Wonder Woman Reactions

Wonder Woman Reactions

***Heads up Spoilers!***

I like super heroes. You may have noticed this, (here, and here) so of course I ran out this weekend to see Wonder Woman. As you probably already know, it’s a damn good film, its not perfect though. And I’m still wrestling with how groundbreaking it was or wasn’t for the super hero genre. But it was a solid origin story. It was fun and funny and did way more right than the few missteps it took. And it was the first super hero movie in a long time that I found inspiring, though the reason I found it inspiring is a mix bag.

Like women in modern society ‘Wonder Woman’ the film had insane, unfair, and neigh impossible expectations thrusted upon it. It was directed by a woman and had a female star which was pressure enough for an action movie without it alos being the first female led super hero film in this new super hero Renaissance. Studio execs have long used poorly done female super hero movies, like Halle Barry’s infamous ‘Catwoman’, as an excuse not to bring more female characters to the screen. And yet, like women do every day, Wonder Woman donned her armor, grabbed her lasso and not only met those expectations, but rose above them.

The undeniable way in which ‘Wonder Woman’ was groundbreaking was that it stared Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is not just a ‘female super hero’, she is THE female super hero. She is considered the first and is by far the most iconic. Even people who don’t know anything about comics, know and love her, and that’s despite the fact she’s never had a big studio movie before and her TV show ended in 1979.

By design Wonder Woman is feminist. She lives on Themyscrira a mythical island home to the Amazons, an enlightened race of female warriors, designed by the gods to make mankind better. This narrative is kept in full for the movie. Director Patty Jenkins nails the Amazonians. They feel powerful and competent. During their brief battle scene they leap from cliffs firing arrows, sweep spears across the battlefield from horseback and bash heads in. They’re not invincible they die, but that just makes them feel more remarkable.

The Amazons are special without feeling special. They’re played straight, another mythical race like the Asgardians of Thor. They have a purpose, social order and disputes as well as being proud warriors. They just all happen to be women. No Amazonian comments on this, even when Steve Trevor shows up, he’s not treated with suspicion because he’s a man but because he’s an outsider and the island is hidden for a reason.

I loved all that, it was so placidly, perfectly normal. It made complete sense for the Amazonians from story perspective. And yet it is so rare to see a single female warrior treated like an everyday fighter in mainstream pop culture, let alone a whole race of them. Usually female fighters are sexy fem fettles, or characters that act so ‘strong and bad ass’ that they feel self-conscious, like they’re making up for something or some male character will point out that they’re a girl, saying something like ‘you fight well for a woman’. None of that happen to the Amazonians.

This sense of female empowerment through just treating characters like normal people continued with Wonder Woman. Diana is naïve without being dumb. She’s been raised all her life to believe in a noble mission and simplistic truth. Mankind is inherently good. Ares clouds mankind’s thoughts and makes them fight and it’s up to the Amazonians to stop Ares and guide people back to that goodness.

When Diana sees people suffering she wants to help and it feels earnest. She’s not doing this to redeem herself or because of dead parents, but because she truly feels what these soldiers are doing is wrong and she should stop it. When she steps out into no man’s land in complete battle regala it feels earned and awesome. As she slids, strifes and bashes her with through German soldiers, her war drum pounding theme song plays and it’s impossible not feel something.

Diana is assisted in her journey by Steve Trevor, who in the comics is her token love interest. Trevor is from the same ilk as Thor’s Jane Foster and Iron Man’s Pepper Pots, an automatic girlfriend/boyfriend that the hero just sort of has. Few in this crowd rise to the level of independent character like Louis Lane or Mary Jane Watson. And before this movie I would have never guessed that Steve Trevor would be one of them.

The few times I bumped into Trevor before this movie he was a total cad, like in the 2009 ‘Wonder Woman’ animated film. He was constantly ogling Diana and there was a lot of unnecessary ‘Man are from Mars and Woman are from Venus’ crap going on. If you were to have told me that Chris Pine, who played a pretty cad like Captain Kirk, was going to pull off a nuanced Steve Trevor I wouldn’t have believed it, but he does.

