Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review - Wonder Woman/The Mummy (2017)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!

           I am once again compelled to action. Even before I finished my review of Alien: Covenant, I found myself wondering what my next blog entry would be after it. I will admit that it was my intention to refrain from doing a film review for several weeks in order to make some progress on a philosophy project I am working on, but I obviously abandoned this plan when I wrote a quick piece about my experiences at the Seattle International Film Festival. After SIFF, however, I again resolved myself to not commit to other projects until I had finished my larger philosophy piece. And alas, I again find myself putting this larger project on pause in order to take another detour down the long, winding road of Film Review Lane. Like my previous blog post, this review will be somewhat impromptu as I wasn't initially planning on saying anything about Wonder Woman (or even seeing it for that matter). As such, it follows that, if I wasn't even planning on seeing Wonder Woman, I certainly wasn't planning on doing one of these "dual reviews". I might also point out that, up until just a few days ago, I was very ambivalent about whether or not I even wanted to see this remake of The Mummy, as my intuition, given the recent spat of horrible remakes, was telling me that this remake was going to be a disaster.
          But alas, I have a reputation to upkeep, so, as someone who was critical of Batman vs Superman, and has been vocal about the way Warner Bros. has been handling the DC Universe (particularly in comparison to how Disney is handling Marvel), I felt that I had an obligation to see what all the fuss surrounding Wonder Woman was about and report my findings. And, as someone who grew up watching black and white horror movies and includes Vincent Price on his list of favorite actors, it would seem slightly out of character of me to pass on a remake of what many would consider to be a horror movie classic. What makes this endeavor exciting for me is that I have never actually done one of these "dual reviews" before, so I at least get to try my hand with a slightly tweaked writing style. As a result, for the sake of length, I will cut out some of the normal filler I usually put in my film reviews (such as a brief plot overview), and instead jump straight into the pros and cons of each (mentioning plot points only when necessary). Rest assured, however, that I intend for this blog entry to be a little more in-depth than the piece I wrote for SIFF 2017, so without further ado...


          When it comes to anything in the DC Universe these days, Warner Bros. has a tendency to make me feel as if I am a clairvoyant, as Wonder Woman was everything that I expected it to be - in other words, not very good. Again, I wasn't initially planning on seeing it. However, Wonder Woman currently holds a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes [1], and has apparently broken several records for a female-directed film [2]. Indeed, it spent a considerable amount of time trending in the top 10 hashtag searches on Twitter for its first weekend of release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times even claiming that Wonder Woman "briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos" and that it even "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies - from the Marvel as well as the DC Universes - into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" [3]. "Surely", I thought, "with so much praise and acclaim, and the New York Times actually invoking such bizarre, yet deep statements as 'pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing' in its clamor, there must be something worthwhile in Wonder Woman". Thus, I ventured to see it. Unfortunately, my faith in the views of the mainstream media, and society in general, was rewarded with disappointment as I found very little redeeming in Wonder Woman.
          As I first expressed to my sister in a text message after walking out of the theater, Wonder Woman has what I call "Superman Syndrome": she is just too overpowered, to the point of being boring and uninteresting. I previously leveled this same kind of criticism at Superman after seeing Batman vs Superman, and it's also the primary reason why, to this day, I still have not seen Man of Steel. I have argued in previous reviews that one of goals of good character development in fiction is to make a character relatable to an audience, to make a reader sympathize with a character's trials and tribulations, to make those experiencing the work of art actually have feelings towards that character. Unfortunately, this is something that DC seems to consistently miss the mark on. As I said in my Batman vs Superman review, there is nothing relatable or interesting about a character that can fly faster than a speeding bullet and shoot lasers out of his eyes. Likewise, there is nothing particularly intriguing about a character that can charge headfirst into No Man's Land and deflect machine gun fire with her bracers, or can suddenly work up the power to fire cosmic energy blasts and destroy Ancient Greek gods simply by getting angry.
          Of course, diehard Superman fans may argue that the complexity of Superman's character is actually interwoven into the inherent dichotomy and juxtaposition of the Man of Steel with his more mundane alter-ego Clark Kent, and there may certainly be something to be said of this perspective. But Wonder Woman doesn't even have this luxury (and, if I may point out, I have a suspicion that this is also not the aspect of Superman that most people focus on). Wonder Woman literally walks (or, in this case, sails) out of the aether and proceeds to just march towards the front lines of World War I, with no subtlety, depth, or complexity at all. The argument could be made that Dianna actually reveals her true character in her interactions with Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, simultaneously presenting us with a battle-hardened warrior and a clumsy, "comic-relief" style character who innocently shirks the social norms of early 20th century England. In one sense, I would be willing to agree with this assessment, but, at the same time, it's also not a very strong assessment. Wonder Woman's few moments of social interaction didn't really strike me as strong character development as they did a mere series of awkward moments, strung together in the same way a child would connect the dots in a coloring book. To perhaps further clarify my point, let's examine another recent superhero movie that I thought had much better character development: Marvel's Ant-Man. Ant-Man presented us with the narrative of an average guy with an unfortunate police record, down on his luck, trying to make ends meet while still wanting to be a good family man. It is through a wild twist of fate that he meets scientist Hank Pym and comes across the Ant Suit. This is in stark contrast to a character that literally pops out of nowhere and starts blasting Ancient Greek gods while fighting Germans during World War I (and for the love of god, can we pick a plot less tiring than the heavily cliche "stop the evil Germans during WWI/WWII" scenario?), all while wearing body armor that covers merely half her body. Only one of these characters is compelling, and it's not the latter.
          Speaking of other superheroes, I'd like to examine that statement from the New York Times a little further. Here's the full quote:

