race and effectively cheating. The entire point of course is that Diana must learn to play by the rules and accept the consequences of reality. This is the polar opposite message the Star Trek franchise promoted when a young James T. Kirk reprogrammed a computer simulation designed to test student's reaction to a "no-win situation" because he "didn't believe in a no-win situation". Anyway, while the admonition against cheating is morally correct, there's a fine line between acceptance and conformity. Given, we saw in the first film how hard Diana's mother wished to keep her daughter a perpetual child, but ignorance should never be mistaken for a virtue.

Regardless, not counting that the first film was a reminiscence from the perspective of the story now prior to the events de- picted in Batman Versus Superman & Justice League, we quickly move ahead some 65 years to the 1980's. Apparently little has changed, and Diana Prince is still pining for her lost love, Steve Trevor, and we can only assume, she's been celibate for the seven decades since the couple spent one dreamy night working on deflowering her in a dingy room upstairs from a pub in Alsace-Lorraine at the end of World War One. In suiting fashion, Diana now works in antiquity acquisitions at the Smithsonian, where we expect she puts to good use her ability to sight read ancient Hittite and such. Not bad so far, right? Wrong. 

While I can admire the romance of a couple falling deeply in love at first sight, as well as respecting a bereaved widow who mourns eternally, it seems to me that Diana's focus on Steve, her incapacity of moving on - to the point of her choosing to not fight crime, not only undermines her moral agency, but also her agency as a female. While I'm sure director Patty Jenkins would assert that the arc of Diana coming into her own at the end of the film is one of feminist self-empowerment, I would argue that Diana is just one step short of failing the Bechdel test. In fact, if she had a friend to chat with, I'm pretty sure that the dialogue would break the 85% male-centric content ceiling and betray the overall lack of character and story development.

Enter Barbara Ann Minerva, otherwise known as Wonder Woman's arch-nemesis "Cheetah" in the illustrated versions. Babs is played here by mostly comic Kristen Wig; who does a suitable job at playing the newly-hired homely nerd-girl who immediately looks up to, and let's face it, the accomplished and gorgeous Diana - played again by the accomplished and gorgeous Israeli soldier-turned-model-turned-actress, Gal Gadot. 

Soon after her arrival, fast-friends Diana and Barbara become aware that the Smithsonian has come into the possession of a mythic relic referred to as "the Dreamstone" - a crystal that supposedly grants wishes, and was created by the "Duke of Deception", or Dolos, an operative of the God Ares - introduced in the comics in Wonder Woman issue #2 way back in 1942.

Barbara of course wishes to be more like Diana, and thus, unknowingly attains super-powers. Likewise Diana, following her focus, wishes that Steve was still alive, and presto, he returns. While this is all very Aladdin's lamp, Steve's return is the most problematic issue of all. If only Steve had returned in the flesh, this would have not created the moral vacuum that follows. Instead, what we have here is that Steve's soul has come to inhabit the body of some other young man, and only Diana can see him, because, I guess, the power of her love.

Aside from the opportunity to get Chris Pine into this film, and have him humorously gawk at 1980's mall culture through the eyes of someone whose last memories are of the Edwardian Era / Gilded Age, Diana and he never question where the spirit of the man whose body they've stolen is. In fact, all considerations go out the window, because, hey, they're in love. I guess that makes it's okay to use a stranger's body (without his consent) as a conduit to have sex with one another.

I personally believe that this situation qualifies as a rape, but I'm sure Ms. Jenkins would contest that notion, 'cuz hey, he's a dude and he should only be so lucky to have Wonder Woman have sex with him, even if he isn't aware of it. Uh, okay, Cosby. Definitely not egalitarian, but maybe ass-backward third wave feminist thinking. I guess what's good for the goose is what's good for the, uh, goose.

Anyway, Barbara / Cheetah isn't really the villain here, it's Maxwell Lorenzano a.k.a. Max Lord, who is a "fake-it-till-you-make-it" cheese-ball motivational speaker played by Pedro Pascal - the actor who currently plays the lead in Disney+'s The Mandalorian. Jenkins revealed in online interviews that she based Lord's character on President Donald Trump, not because he was in his heyday in the 1980's, but because you know, he's just really, really horrible, and it's a requirement to virtue signal to your peers in Hollywood, and alienate half of your potential audience. Cudos, point made.

