Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Faustian Bargain

I sometimes feel watching a movie’s like making a Faustian bargain: I give my time and money, and in exchange I expect the end result to woo me. This goes doubly-so for films from franchises with little-to-no expectations of quality, and even triply-so when said films end up good. The skepticism levels are too high, so either the film has to have some semblance of quality, or it fails. In the case of Wonder Woman, this couldn’t be more true.

It’s not like the film doesn’t already have a lot going against it: it’s the fourth entry in a series of films that haven’t been well-received thus far. It’s said franchise’s token entry about “the girl”. Said “girl” happens to be one of comics’ biggest feminist icons. The movie is also helmed by a female director, which is huge considering that Hollywood, let-alone the superhero genre, has yet to have any serious stand-outs there. On top of that, it’s the first time we’ve seen a superheroine film with a big-budget that looks like real time and effort went into it, as opposed to being a side-venture (Supergirl, Elektra) or a joke with money tossed at it (Catwoman). So yeah, no pressure.

When I first heard that Wonder Woman was getting good reviews, I was skeptical; after all, early feedback for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was also positive, and look how that turned out. Hearing the usual accolades at this point was tiring. It didn't matter that this was Wonder Woman, and that her official debut on the big-screen was quite significant for superheroines, I wasn’t ready to take the praise at full-value. It’s not unlike having your abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend go to rehab and come out clean: even if he’s being serious this time, past experience insists that you not trust him immediately. If Wonder Woman was really that good, I needed to see the results with my own eyes.

Then the review embargo went down, and my whole perception changed. For once, even if only once, the hype was matching the reviews! It was a miracle! It was unexpected! That a superheroine film could wow people no longer seemed like a fantasy, it was actually happening! For the first time, the DCEU, normally the bastion of awfulness, had done something right! But how?

Well, being a competently-made film definitely helps. One of the big issues gripping past superheroine films was their lack of competency. Either by relying on brand name to a fault, or simply putting a third-rate script together, past superheroines couldn’t be taken seriously in their own movies, especially compared to their male counterparts. This led to audiences not caring, thus causing them to tank, thus perpetuating the myth that audiences “didn’t want to see female-led superhero films”. It’s a shame because, honestly, a good chunk of superhero fans are women, so not catering to them means shutting out characters they can relate to.

All the more reason why Wonder Woman being a good movie is a big deal. It’s proof that not only can superheroines be worth writing about, but that they can do so without relying on brand name or tag-a-longs. Because Wonder Woman is a compelling character, and stories focused around her are worth exploring and telling. Especially in 2017, where women are accepted in almost every field out there.

What helps is that the director’s a woman. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, but most superheroines are thrown under the bus that is the “male gaze”. That’s not to say it’s impossible to be good anyway, see the original run of Jessica Jones, but there’s the issue of not having the right clarity to think like a woman if you’re a man. Patty Jenkins directed Monster, so having her tackle one of the greatest women in comics for the big-screen is seemingly ideal. That she pulls it off is no small miracle, especially in-light of previous DCEU films.

I’m not kidding. I may have avoided the DCEU up until now, but even as an outsider I knew people weren’t so hot on Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. These three movies propped up a filmic dumpster fire, so having a superheroine origin story be tossed into there was asking for trouble. That Wonder Woman ended up being good, let-alone great, is a testament to how even the biggest messes can be fixed with the right clean-up crew. It also reinforces how much more competent women are than men.

There’s really so much this movie does well that can’t be taken for granted. It still has that rough, dirty, realistic feel first established by Man of Steel, but where as that film suffered from sloppy pacing, disjointed writing, chaotic action and weak characterizations, this film is well-paced, well-written, has clear action and has characters that act and think believably. There’s no dialogue or logic that contradicts its grounded tone, it’s all cohesive. Bless it for that.

That’s not to say it doesn’t adhere to previous institutions of DCEU films. The atmosphere’s still grey. The colour’s still desaturated. And the costume designs are “edgier” than your typical affair. But Wonder Woman makes it work, and by the time the big finale happens, it’s excusable because the spectacle is earned.

There are other details that make it stand out from other comic book properties. The grainy quality of the film makes it look beautiful. The action scenes are clear to see, and the editing is tight. The music has recurring motifs, making its score more memorable than the MCU. Even its use of slow-motion, no doubt a contribution of Zack Snyder, feels artsy in the right way, being used to elevate tension or show off Wonder Woman’s prowess.

But above all else, it works. It, honestly, works better than most of the MCU, further proving that while I like Marvel, DC on their best day still blows them out of the water. Does this mean the DCEU's Faustian bargain is over? I’m not sure. This could be the start of a new leaf, but it could also be a one-off knowing the DCEU thus far. Regardless, Wonder Woman is a worthwhile endeavour that anyone can enjoy, and proves that superheroine films are viable cash-cows. So congratulations, DC, and your move, Marvel.

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