Pine gives perhaps his best performance in this movie. His Steve Trevor treats Diana as a bit of an eccentric, but also as an equal and someone deserving his respect. Yes, he comments on the fact that she’s attractive, because she is, but so are most super heroes. Marvel makes sure to work in a shirtless beefcake scene in every film and DC took note. Trevor shows the most skin in ‘Wonder Woman’. But beyond that Steve Trevor’s story is perfectly blended with Diana. Trevor doesn’t feel like an added love interest that the writers don’t know what to do with so they give him some random job in the plot.

Trevor and Diana profit from each other both in the story and from a storytelling point of view. Trevor’s arc isn’t treated as subservient to Diana’s and when he decides to sacrifice himself it isn’t for her. He flies off with the deadly gas because it’s the right thing to do and that has a bigger impact on Wonder Woman and then any ‘fridging’ (killing off the love interest, often girlfriend, to give the hero added motivation) would have had.

‘Wonder Woman’ succeeds were most super hero films do and it also flatters where most do too. It’s third act is a mess. It has some good ideas, but everything happens too quickly, while at the same time dragging the final fight on way too long. The three villains in the film are its hammiest aspects. Ares is a decent foil, but he’s not given enough time to develop. Dr. Poison has a great look like most villains, but outside of being a plot device, doesn’t get to do much. And the less send about the proto-nazi Ludendorff the better.

Wonder Woman also faces some problems going forward. Her biggest weakness is that she’s part of DC’s grim dark cinematic universe. Since she popped up in ‘Batman V Superman’ Diana has been the best thing about this universe. But she might be forced to pull a lot of dead weight in her upcoming sequels, especially if ‘Justice League’ doesn’t work out.

I also have mix feelings about Diana sticking around in man’s world post ‘Wonder Woman’. I loved her working at the Louvre, but she’s pretty anti-war, and yet has been around since World War I and decided not to stop the Nazis, Pol Pot or any number of atrocities? If that’s an unfairly serious question to ask of super hero, then how about why didn’t she do anything about the near destruction the planet during ‘Man of Steal’?

Marvel plans all its films out way in advance and has a defined timeline which lets them avoid problems like this. Thor and Hulk didn’t get involved in Civil War because they were off planet, Iron Man didn’t call the avengers for help against the Mandarin because he was self conscious (not all the reasons given are solid, but at least they have them). It’s true a line or two of dialogue could try to tie this up, but it still means that Wonder Woman is a century old god rather than a peer of Batman and Superman like she’s usually portrayed.

My final concern has less to do with the DC movies and more with Wonder Woman in general. Her rouges gallery isn’t particularly strong and her main villain is a character called ‘Cheetah’. Cheetah is a cat-lady, like a were-cheetah? Given the power level that Wonder Woman displayed at the end of her film, I doubt any cat lady could take her. This is a uniquely DC problem as their character’s powers tend to be far more unchained then Marvel’s. Thor might be a god too, but remove him from his hammer and he’s much more manageable.

But after seeing ‘Wonder Woman’ Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have my full confidence. I’m excited to see what they have in store for the iconic character. And I hope that ‘Wonder Woman’ lifts up not only DC’s movies, but Marvel’s too. There are many amazing female super heroes that deserve the level of care and respect Wonder Woman was given on the big screen. Let see who’s next!

Secret Empire: So is Captain America a Nazi now?

Secret Empire: So is Captain America a Nazi now?

Marvel’s annual comic event this year, ‘Secret Empire’, has created a lot of controversy. You can find a…strong opinion on it here. Polygon also has a more complete explainer, though it’s no less bias: here. Since I’m a person on the internet that reads comics, I have opinions of my own on Secret Empire. And as a writer with an average of three whole page views per post I am duty bound to share those opinions.