"'Wonder Woman, though, resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies — from the Marvel as well as the DC universes — into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing. Unlike most of her male counterparts, its heroine is not trying to exorcise inner demons or work out messiah issues. She wants to function freely in the world, to help out when needed and to be respected for her abilities. No wonder she encounters so much resistance."

This statement strikes me as reminiscent of Voltaire's characterization of the philosopher Pangloss in Candide as a professor of "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology". What A.O. Scott seems to be referring to when he says "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is the tendency of other male superheroes to display a degree of psychological nuance or complexity ("exorcising inner demons or working out messiah issues", to use his words), as evidenced by Bruce Wayne's struggle with the death of his parents or Tony Stark trying to reconcile how the manufacturing of advanced weaponry actually keeps the world safe from death and destruction, a kind of psychological complexity that Scott seems to decry. However, such an assessment is strikingly odd, as such psychological complexity is reflective of the way people actually are in the world, and, as I suggested with my comparison to Ant-Man, one of the aims of good character development is to try and be a reflection of the way people actually are in the world. People in the real world, for better or for worse, don't have the luxury of being able to sail out of the aether and just drop untainted into the quagmire of daily human struggles - people are psychologically complex creatures that, depending on who you talk to, are either a blessing or a curse on the face of the planet. The "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" of other male superheroes then becomes a virtue, and is something that some heroes, like Wonder Woman or Superman, seem to grossly miss the mark on - it's what makes them relatable to an audience.
          Scott also makes the observations that Wonder Woman "is a glamorous and funny fish out of water" and that the world's "capacity for cruelty is a perpetual shock to her, though she herself is a prodigy of violence". These observations start to hint at what I thought was a really promising theme throughout the film, a theme that turned out to be poorly executed: the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative. While, as Scott points out, there is a sense in which Dianna is not quite perfect (this would require further discussion on whether or not violence can ever be justified), the case can also be made that we are at least made to believe that she is. Wonder Woman's exemplary virtues are constantly shoved before our eyes, from her constant desire to help the weak and hopeless on the battlefield, to her flagrant disregard of the very insular gender roles that women adopted in early 20th century England, to her steadfast determination to vanquish evil in whatever form it takes, like the cartoonish cape-wearing hero on the side of a cereal box. Indeed, one may be forgiven for actually being shocked at just how perfect (or near-perfect) Dianna actually is, and for feeling bad at just how inadequate us lowly mortals are in comparison. It is here that I faintly find a brief parallel to Candide, for Candide also presented us with a story about a character sheltered from, and untainted by, the corruption of the world around him, a corruption that he is quickly forced to interact with it. However, such a parallel to Candide is fleeting - one of the key differences between Wonder Woman's use of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative and that of Candide is that Voltaire actually knew how to do it well. The point of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to highlight just how imperfect the world actually is, and the interactions that particular characters have with that imperfect world, which is what Candide does. The point is NOT to sing the praises of the so-called perfect character, which is what Wonder Woman does. Human perfection is a poorly defined concept, and, as Nietzsche would tell us, our traditional notions of good and evil are nothing more than mere dogma. As such, taking a character that conforms to this dogma and putting her on a pedestal for audiences to admire and look up to in the face of the harsh reality of the world that we willingly create and, dare I say, desire for ourselves does nothing more than inculcate that dogma further in an insidious cycle. One of the aims of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to help the audience develop the insight to break such dogmas, and it is in this regard that Warner Bros.' attempted use of this narrative structure flounders - it actually makes them worse. It is also in this regard that claiming that Wonder Woman "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags many superhero movies into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is akin to Pangloss professing "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology" - both statements are both utter nonsense.
          Overall, do I regret seeing Wonder Woman? I actually don't. For all of its glaring drawbacks, it was still, at the very least, entertaining, even if it was in a cliche and cringe-worthy way. And I won't deny that Wonder Woman, as a character, may be motivational to young, even adolescent girls (though this is arguably undermined when the film sends the message for girls to aspire to be like a high-heel wearing, scantily clad, outrageous superhero and to shame the disfigured chemical genius who also happens to be a woman with a questionable moral compass). It was certainly better than much of the trash that came out in 2016 (the Ghostbusters reboot seems like an appropriate example here), and may even perhaps surpass its predecessors in the DC Universe, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. But does it really merit a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and all of the acclaim that it is getting? No.


