One Step Forward, Two Steps back: The Representation of Women in Justice League (2017) and the DC Universe

When the Wonder Woman movie came out in May this year (2017), it was a triumph for the DC universe. Finally, a successful tent-pole film they can build their franchise and universe around because lord knows Superbats (2016) was a let down and so was Suicide Squad (2016).

While not the most brilliant movie ever made, Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins gave women and little girls something to look forward to, something to invest themselves wholeheartedly in. In the furore that followed after the film’s release we got a wave of heartwarming stories of little girls stopping bullies and breaking up fights in school playgrounds and some awkward anecdotes of little boys declaring they wanted to dress up like Wonder Woman (and people wonder why women are associated with fluid/hybrid gender identities… one female superhero movie later and everyone’s worried about who little boys identify with…).

But with the release of Justice League, all the good karma the female directed female superhero film accrued has been undone.

Personally I didn’t think much about Wonder Woman, and it wasn’t until I watched Justice League that I began to appreciate all the things that Patty Jenkins did right. What was it that Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) said in Hannibal S01E01 about the copycat murder?

It’s like he had to show me a negative so that I could see the positive.

So, what did Justice League do wrong? A Gendered Reading:

The sudden sexualisation of Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman

In the hands of a male director (Zack Snyder), suddenly Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) becomes a sex object. While previously Diana Prince was described as beautiful and she was treated with respect – her upright posture spoke of her regal upbringing, and her superhero costume was about mobility and athleticism – Justice League transforms her into little more than a sex object to be perved on, possessed and owned.

Immediately apparent are the costuming choices. The sudden appearance of low-cut blouses, and tight leather clad ass shots was a little disconcerting especially because they were gratuitous and unnecessary. There’s absolutely no need to have selective focus on a woman’s ass taking up half of the foreground of a shot with a man in the background of the shot taking up the other half of the frame.

(Look at all these screenshots, where the frame cuts off your view of her blouse, just know that that neckline goes way way lower…)

This was further exacerbated by the use of low angle camera shots that seemed to be trying very hard to get upskirt footage of Wonder Woman’s ass. I didn’t realise how level the shots in Wonder Woman were until I noticed the angle and placement of Snyder’s camera in Justice League. In particular, is the scene where the four heroes alight from Batman’s Knightcrawler – what is the camera doing lurking under the vehicle getting ass shots of all four heroes but in particular Wonder Woman’s non-costume clad ass when her skirt flips upward very briefly from the force of her descent?

The other source of discomfort in the movie is how absolutely everyone hits on her. From Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) to Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) and even Alfred (yes, you read that right, Bruce Wayne’s aging butler is included in this list).

In conversations between Bruce and a very sassy version of Alfred played by Jeremy Irons, his butler repeatedly suggests/indicates/intimates/insinuates how dateable (bangable?) Diana is and how good they would look together, and how Bruce Wayne should just man up and ask her out on a date already.

In a fairly funny sequence which I won’t spoil, Aquaman just declares he thinks she’s hot. And even Barry Allen, who’s coded as the baby of the team because he’s a first-timer/ noob at this whole superhero business, gets to feel her up when he saves her from falling debris.

The cumulative effect of all of this is that Wonder Woman/Gal Gadot starts to feel like a piece of meat being dangled over a pit of alligators.

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Murray Smith’s essay on the Structure of Sympathy talks about how one strategy used to encourage allegiance (the final and most complete form of identification explicated in Smith’s essay) between members of the audience and the ideologies/viewpoints embodied by characters in a film is by having other characters, side characters with far less complex characterisation, who’ve been coded as good/heroic, espouse those same views. cyborg-flash-and-aquaman-in-the-justice-league-movie

So in the abovementioned sequences, what is Justice League saying? By having its other superhero characters repeatedly call Diana hot, it is foregrounding Diana as a sex object, an object of desire to be fetishised, looked at, and voyeuristically perved on, and nothing else.

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In essence, it is a crude reprisal of Laura Mulvey’s explanation of the Male Gaze from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) which frankly, everyone is sick and tired of talking about! This thing was written in the 1970s and really shouldn’t be a thing anymore! Haven’t we progressed? Even Mulvey is sick of this essay… (which according to Google has been cited more than 11,000 times, just FYI).

Anyway, one more time, for the road, what does Mulvey say about the male gaze?

The camera’s gaze is coded as inherently male and the entire machinery of cinema, from its formal elements to its narratives is put together with the express purpose of containing the threat of castration that women represent. The two main strategies use by cinema to achieve this is by 1) turning woman into fetish, emphasising her role as spectacle, her to-be-looked-at-ness, and women as bearer of the look and meaning rather than maker of meaning; and 2) as an extension of the voyeuristic nature of the look which is tinged with sadism because of the power differential embedded in voyeurism, to contain her with narratives that are specifically sadistic in nature. By this, the woman is forced to change to admit defeat or accept blame in some way.

