Friday, June 9, 2017

All the World Is Waiting for You

Despite the remarkable ascendancy, critically and commercially, of the Marvel Comics cinematic Universe in the last decade, there is no denying that it has largely been one big sausage party.  Growing up as a Marvel comics fan, this was also true of the publisher itself.  Women heroes, when represented, were usually part of a team (Sue Richards, Scarlet Witch, Jean Grey) and there weren’t any female icons with the heft to carry their own title in any significant way.  When the USPS released a set of Marvel stamps ten years ago, the interests of gender parity meant including marginal characters like Elektra and Spider-Woman over far more famous heroes like Thor and Daredevil.  This was because Marvel simply didn’t have any females as big as their counterparts at DC, Wonder Woman or Supergirl.
And so the films have followed-suit, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (incredible ass-kicker but essentially power-free) doing most of the heavy lifting across five appearances to date.  Even when staffed with Oscar-winners like Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence and Anna Paquin, the Marvel films have rarely known what to do with them.  In fact, the only female-driven Marvel film so far has been Elektra, Jennifer Garner’s incarnation who got her own movie after first being introduced as a secondary character in a film where Ben Affleck played an urban vigilante.  Sound familiar?
So Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is far overdue, especially when you consider that her DC colleagues Superman and Batman have had a combined total of 16 appearances in films since Christopher Reeve first began the modern era of superhero movies almost 40 years ago.  That’s one every 2.5 years.  And that’s not even counting The LEGO Batman Movie (2017’s fifth highest money-maker currently).
They say to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and Wonder Woman is good.  The business on Exposition Island is clunky (most origin stories are) but rich with Amazon badassery.  There’s not enough of Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) or Antiope (Robin Wright), though there is something delicious about having Princess Buttercup unleash her inner warrior.  The third act reveal of Ares is smart and well-thought out, but what it means is that through most of the film, there really isn’t a truly menacing villain as counterpoint to Gal Gadot’s imposing presence.  Danny Huston was a bigger threat in the Wolverine offshoot movie as a mere mortal, and is definitely no Red Skull.
For of course, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is the obvious analogue to Wonder Woman, a pair of noble neophytes waging war in the German (or Belgian) woods via historical flashback.  But the film that Wonder Woman more closely resembles, and a comparison I haven’t seen anywhere yet, is Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  For like Diana, Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo is fierce but gentle, na├»ve but strong-willed, and doesn’t need anyone’s help to take out a room full of assailants.
But more importantly, their arcs are similar because they are their own McGuffin.  Diana thinks she’s carrying the God-Killer (her sword), but she actually *is* the God Killer, just like Leeloo is herself the Fifth Element.  Both have, late in the game, serious bouts of disillusionment with mankind and its propensity for war and violence.  But both overcome this despondency and very explicitly choose to manifest Love—not merely Eros (the stock & trade of comic book fantasy), but Agape, a higher spiritual extension of compassion, generosity and self-sacrifice.
In this sense, I think it resembles Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), a film I’ll still argue is--while also flawed--underrated and misunderstood.  Both heroes are not mere saviors, but also a means to inspire those around them.  But while that film is cloaked in a brooding melancholy, Wonder Woman has clear-eyed optimism, even in the face of man-made horrors.  After Chris Nolan’s excellent but dark Batman trilogy set the tone for DC’s moody temperament, WW is exactly the shot-in-the-arm this comic series needs.  Which is why I worry about the upcoming Justice League movie, which will depict Diana a hundred years later.  Will she be more jaded and cynical?  She was the best thing about the bad Batman v Superman because she brought warmth and sass and energy.  But as the new movie demonstrates, her real heroic power is Love.  How much of that will survive when she joins this Super Boys Club with a different director at the helm?
The same weekend I saw Wonder Woman, I attended the SF Silent Film Festival.  And it was a welcome reminder of how the movies weren’t afraid of strong women back then, even if the times were far more conservative.  In Filibus (Roncoroni, 1915), the title role is a female mastermind—exceptional thief, daring impostor, and the head of a motley crew of outlaws with gadgets that would make James Bond green with envy.  In Outside the Law (Browning, 1920), Lon Chaney may have two roles (one heroic, one villainous) but it’s Priscilla Dean who calls the shots when she inherits a criminal empire from her father.  She balances being a reformist and a resourceful crook with equal aplomb.
But the real eye-opener for me was The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a remarkable collaboration between famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and pioneering director Lois Weber.  The first American woman to direct a feature-length film, Weber had dozen of titles under her belt by this time, but she was still known for contemporary dramas and social issue pictures.  This was a film on a completely different level—an epic period piece with a higher budget and bigger scale than she’d ever worked with before.  It reminded me of the talk of giving Patty Jenkins such an expensive tentpole picture after just one feature (the Oscar-winning Monster) and some TV work.
The final result?  Portici is a glorious achievement, with incredible tableaus, jaw-dropping camera movement, and a wonderful sense of drama amidst the herculean (or perhaps, Amazonian?) task of managing so many moving parts within a single frame.  The film isn’t perfect (it still suffers from some stiff dramaturgy typical of the time), but the achievement is impressive: a gorgeous restoration of a film that deserves to be better-known.
Which got me thinking: Why isn’t there a US postage stamp of Weber?  Or of any woman filmmaker for that matter?  Body and Soul (1925) was also featured at the festival, and both Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson, the film’s director and star respectively, have well-deserved US postage stamps.  In fact, there’s a wonderful series of stamps commemorating Black Cinema and a handful of film directors have been honored on stamps starting with D.W. Griffith.
But the only women who have been honored from the American film industry have been actresses—amazing, powerful, influential actresses, but still ones who never really worked outside the confines of that craft.  No directors or producers, no screenwriters or below-the-line artists.  Douglas Fairbanks has a US stamp, but not his wife Mary Pickford, one of the biggest stars of the silent era and a co-founder of United Artists.
No Lois Weber or Mabel Normand or June Mathis.  No Maya Deren or Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino (as important a director as an actress).  Not yet, at least. 

But I’ll keep hoping that one day, I can add a Frances Marion stamp to my Anna Christie card (part of her prolific writing career) or an Edith Head stamp to my Roman Holiday card (one of over 400 films to her credit as costume designer).  Or any number of women who were essential in making the movies magic.  History was often not kind to their placement in the industry or the opportunities afforded them.  Which makes their achievements that much more worth celebrating.  Wonder Women all.
These are the Scott #s for the stamps pictured:  
The Wonder Woman stamp from the DC Comics issue (lower right on Lynda Carter card) is #4084c.  The three stamps from the Wonder Woman issue a decade later are #5149, 5150, & 5151.  The other stamps pictured from the DC Comics issue are Superman (#4084k), Green Lantern (#4084b), the Flash (#4084p), Green Arrow (#4084d) and Hawkman (#4084j).  The Batman stamp was from the issue for that character (#4934).  On the Justice League card, you can see all 3 different types of postmarks.
The two stamps pictured from the Marvel Comics issue are Captain America (#4159o) and Elektra (#4159i).  The movie stars pictured are Paul Robeson (#3834), Greta Garbo (#3943), Audrey Hepburn (#3786) and Gregory Peck (#4526).  Oscar Micheaux is #4464.  Mary Pickford's Canadian stamp was issued in 2006.
The stamp for Charles Demuth's painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" is #4748a.  The textile worker (#4801k) is from the Building America series.  The Field Day stamp (#5182) is part of the brand new WPA posters series.