           As mentioned at the outset, my expectations going into this iteration of The Mummy weren't particularly high, and I didn't even need to see previous reviews or ratings to come to that conclusion. However, in case you were wondering, here are some numbers: it currently holds a meager 18% on Rotten Tomatoes [4], a not-much-better 34% on Metacritic [5], and is expected to rake in roughly $40 million during its opening weekend, which is still below the roughly $50 million that Wonder Woman is expected to take in during its second weekend [6]. All of that said, I honestly didn't think The Mummy was that bad. At least, it wasn't any worse than Wonder Woman. Don't misconstrue this as a complete acquittal, though - it also certainly wasn't any better than Wonder Woman.
          Perhaps my biggest grievance with The Mummy centers around the overall motivation for its creation. Nobody asked for this remake, or any of the supposed forthcoming remakes of classic Universal horror movies for that matter, especially since there had already been a remake of The Mummy which actually wasn't half bad. If I were a detective, the next logical step in the investigation would then be to uncover the true motive behind The Mummy's creation. Fortunately, it would take only a little bit of research to find a reason that seems highly suspect: the development of Universal's so-called "Dark Universe". It would appear that Universal Studios is not content with being outdone when it comes to bad ideas and, seeing the (questionable) success of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, felt inclined to jump on the bandwagon as well and attempt to cash in on a cinematic universe of its own. As such, Universal has endeavored to remake all of the classic horror movies that it produced during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but, this time around, "Frankenstein" them together into a creation that will likely be just as abominable as the mad scientist's monster itself, with The Bride of Frankenstein lined up next for the chopping block.
          We have already been given a taste of the fruits of this labor in The Mummy - and it tastes very goofy. When Henry Jekyll (Russel Crowe) suddenly heads a secret agency that is tasked with finding and confronting the very nebulous and generic "evil" in the world, a secret agency whose name essentially amounts to "Totally-Not-the-Illuminati", we have stepped beyond the realm of genuine supernatural horror and into the realm of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a flick that took many great literary figures and brought them together into a kind of dysfunctional international supergroup. The Mummy's attempts at tying the Dark Universe together is akin to Captain Nemo karate chopping machine-gun wielding British henchman and Dorian Gray getting into a knife fight with Mina Harker in a vaguely romanticized steampunk Victorian England, something that cannot be taken seriously (at least, from the point of view of someone looking for a horror film, which is what The Mummy is supposed to be). Again, nobody asked for this, so now the reputation and prestige of these classic horror movies will forever be tainted by the Dark Universe in the same way that the reputation of James Moriarty has been tarnished by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
          In addition to the silliness that it eventually devolved into, The Mummy also struck a nerve with its sheer number of inaccuracies and plot holes. One of the most incessantly annoying things that The Mummy did was consistently refer to Set as the God of Death. While I am not a professional Egyptologist, I actually do have something of a background in Classical Antiquity, and I can tell you that many Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom usually refer to Set as the God of Chaos or Storms, and not as a "God of Death". And while Set is indeed typically not considered a benevolent deity, the title of "God of Death" is usually conferred on