The whole story and controversy of Secret Empire started when the Red Skull used the cosmic cube to alter reality. He turned Captain America into a Hydra sleeper agent, one who believed he had always been part of Hydra. The changed Cap hatches a complicated plan that ends with him in control of both Hydra and the Untied States with all his former super hero allies trapped or defeated. As Secret Empire begins Captain America becomes the thing he’s always fought against, the fascist leader of Hydra.

You can understand why this would upset people. Taking a beloved symbol of America and revealing that he’s secretly been a fascist sleeper agent says something about the U.S. Also the event shares the same name of a 1970s Captain America story arc which highly suggests that Richard Nixon was really a super villain. The event seems tailored made to piss off the political right, but they’re not the ones who are mad, or if they are they’re being drowned out by the left. I don’t really get the outrage though, there’s always been something kind of fascist about Captain America.

Now, before you send hate mail to a complete nobody on the internet, let me explain. I love Captain America. Ed Brubaker’s run was incredible and his death of Captain America issue was tragic and damn near perfect. Chris Evan’s Captain America is everything I ever wanted the character to be. But still, Captain America is a blue eye, blonde, super solider in the most powerful military on the planet. And he solves problems by punching people in the face.

There are some fascist undertones in all that and saying so used to not be so controversial, (look for Michael Chabon at the 19 minute mark here). Past Captain American writers have explored this conflict by pitting  cap against more hardline or disturbed versions of himself like U.S. Agent, or the insane Captain America from the 50s, or that random time in the 90s or 00s when the Navy made an evil Captain America. These struggles represent the conflict inherent to the character, the shadow of authoritarianism lurking in his make up. Now the conflict is more personal with an evil Steve Rogers pitted against Sam Wilson’s Captain America.

The argument that this all offensive though, is less on Captain America acting fascist and more on him being the head of Hydra. As the book riot article states:

“Captain America, a hero created by two Jewish men on the eve of World War II to fight Nazis, is revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a terrorist organization which essentially serves as Nazi proxies in Marvel Comics”

So, Captain America is the head of Hydra, are Hydra Nazis? Short answer: no, but there’s an * there. Let’s talk about Hydra.

A lot of the internet is arguing that Hydra is a metaphor for Nazis. And Hydra was…kinda. The 1940s Captain America comics had no problem with Cap fighting actual Nazis with swastikas and all, (as well as fanged and bucked tooth Japanese soldiers, do you want unpack that part of the character’s legacy?). Hydra was Nazis in an insultingly cartoonish way that was all about mad scientists and death machines not about war atrocities and holocausts. And they didn’t stay Nazis for long.

Hydra has existed in print for over 50 years. They are Marvel comics chief ‘bad guy organization’ and main rival to Shield. They have been a stand in for every single ‘evil henchmen’ organization in pop culture. They were ‘Spectre’ to Nick Fury’s James bond in the 60s. They were ‘COBRA’ to the Avenger’s G.I Joe in the 80s (and probably a source of inspiration for Hasbro’s COBRA as well)

If Hydra was a metaphor for Nazis, they’ve also been a metaphor for every group or nation that America has feared in the past half century. There are multiple ‘red scare’ style stories of Hydra infiltrating the American government. And since the early 2000s comics have featured Hydra suicide bombers that scream ‘Hail Hydra!’ before blowing themselves up (yes, it’s uncomfortable.)

Having been around forever in comics Hydra has also been responsible for creating a ton of characters, none of which people have called Nazis in the past. For example, would someone really call Deadpool’s comic sidekick ‘Bob from Hydra’ a Nazi? No, Bob is a joke about how cartoony and weird henchmen are. And he’s from Hydra because that’s where the majority of Marvel’s henchmen come from.

Barron Zemo started out as a member of Hydra and then became an anti-hero, then a member again, and then left and then came back; rinse and repeat depending on the writer. When reading Fabian Nicieza’s run on Thunderbolts with a heroic Barron Zemo were readers rooting for a former Nazi who was destined to become a Nazi again? No, they were reading the adventures of reformed villain who was going to break bad again. Or how about Wolverine? He dated Viper, a high ranking Hydra agent, and killed a bunch of people for Hydra. Nobody thought he was involved with Nazis during those stories.

