Wonder Woman, screenplay by John Buchan

JL_Wonder_WomanI saw Wonder Woman last night, and have things on my mind (there will be SPOILERS if you read on). There were only seven people in the cinema (Tuesday night, 17.40 showing, my own private cinema), but by god the Dolby surround was loud, we needed more bodies to absorb the boom.

The Themiscyra parts were epic and idyllic, but the Amazon civilisation seemed only to consist of a warrior elite and ruling class: where were the farmers? stonemasons? armourers? weavers?  bakers? brewers? (Though, no-one is actually seen eating or drinking: did they not need sustenance?) They may have been self-sufficient for most things (silk-worms?) but where did they get the twelve books that told Diana all she wanted to know about sex? Written on the island? There was a suggestion that some applicants for the soldiery might be rejected if not good enough, but we weren’t seeing much more than a Bronze Age hierarchy. Fantastic workmanship from their leather-working tradition, by the way.

The Amazons fighting, training, performing their military exercises were epic. I read a snatch of an Entertainment Weekly article about how the Amazons were played by real-life police officers, soldiers, stuntwomen, athletes and so on, and how much fun they had training to be an elite fighting force. It shows: those women were magnificent, and totally believable.

Then Steve Trevor crashes into the sea, followed quickly by the Germans in hot pursuit. What sea, exactly, is Themiscyra in? I’m happy to accept that it’s protected by a gods-given dome of opacity that lets the sunlight in to create a Mediterranean climate, so if Steve stole the notebook from a location in the Ottoman Empire (I will come back to geography), and then flew away with it in a stolen plane (with a fuel range of what?), it’s the Adriatic. (Updated after correction in the comments, below.)

At this point Reason raises her head and says ‘It’s a story. Diana is a god. She’s fighting Ares. Does it matter where the bloody plane crashed?’. Yes. Yes, it does. The film is set in an alternative history of the world, so gods and mortals can walk the earth together. But if the First World War is part of that alternative history, with all its domestic detail and the social codes of the period (there will be much more on this), then that’s a part of alt hist that needs grounding, to be attached to the mythic elements. And it’s fuzzed over.

Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra (can she ever go back? options for sequels abound) and next morning are sailing up the Thames underneath London Bridge, because they ‘caught a ride’. If the Adriatic is where they started sailing, it would take DAYS to get to the Thames. It’s also not explained from whom they ‘caught’ (horrible anachronistic vocab) a ride: or whether the fishermen boggled at seeing an American in German uniform and a black-cloaked woman in leather armour on a Greek ship in their waters.

wwDiana is met by a helpful woman (the very funny and tonally perfect Lucy Davis) who shows her how to buy suitable clothes for 1918 England. Very good scene, but why did no-one in the shop notice, laugh, object, or gather in crowds to see this strange woman with a sword? Also, women of the class that Diana is placed in did not try on clothes openly in public view. Her eventual outfit is pretty good, on the whole, as an approximation of what might be worn at the time, though the collar would not have been open, but buttoned high. Her glasses are wrong (‘you’re … too distracting’), but they’re soon to be crushed in a fight.

Diana arrives at a high-level military meeting, and goes into the room as if by right, which is fine characterisation, but astonishing: soldiers would have been on duty, far more people would have prevented her getting in. I don’t know what rank Steve was (Captain?) but he is too low on the military ranking to have attended meetings with generals, let alone be allowed to walk about the room berating them. I did like the repeated line ‘There’s a WOMAN in the room’, but this was one of the few historically plausible details.

At this point I was powerfully reminded of John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), in which the lone hero addresses the military bigwigs about his secret mission. Bells began to ring. When Steve and Diana gather a group of trusted colleagues to go on a secret mission behind the Front, I was reminded of John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle (1916), in which exactly this happens, German disguises and all, AND Buchan’s heroes foregather in Constantinople and have much to do with the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Their mission is to find the secret German laboratory that is creating a deadly poison gas: see John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast (1919), in which EXACTLY the same plot point, deployed on the eve of the Armistice, creates the thrilling end to that excellent novel of British and American espionage. Wonder Woman‘s script-writers clearly knew their Buchan, usefully long out of copyright, but it’s quite astonishing that no-one else has noticed. Perhaps I can help writing the next First World War action thriller.