The crux of the issue is that Max realizes what the stone is, somehow, and long story short, ends up possessing it, and ultimately, wishes that he "becomes the stone" (actually a good element). He soon after puts the "kevorka" on the unnamed but Reagan-like US President, and gains access to a web of government satellites that are extremely reminiscent of the "Star Wars Defense System". Lord then uses the technology (analogue frequency to beta wave conversion?) to read everyone's mind across the earth, and grants their wishes - but apparently only negative and violent ones, except for Diana and Steve's incarnated love of course. Very convenient.

The motif that is presented here is that for every wish given, something else must be taken, and thus in due course Diana slowly loses her powers, making her increasingly helpless to fight the bad things that Max's wish-giving is creating, including Cheetah who keeps increasing her power. Why hapless Steve just can't wish for Diana to have her powers restored is just beyond the Gauntlet's scope of understanding I guess. 

As a result of her weakened state, Diana then dons the golden (and magical) armor of Asteria - a super-sexy skintight covering that they just so happen to have laying around the office and btw, fits her like a glove. As a side note I should point out that Diana never once uses her sword in any of the battle sequences in this film, even though it was featured almost non-stop in all her other appearances, and the fans loved it. It was clearly intentionally removed, and we can assume it was done so as a method to make Wonder Woman appear "less violent". Sadly, no one in any of the production meetings bothered to point out that this was supposed to be a superhero movie and that there's generally a fair amount of fighting and violence involved. I also think that this might originate in a subconscious, internalized regressive feminist notion that swords are "just too phallic", and thus, not female. Good job robbing more agency from women, as well as negating the iconic image of Amazons going back to ancient times. In fact Patty, you probably should have added a bow, as Amazons were reputed for that. But, I digress.

In the end, Diana uses the lasso of Hestia to make Max see the truth that his son is actually the most important thing in his life, and he renounces his wish of embodying the stone. One would think that this would cascade and cancel everyone else's wishes, but it does not, and Diana has to use the President's satellite system to convince everyone who cast a crappy wish to voluntarily renounce it. Of course, everyone complies with her request quite readily, which is ridiculous fantasy element. But, whatever.

Max, or rather Pedro Pascal, has perhaps the best screen moment of the film as he reunites with his little boy, while on the other side of town Diana bids Steve a bittersweet farewell as his soul vacates the body they have hijacked.

Freed from the shackles of the past, because of learning and stuff, Diana suddenly develops the power of flight, ('cuz she's liberated now), and voila, Wonder Woman is finally ready to get back into the game, in uh, thirty-five more years or so. 

In a cute touch in a mid-credit scene, we learn that the hero Asteria (the one from the armor) has been living in secret among humans and doing good deeds. She is played by 1980's Wonder Woman television series star Lynda Carter, so very nice tip of the hat. The end.

I must say that throughout the film it felt like characters simply surmised situations without much information, which in turn made the script feel much more light-weight than it probably seemed.

Generally, there are only a few ways to effectively relate through coherent writing how dots are meant to connect in a story. The first is that we the audience watch the protagonist piece together a series of clues and methodically arrive at the answer or solution. The answer he or she comes up with can often be wrong, and presents a false conclusion (as in Wonder Woman 2017 or The Usual Suspects), setting up a further reveal. The second mode is that the audience is given the truth up- front, yet takes enjoyment from watching the protagonist discover it after the fact (like in Colombo). Deconstructed works might possess a more fluid structure, but Wonder Woman is no art film. Instead, it makes use of coincidences and happenstances which suggest an overall simplistic and childish feel, which I assure you was not the intention.

In fact I should just take the Gauntlet off and remind everyone that Ms. Jenkins repeatedly went on the record that she wanted the film to stand not as just a superhero movie, but rather as a drama, a comedy, and a life lesson. That is all very good in intention, but the drama is frivolous, the comedy is clumsy and minor, the morality is shakily deviant, and the life lesson (or moral) is as simplistic as the main character's arc. 

Therefore, due to the substantial capabilities of the actors, the likability, the slick eye-candy, and the overall capable technical aspects of the film in contrast to the story and script, the Gauntlet gives Wonder Woman 1984 five raised Gauntlets out ten. If you've seen it and you think this is an under-estimation, I would suggest that the film will not fare better over time. And if you haven't seen it - hey, don't listen to me, check it out yourself. 

Till next time.

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