We’re back with the second (and final) part of our Wonder Woman discussion, where we get into much, um, headier(?) topics than we did yesterday. Hubert continues to use big words, and I continue to make broad statements that I’m almost certainly not qualified to make.
While the discussion below assumes you’ve read yesterday’s installment, it is actually fairly self-contained and can be read it without. You should read that one, though, because these conversations are great.
So let’s get into it.
Alec: As the guy who wrote Flixist’s review of Get Out, I understand a parallel there. We’ve talked in the past about how everything is political now. It’s likely that it always has been, but it’s much more widely recognized now than it used to be. To get off topic for a minute: Not a terribly long time ago, I was thinking about a hypothetical movie about racism vs one about sexism. One follows a member of the KKK, the other an MRA-esque pickup artist: which do we as a society see as more problematic?
It’s not the latter.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m certainly not the best person to list them, but this results in an interesting parallel to Black Panther (and Ryan Coogler in particular): Creed was, I learned upon entering the theater I saw it in, a “black” movie. The trailers leading up to it primarily featured Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in movies I had never seen trailers for. And it’s offensively reductive to think of Creed (a movie I love) in those terms, but that is what Regal decided its audience would be.
Racists may have been unhappy that the next Rocky focused on the experiences of a black man, but I don’t think anyone who accepted that premise was concerned about Ryan Coogler. I think that, in a similar vein, the same man directing Black Panther is not necessarily controversial. And the backlash of a white director doing Black Panther would be more virulent than it was about, say, Paul Fieg directing the female-led Ghostbusters.
There is an expectation, I think, that movies about black people will largely be made by black people. This leads into a whole host of other issues, but to get back to the actual discussion we’re having: I don’t see a woman analog. Movies about women are rarely made by women and, crucially, there is no expectation that they be.
I think that’s why a woman directing Wonder Woman could even be in question. Of course she should, but… men tell women’s stories all the time! So maybe she doesn’t “need to”? It’s an infuriating logic, but I can sorta see it (in a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of way).
And I realize now that I pretty much didn’t respond to what you said… but I’d like to get your thoughts on this before going back to some of your other points (particularly about the younger generation and what this means for them, because I think that’s crucial).
Hubert: This is an interesting tangent, because we’re talking about the larger cultural idea concerning different people’s stories, who is telling their stories, expectations about those stories, and who gets to tell people’s stories. I think Wonder Woman would have a different sensibility if it was directed by a man; and Get Out would be different if it was directed by a white person. It goes beyond the individual style of a director and gets down to what these stories mean in terms of the identity of the director and the identities of the characters and the politics of the moment.
After serving on the Cannes jury, Jessica Chastain stated publicly that the female characters in the movies she watched weren’t great. She was disturbed that they lacked depth and were such passive characters to the men around them; they weren’t representative of the women she knew in her own life. Chastain called for more women to tell stories on the big screen so the female characters had more dimension and agency. A lot of people still think of movies about women as “chick flicks”, but stories about women go beyond those dismissive labels. As more women direct movies and more stories are told about women, the idea of a movie about women or by women expands beyond a reductive niche. The same goes for films by and about people of color. The reason we’re having this whole conversation and probably will for a while is because the default sensibility in so many kinds of art is predominantly white and male.
That’s not to say that all movies about women should only be directed by women, or that all movies about people of color should only be directed by members of that ethnicity. But maybe some stories lend themselves to that type of consideration more than others. Like I think of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle from last year, which I didn’t like (I’m in the vast minority) despite a great Isabelle Huppert performance. It’s a movie about a woman who’s raped and how she processes the incident and reacts to it, but it’s directed by a man, with a screenplay by a man, adapted from a novel by a man. And it felt like it.
I’m glad you mentioned the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. I think this comes back to the symbolic cultural dimension of films and how that informs a strong personal attachment to something. These days I think it’s just middling-to-okay, but lots of my friends rally around it. Part of that is a counterpoint to the over-the-top male-nerd rage over an all-female Ghostbusters remake. But beyond the rebuke of manchild gatekeeping, whenever the movie feels like a Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones comedy, it’s fun to watch because they’re doing their own thing and their personalities drive the story. Unfortunately, it’s a beat-for-beat remake of the original Ghostbusters. I feel like there’s a good-to-great movie trapped inside of a calculated, studio-mandated formula. And maybe someone other than Feig should have directed it. Though imagine the s**t-show if Feig was hired to direct Black Panther.
Alec: It would be something to behold.
Ultimately, we’re talking about representation, and not just in the people on screen. Representation behind the scenes, allowing stories to be told by the people whose stories are actually being told. In certain circles, “representation” has developed a negative connotation — something like tokenism — but it’s a crucially important thing to have stories told about all kinds of people, and to have them told by the kinds of people who have a deep investment in those stories. It’s not just about who is on screen. Let’s be honest: a story about Wonder Woman means a lot less to someone who grew up wanting to be Superman.