Geography and linguistics time. Diana is taken to a Flemish part of the Western Front, and speaks perfect Flemish to a distressed civilian in the trenches (no civilians would have been allowed anywhere near the trenches, or would have been blown up trying to get there). She has already shown off her language skills, but this was very pleasing: a war film that acknowledges geographic reality, that the Western Front was not all francophone. The photographer in the village has a French accent: again, perfectly plausible, the Belgian professional and upper classes used French habitually. But the Germans have thick German accents when they’re speaking to themselves, whereas the Flemish speak Flemish when they’re in their own village. Where’s the consistency there?

ww3.0By this time, as Steve and Diana and friends weave their way through the trenches, I’m beginning to wonder whether, as a god, Diana simply isn’t noticeable by mortals, whether she assumes invisibility. Otherwise why is no-one groping or whistling at her, why aren’t officers and sentries forcing her back to the supply lines, and how did they get to the trenches in the first place? One does not simply walk into Passchendaele. And then she magically appears in full leather short-skirted kit (where did the nice grey clothes go?) and climbs the ladder over the top into No-Man’s Land (good reasoning, Eowyn). It’s magnificent, the most splendidly heroic part of the film, but really? She isn’t ripped apart by massed machine-gun fire and mortars because she’s got a shield? Reason throws up her hands and stalks away.

The summit, the pre-Armistice gala thing that gets Diana into a blue evening dress with the sword shoved down the back of the dress like an ornate jewel: where did that come from? And why were women allowed so near the Front? German women in stealable frocks too? What part of Belgium are we now in, close enough to allow German civilians to arrive in evening clothes, all the way from, ooh, let’s say Aachen to Antwerp, to attend a party, in a war zone?

Other historical niggles: I was dubious about the four-engined bomber that Steve flies at the end, because I thought they only came in during the Second World War, but I’ve been corrected in the comments, below. Diana is given an ice-cream on the station, in a cone, from a station vendor. The ice-cream cone was in existence at the time, but ices were generally taken in glasses and eaten with spoons, ladies didn’t eat food in public while walking along, and women always wore hats in public too. When Diana loses hers she doesn’t bother with a replacement, and consequently breaks a major sartorial rule in society for that time. Even girls wore hats in public, if they had them.

However, Diana is a god, she’s fighting a god (David Thewlis’ ‘tache is perfect for the period, a superb Adolfian nod to the further future, but looks totally stupid on a Transformer-like Greek god), and none of this matters. It’s a film, it’s a fabulous fantastical creation, Patty Jenkins deserves many more film projects, and I’m almost tempted to see that Superman Batman film that everyone hated so I can see more of Gal Gadot, who is the best thing in Wonder Woman by light years. She is the most well-rounded authentic superhero character in cinema for years, certainly the best female hero since Imperator Furiosa. Go see it.

Mad Max: Imperator Furiosa

This is a shot that doesn't appear in the film; Furiosa NEVER sits quietly loking out of the windown while slave-Max drives with his mask on. They just want you to think that in this film, he does all the driving and she does none. Trades Description Act violation 1.
This is a shot that doesn’t appear in the film; Furiosa NEVER sits quietly looking out of the window while Max drives with his mask on. They just want you to think that in this film, he does all the driving and she does none. Trades Description Act violation 1.

(Warning: here be spoilers.) I don’t know why this Mad Max film is subtitled ‘Fury Road’. No-one cares or remembers what this ‘road’ is, because it’s a journey, not an actual road, and every film in the series has angry characters. What most people will remember as the film’s defining phrase is the lead character’s name, Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It’s got multi-syllabic grandeur: an epic double portion of iambs followed by the four-syllable foot called tertius paeon, the stress in the third syllable enhanced by the appropriately ‘feminine’ ending of a falling syllable.

Prosodic deconstruction over: it’s a damn good name. It means ‘furious emperor’, though the Imperator bit is probably her status and title: she’s mostly called Furiosa, but she dominates the film. She’s a top driver, the one entrusted by Citadel boss Immortan Joe to drive out to Gasoline City, run by his brother The People Eater, with the big rig and fuel pod, to pick up more fuel. She’s escorted by a flotilla of severely customised 4×4 vehicles (one hesitates to call them cars) driven by Valhalla-seeking junkies in whiteface and combat trousers who do a lot of pumped-up shrieking and waving of weaponry. But Furiosa takes a detour, the Citadel watchers see that she’s going rogue, and the chase is on, with all of the Citadel’s armaments on wheels tearing after her through the sand routes. They even bring their own musicians, a hardcore version of the musical retinue that every classical emperor had. Gasoline City also sends out a heavily-armed posse, as does The Bullet Farmer, the third brother in the triumvirate of suppliers of life’s essentials in this post-apocalyptic desert.

a lot grubbier than in the film
Furiosa and four of the five wives, a lot grubbier than in the film

The real reason for their angry pursuit is not the theft of a rig or the defection of a trusted lieutenant, but the liberation of the five ‘wives’ of Immortan Joe, who all happen to model western fashions in their day jobs. Their costume design is a visual contrast to Furiosa’s shaved-head, sweaty combats, heavily weaponised look, but realism is not a high priority. Their gauzy draperies never seem to get ripped, bloodied or greased with mud, and with all that they go through, that’s a mistake. Everyone else looks filthy apart from them. These starlets – Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz produce the strongest performances – do a good enough job at becoming their characters, reluctant breeders of Immortan’s offspring, and thus his property, as he bawls so petulantly. The women race through the desert, heading for the Green Place where Furiosa knows they’ll find sanctuary, but they have a horrible shock when they run into Furiosa’s old tribe, the Vuvulani, and hear what’s been happening in that part of the sands since she was stolen from them as a child.

