Heroine Chic: Wonder Woman in No Man's Land
[Images are all from IMDB.]
So, I saw Wonder Woman last week... in a theater, even! If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Go now! You don't want to reinforce the Hollywood investors' assumptions that only garbage movies catering to the international 12-year old boy market are financially viable, do you? (Which is not to suggest that those international 12-year old boys wouldn't like Wonder Woman because, with the exception of a few moments here or there, I'm sure they would!)
I haven't read many reviews, but I remember when it first came out how all my podcasts were raving about it (your Pop Culture Happy Hours, your Slate Culture Gabfests, &cetera). Not that their ravings have always been a reliable predictor of what I'll enjoy, mind you, since they've also been known to spend entire episodes raving about "Girls" and Taylor Swift's latest album or awards show appearance (meanwhile, not once in three seasons mentioning "Hannibal." And then there was one female critic who spent 15 minutes explaining how she just didn't get all the hype over "Mad Max Fury Road")... <sigh> But they were right about Wonder Woman, which is every bit as awesome as they said it was.
So, what's it about? Basically, it's Wonder Woman vs. World War I. W (cubed). The second World War has been done to death—and ever since Tarantino re-killed Hitler, there hasn't been the same level of excitement for stories about, well... historical Nazis anyway. Everybody knows you can't put superheroes in tights inside the death camps or under the atom bomb. Michael Bay ruined Pearl Harbor for at least a generation and D-Day is all Spielberg's, for the opposite reason. Even the iconic VJ-Day kiss in Times Square, 70 years later, is considered tantamount to sexual assault by the cry baby feminists on Twitter. But the first world war—the Great War—is cinematically untrammeled territory, ripe for a new generation to rebrand in their own image. The poison gas! The end of empires! No man's land! Trench warfare... and those magnificent trench coats!
While we're jumping on bandwagons, can we talk about Robin Wright for a minute? She was always too perfect a specimen to be considered a role model but then, somewhere around the middle of the 3rd season of House of Cards, she began to ever-so-subtly and tastefully eclipse Kevin Spacey as the star. Like they used to do on Fame Tracker (RIP), if this was the House of Cards edition of the "fame audit," Kevin Spacey's would look like this:
Previous level of fame: Kevin Costner
Current level of fame:
Deserved level of fame: Christopher Walken
And Robin Wright's might look like this:
Previous level of fame: Sharon Stone
Current level of fame: Uma Thurman
Deserved level of fame: Angelina Jolie (assuming of course, that anyone deserves such a thing). Because we always knew Robin Wright could do the "imperious ice queen" thing until the cows come home, but now—I mean, who wouldn't want to watch her do more of this?
One reviewer memorably compared the improbably perfect casting of Gal Gadot to that of Christopher Reeve in the 1970s as the big screen's first—and, to this day, best—Superman, and that sounds about right to me.
A friend of mine commented after seeing the movie that female role models have come a long way since we were kids. It's hard to disagree that we've come a long way, but I would argue that we didn't have it so bad. The seventies get a terrible rap these days, between the attachment-parenting advocates and the aforementioned baby feminists. If I may, for a moment, speak for the 70s, not only did they give us our forever-Superman, they gave us our prime time television Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter (who, according to recent photographic evidence, may in fact be some sort of immortal goddess)...
We also had Lindsay Wagner as the Bionic Woman, all five Charlie's Angels and, on the big screen we had Princess Leia, Sigourney Weaver, Pam Grier, Raquel Welch, Grace Jones, Sandahl Bergman and that's all before the fitness-obsessed 1980s brought us Jamie Lee Curtis and Brigitte Nielson. Red Sonja? Supergirl? Firestarter, anyone?
Of course, this is all from my Hollywood-centric perspective. The 60s, 70s and 80s were also the golden age of "wuxia," a chivalric martial arts genre from Hong Kong, and the era of samurai epics from Japan. Those genres launched the careers of dozens of amazingly talented female action stars. I couldn't tell you a single name off the top of my head, but their elegance and badassery in classics like Lady Snowblood and Sister Street Fighter made sitting through my parents' kung fu, swords & samurai phase in the 80s much more bearable.