his brother, Osiris (also sometimes on Anubis, for those that do not see the distinction between "God of Death/Resurrection" and "God of Embalming/Mummification"). Beyond this inaccuracy, there were a number of glaring plot holes. Early on in the film, Ahmanet strategically lures Nick and Jenny to a small abbey on the outskirts of London where the Dagger of Set is conveniently hidden in a reliquary right next to a sacrificial alter. It's not clear, however, how Ahmanet knew that. It's also not clear how that reliquary with the dagger was strategically placed right next to the alter or why. Perhaps more perplexing, it's also a mystery how Ahmanet was somehow able to know the dagger was in that particular reliquary, but didn't know that a crucial piece of the dagger was missing. Even before this dagger conundrum, there were the curious circumstances surrounding the excavation of Ahmanet's tomb. Specifically, there was one point where archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) notices the chains coming from the ceiling of the cavern that connect to Ahmanet's sarcophagus submerged in a pool of Mercury and immediately deduces that the chains are there to keep the sarcophagus chained down. Perhaps I am just grossly misunderstanding the intricacies of the engineering that went into designing Ahmanet's tomb, but the physics here doesn't make sense. If you want something to be chained down, you chain it to the floor, not the ceiling. On the contrary, one would chain something to ceiling in order to keep it suspended in the air. I also find it highly suspicious that Jenny can correctly deduce every bit of information about the tomb, including that fact that it was intended as a prison, simply by taking a quick lap around the room, without actually closely examining any artifacts or contraptions in there at all. She's like a detective that shows up at the scene of a crime in order to look for clues, walks into the room where the murder took place, looks around for a second, and then concludes there are no clues there and leaves.
          Beyond these grievances, was there anything I actually liked about The Mummy? Well, it did actually did have a couple redeeming qualities. For example, its use of color contrast reminded me of that in Alien: Covenant, which I thought was very effective and enjoyable. There was a constant shift between the bright, illustrious, gold tones of Ancient Egypt or the Middle East and the dark, grey, ominous tones of a mummified Ahmanet, haunting the stone alleys of London. In many ways, I took this as kind of a throwback to the black and white presentation of the original 1932 film. There is something to be said of telling a story with only black, white, and shades of grey - it adds an eerie emptiness to a work of art that highlights just how alone or otherworldly some of the characters may be, overshadowing a larger conflict simply by contrasting the shimmering gold sands of Egypt with clouds of dark ash and dust. I also enjoyed the fact that Universal seemed to emphasize the zombie aspect of The Mummy. Every other stock horror movie monster or horror villain had an archetypal predecessor that more or less defined them: vampires had Dracula, mad scientists could point to Victor Frankenstein, werewolves had the Wolf-Man, etc. (I will confess that I'm not quite sure what ghosts had - maybe Casper?) Zombies, however, have always been this kind of faceless mob, where their terror factor was at least partially contingent on their raw numbers - they never had a prima donna figure to shape them. However, this iteration of The Mummy seems to step into that role, as we constantly see Ahmanet reanimate the lifeless corpses of her victims, who slowly shamble to do her bidding, while we even get to see Ahmanet herself as an erratic shambler immediately following her liberation from her sarcophagus. Viewing The Mummy as a sort of zombie icon adds a slight level of depth to zombie fiction that has the potential to be taken in a number of directions.