(That actually brings up a whole other discussion re: the fact that I don’t think anyone will grow up wanting to be Zack Snyder’s version of Superman)
And here we return to this image of parents taking a photo of their daughter doing a Wonder Woman-y pose at the movie theater. That little girl is getting to see a badass woman starring in her own movie on the big screen for basically the first time ever. AND she gets to see that in a movie that refuses to sexualize one of the most attractive human beings to ever exist; nay, a movie that never even considers sexualizing her in the first place! It would be oh-so-easy to have all kinds of gratuitous fan service in this movie, given the generally sparse nature of her costume, but the film never calls attention to it. All of that unnecessary slow-mo in Wonder Woman may seem Snyder-esque, but it’s different in purpose: it’s always to call attention to the cool thing that’s being done and not the way the person doing it is dressed (an issue he has with his slow-motion (and regular-motion) portrayals of women).
And I love that. I am ecstatic for that little girl, that she gets to grow up in a world where she has a movie that treats its badass woman protagonist as a badass protagonist first and a woman, well, first also but in, ya know, a positive way.
I just wish I liked the movie itself more. Because I am celebrating all of these things that surround the movie and things that the movie does that are sort of abstracted from the actual quality of the movie itself. Sexualization of a character does not a make a movie inherently bad; it would make a Wonder Woman movie inherently problematic, but it is not a clear measure of the film’s quality. And when I think about the narrative foibles or the really-very-bad CGI, I just get sad, because I want to unequivocally shout from the heavens that this movie is a gamechanger not just culturally but as a piece of art (or, at the very least, entertainment). And it’s not; it’s just good.
But when I put in all those caveats, I worry about diminishing the excitement of that little girl doing her pose. It’s not that she’d ever read a thing I said about it, but that the negativity of people like me could poison the well and take her excitement about this new awesome thing for her and crush it. I don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want to be that kind of person, that kind of guy. And so I don’t always know how to critique it, because it’s become inextricably linked from its own importance.
Hubert: I think you can understand the joy or enthusiasm that the young girl has for Wonder Woman as a symbol even if you didn’t like Wonder Woman the movie as much as she did. The fact that you’re concerned about diminishing someone else’s enthusiasm for Wonder Woman safeguards you from being a total grump. You’re trying to avoid being a downer, which is a lot better than most people on the internet (says this guy on the internet). Instead, you’re saying, “You got that out of Wonder Woman? Awesome!” You acknowledge that it means something important to someone else, and you’re doing your best to understand that. To me, that’s the way around this whole sliding scale of quality question. Regardless of the movie itself, you can at least mutually understand its importance as this thing in the world. The movie is working as an empathy machine, and so is the conversation around the movie.
Whenever I talk to friends about movies or books or any sort of art, I’m usually more interested in hearing what they think first before saying what I think. I want to share in their enthusiasm or passion for something, see where they’re coming from. We’ll disagree on some stuff, and what’s important to someone else may not have been something I was paying attention to when I was watching, but now I’m more aware of that concern. Generally it doesn’t matter if we agree on the quality of the work. It’s the conversation about this thing in common between us that matters; it’s about what new ideas we’ll have talking to each other about this thing in common.
It’s interesting how you’re disappointed in Wonder Woman being merely good. As if being good wasn’t enough. But with some things, that so true! You want to experience that transformative, transcendent feeling. I’ve felt that same way about other movies, most recently with Your Name and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both were so hyped up for me, but both just left me thinking, “That was all right.” I get why people love those movies on paper when I think of what happens in the abstract, but it just didn’t affect me in the same way. And that’s fine. This might be my inner Platonist talking, but the idea of something is always more perfect than its actual material manifestation. It might be the human tendency to conflate the idea of the thing with the actual thing when assessing quality, but if so, oh well.
I guess all I can really say is that you should be happy for that girl at the movies, and don’t worry about spoiling her connection to Wonder Woman just because you didn’t like it as much. You’re conscious of what it means to her and to others. It’s not like you’re being a total asshole or questioning her intellect or trying to debate her about aesthetics. As long as you aren’t tweeting “Well, actually…” to a bunch of Wonder Woman fans on the internet or antagonizing people for not sharing your opinions, I think everyone will be fine. And yet sadly, that happens a lot since the internet is, at its worst, a solipsistic misanthropy machine.
Alec: I don’t remember which review it was (I’ve done too many at this point), but I once wrote passionately in defense of movies that are Just Good. Considering all of the dreck we have to deal with, being genuinely Good is a triumph, and I have never seen a Good movie that I felt was a waste of my time or a thing I regretted doing. Good is not fundamentally or inherently problematic. When Good becomes a problem (for me) is when other people rave about how Great, Amazing, Wonderful, etc. a thing is. It becomes impossible to celebrate a thing’s Goodness when everyone else is celebrating Greatness. I want to be able to say, “Ya know, Wonder Woman was pretty good. It had its flaws, but it it’s definitely a few steps above anything the DCEU has done up to this point.”
Instead, I end up arguing, because there are people who reject the idea that it is anything short of a triumph. And while on some level I see where they’re coming from, I also don’t think they’re looking at the film critically; they’re getting swept up into it. And that’s not necessarily to say that people who like the movie more than me are wrong (storytelling impacts different people very differently, which is largely the reason why we do these discussions in the first place) but that I get concerned that people write off flaws and the next movie that could be Great learning from the mistakes of the thing that is Good repeats them instead. I’d rather live in a world where every movie is Good than one where it has fallen into constant mediocrity. Even so, I want movies better than Wonder Woman. This can be the new bar we set, but it’s also hardly an impossible one to overcome.
Wonder Woman is the beginning of something great; I just don’t think it’s great in and of itself.