Even the Saturday morning cartoon line-up in the 70s featured plenty of female role models for little girls whose Barbie fantasies involved less decorating Dream Homes and more fighting super-villains. I remember watching Wonder Woman on the SuperFriends and Spider Woman in her own short-lived animated series. Equally short-lived but just as influential on my forming-consciousness were Goldie Gold and Jana of the Jungle. My first bathing suit was an homage to Jana, a blonde female Tarzan who befriended the animals and swung on vines in a snazzy strapless scrap of red fabric. Goldie Gold's lavish lifestyle and Wonder Woman's invisible jet were just a tad out of reach, but of course I had the Wonder Woman Underoos.
Speaking of women coming a long way, baby, it's not just the good girl role models that are having a bit of a Renaissance. It's also the badass female super-villains. Of course I'm talking about the immortal Elektra, the only good thing about Netflix's new original series, The Defenders, an otherwise aimless and largely pointless mashup of the network's Marvel properties. Apparently, the team was the original seed idea and each individual series was mere back story, but with a different creative team behind each production, the results varied widely, from the sublime (Daredevil Season 1) to the ridiculous (Iron Fist, full stop).
But who cares about those four? We want more Elektra! Give Elodie Yung her own series! Get out of the yet-to-be-gentrified anachronism of '80s Hell's Kitchen and take the production south of the border (it worked for Fear the Walking Dead! They moved production to Mexico halfway through the 2nd season and just one year later, the spin-off has surpassed the original in all but Michonne, and sometimes Carol and Daryl).
Not to get off on a rant and a tangent (a rant-gent?) but this is the first time the "leaked from Comic-Con" trailer for the coming season of TWD has left me with more ambivalence than anticipation. Fear the Walking Dead's trailer, on the other hand, looks awesome...
As I was saying, Elektra needs her own show. The others are welcome to drop in for a fight (except for Iron Fist, obviously), and Daredevil is invited to stick around, provided they drop the "no sex" rule (whose shitty idea was that, anyway?). The best thing they could do is adapt Frank Miller's cult classic Elektra: Assassin. (What is the different between a classic and a cult classic anyway—is it strictly the size of the audience or can something that's popular but prohibitively weird call itself a cult classic, like Blue Velvet or Reservoir Dogs?)
Anyway, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz right around the time when both were just entering the pantheon of comic gods, the 1986 mini-series is delirious, disorienting, violent, manic and psychedelic. Set against a backdrop of political satire, 1980s-era spycraft and government conspiracies, weird psychological torture with a dash of BDSM and mythic incest thrown in (well, her name is Elektra...). It evokes a certain flavor of 1980s nostalgia; a sweaty, coke-fuelled, hyper-masculine, end-of-empire criminal excess and technological nihilism. It's an epic battle of bad against really bad against pure evil, played out on blood-soaked South American soil, brought to you by the School of the Americas. The main character is even a dead-ringer for Pablo Escobar. (I can totally see Sam Rockwell in the part!) Netflix, if you can hear me, "Save Hannibal" is still priority number one but after that, make this happen!
Okay, I Give Up. What Are Little Girls Made Of?
***Caution: Maleficent (and Sleeping Beauty) spoilers ahead. All images are from IMDB.***
I just watched the movie Maleficent (2014), a re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. In Disney's 1959 version, the "evil queen" is similar to Eris in Greek mythology, but with wardrobe, hair and makeup light years beyond any other Disney villain, male or female. In this version, she wants you to hear her side of the story.
In the opening lines of the 1959 original, we're told, "In a faraway land... there lived a King and his fair Queen. Many years they had longed for a child, and finally their wish was granted. A daughter was born, and they called her Aurora..."
The 2014 version starts out, "Once upon a time, there were two kingdoms that were the worst of neighbors. So vast was the discord between them that it was said only a great hero or a terrible villain might bring them together. In one kingdom lived folk like you and me, with a vain and greedy king to rule over them. They were forever discontent, and envious of the wealth and beauty of their neighbors, for in the other kingdom, the Moors, lived every manner of strange and wonderful creature. And they needed neither king nor queen, but trusted in one another."
Among them lives Maleficent, a free-spirited fairy girl with big, leathery wings. She's an orphan, but already on the fast track to running things as the protector of the enchanted forest. One day she befriends an orphan boy named Stefan, a poor thief who sleeps in a barn but dreams of living in the castle. They get older and closer, culminating in a kiss on her sixteenth birthday, but... it doesn't work out. Things change. He goes off and joins the army to be closer to the seat of power, and she misses him but lives her life protecting the forest from the king's soldiers—until one such invasion goes badly and the king is mortally wounded. On his deathbed, the king promises the kingdom to any soldier who can kill Maleficent.