This brings me to my next point:

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Why are all the women incapacitated when the men in their lives die? You don’t see that happening to male super heroes. When girls get fridged they suddenly power up but when men die, women get broken. They don’t know how to move on. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) loses the farm, Lois lane (Amy Adams) can’t write anymore (Also, what’s up with the thirsty joke? This woman is an award-winning actress with nominations from the BAFTAs, Oscars, Golden Globes… What do you gain from making her, a grieving almost-widow, look like a hussy?), and Diana’s development and growth as a superhero is derailed by the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). This is compounded by the ridiculous mismanagement of the timeline! My issue with the timeline is mainly this – why is she still grieving after 100 years? Steve Trevor’s death is recent for the audience, yes, because both Wonder Woman and Justice League have been released in 2017, but the sting of loss should have long been dulled according to the timeline presented within the diegesis of  Justice League.

So Wonder Woman berated by Batman is forced to admit that she should have stepped up long ago instead of allowing herself to be broken by her grief, like it’s her fault she got bad writers.

Just to add insult to injury, Justice League also makes easy, unproblematised use of the usual binaristic portrayal of women as both heart of the team (Wonder Woman), a man’s better half, while obliquely coding her as the ultimate villain as well because this installment’s world destroyer, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), is subsumed by his identity as “Son” and is therefore always indexical of a mother figure lurking in the background which at one point he actually calls “the mother of horrors.” He is also shown to be in constant pursuit of this episode’s MacGuffin, the “Mother Boxes.” At the end of the day, one really gets a sense that Hollywood has gone into overdrive trying to put women back in the box.

I still maintain that I’m not usually a chest-thumping, man-hating feminist who applies feminism to everything I watch/read… heck my undergrad university professor outright called me a stooge of the patriarchy once… but I can’t help but feel that this film suffers from the toxic touch of the Harvey Weinstein case. Since the news about all these powerful men in Hollywood (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, the Affleck brothers, etc.) abusing their power broke, everything has become gendered.

When I watched Bladerunner 2049 (2017) too… there was a lot of gratuitous female nudity I couldn’t make heads or tails of…

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Now more than ever, the Male Gaze that Mulvey talked about is showing… Someone needs to tell all the men in Hollywood that their slip is showing. And this is a good thing because too long have they been allowed to make films with deftly embedded sexist messages unchecked. It’s high time they did something about it. Hollywood is due for a change and unthinking, uncritical films like these only serve to undo any kind of progress or any potential for progress the entire industry seems poised on the brink of making. So, don’t let us be swept away by the flash and bang of the superhero movie, let us not be passive receptacles sitting in a darkened space to be fed the same sexist rhetoric over and over again.

Please let the next film be more than this.

Edit: a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of this video that totally backs me up 😉

And to help a friend plug a similar blogpost:

Justice League Reopens Old Wounds Adds a Few New Ones for Good Measure

 

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Sabotage (2014)

Today I wanna talk about David Ayer’s Sabotage (2014), a film that I stumbled across a couple of nights ago on demand TV. So, David Ayer has been in the news a fair bit lately because he directed one of this year’s highest anticipated blockbusters, Suicide Squad (2016). His writing chops includes Training Day (2001) for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and whose film, Fury (2014), is getting a lot of attention now with critics reversing their previously low opinion to hold it in higher regard.

When Sabotage came out in 2014, it was also on the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from film reviewers that gave it a 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes and only 1.5 stars on the Roger Ebert website.

But when I watched it, I found myself captivated not just by the amount of blood and gore onscreen but the interesting editing choices, the multiple intersecting plots, the refreshing female roles and candid dialogue.

Film Summary

Sabotage is about a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Task Force unit led by John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The film starts with the team bringing down a cartel and skimming $10million off the top of the cartel’s drug money for themselves. When they return later to collect the cash they stashed for themselves, they find it missing. To add insult to injury, not only is the cash never recovered, the whole team undergoes an 8-month investigation where they are taken out of active duty and Team Leader Wharton is slapped with a boring desk job.

Where things start to get interesting is after internal affairs pulls the investigation. Before the team can get their skills up to scratch again, members start getting taken out one by one in the most gruesomely creative cartel fashions ever that involve being nailed to the ceiling, disembowelment, and some chicken wire.

Reactions

While the blood and gore kept my attention on a superficial level, some of the things that really stood out to me was the constant tension that came from trying to figure out who was killing these highly trained, hyper-violent individuals. I was pleasantly surprised when I was reading up on the film to find out that the original title of the film was supposed to be Ten after Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, also known as, Ten Little Indians. While David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter felt the film lost its way, I thought the film stayed pretty true to form.

