Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Wonder Woman Earth One



When a writer attempts to retell the origin story for household name characters like Wonder Woman, they have to start with a few difficult questions: Who is this character supposed to be? What are the fundamental qualities that define this character and make them endure? Zack Snyder got these questions wrong in two Superman movies, and all the marketing and special effects in the world could not save them from critical and audience backlash. Grant Morrison, a comic writer with a fairly good track record in this regard, absolutely nailed it with All Star Superman, a colorful and inventive take on the character that reminds us why Superman is still the top dog among heroes. Unfortunately, Morrison I think misses the mark in answering those core questions with respect to Diana in Earth One. He gives us a well-crafted story with a number of clever and risky elements that nevertheless fails to ever really feel like the story of Wonder Woman.

Good critics make a distinction between how much they like something and how good it is. Funny Games and Matchpoint are both excellent films that I absolutely hate. By the same token, Wonder Woman Earth One is a very good comic that I do not like very much. This dislike is a product of my answer to the above question about what Wonder Woman should be. As good as Morrison's writing is, I don't think Wonder Woman should be the sort of character he gives us.

WWE1 is a provocative, unique take on the world's most iconic female superhero. The story takes the character back to her roots – to the golden age origin established by original creator William Moulton Marston. Marston's Wonder Woman challenged a lot of the cultural and sexual norms of the middle 20th century. Golden Age Wonder Woman explored ideas such as bondage, female domination, submission, and matriarchy. Marston was a psychologist by trade and one of the original inventors of the polygraph, hence Wonder Woman's 'lasso of truth'. His writings at times suggest a belief in female superiority, his work with lie detectors apparently leading him to believe that women were more honest than men. The early Wonder Woman comics show the Amazon society as a kind of utopia. There is a motif of characters constantly being tied up and physically bound with “loving submission” presented as a kind of virtue.

The Wonder Woman we all know and love today is quite different from Marston's original take. Morrison clearly wanted to re-examine that history in WWE1, and he does it with style and wit. He gives us a society of gorgeous immortal Amazons in a hidden city filled with sci-fi gadgets and flying machines. These Amazons make no bones about how they look down on our world for tolerating flaws like disease, death, obesity, and men. The Amazons, including Diana, see themselves as paragons to be emulated by human women and worshiped by human men. The basic conflict of the story concerns the accidental arrival of Steve Trevor, the first man to set foot on the island. When Diana sticks her neck out to protect him she is forced to stand trial for violating Amazon law.

It is a great setup and a daring comic overall, especially as an origin story. Morrison confidently puts his own twist on some of the Golden Age concepts and characters. The feminism is more militant and in your face than Marston ever dared. Wonder Woman is made openly lesbian when she casually lets Steve know that one of the Amazons is her lover. Morrsion makes Etta Candy into an unlikely spokeswoman for the ladies of “man's world.” He also makes Steve Trevor black and treats him the way female 'damsel in distress' characters often get treated in the comics of male heroes. While I don't like when writers change the race of established characters (I find it to be both pointless and patronizing, and I say that as a black guy) I found Morrison's use of Steve effective in the way he melded the theme of bondage with the racial history of the character. In spite of all the risks Morrison takes, it is still a very authentic Wonder Woman story that leverages parts of her history modern readers may not recognize.

It helps that the art is top notch. Yanick Paquette's rich visuals are almost worth the price of admission. His Amazons are full-bodied, athletic, and beautiful. His Themyscira is both fantastical and futuristic. While I wouldn't put it on the same level as Jim Lee or Alex Ross' work, the art of WWE1 is powerful and is more than a match for any of the other books in the Earth One series.

The reason I don't see it as a good Wonder Woman story is because I think the character has evolved beyond her kinky 1940's origins. This is not a bad thing; all characters evolve. The original Superman was a bald villain with psychic powers. It goes without saying that Superman today is much more than that. The original version of Motoko from Ghost in the Shell was a snarky tough girl who did online sex shows for money in her spare time. The film version dropped all of that and created a brooding, stoic heroine that became the iconic interpretation used in subsequent TV series, comics, and films. I doubt Hollywood would be launching a big budget live action film with Scarlett Johansson if the character had stayed true to her campy roots.

Great characters endure because they evolve. The core aspects of the character that resonate with fans remain while distracting details are shed. The same basic issue applies to Wonder Woman. The bondage-loving femdom character of Marston's Matriarchal fantasies is no longer the essential version of the character most of us recognize, and that's a good thing. She is so much more now. In the same way Batman is no longer just a gun-toting crime fighter. Superman no longer cares only about fighting for the American way. They have transcended their Golden Age trappings and become something greater. In Wonder Woman's case I would argue that George Perez and Alex Ross created the most definitive versions of the character. The latter's work Spirit of Truth in particular I would argue is the best representation of the character as a compassionate champion of justice who fights for the rights of men and women. There's no partisanship – just heroism.