So the ambitious, not-so-young anymore Stefan goes into the forest to find his old friend and sort of, like, seduces her into falling asleep on his shoulder? But instead of killing her, he cuts off her wings and takes them to the king, who believes she's been killed and grants the kingdom to Stefan. There is a way you could spin it, were you so inclined, that he was actually doing the best thing under the circumstances. Letting her live, leaving her kingdom intact and keeping her wings safe in a glass case in the castle (because it turns out they are, like Doctor Strange's cloak, fully anthropomorphic and autonomous). But nevermind that, Stefan is an asshole/ rapist and pretty soon he's getting married to some blonde anyway, which is where the original story kicks in. A child is born, big party at the castle and everyone's invited—oops, almost everyone...
Picking up the story after the curse and the entire village tossing all their spinning wheels on the fire and then locking them away in a dungeon, Princess Aurora is a cute little blonde moppet growing up in the enchanted forest under the incompetent care of three fairies who can't even figure out what to feed an infant, so Maleficent has to intervene. On day one, she sends an enchanted flower—I couldn't make this up—to nurse the baby while the fairies are sleeping. Later, adventurous toddler Aurora is hurtling blindly towards a cliff (as toddlers are wont to do) and Maleficent intervenes again to rescue her from certain death. By the time the two meet face to face, Aurora calls Maleficent her "fairy godmother" and says she knows that she's always been there protecting her throughout her life. So now they're buds. They go on walks, they watch fairy dance recitals, they mud-wrestle...
Meanwhile in the castle, 16 years of childless marriage and an ostensible cease fire have taken their toll on the king who is slowly going mad. Now that the kingdom is separated from its only neighbor by a giant impenetrable wall of magical thorny vines, he sits alone in his castle talking to the severed wings of his childhood friend, while his queen slowly dies of some unnamed malady off screen. (One parent down and one to go.)
At some point as the Big 16 is looming on the horizon, Aurora tells Maleficent she knows what she wants to do when she grows up. "I'm going to live here in the Moors with you, and we can look after each other." In response, what Maleficent doesn't say is, "okay, but there's this little matter of a curse... I know because I'm the one who put it there. Stay away from spinning wheels, for starters, and let's wait and see how this whole Sweet Sixteen thing plays out before we set any plans in stone..."
Nor does she say, "I'm flattered that you feel that way but you'll be a grown woman soon and in a few years you'll probably want to get out of these woods and see the world, meet some new people, maybe even fall in love or take up a trade... you know, contribute something to society? Maybe think about how you could help make the world a better place or at least create some really neat crafts before you decide about the rest of your life." Instead she says, "You don't have to wait until you're older. You could live here now!" And Aurora, delighted at the prospect of sleeping in the trees and making friends with all the woodland creatures, declares, "I'll be happy here for the rest of my life!"
This, a few plot turns later, is pretty much the re-imagined happily ever after that we get.
On her 16th birthday, Aurora learns that her parents are still alive—or the one anyway—and she gallops off to the castle, only to be greeted by the king who immediately locks her away in a room from which she easily escapes and wanders the halls until she stumbles into her destiny, a dungeon room chock full of pricks... If you know what I mean.
And at this point, I feel the need to stop and address the fact that there's some thorny symbolism leftover from the original, and by that I don't mean the well-intentioned Disney original where handsome Prince Philip is Aurora's betrothed from birth and he's a brave and clever lad who any girl would be lucky to have, and once he figures out that it's the very same enchanting maiden he met in the forest who's asleep on the wrong end of a century's worth of thorn bushes, he moves heaven and earth and fights a dragon to make his way into the room and awaken her with True Love's Kiss. No no, that one is perfect just the way it is.
I mean the original, published in 1697 by Charles Perrault, which was based on folk tales passed down by oral tradition dating back another three centuries. The interpretation of that one seems to be that it's an allegory of spring, with nature coming back to life and vanquishing winter. But with children's stories, there is always a "moral," or at the very least subtle cues about how to be an adult in the world into which these tales are spun.
