02 June 2017

Underpants and Wonder Woman...Maybe Not in that Order

First of all, I was totally wrong last week. I still don't know why. I really misread this country, which is the first time that has happened ever. It will definitely never happen again ever. But another week is another week and apparently it's actually legitimately difficult to upend Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Who knows if any of the films coming out this week will pull it off. I suspect one might, but the other ought to be garbage. Let's not mince words, Wonder Woman (2017) ought to hit big and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) ought to...not. Let's start with that one first and then build to Wonder Woman.
A time for heroes

First of all, this movie is very clearly coming like literally twenty years too late. The first children's novel dropped in 1997 by writer Dav Pilkey. My whole family was actually pretty into it - it was refreshingly silly and weird and giggly immature in all the best ways. We stuck through maybe the first three novels up through 1999, and then you know, became adults and moved on. Apparently there have been nine more books up through 2015 to make twelve in total. That's crazy. Like I said, the cut-off date for this thing's peak popularity was in the last century.

Admittedly I don't now the sales figures or anything, and since I haven't been a kid for a while, I have no idea if kids are still into this. Clearly, even from the trailers and commercials, though, this flick seems to draw mainly from the first two novels, and you've got to wonder if kids who read the 2015 editions have brushed up on the 1997 work. This just feels like such a has been series. Sure, there have been other children's properties that have been adapted in CG Animation that have done fine lately - think Peabody & Sherman (2014) or The Peanuts Movie (2015). I would argue, though that 1) these were far more iconic and popular than Captain Underpants, 2) They didn't do all THAT great financially, even if they made their money back, and 3) does anyone really look back with fond memories on any of these?

That's just it - if we look at the widespread cultural effects it becomes difficult with a property so geared towards children that it doesn't have Pixar or Disney-level or hell, even DreamWorks-level adult crossover appeal (okay, this is actually a DreamWorks property, but this ain't a Madagascar [2005], Megamind [2010], or even a Boss Baby [2017]). Not to say that's bad - films geared explicitly for kids can do well, but I don't see this having much of a cultural effect.

Financially it ought to be in line with those other films. It's not like audience have been totally starved for shitty animated films lately, although this could have legs if Cars 3 (2017) is as intense and un-child friendly as it looks. I don't put a lot of stock in its chances. Critically, if it can capture the fun irreverence of the source material we could be in for a treat. I would side much more so in the vein of this being a blip on the radar that no one is invested in.

Let's move on now to Wonder Woman. Now, officially, even though I write much more about Marvel movies (for the simple reason that there's both more of them and they're way better), I'm always cheering for DC to get it right. I've always been amazed at how DC seems to get its animated and television properties so right while its films have just not been with it. Wonder Woman has me endlessly curious.

First of all, it's astounding that it took us this long to get a Wonder Woman movie. She's got to be the most notable female comic book star by far, and a huge star on her own right. Let that settle for a bit - we got Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) before Wonder Woman. Isn't that all sorts of insane? You'd think that Wonder Woman could have even had enough appeal to make a shitty 90s latex superhero movie. We did get the Lynda Carter show in the 70s, which is iconic, enough to the point where it's amazing that there has been this source material for so long with no major cinematic adaptation.

A lot of that is probably just sexism. Nothing new. By all means this looks pretty solid. And while I do feel extremely bad about the pains Zack Snyder and his family are going through right now, that doesn't change the fact that he's made a series of terrible terrible movies to usher in the DC Cinematic Universe. It feels like it's taken forever to get to a non-Snyder movie (David Ayer's Suicide Squad [2016] was possibly filled with less competent direction) and with any luck, Patty Jenkins can deliver. She doesn't have a ton of credits to her name, and nothing really recent, and nothing remotely action-oriented, she does have uh..Monster (2003), which was good. It's tough to form any kind of expectation, but when Snyder is our standard, it can't be that bad. Right?

To build more on what this film is trying to build - the DC shared universe - there is a lot hinging on this one. DC is basically 0 for 3 so far in terms of making good films, although it'd be foolish to think they're not popular or don't make money. None of them really feel beloved like Marvel films, but that has all to do with Marvel's emphasis on competent if not outstanding character work and DC's emphasis on aping whatever's popular at the moment, whether it be gritty, funny, or excessive pop music. It all becomes superficial tonal imitation rather than true innovation. For better or worse it's up to Wonder Woman to turn things around and get us set up for Justice League (2017).