The book riot article even suggests:

“Perhaps worst of all, Marvel decides to drum up excitement over Secret Empire with a “fun” marketing campaign wherein comic book store employees wear exclusive Hydra shirts. Because who doesn’t love being blindsided by low-key Nazi cosplay on a Wednesday afternoon?”

To equate wearing a Hydra t-shirt to ‘low-key Nazi cosplay’ is downright insulting.

When ‘Winter Solider’ came out and people bought Hydra t-shirts and passed around ‘Hail Hydra’ memes where they sending out coded Nazi propaganda? If someone cosplays as ‘Bob from Hydra’ is it a hate crime, the same as wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform? Saying Hydra and the Nazis are the same thing is either turning Nazis into a jokey caricature of stock bad guys or it’s making thousands of comics, decades of storytelling, into questionable Nazi literature.

In another baffling move this controversy also involves Magneto, who showed up on a variant cover. The idea is that since Hydra are Nazis, saying that Magneto would join up with them is super offensive because he’s Jewish and a holocaust survivor. (It’s worth pointing out that Variant covers rarely have anything to do with the actual story in the book) But joining Hydra would be one of the least offensive things Magneto has done.

My dad is Jewish and grew up around holocaust survivors and he hates Magneto. He finds the character to be extremely offensive. And there’s a lot of reasons to agree with that. Did you see the second X-men movie? The one where at the end Magneto targets all humans to suddenly die? That’s genocide, and he’s been trying to do stuff like that for decades. He’s blown up cities, switched magnet poles, and kills a lot of people. The guy is a holocaust survivor that decides that genocide is good thing, that is an extremely controversial character. And yet people are trying to defend him against becoming a Nazi thanks to a variant cover for a book he has yet to show up in?

Now I’m not trying to say that people should be outraged over Magneto and call him an anti-semitic character. I have Jewish cousins who love him. And I think he’s been a tragic anti-hero as well as a complex, if not vicious, villain. But his history is complicated and at times problematic, which is true of a lot of stuff in Marvel’s fifty year history. Those controversial elements can help characters grow and evolve when a writer explores them and tries to confront them. And I think, in some ways, that’s what Nick Spencer is trying to do in Secret Empire.

But I do get some of the criticism of the event. I find Spencer prickly on twitter and thought his ‘Bombshell’ jab was immature. Also Marvel releasing an ‘apology’ while still asking people to buy the book, seems like a move designed to tick everyone off. And it’s hard to be sympathetic to Marvel when they keep releasing events like this that could cost you hundreds of dollars to follow in its entirety (seriously, five books for a single issue?!).

Even so I find the outrage in the Book Riot piece to be disingenuous and reaching. And I also can’t help but, feel disappointed by it. I remember outbursts like this over Miles Morales, over Thor becoming a woman, or that time Captain America dared to get political and add a minor arc about the T-party. The people mad right now, probably supported those other moves. Now they think a story about a hero becoming the thing he fought against is anti-semitic and are demanding the same thing that purists of the past called for, for the characters to return to what they were.

Super hero comics will always snap back to the ‘norm’ like rubber-bands. Captain America won’t stay evil, just as he didn’t stay Nomad and didn’t stay dead. But by demanding that he always be the thing he was originally convinced as, without any critical look at him as a character, prevents him from growing, from continuing to be relevant or challenging the darker themes that make up his history.

I read issue 0 (I hate how they do that) and issue 1 of Secret Empire. It’s a decent event comic, a bit stuffed and some off characterization, but it’s not ‘immoral’. I didn’t like ‘Morning Glories’, but people shouldn’t be burning Nick Spencer’s work. His story about a fascist takeover of America, thanks to a nostalgic icon that represents America’s fabled ‘great’ past, is supposed to be disturbing. It’s not in support of Nazis or fascism. If you want to rally against a comic book writer who creates pro-fascist work, take your anger out on Frank Miller.

