On Wonder Woman, and female-led superhero movies

So, a new trailer for DC’s latest entry in its fledgling cinematic universe hits and, you know what, Wonder Woman is, so far, looking really rather good.    Period-set superhero movies are a pretty rare beast, but the last time we got one, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, it was good solid entertaining stuff.    Wonder Woman, featuring the titular character leaving her isolated island home and fighting in the First World War, looks, on the basis of this trailer, to be cut from the same sort of cloth, and that’ll do me nicely.

But what the arrival of the new trailer has produced is a number of negative comments aimed at DC’s primary competitor, the juggernaut that is Marvel’s cinematic universe, and how DC producing a female-led superhero movie so soon in the history of the DCU proves that they’re far more progressive and that Marvel must, therefore, be misogynistic.     I’m not actually surprised to see these comments – the inevitable Marvel vs DC flame wars can be fairly epic – but this certainly seems harsh to me.

So, let’s look back, shall we?

Marvel Studios started making movies with 2008’s Iron Man, the first entry in the MCU.   We’re now eight years and fourteen movies in and there hasn’t, as yet, been a female-led movie on either side of the camera.    I’m certainly not going to dispute that that’s not great.    We have two on the way; Ant-Man and the Wasp, coming out in 2018, taking the first step with a female hero as co-lead, then Captain Marvel the following year, with a solo female lead.    To be fair, on the other side of the camera, Marvel have tried to go with a female director, having originally hired Patty Jenkins to helm Thor: The Dark World.   It didn’t work out – the usual “creative differences”, but both parties have been open in stating that they’re keen to work together, and, last time I heard, Jenkins is among the frontrunners for Captain Marvel.   It’s a start, I guess.

I also feel that it’s worth noting, as an aside, that Marvel have something of a disadvantage in that most of their high-profile female characters are tied up in the X-Men franchise over at Fox, making them inaccessible to Marvel for their own films.

Alright, we’ve covered Marvel, so let’s consider DC.     DC’s cinematic universe is currently only three movies old, with Wonder Woman being number four, but the situation, in their case, goes back further.   DC Comics have been owned by Time Warner since, I think, 1989, giving Warner Bros full access to their entire portfolio of characters.     We’re not talking a licencing situation here, where certain characters are licenced out as Marvel have done with the X-Men (to Fox) and Spider-Man (to Sony); Warners pretty much have full access to every comic DC have ever done, and have had that access for 27 years, three times longer than Marvel Studios have been in operation.

So what have they done with that?     Seven different Batman films, Superman Returns, Green Lantern, Watchmen, The Losers, Steel, Constantine, Jonah Hex, V For Vendetta and one female-led movie, Catwoman, which was a) absolutely terrible and b) was not based on the comic book character in any significant way.    That’s prior to the DCU kicking off, which currently has three movies, two featuring Superman, one featuring Batman and one, Suicide Squad, that could, at best, be considered to possibly have a female co-lead in Harley Quinn.     Nineteen films in quarter of a century, one female lead, in arguably the worst superhero movie in recent years.    Not really an impressive record either.

Wonder Woman, almost without dispute, can be considered the most prominent female superhero.   She’s been enjoying an almost unbroken run of appearing in comics since 1941 and boosted her profile considerably through a successful and fondly-remembered TV series that ran for five years in the late seventies, a show that elevated Lynda Carter to the status of geek icon that she still occupies today.    That it’s taken this long for them to actually get the character into her own film is a pretty large blot on the DC/Warners copybook.

So where, in my usual overly verbose and rambling fashion, am I trying to go with this?   I guess what I’m saying is that neither studio has exactly managed to cover themselves with glory on this one.    Yeah, we should have seen female-led superhero movies before now and it’s a shame that we haven’t.     But this isn’t about Marvel vs DC, one good, one bad, any of that stuff.     Mistakes have been made and both companies are taking steps to rectify them.   Hopefully they’ll both nail their respective films and we’ll see a whole new wave of good films coming.     It’s not great.   But it’s better late than never.

On Doctor Strange…

Like the world its protagonist comes to inhabit, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s fourteenth entry in its on-going cinematic universe exists on more than one level.

At its most basic level, Doctor Strange is a straight-forward and frankly formulaic origin story.    A wealthy and arrogant genius suffers a grievous injury, the solution to which results in his gaining not only fantastic abilities, but a new outlook on life and sense of responsibility.   You can’t even distinguish Stephen Strange from Tony Stark by facial hair.    That being said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to a formula, what matters is how well that formula is executed, and that’s where Doctor Strange steps up.

The movie clocks in at a relatively compact 116 minutes, with the result that the plot shifts along nicely, with minimal extraneous material.   Benedict Cumberbatch delivers well in the lead role, catching Strange’s initial arrogance, subsequent desperation and eventual growth with some aplomb.   The supporting cast backs him up nicely, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as rule-bound fellow student Mordo and Benedict Wong as taciturn drill instructor / librarian Wong.   Tilda Swinton largely transcends accusations of whitewashing with her enjoyably mercurial turn as Strange’s instructor, the Ancient One (and may well have saved the character from a bad case of stereotyping).    Rachel McAdams feels a little under-served as Strange’s fellow surgeon (and former girlfriend), but provides helpful grounding for a decidedly mystical character.   Finally, Mads Mikkelsen’s antagonist Kaecilius is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great villains, but nevertheless proves compelling as an intelligent and capable man, secure in the righteousness of his cause, all driven by Mikkelsen’s own considerable charisma.

As far back as its first issues in the early sixties, the comic book has been noted for madly trippy visuals depicting the various adventures that the good Doctor finds himself on, and the movie pulls no punches in following suit, leading to some quite remarkable visuals as buildings fold, shift and turn, gravity and time become options and otherworldly dimensions are visited.  It’s easily Marvel’s best work in this area, with only Guardians of the Galaxy maybe coming close, and has the side-effect of making this one of the rare movies where seeing it in 3D is something I would actively recommend.

The movie deals with some fairly dark material in places; unusually for a Marvel origin story, which normally deal with relatively small and personal stakes, the end of the world is in the offing, but the script builds in enough humour to offset this, with most characters getting some snarking in at some point.    For a Marvel movie at this point in their ongoing masterplan, it’s also unusually standalone; while the Avengers are mentioned directly and a couple of asides appear to reference other aspects of the MCU, nobody from any prior movie appears in the main body of the film.  Not that much of a shock, given that this is the first movie to step into the mystical side of things, but it gives the movie a certain freshness.

For my money, this is one of Marvel’s best movies, combining a solid script, strong performances, extraordinary visuals and some genuinely inventive action sequences.    I can’t see myself not seeing this again at least once, and would strongly recommend it to anyone with any vague interest in the genre.