yer actual Road Warrior, on a bike he only rides for five minutes
yer actual Road Warrior, on a bike he only rides for five minutes

There’s also a sub-plot to this film, which has been angering the male supremacist film ‘critics’ online. They think that the point of the Mad Max film legacy is to produce films about men who shout a lot about their jacked-up cars and explosions, and to valorise the white male loner with bad dreams and bad hair riding a trusty steed (or rusty car).  They also seem to think that Mad Max is American cultural property, when, as any fule kno, he’s Australian, and always has been. They seem unhappy that Max’s plot trajectory and his really good stunts are subordinated to the women’s mission and their control of their rig.

Max (Tom Hardy) first appears getting captured by Immortan’s scouting Warboys, and seems more annoyed about his car being commandeered than his very unpleasant ordeal of being registered as Immortan’s property (on his back, with needles), and a much-needed haircut. Now that we can see his expressions (Hardy does give good grunt), he’s hung upside down to be a blood-sack for one of the Warboys, with his transfusion line refuelling a rather weedy-looking Warboy who needs a booster dose. Max ends up as a figurehead on one of the pursuit vehicles (that’s why he’s wearing the metal muzzle), and, after some seriously clever plotting and fight choreography, becomes no. 2 driver of Furiosa’s rig, the wives having no such skills. Nor, indeed, any apparent desire to learn them.

the enemy
the enemy

For the rest of the film Furiosa and Max hold off the pursuing monstrous hordes with one explosion and pursuit gag after another. The sheer inventiveness of the plot, which is essentially a chase from A to B to A, makes superb use of the choices one has with a seemingly unbreakable rig with secret compartments and hiding places. Furiosa and Max scramble all over its outsides as it thunders at top speed through the Namibian desert, and their stunt doubles deserve big typefaced acting credits. The pace of the film, hammered into the viewing experience by a pounding soundtrack, does dip into reflective moments, and some fragments of quiet, but not very many, just enough to catch our breath, do some essential first-aid and bolt-cutting, and then we’re back on the road being chased by another madman with a flaming steering wheel.

not someone to mess with
not someone to mess with

What isn’t mentioned very often in the reviews is that Furiosa has a prosthetic arm, since she was born without her lower left arm. I imagine that Theron wore a greenscreen sock over that arm while filming, and they CGId her metallic probing pronglike bionic extension. It’s a magnificent character enhancement, since it is simply part of her. She unstraps its harness when she needs to, and she (or her stuntie) has enough upper body strength to cling to things and use her feet and legs to fight off intruders. She doesn’t need to do a Captain Hook, waving her arm around to make us nervous: her steely gaze and astonishingly fast reactions are quite good enough for that, thank you. She and other characters with bodily difference fit into this landscape perfectly. If the land has been poisoned by catastrophe, then it makes sense that some babies will be born looking different, and they get along with the same or even better chances as anyone else.

more misleadings: the only time Furiosa kneels behins Max is when she uses him to steady her gun for the last bullet he's not a good enough shot for her to risk
more misleading: the only time Furiosa kneels behind Max is when she uses him to steady her gun for the last bullet he’s not a good enough shot for her to risk

The Citadel supplies water and milk, and has some healthy-looking green fields on top of its sandstone stack outcrops, presumably the only source of fresh vegetables for miles. It’s a nurturing place, or it would have been before Immortan took it over and made it his personal fief. There’s a pervasive emphasis on breeding and feeding in the film. He has a harem of lactating wives hooked up to machines in a very comfortable-looking milking parlour. Two wives are pregnant and a baby arrives rather earlier than expected during the action. Max saves Furiosa’s life with his carefully not-discarded transfusion line: nice plotting, Mr Miller. All this feels rather different from what one might have expected from a old-school Mad Max film. The film’s editor is female: the director (her husband) wanted a different perspective on the action, and IMDB claims he said: ‘Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie’. Eve Ensler (author and original performer of the feminist statement play The Vagina Monologues) was apparently consulted on the dialogue and plot, to give balance to a testosterone-rich franchise. Why should men have all the fun riding souped-up motorbikes with screaming wheels? By deliberately balancing how the plot elements might appeal to different people, not just 18-year old boys, Miller has opened up the world of Mad Max to older and newer generations. I saw the first films and was repelled, but I like this one very much indeed. I definitely prefer screaming engines driven by a rock-hard engineer who happens to be a woman who can DO something, rather than a screaming Tina Turner in a miniskirt strutting to no apparent purpose.

* edited slightly to cover up the fact that all my research failed to tell me that this is the fourth film, not the third.