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Thanks to Hollywood, I now know what could have broken the stalemate of WWI Western Front trench warfare a lot sooner…

June 17, 2017

wonderwoman

As a sometimes shy and sometimes smug male liberal feminist ally,  I  ponder what the penalty for “mansplaining” Wonder Woman might be?  Perhaps I secretly fear that Diana Prince might show up in person to administer stern corrective measures.  Are these secret fears or secret hopes speaking to me?

There are some perplexing things about the new Wonder Woman movie that I’d welcome being corrected about.  Diana comes from a secret island of warrior Amazons.  Fair enough.  As a child, however, Diana gets schooled in a theogeny that little resembles Hesiod’s without offering anything resembling a feminist subversion of Hesiod.  All gods, male and female, are nameless apart from Zeus and Ares.  This is the most nakedly patriarchal theogeny I’ve heard of – one erases all goddesses and instead of a war between Titans and Olympians offers a condensed parricidal guyfest.  Conversations between Diana’s mother Connie Nielsen and her sister Robin Wright (long familiar as the central Lady Macbeth protagonist of House of Cards), lead you to suspect that this phallocentric theogeny may in fact be (appropriately enough) bollocks.   But it turns out to be (disappointingly) only slightly bollocks.

There are no female Deities for these Amazons to worship.  This seems odd, given the wide range of Mediterranean and New Eastern goddesses available to them.  Perhaps there is a point being made here about structural theological sexual exclusion, but if so the point needs to be made louder so that people like me can understand it.

Gal Gadot is a wonderful Wonder Woman.  At the beginning of the film, we see her in the present day in Paris.  She’s got a nice job at The Louvre.  The rest of the film is a flashback, reflecting on a World War One photograph she’s in that has puzzled Bruce Wayne.   We learn of her childhood and upbringing on the island prior to the arrival of Chris Pine.  Chris Pine plays Captain James T. Kirk Captain Steve Trevor, a roguishly charming American agent who doesn’t always play by the rules.

Kirk Trevor and Diana then both get dragged into World War One, with Diana (trapped by the confines of her theogeny) convinced that if she just kills the God Ares, then the whole bloody apocalypse will finally stop.

In order to really enjoy this film you have to forget absolutely everything you ever learned about World War One and the geopolitical situation in 1918.  Hollywood assumes that you are a complete historical ignoramus in any case.  I for one am finding the sheer effort of willing myself into unknowingness every time I buy a ticket for a “historically” themed movie somewhat tiresome.

And as we exited the cinema, I had to immediately take the two eleven year olds in our party aside and tell them that General Erich Ludendorff was not killed by Wonder Woman in 1918 but survived the war and was Hitler’s high-profile ally during the 1923 Munich putsch.  This the sort of fact that I used to think was far too common knowledge for filmmakers to discard without some sort of explanation – some sort of “alternate timeline” excuse.

From a political point of view, I am  troubled that Diana the Amazon seems to have no interest in forging any sort of friendship or alliance with any other woman in the course of the film.  With the exception of Chris Pine’s secretary, there are no signs of her empowering any other woman.  There is the villainous chemical weapons researcher played by Elena Anaya whom Wonder Woman decides not to kill.  But that’s it.  Her relationships are all with men.

Furthermore (and this is the English Lit. Prof emerging), she and the other Amazons make casual use of gender-exclusive language throughout the film.  It’s “mankind” not “humanity” that they refer to.  Initially I thought “mankind” might be a synonym for “patriarchy” or “humanity under destructive patriarchal government” – but no – when Diana decides not to give up on humans after all and to cherish their positive as well as negative qualities – they are still “mankind” it seems.

But what’s good about this film apart from the sheer presence of Gal Gadot (no small presence)?  Well, one thing that struck me about this film was its staging of the relationship between superherodom and technological warfare.  If you choose to believe (as you must if you are to relax and enjoy the film) that the war we’re watching is not really the 1914-1918 war but rather “Mechanised Warfare In General”, then what can emerge is a meditation on the limits of what any inflated super hero can really achieve.

The super hero is the creation of an age that is troubled by the obsolescence of individual physical strength and heroism in the modern world.  Where are the heroes in a world won or lost by people pressing buttons?  World War One contained many heroic actions, but none of them were game changing.  No individual serving on the Western Front could make a material difference to the outcome of the war by any spectacular feat of arms.  As the twentieth century progressed, negation of the heroic significance of any individual warrior spawned comic strip fantasies of men (nearly always men) who could reverse this technological impoverishment by restoring the idea that one person punching another person very hard could make a difference.

Oddly enough, the technology that destroyed the warrior mystique was perfected in the mid to late fourteenth century with the perfection of the longbow – that treacherously effective “killing from quite a long way away” weapon.  It is notable that Diana Prince restates classical antiquity’s objection to Ewen Bremner’s occupation of sniper – one who hides and kills from a distance.  A coward.

Wonder Woman is more about this discrepancy between a fantasy of individual superheroic strength and courage and the grim logistical reality of deliberately inflicted death in the modern world than any other superhero movie I’ve seen recently.  It dwells thoughtfully on the absurdity and the necessity of staging gladitorial combat in a nuclear age.  And it concludes on a sombre note as Diana reflects on the limitations of what she can actually hope to achieve.

It’s a shame she couldn’t have organised a wider resistance to patriarchy though….

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One Comment
  1. Haven’t seen it yet, but I’m wondering if some of the points you’re making are to do with the need to keep the film appealing for the base superhero audience of young male viewers. The original “Amazons” were a fearful masculine projection of what it would be like if women affirmed each other and reduced men to nothing but their reproductive function (i.e. a complete gender reversal). That’s why all the Greek heroes were shown defeating and subduing Amazons. Maybe the filmmakers were (consciously or not) anxious to avoid *that* type of Amazon.

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