Thursday, June 22, 2017

Wonder Woman & Spider-Man vs. the Man of Steel

I finally got to see Wonder Woman this week.  Good flick.  They did a nice job of making Diana fierce but also feminine and of making Steve Trevor both nowhere near as tough as his star but decidedly heroic and masculine nonetheless.
Wonder Woman
Spoilers ahead.
My favorite things about the film were found in the way that the producers showed us Diana’s naivety without making her seem stupid and in her unapologetic heroism, played without an ounce of irony or cynicism.  We’ve seen all too much cynicism in comic book movies lately—and in the comics themselves, too, since at least the mid-1980s—and if I liked the way Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies dealt with the inherently tragic façade of Gotham, it’s also true that Nolan’s influence has been like a blanket smothering the fun out of what should be entertaining, none-too-serious escapism ever since.  
Superman, as inspired by Batman Begins.
Man of Steel is the worst offender in this regard.  We spend so much time in that movie watching Clark Kent hemming and hawing about the logistics of his secret identity that his father actually dies to preserve his anonymity.  Compared to this, Wonder Woman’s utter unwillingness to compromise on what she sees as right is a revelation.  She’s not heroic because she charges a water cooled machine gun.  She’s heroic because she charges a water cooled machine gun at a time when doing so actually jeopardizes her mission.  But the immediacy of right and wrong trump larger concerns, and in the end, she’s hero enough to save the day, both in the immediate sense and in the larger context of the war itself.  We could maybe argue that it’s in keeping with Batman’s character to stay on mission, even at the cost of some innocent lives—for some iterations of the character, at least—but Superman’s similar timidity in MoS is so off-putting that it actually brings down the entire movie.  Superman should be better than that, but he’s not.  That Wonder Woman is makes her all the more exciting as a character.  
Demigods are not supposed to be bound by the concerns of mortal men.  Wonder Woman stays true to an uncompromising ethos, and succeeds.  But Superman—though possessed of even greater godlike powers—remains mired in the worst impulses of humanity.  This is why Wonder Woman is a better movie, and it’s similarly why she is the best part of an otherwise abysmal Batman versus Superman.
Wonder Woman stayed true to recent versions of a very long running character.
The only thing that I didn’t particularly like about Wonder Woman was its ending.  Her final fight with Ares lacked stakes to me.  Ares comes straight out and admits that he doesn’t want to kill Diana, and for much of that final fight, it’s unclear whether he’s really trying to murder her.  At the same time, the fight itself is a sideshow, and because Diana is trapped in that sideshow, Steve Trevor winds up in the Steve Rodgers role, flying off with the Airplane of Doom.  I didn’t mind giving Trevor his moment, but knowing that WWII is right around the corner, one wonders what the ultimate point is of “killing” Ares.  We know from real history that War is hardly dead.  It makes sense for Diana, perhaps, in the sense that she has come all this way specifically to kill Ares, but we already know that killing Ares isn’t going to accomplish anything meaningful.  Even Diana knows this.  “People make their own Hell,” is one of the movie’s central themes.
Ares & Aphrodite.
Note the spear.
Also: why is Ares throwing around lightning bolts?  Lightning is specifically the province of Zeus.  Am I the only one who read The Lightning Thief?  Ares’s iconic weapon is the spear.  In the sense that Diana is a daughter of Zeus, it makes sense that she can catch and control lightning.  Ares, however, ought to be carrying a spear, a shield, and perhaps a short sword.  Giving him Zeus’s weapon was actually a bit confusing in those final climactic moments.  I found myself waiting for another godly reveal.
Granted, that’s a quibble.  I know.
So.  Wonder Woman follows many of the basic plot points that the first Captain America laid down, and we know from trailers that a new Justice League movie waits just over the horizon.  Indeed, Wonder Woman herself looks ready to slide into the Justice League’s Captain America role, with Batman set to be Iron Man, and the movie itself based around assembling the Avengers, er, forming the League just as alien overlord Darkseid invades the Earth.  This sounds great and will probably work to the extent that it embraces its goofy heroism and avoids cynicism.  But thatis not always an easy trick.
The trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming ran before our showing of Wonder Woman, and I confess that I’m getting a little concerned about that movie, too.  I’m worried because the trailers seems to have shown the entire plot of the movie and because the movie itself is plotted like a sequel.  Okay, so it’s good that they’re not doing another origin story for Spider-Man.  However, it’s weird that they’re running what looks like a variation on the plotline of Rocky III in the first installment of a new movie franchise, and it’s a little concerning that Spider-Man is headed for “Little Buddy” territory.  I’m worried that Spider-Man isn’t going to be the big hero in his own movie in the same way that Steve Trevor ultimately saved the day in Wonder Woman while she herself watched from the ground.  Though this actually worked in Wonder Woman, I doubt it will in the new Spider-Man.

And yet, it’s really hard to argue with the Marvel’s track record.  I didn’t love Iron Man III, but if it was the only one of the Marvel movies that struggled to embrace its own internal super-identity, it was at least still very funny.  Even Thor: The Dark World, though hardly a masterpiece, managed to at least approach its subject matter honestly.  This, the idea that Marvel trusts its characters to be who they are for better or worse, is what has made their movies successful time after time after time.  It’s what made Wonder Woman successful, too.  Against that backdrop, we now have a Spider-Man movie about how Peter Parker suddenly thinks he needs a super-suit…
I get it as the framing device of a movie, but is it true to the character?  
Before 2008, no one would've given
Iron Man top billing in this team-up.
Spider-Man is Marvel’s Everyman.  As a social misfit and high school nerd, he stands in for that nervous part of us all that longs to be accepted by the group.  But he’s also a hero.  Like Wonder Woman, he is unapologetically heroic, even at times when he might be better served not to be.  This has shown up repeatedly in previous movies, most especially in Spider-Man II, the one where he throws away his spider-suit until Doctor Octopus intervenes to force him back into action.  Ultimately, though, Spider-Man has both an outsized sense of duty and a legitimately badass suite of super powers.  He is super-strong, super-fast, slightly precognitive, and smart to the point of being an occasional scientific genius.  He is, in every way save his financials, the equal of Tony Stark.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine Iron Man beating Spider-Man in anything like a fair fight, though that’s obviously the kind of hyper-important thinky-thought nerdery that keeps geeks everywhere awake at nights in deep contemplation.
This, I suppose, is the best version of the plot of this movie.  Like Rocky in Rocky III, Peter Parker has to learn to trust himself and to go all-in to get what he wants, and if he does, he can live up to his full potential.  He has to find that Eye of the Tiger.  I’m concerned, though, that the movie’s actual plot will involve Peter’s needing to convince Tony Stark that he’s up to the task of being Spider-Man, which would put Stark into the driver’s seat and give Iron Man the chance to save the day.  
That would be unfortunate, and like I said, I’m not sure that it would be true to the ethos of the character.  That’s the Spider-Man that’s more Man of Steel than Wonder Woman, and honestly, that’s not a Spider-Man that I want to see.

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