Batman in the Age of Trump

Batman in the Age of Trump

I’ve been on a recent Batman kick rewatching the old Michael Keaton movies, replaying Arkham Knight and Telltale’s excellent ‘Batman’ video game series. As I revisited Batman and his origins in 2016, new, troubling themes started to emerge. This was the story of billionaire reshaping the world to match his own imagine of justice. I couldn’t help asking, what does Batman mean in the age of Donald Trump?

The internet is about 90% ‘What does Donald Trump mean?’ think pieces right now, so I can understand if you groaned a little at that question, but super heroes aren’t as trivial as we like to think. They are modern-day myths and like all myths they tell us about who we are, what we think is heroic or villainous and what values are worth fighting for.

There are many themes within Batman’s mythos and that help explain Trump’s appeal. But the one that I think is the most important is their shared super power. Both Batman and Donald Trump are billionaires (maybe). On the campaign trial, there were plenty of interviews with Trump supporters who were decent, rational people who when asked why they were supporting Donald Trump said ‘He’s a successful businessman, he’ll be good for the economy, he’ll fix things.’

We tend to think billionaires are not like us. How can they be? They have billions, they must be the smartest, most dedicated people alive to earn that type of money. They know things that we don’t, because if we knew the things they did or were capable of the feats of will, self-discipline and risk taking that they are, then we’d be billionaires too. They’re just something ‘special’ about them, like super heroes.

In the comics billionaires are super heroes. Next to scientists, and maybe reporters, billionaires are the most common alter ego for super heroes (side note, I also can’t think of a single super hero billionaire who is ‘self-made’, they all inherit their fortune). But no comic book billionaire is quite like Bruce Wayne.

Tony Stark might be a brilliant engineer, but he’s also cocky alcoholic. His vices are so bad that he’s had to give up being iron man because of them and has lost his company through his hubris on multiple occasions. Also in the comics, and now in the movies, whenever Tony is given anything close to federal power he royally messes up. He’s locked up his friends or put them on lists and accidentally given military power over to super villains. Tony Stark would not make a good President.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand is perfect. He’s a genius with super human will which allows him to become the best at everything he does: the world’s greatest detective, master martial artist; a guy that’s able to beat up superman repeatedly as well as outsmart and defeat the likes of Darkseid, an intergalactic tyrant and space god. He’s got a tool for every job, knows everything, and is prepared for any possible outcome.

Can you think of better poster child for ideal of meritocracy than Batman? He’s the most American superhero out there that doesn’t start his name with ‘Captain’, because say what you will about other rich people, Bruce Wayne deserves his money. Deserves it, because like Trump, he didn’t earn it, he inherited it. And as Trump supporters felt America desperately needed a man like Donald, Gotham desperately needs Batman.

In Batman comics Gotham is a city overrun by criminals, with a dismal economy and a corrupt political climate that can only be described as ‘swampish’. In every origin when Batman arrives all that changes. Wayne industries comes in and creates jobs fixing the economy. Batman takes out the mob leaders and exposes politicians, wiping away corruption and decreasing crime (at least initially; there always must be crime or there would be no Batman). Gotham is safer, richer and better with Batman in charge.

And make no mistake, Batman is in charge. Super hero comics by no means represent realistic politics. Shield, for instance, is an international police agency which has authority everywhere and yet it’s never clear who they answer to or how they get their funding. But even by comic’s standards Gotham is some bizarre libertarian city-state, with Batman/Bruce Wayne as it’s Solider-CEO.

In the comics, games, and movies Wayne Enterprises controls just about every major function in Gotham. All utilities are run through Wayne tower. The Wayne’s built the public monorail transportation for the city. Wayne tech systems act as the communication providers for the police, the banks, and city hall. As CEO Bruce Wayne has access to every communication and record that goes through that system. I can’t imagine that would be legal anywhere else in the U.S.