          Lastly, allow me to make a quick observation about that thing that both films have in common. It should be obvious to even the casual movie-goer that both of these films have not-so-subtle feminist undertones to them, attempting to present us with both a strong female protagonist and a strong female antagonist. In theory, this is indeed something to be desired. I have long advocated for a stronger female presence in science fiction and horror films, and have written in the past about the value of the feminist movement in 21st century America. That said, in practice, both of these films stumble in the way they go about realizing this goal. The below quote that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins provided to Entertainment Weekly highlights the problem with the attempt at a feminist statement in Wonder Woman:

"How would I want to live that's badass? [...] To me, [the Amazons and Wonder Woman] shouldn't be dressed in armor like men [...] It should be different. It should be authentic and real – and appealing to women [...] It's total wish-fulfillment [...] I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time – the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs." [7]

This is the same kind of mentality that underlies Star Wars self-insert fan fiction, with Jenkins unironically advocating for what essentially amounts to "Wonder Woman Barbie". Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be both feminine and badass, and I think there are many inspiring examples of women doing this in film, music, and literature. But I'm also inclined to say that the task of reconciling a woman's desire to be feminine with the desire to transcend pre-established gender dogma is a little more complicated than juxtaposing a babe in high-heels and a tiara with a blood-soaked World War I battlefield. It's almost like a Banksy painting where Sailor Moon leads the operation against militants in the Middle East. Wonder Woman's feminist slant further loses credibility when we also examine the fact that the other major female character in the film, mad scientist Doctor Maru, turns out to out be a disfigured villainess whose character is very little developed and contrasted with the "hot as hell", "wish-fulfillment", perfectly virtuous Wonder Woman. Doctor Maru doesn't even have the honor of being the primary villain in the film - she's the sidekick to a guy who also isn't even the primary villain.
          The Mummy's blunder when it comes to the handling of its feminist statement is a lot more egregious: it retcons a classic. I have a love/hate relationship with the notion of retconning a fictional universe - if a fictional universe is decidedly bad, by all means, an artist certainly has grounds to retcon it and make it better. Likewise, it approaches the level of cardinal sin to retcon a work of fiction that might as well be considered a priceless artifact. Hence, when The Mummy 2017 rewrites Boris Karloff's 1932 Mummy as a woman for no reason other than to cash in on a cinematic universe that is on a trajectory to take us to the furthest regions of silliness, we have essentially tried to re-sculpt the Venus de Milo as a man. Again, I am very much in accord that Hollywood is severely lacking a solid, sinister female villain, but it's pretty obvious that putting one in The Mummy is forced. The most surprising thing is that, out of all production studios, Universal certainly has the intellectual bandwidth to produce a film with a feminist statement that is both organic and profound (we saw this a little bit with 2015's Jurassic World) - I don't see what would be stopping them from writing an original script for a fresh new film with a female villain.
          If I may close with some suggestions for a solid female protagonist and a solid female antagonist to take cues from, a couple examples come to mind. 1979's Alien presented us with a woman who is scientifically-savvy enough to take part in a space mining operation, and, before long, is forced to confront an intergalactic walking nightmare with grappling hooks, flamethrowers, attrition, and a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley was a genuine example of a strong female protagonist - a character incidentally caught up in the dramatic events that took place aboard the Nostromo who was forced to resort to any and all means to survive while remaining level-headed, independent of the fact that she was a woman. Now, if we are looking for a solid female antagonist, Lena Headey gave us a great example in 2012's Dredd. Headey portrayed Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal, a former prostitute turned sadistic drug queenpin. Ma-Ma had no reservations, skinning alive anybody that crossed her and throwing the bloody carcasses from the 200th floor of a futuristic apartment building. There was nothing "Barbie" about her - her outfit consisted of nothing more than a minimalist tank top and black pants, a far cry from the sexualized body armor that Patty Jenkins believes women need to be wearing in World War I, and she was heavily tattooed and scarred. Oftentimes displaying far more intelligence than her male thugs, Ma-Ma was an intimidating force that only Judge Dredd was able to stop. Again, I don't doubt that a character like Wonder Woman can be inspirational to many a young woman. However, if we want to see solid female characters that are much more relatable, or representative of the way the world may actually be, then we would be better served by looking to Ripley or Ma-Ma for examples.

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