In its favor is the fact that Gal Gadot provided all of the best moments in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), possibly because she actually has charisma which contrasts every other terrible dour decision in that film. It also takes place around the World War I era, which could give a nice Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) vibe that doesn't stretch to connect with everything right away. This franchise could use a moment to tell its own stories.
It is amazing how the Fast and the Furious turned out to
be a 6-hour audition for Wonder Woman.

This of course leads to other weirdness - namely, Captain America's origin remains immaculate, because he can always stay froze in that ice and preserve all those 1940s corny values that make him such a great hero for today. Except you know, the Nazism now. There becomes weirder and weirder reasons for Wonder Woman to suddenly pop up nowadays and start fighting monsters - especially because shouldn't we have found Themyscira by now? It's not like Asgard in its own little realm, it's just hanging out in the ocean somewhere. Wonder Woman becomes like Thor and Captain America wrapped into one, but also a chick. All this makes for a straight adaptation of the source material and origin kind of tricky to sort out and make simple, cool, and honoring of the source material, not the least because the source material tends to change depending on the decade. It's all a mess that a film can actually do wonders to canonize and codify. Thor (2011) was actually similar, since the Donald Blake / Thor bullshit is confusing as hell. Movies do better than any reboot or Ultimate Universe in re-writing hero origin stories in popular consciousness.

There's also the bizarre bondage / feminist origin of Wonder Woman's character creation by William Moulton Marston, which is all kinds of awesome but also a tough spot to tackle in a major motion picture blockbuster. It's not like motion pictures couldn't be selective and ignore some of this shit, but all the Wonder Woman staples - the bulletproof bracelets, the Lasso of Truth, the uh...invisible jet, are way more random than web shooters, laser eyes, utility belts, and vibranium shields.

All of this melts away if a movie is actually good, and as I'm thinking about the ridiculousness of Wonder Woman more and more I'm even more curious to see how Patty Jenkins and company adapt a bunch of craziness that I don't care about into a legitimate theatrical experience. If we were to look at the cultural, critical, and commercial potential of the film, I'd say its potential in all three is decently high.

Culturally, Wonder Woman has her place, and there's clearly a gap she can claim as the grand-mammy of all superheroes, where she has stood in almost every adaptation previously. She's always been a warrior feminist icon, and this is a great chance for her to be on the big screen for everyone. Again, it all really depends on whether the film is good or not, but there's enough of a cultural gap right now, and this is a superhero movie distinctive enough to leave an impression.

I am curious what the actual story is, actually. The main villain I believe is Ares, who has had all kind of tangles with Wonder Woman, some in the more recent origin stories tied to bringing the Amazons to the rest of the world. In my spoiler-free lifestyle I'm not even actually sure who is playing the big bad God of War. Keeping the big bad a secret can be either a cool move because it's spoiler-y, or because he really sucks and they have no way to market him. Or the main villain turns out to be Chris Pine or something. It's a little concerning, but hopefully there is a coherent story there.

Critically, reviews so far have been sort of mixed but acknowledged that this is probably the best DC film so far. I'm always cautious to reward a junk movie just because of its positive potential cultural merits. This is the Ghostbusters (2016) effect, which I wanted so badly to be good, but really just sucked. I think that liberal PC culture tends to blind a lot of critics into justifying horrible movies that happen to feature women in prominent roles. On the other hand, we're also in the midst of truly horrendous toxic masculine culture that trashes any film attempting just a little bit of progressiveness. It's all awful. I don't care about DC or Marvel, DreamWorks or Pixar, Male or Female. I really only try to look at Good Movie or Bad Movie. That binary thought seems lost in an age where context and politics seep into every facet of our lives. It's a tricky path to navigate and every review will be lost in this mire. That being said, it's probably okay? That seems the consensus.

Finally, I'd like to say that the commercial potential is pretty high. There's a lot of excitement, the trailers are hot, the character is long due for an adaptation, and there's not a ton of competition out there. We just had the lowest Memorial Day weekend since the second Captain Underpants novel, Guardians is fading (kind of), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) isn't going to clear more than $25 million this week. There's no exciting films coming up for a long while (No, I don't hold The Mummy [2017] in high regard), and the road is paved and clear to do pretty well.

On the other hand, it's hard to doubt the ire of angry male virgin nerds. Sass here isn't on a Ghostbusters level, but at some point we need to look at what that old comic book loving base is - and readership is shifting for sure, but bros aren't going to come out for Wonder Woman like they came out for a Batman movie. It's not a great world to live in, but expectations should be tempered a little bit. We at least need a Chris Pine shirtless scene to secure the horny mom ticket.

What do you think? What will you see this weekend?

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