By comparison, let's look at Snow White which is a pretty straight-forward caution against vanity, among other things. In the original story, the jealous stepmother tries three times to kill Snow White by tempting her with cursed objects that play to the young girl's own vanity; first a corset, then a poisoned comb, and finally the apple. The original Snow White is a bit of a heathen as well, messing up the dwarves' home when she breaks into it rather than taking it upon herself to tidy up like in the Disney version.
Rounding out the Big Three, the Cinderella story dates back even farther, to a tale of a Greek slave girl around 7 BC who marries the king of Egypt. An eagle steals one of her sandals while she's bathing in the river, and drops it into the lap of the king, who sends his men in all directions to find the owner of the sandal. While it may seem like pure peasant wish-fulfillment fantasy on its face, all the variations of the Cinderella tale (and they are legion) describe the girl in remarkably similar terms—kind, hard-working and humble. It's her dedication to these traits in the face of adversity—the loss of a parent, abuse by wicked step-siblings and the drudgery of peasant life—and the fact that she's able to somehow be charming in spite of it all, that makes her worthy of her eventual rewards.
When it comes to Sleeping Beauty, all the historical variations involve a curse and the prick of a needle around her 16th birthday, then the prince awakening her with a kiss after battling through bushes and brambles and the two living happily ever after. So that's all pretty standard if metaphorically heavy-handed coming of age stuff, right? In some versions, it's not an evil fairy or even a witch but the prince's own perversely over-attached mother that does the cursing—and in one truly offensive version, it's the prince's wife who seeks revenge on the princess, but only after discovering that her husband has been sneaking off and having sex with some sleeping girl who's locked away in an old enchanted castle. And he's the father of her two children, both of which were conceived and delivered while she slept—omg, so gross!
But Maleficent wants you to know it's not down with all that true love's kiss stuff. "True love does not exist," not one but two of the characters declare without argument. And sure enough, after the prince is knocked unconscious and dragged through the forest to the bedside of the sleeping princess to deliver the expected antidote, he surveys her apparently lifeless body and, at the urging of the three fairies to kiss her, says, "I wouldn't feel right about it. I barely know her."
This might be his redeeming moment in the eyes of a generation raised to suspect everyone of being a potential rapist just waiting for a girl to drop her guard or leave her drink unattended, but it doesn't solve the narrative problem of the moment. And neither does his kiss. (Sorry, Philip. You seem like a nice boy, but we all know you would only disappoint her in the long run anyway... drinking too much in front of her children or carrying on with a younger woman... Wait, where were we?)
Ah yes, there's no such thing as true love. In this story, only Maleficent has the power to resurrect the princess and break the curse, which she does with a motherly kiss and an apology that's one part rationale for cursing her in the first place ("I was so lost in hatred and revenge...") and the other part, something like a marriage vow? ("...you stole what was left of my heart. And now I have lost you forever. I swear no harm will come to you as long as I live... And not a day shall pass that I don't miss your smile.") MWA! After that, Philip is relegated to the same margins as the other men in the story, where he'll presumably be waiting until he's called upon at a time of Aurora's choosing... or Maleficent's, I guess? You never know.
But there's still some unpleasantness to be wrapped up at the castle, since the king doesn't seem to notice or care that his daughter is in the very next room, restored to full health and life expectancy. Shortly after the resurrection, Maleficent is under attack by the castle's guards when her severed wings find her and reattach themselves—an ecstatic moment, I might add, that's infused with all the rapture and intensity that in another time might have been expected from a kiss.
Wings unfurled, the leather-clad fairy/goddess/mother stands backlit in her full angelic glory and fights off the soldiers with a little help from her loyal but sexually nonthreatening shape shifter sidekick, before the final boss battle to the death with the King. Wait, why—you might ask, does she now want to murder Aurora's only remaining parent, with whom after all she herself was once in love? I don't know... Why do you think? To be fair, he is the aggressor and she is merely defending herself, and besides, the event goes largely unnoticed by Princess Aurora, even though the act that orphans her also technically makes her the sole heir to the throne (questionable past methods of succession notwithstanding).
After that, they all head back to the enchanted forest for a quiet ceremony where Aurora is crowned the queen of the forest. But wait, I thought the Moors "needed neither king nor queen, but trusted in one another," no? Yeah, whatever, she's the queen now—she's got the crown of leaves and everything. She even shakes hands with Treebeard, the King of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings ("Our kingdoms are united," indeed). Then Aurora speaks the movie's closing line, "In the end, my kingdom was united not by a hero or a villain, as legend had predicted, but by one who was both hero and villain. And her name was Maleficent."