At one point, the idea was floated that given the unusually gruesome nature of the murders, perhaps the team is being targeted for revenge by one of the many cartels they’ve brought down previously. Before long, the question is raised about whether this is over the $10million that went missing and maybe it is specifically this last cartel they took down 8months ago coming back to get their money.

However, because of the amount of narrative attention devoted to developing the characters in the DEA Task Force, it becomes clear to the audience that the threat is internal. More than that, we’re led to believe that the prime suspect is Wharton. This red herring is set up in various ways:

  1. With the unexplained grainy footage that Wharton watches that opens the film of a woman being tortured
  2. Wharton is also singled out by internal affairs as the ring-leader/prime suspect for having taken the money
  3. Wharton’s willingness to help Det. Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), lead detective on the DEA agents’ deaths, investigate the deaths of his team members. Cuz the perps always try and insert themselves into the investigation, right?
  4. The edititing, specifically the intercuts used when Wharton accompanies Det. Brentwood to call on Bryce ‘Tripod’ McNeely (Kevin Vance). The intercuts used in the sequence where Wharton explains the booby traps around McNeely’s trailer to scenes where the traps have been triggered in an earlier attack on McNeely, seemed to suggest that Wharton had an unusual amount of foreknowledge, as if he was there when the attack happened.

All of this successfully set Wharton up as the red herring, except, we find out at the end, that Wharton really took the money! What he isn’t doing is killing his own teammates. This conflation and uncoupling of the two crimes – the theft of the $10million and the murders – leaves audiences feeling oddly bereft because the $10mil was supposed to be the motive for the gruesome murders. Without this motive, the murders double up as not just gruesome to look at but meaningless as well. My guess is that this unsatisfying ending is what leaves a lot of critics floundering and crying foul.

Is it weird that instead of this reveal making me feel unsatisfied and angry at David Ayer and Skip Wood (the scriptwriters), it just made me think of The Maltese Falcon (1941)?

Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more… When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it… Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing… Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to… Sixth… since I’ve got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day… it’s easy to be nuts about you… but I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t… Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell – I’ll have some rotten nights – but that’ll pass… If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to – wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it – and because – God damn you – you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted that with the others… I won’t play the sap for you.

Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon

It’s that sort of grappling to find a reason that Sam Spade exhibits at the climax of The Maltese Falcon that came back to me as I watched Sabotage. Maybe this is just because of my weirdly associative mind, but this is also a way to think about the writing of the film not as bad or confused but as deliberately meaningless to highlight a hollowness, a loss, an absence at the centre of the human condition by emptying the most gruesome of crimes of motive and meaning.

What you then have is that even after the big reveal, there is a lack of closure and this is reflected in other aspects of the film, like in the DEA Task Force itself. A supposedly government sanctioned operation and task force, created with the express purpose of protecting the public and upholding law and order, filled with individuals whom by ordinary standards are more villainous than heroic. Their hyperviolence, loose morals, thieving, drinking, substance abusing, hypersexed mannerisms make them highly unlikeable and unsuited for the role of heroes. Instead, they seem to embody more the Friedrich Nietzsche quotation,

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” – Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

The DEA Task Force, that cracks down on cartels, is filled with individuals who themselves behave more like drug lords than anyone would like to admit. This set up points towards the slippages in moral standards, and explodes the essentialist notion of “hero” and “villain” being fundamentally different. Instead, this group of characters draw attention to the fact that these dichotomies are false and that there is no hard divide or insurmountable gulf between them. By recognising that “hero” and “villain” are but poles along a continuum, the film forces audiences to reassess the definition of both hero and villain thereby turning terms we were once sure of into open-ended concepts up for debate.

As a final note on characters, I did thoroughly enjoy the female characters in this film. They were tough, rugged, not particularly sexy but clearly having sex, flawed, and damaged but in ways completely unrelated to which man they were fucking. And that is fucking refreshing.

I especially liked that Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), was a real tough woman. She was all sharp angles, freckled skin, frizzy hair, and lean muscle – and this is one of the things I really appreciated about the actress because she looked like she worked out. Kinda like the way Linda Hamilton looked when she played Sarah Conner in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). And exactly like a woman in this line of work should look. I liked that she could have passed as one of the guys in terms of how the character carried herself and how she spoke (equally potty-mouthed and equally comfortable with the sexual banter the team engaged in amongst themselves) and that the only marker of her gender was that she was married to someone else on the team, James ‘Monster’ Murray (Sam Worthington).

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Likewise with Det. Caroline Brentwood. Her unflappability in the face of sexual slurs, dangling entrails and a faceful of blood was admirable. The fact that she sleeps with Wharton and it’s a throwaway event in the plot, casually inserted without any romance tied to it made me think of the scripting as very progressive in terms of its very equitable treatment of male and female characters’ view of sex.

Yup, that’s it from me about Sabotage. Tell me if you liked my take on it, agreed or disagreed with it or if you want me to write for you because I’m still trawling for a paying writing gig. Thanks.