And yet in Batman comics this clearly corrupt system is for the collective good. There is no conflict of interest between Bruce Wayne’s monopoly on every industry in Gotham and Batman’s extra-legal actives in policing the city, because they both serve the same interests, that of Gotham’s. The fact that Gotham’s interests are indeterminable from Bruce Wayne’s, doesn’t matter. Gotham is after all Batman’s city, he says so himself.

And Batman’s city is Batman’s, not the mob’s, not the dangerous ‘others’ that threaten the power of the status quo. While Batman main adversaries don’t come from the minority groups that Trump targeted on the campaign trail, his rouge’s gallery is still full of people labeled as freaks, the insane, and the other. People on the fringes of society not in the mainstream.

Killer Croc has a fatal skin condition not a trust fund. The Joker is dangerous, but he’s anarchist who will burn money rather than horde it. Even the Penguin who dresses like an early twentieth century aristocrat only turns to crime after the elite of Gotham kick him out.

Batman enforces Penguin’s place on the outside by repeatedly beating the crap out of him. And yet there’s no way the pudgy penguin can physically match him. In fact Batman spends most of his time punching down; how exactly are the likes of Scarecrow, Riddler or the Ventriloquist going to fight Batman on equal footing? At times it can seem like he’s bully, a charge also labeled at Trump.

The parallels between Trump and Wayne are there. A billionaire who says he’s the best at everything, bends the law, using fear and violence against the poor to protect the majority. A political force who’s best interests are also the best interest of his fellow citizens. They share that collective myth.

But myths are both inherently political and infinitely interpretable. The best ones can change and shift with the time and finding new ways to grow. Batman himself has been everything from a brooding, mostly silent vigilante, to a campy, colorful detective, to an arrogant, silly Lego cartoon. All of those interpretations are equally Batman.

And writes have picked up on Batman’s generally pro-rich and pro-establishment themes before and twisted them. Frank Millar famously has Batman terrorize rich mobsters and business elites of Gotham during a dinner party telling them their time has ended. Scott Synder and Greg Capullo created ‘the Court of Owls’. A network of oligarchs who controlled Gotham from the shadows before Batman showed up. He then works to overthrow them and restore Gotham to the people.

Bruce Wayne himself is presented as being a businessman in name only. He’s never interested in wealth for himself, but rather as a tool to help the disenfranchised. Multiple Batman stories show him either ignoring his family’s business altogether or creating international charities, building orphanages or schools. He’s presented as the type of billionaire we all hope the wealthy really are.

And yet to me the answer to what should be down with Batman post-2016 has already been answered. In nearly every retelling of Batman’s origins there’s always one clear fact: Batman’s parents Maratha and Thomas Wayne are saints. In Batman Begins for example, they are the only good people with power in the whole city. Their charity even goes so far as to thwart Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to destroy the city.

This always struck me as odd. How do the Waynes become so central to Gotham while at the same time keeping themselves clean from the corruption that seeps into every part of the city? In telltale’s retelling they don’t.

In the Telltale’s ‘Batman’ game, Bruce is forced to revisit his past and realizes that hero worship of his father blinded him to his dad’s connection to organize crime. Thomas Wayne is a ruthless businessman who gains his fortune by working with the mob and corrupt politicians; even going so far as use his medical credentials to get sane people committed to Arkham against their will. He does this to both his enemies and anyone who refuses to sell him their property.

This completely changes Batman’s struggle, rather than avenging his murdered parents he’s now trying to undo the damage that his family inflicted on the city he loves. There is guilt and confusion and the world is full of more greys than simply a fight against crime. This new moral ambiguity put’s Batman’s billionaire dollar super power in the forefront.

As Alfred says of Batman’s parents in Episode Two of Tellatle’s game, “The truth is they were billionaires, Bruce. You don’t amass that kind of wealth without making certain moral compromises. It’s just not possible, that kind of money taints you.” Post 2016 Batman’s super power is as much a curse as it is a gift.