Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A heroine for today...

The fantasy heroine Wonder Woman has held a deep meaning for audiences since the character's first appearance in comic book form in the dark days of World War II.  Over the decades, the character generated controversy, a patriarchal society feeling threatened by what the character represented, finding the need to soften, to weaken and enfeeble the character, stripping her of her powers.  Feminists protested outside the offices of comic book publishers, demanding the Amazon princess be restored to her former glory, and they won.  But, even after that, the character was largely neglected for years.

She has been brought to life on the small screen, albeit in the glossy superficial format of the 70's.  Now, she's born anew on the big screen, a version of the iconic super heroine who many seem to hope will become a badly needed symbol of feminine empowerment for young girls in an age when they desperately need to be empowered.  They were denied the presidency. By a reactionary misogynist, at that.  Hope has to come from somewhere.

The big screen debut of Wonder Woman was quite a visual spectacle.  She's been pushed back in time one world war.  We've grown accustomed over the years to seeing her fight Nazis, everybody's favorite villains.  But now, she's fighting the Kaiser's men.  The familiar scene where Steve Trevor's plane crashes near Paradise Island, ancient home of the Amazons, is followed by a spectacular battle scene in which the fierce feminine warriors match superior strength, skill and ferocity against the modern weapons of the male-dominated world.  The scene, brutal,  visceral, and beautiful in its way, as well as tragic, is easily interpreted as a starkly symbolic depiction of the battle of the sexes in its purest possible form.  But, it is marvelously interwoven with the first meeting between the title character and her future lover, the heroic pilot who is the first man she has ever met.  He is the source of Princess Diana's rebellion against her mother, the Amazon queen.  The queen warns her daughter that men are not worth saving, but Diana, inspired by Trevor's courage and idealism...and, perhaps by her own almost child-like wonder and curiosity, and secret longing for him...insists all she has to do is kill Ares, God of War to free mankind from the tyranny of war.

Of course, she is proved tragically wrong.  Her voyage into the world of men is one that begins with gentle comedy relief, which barely mentions the suffrage movement, as she experiences the tyranny of corsets and dresses, and men who refuse to listen to her opinions.  From there, it steers into increasingly dark territory, the horrors of war and slavery becoming increasingly apparent.  Diana is morally outraged that the male rulers of this world would sacrifice countless innocent lives in the name of political convenience.  The message is one of soul-searching idealism which crosses all the lines.  Hardly a feminist message in its purest form, as Diana embarks on a forbidden mission behind enemy lines in the company of a colorful and motley crew of men under Steve Trevor's leadership.  Trevor is a quietly tortured young man, unsure of himself and desperate to do some good in a darkened world.  His philosophy is simple.  "My dad taught me you either do something, or you do nothing.  I've already tried nothing."  From his ethnically assorted comrades, Diana learns the cruel history of man's inhumanity to man, the scars of racism and slavery reflected in every face she sees.

In the hellish trenches, innocent victims reach out to her, begging for help for their stricken villages, but she is told by Trevor that the mission must come first.  The heroine is best presented here, I thought when she charges headlong into no man's land, her shield and gauntlets her only defense against withering machine gun fire.  Her lone stand inspires Trevor and the others and they follow her into battle.  The message is one of uncompromising love taking a warrior's shape.  The battle scene is followed by an innocent encounter between Diana and Trevor in a hotel room, her warrior's prowess of the scene before parting to reveal an innocence and vulnerability that cries out for love among the carnage.

The film culminates in the eternal struggle between cosmic forces embodied in Wonder Woman vs. her arch nemesis Ares, God of War, enemy of humanity.  Their fierce and titanic battle on its face seems symbolic of the war of the sexes, but there's a wider meaning too.  Ares is revealed to be Diana's brother.  He tempts her with offerings of despair.  "Humanity is not worth saving," he tells her.  "I didn't make them like this. They do it to themselves."  Shattered and disillusioned, she confronts Trevor, and he stands as the accused representative of all mankind.

He pretty much pleads guilty, but tells her it doesn't justify giving up.  "It's not about what people deserve," he tells her.  "It's about what you believe."  Trevor's martyrdom is the birth-cry of her awakening.  She is tempted to lash out and kill the warmongering humans a part of her wants to destroy, but she resists the temptation, realizing that Trevor was right.  It's about what she believes.  And, she believes in love.

A century later, when she returns to the world of mankind she had long ago forsaken, she looks back with sorrow and wisdom at that turning point in her life and renews her mission to save the world, whether it deserves it or not.  She is indeed a heroine for us all.  Not so much consumed in egocentric self-pity (as Batman and Superman nowadays seem to be) but turning her pain outward to try to help others.  In some ways, the plight of women through the centuries, perhaps.  But, she embodies courage as well as love.  And, God knows we all need both right now. 

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