So, Maleficent is both hero and villain, martyr and savior, victim and victorious, virgin queen and mother goddess all rolled into one. Wow. And Aurora? Well, she's free to do as she pleases, I guess...
Will she or won't she fall in love with Prince Philip (who, as a side note, travelled all this way from some neighboring kingdom, presumably with some purpose in mind)? Was he there to broker a trade deal? Deliver an ultimatum or request military aid against a common but hitherto unseen enemy? I guess we'll never know because this movie isn't called "Prince Philip."
Will Aurora take back the castle and lead her armies to conquer the lands beyond the Moors, ushering in an age of empire, uniting the known world under the benevolent banner of the forest queens? (I don't know, but I'd see that movie!) Okay, I'll give you a hint... this movie isn't called "Princess Aurora" either.
But can it really be called a fairy tale if there isn't a moral to the story? Some might say: who needs morals when we have science (and magic) plus personal freedom? Okay, fine. I guess there are two morals... Don't take advantage of sleeping girls (as if you didn't already know that!) and love the one who mothers you because, if I may paraphrase, there ain't no truer love.
It's almost like the ancient Greeks came the closest the getting it right all those years ago, in their cautionary soap opera stories about gods and goddesses behaving badly. Sure, Demeter would have liked to protect her daughter and keep her young and unspoiled forever in their perpetual garden paradise, but Persephone grew up and wandered off and curiosity has its consequences. In the end, Hades had a wife for half the year and Demeter had her daughter for the other half. Vegetables and flowers grew and were harvested, then died in the winter and life went on. Persephone discovered love and sex and marriage in the underworld, but was he Prince Charming? Is anybody? Hades wasn't half bad—he let her spend half of every year frolicking in the forest of her youth, with no questions asked. He sounds like a pretty progressive husband to me (besides—are you kidding me? The sex was probably amazing).
It's funny... if you think about it generationally, the generation that fought in World War II settled down and gave rise to the Baby Boomers, a generation that was better-fed and cared-for than any that had come before it. But when they grew up, they felt alienated and rebelled against the suffocating strictures of a society they felt was commercialized and crass and lacking in humanity. They were bold and individualistic and they wanted their kids to have all the freedom they never had, so their kids—Generation X—grew up feral in the streets, staying out until dark or sleeping under bridges, and eventually came to regard their freedom as abandonment by parents they saw as narcissists who were too busy "finding themselves" to truly be present in their children's lives. When Generation X grew up, some of them eventually settling down long enough to mate in captivity, they over-parented the living shit out of their kids, who would never know the freedom of walking home from school or an unsupervised "play date" or eating a peanut butter sandwich in proximity to their classmates. Their kids would grow up thinking of their parents as their friends, and knowing they could do anything they wanted, anything at all—start a band, join the circus, join the army, play a sport, play the stock market, marry a man or a woman or neither.
It was the first of those generations that brought us those classic fairy tales—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and all the rest. They were about heroic acts in the face of adversity, being nice to animals and settling down in the end with someone you loved. When the Baby Boomers took over at Disney, we got self-actualization fantasies on a grand scale—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King—adventures, true love and a true purpose in life for everyone. Yes, you can have it all, kiddos.
The next generation has produced a diverse array of animated films, but sticking to the "fairy tale" genre, we've seen Frozen, Brave, Maleficent and Inside Out, all of which turn the "princess" narrative about finding true love and settling down with a handsome prince on its head, sometimes literally—and in the end the princesses in these stories end up triumphantly reuniting... with their families. Aww... As for living happily ever after, we presume they're on their own—I mean, not really, because they'll never be truly on their own, like in the sense of being alone. They're just kids, after all, and their families will always be there, and they'll have all their friends on Facebook and everyone they've ever known will only ever be a text away. But if they want to try dating or bring someone home to live with them later on, that's great—assuming everybody gets along—you know, we'll see.
So what kind of stories will their children bring forth, I wonder, the children of today? When they're old enough to take the helm at Hollywood's historic animation studios and the offshore subsidiaries thereof, will it be all Angry Birds and Candy Crush adaptations, or just endless installments of the immortal franchises they inherited from their antecedents? Only time will tell...