Wonder Woman

This post contains spoilers.  Big, serious spoilers.

There is a strange alchemy whereby, if you pile up enough cliches, one on top of another, at some point they begin to become convincing, even moving.  Once banal, they take on the air of inevitable truths once they reach critical mass.

At least, I think that’s what happens.  It’s the only way that I can explain how it would be that I enjoyed ‘Wonder Woman’ so much.

dc-comics-wonder-woman-statue-tweeterhead-902973-02I did not expect that I would see ‘Wonder Woman’, much less like it – it didn’t appeal to me at all.  Firstly, Wonder Woman herself has always struck me as lame, in the same way that Superman is lame: too strong, too good, too generic.  Secondly, the obviousness of the feminism irritates me.  It felt patronizing, as though the creators of the comic books realized that they needed a female hero and then put no effort into it: ‘She’s, uh, gonna be great.  She’s strong, very strong, and hot, obviously.  She’s wonderful: Wonderful Woman.  No, Wonder Woman!  Her power is…that she’s wonderful!’ It’s as though they didn’t think that women would notice that she was a completely unfleshed-out character.

But I ended up going with a friend to see ‘Wonder Woman’ last night, and, despite the fact that all my objections are completely accurate, I loved it.

For those who are unfamiliar, ‘Wonder Woman’ is Diana.  She is an Amazon; in fact, she is the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.  She was born on the island of Themyscira, which has been enchanted by Zeus until such a time when the Amazons will emerge to destroy Ares, the God of War.

Themyscira is where we meet Diana, when she is a young girl being raised by a group of warrior women with messy braids, all gorgeous and aging extremely gracefully.  Diana longs to be a warrior like her mother; she is determined to personally wage war against Ares, and in particular to wield the sword which her mother calls the God-Killer, the only weapon which can slay him.  Her mother is reluctant to train her, and her mother and aunt are prone to ominous whispering about how Diana is different from the other Amazons, and any competent moviegoer will realize immediately that it is Diana herself who is the God-Killer and that she is destined to go mano a mano with Ares.

One day, a plane carrying Chris Pine will puncture the protective bubble around Themyscira.  Diana will save his life, and learn about World War I, the foretold war to end all wars, and she will determine to leave the island, find Ares, and save mankind.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681And now the cliches will come fast and furious: Diana will be shocked by the wickedness of men, the wantonness with which they destroy each other.  She will literally fall in love with the first man she sees, and then despair even of his goodness.  She will meet Ares, but he will not be the man she expected (but, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, he will be exactly who you expect).  She will nearly give in to rage and join Ares in his decision to rid the world of men.  She will realize, at the last moment, that there is still good in man, and she will vow to protect mankind.  Her love will be sacrificed in service of this realization.

It is almost perfectly formulaic – there are even the requisite comic sidekicks!  Then why was it so enjoyable?  I’m not sure I know the answer, but I have a few ideas:

What a totally normal-looking couple.
  • The banter is remarkably good.  The conversations in particular between Diana and her male co-star are excellent.  They are funny and awkward and convincing and charming they carry a lot of the movie.
  • The fight scenes are cheesily magnificent.  There are lots of shots of muscular women in gladiatorial outfits making improbable moves with archaic weapons, and it’s really fun to watch.
  • Formula is relaxing.  When you know exactly what’s going to happen, you can be present in the action in a movie in a way which facilitates a certain kind of appreciation.  You can let the movie carry you, and the pounding theme music and beautiful people and gorgeous scenery can all have the narcotizing effect they were meant to have.  Your critical thought dissolves into a pleasurable, well-produced cinematic experience.

‘Wonder Woman’ allowed me to achieve this state – I had a blast.  It’s not that it was a good or bad movie – that really isn’t the relevant question.  It was entertaining.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.


Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library