Morrison's Wonder Woman in Earth One is not terribly heroic or even kind. She is bold and strong, sure, but never do we see a willingness to confront evil – to risk it all. Sure, she stands up to her sisters, but there is not much tension here given how much more powerful Diana is than them. The lack of action in the story doesn't help. The bulk of the conflict happens through conversation and flashbacks, including the finale. Certainly it is very possible to make a good climax that is all dialogue, and I like that Morrison is willing to defy convention. Still, all the talk does not serve the character very well. Diana, Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters all come across as sanctimonious hypocrites.

For example in one scene Hippolyta shows Diana images of man's world and we see a woman in her underwear on a leash held by a man. This is meant to show how man's world has 'degraded' womankind. But this feels weirdly chauvinistic and puritanical coming from an island of women who engage in drunken lesbian bondage orgies. What if that woman is getting paid a lot of money to wear that leash, and is using it to pay for a degree in astrophysics? What if she finds it empowering? What if she is exactly where she wants to be in that moment? If we're going to go heavy with feminist politics in Wonder Woman in 2016, lets at least upgrade her to the third wave where she can respect women's right to make their own choices. To see Diana and the Amazons berrate women for everything from how they dress, to their body types, to their desire to enjoy the company of men – it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Reading the book, I was not sure whether or not Morrison intended for us to like the Amazons at all. It is kind of funny how they castigate men for being violent, then send a horrific monster into a crowded city just to murder Steve out of spite. I assume, given Diana's oppositional stance to the Amazons, that she was meant to be a figure the reader would root for, but she does little to really earn it. She comes across as haughty and self-righteous. She is harshly critical of almost every character with whom she interacts. She has not one word of praise for anything in man's world. When the question of Steve Trevor's romantic intentions toward Diana is raised, he quickly self-flagellates, saying she is “out of his league.” Diana does not dispute this. I doubt any writer would dare have Lois Lane say such a thing about Superman, but we all know that if she did, good old down-to-earth Clark would be quick to dismiss it with a smile. For me, there was not much to smile about in WWE1. It is an interesting book, but not a very fun or inspiring one.

The book made me long for the Lynda Carter version of Diana. Cheesy as it was, it was the most natural expression of Wonder Woman as someone both tough yet feminine. Carter's Wonder Woman embodied typical feminine virtues – grace, beauty, kindness – while also displaying the strength and fearlessness of a superhero. Your typical “strong female protagonist” these days tries to copy male heroes by being either an emotionless killing machine or a rude, snarky grrrrl power type. Carter's (and Ross' and Perez's) Wonder Woman would have none of this. She never apologized for being a lady and having class. She could go from beating up monsters in one scene to charming Nazi spies in an evening gown in the next, and make it look easy. Morrison's Wonder Woman prefers the more typical tough girl approach.

Earth One Wondie is aloof, supremely confident, and constantly standing in judgment of those around her. Sure, she helps people, but always in a way that seems self-serving. She is calculating and cold – ever ready to shame, mock, and condemn her fellow Amazons and mother should it serve her purposes. Her decision to disgrace her Amazonian lover in one scene is of dubious necessity. She reminded me of Batman in several moments. Sure, Batman is super cool. I just don't think Wonder Woman should copy his personality. The best versions of Diana incorporate a bit of humility.

What do you think Wonder Woman should be? Fans should ask themselves; “Is this what we want from Wonder Woman? Is this the direction she should go?” Ultimately I think WWE1 is a book that comic and Wondie fans alike should take the time to read and judge for themselves. The artwork alone makes it a nice addition to any comic book collection. What's more, WWE1 is as imaginative and layered as any Morrison story, and it mines an old, rich part of the character's heritage. It would be unfair to call the story inauthentic. WWE1 pays homage to the character's creator with a respectful treatment of his ideas. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine this side of Diana and her Amazons.

Nevertheless, it is not an ideal origin story. Morrison's Wonder Woman is too mired in her own politics to really feel like the classic hero we all know and love. I almost wish it were called “Wonder Woman: Golden Age,” as it does not fit with the other Earth One comics that did a better job of modernizing their subjects. Like Superman, Batman, and Motoko, Wonder Woman has evolved, and trying to turn the clock back serves only to make her smaller. Simply put, she should be better than this.