Wonder Woman doesn’t suck.
After reading all the rave reviews and the recommendations about the movie, actually seeing it felt like a disappointment. Wonder Woman isn’t a terrible film by any measure, it’s just that I have a high bar for entertainment. Indeed, it accomplished what it set out to do: tell a straightforward superheroine tale filled with courage, battles, charisma, and spiced with romance and humour.
The story begins with Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, discovering a man on the beach. The man is Steve Trevor, an American spy, who discovered a German superweapon factory and was shot down while attempting to flee on an airplane. Trevor speaks of the War to End All Wars engulfing the world, and Diana believes that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for instigating the conflict. Having sworn to defeat Ares once and for all, she teams up with Trevor to end the war once and for all.
It’s a simple story, competently told. But it could be done much better.
I am a pessimist, so I shall start with the negatives. The major knock against Wonder Woman was the presence of two major plot holes.
When Trevor makes his great escape, Germans intercept him and shoot him down. A squadron of ships chase him to the island of Themyscira, penetrating the mysterious veil that keeps it hidden from the outside world. The ships send a landing party to hunt for Trevor on the island, and the Amazons beat them back.
As a set up for a fight scene, it works. But what happens after the Germans are beaten?
Consider the situation. The Germans pass through a strange barrier and discover an unmapped island. They send a landing party and see a band of female warriors kill them…with bows and arrows and swords. The logical thing to do would be to rake the beaches with naval gunfire, massacre the defenders, and send in a second landing party to claim the island for the Kaiser and the Reich. Indeed, this scenario could have provided an impetus for the Amazons to act: realizing that their home is now threatened by the implacable machinery of modern war, the Amazons are forced to flee (or are wiped out), and Diana is driven to stop Ares and avenge her people.
Instead, after the beach sequence, the ships simply cease to exist.
Here is the first lesson from Wonder Woman: always track your villains and give them agency. Bad guys cannot simply vanish from a scene without good reason, more so if they possess the advantages the Germans did in this scene. Like heroes, believable villains have motives and agendas of their own, and will do everything in their power to meet their goals. By giving them the chance to interfere with the protagonists, the villains will be seen as a powerful, threatening foe and a significant player. Reintroducing the Germans would have added emotional impetus to the rest of the story. Instead, the following sequence is the same tired tale of a child rebelling against a parent by going her own way.
Plot hole number two comes near the end of the film, during the showdown with Ares. (Spoiler ahead!) Ares is revealed to have taken the form of a minor character who helped Diana and Trevor reach the frontlines. Which suggests that Ares himself helped Wonder Woman travel to the front, allowing her to defeat him.
Why would a supervillain be knowingly complicit in his own destruction?
This is lesson number two: Villains should not help the heroes unless it benefits them.
A superhero story demands constant conflict between superhero and supervillain. One would expect Ares to do everything in his power to stop the Diana and Trevor: sending military policemen to arrest them, having Allied command brand them as traitors and spies, dispatching the entire German Army to stop them. These maneuvers would have forced the duo to overcome these obstacles and set up Ares as a terrifying enemy. Instead, Ares allowed Diana to discover his weapons factory, derail his plot to continue the Great War, and knowingly meets her, a woman of a race Ares knows Zeus created to defeat him, face-to-face just to have a cliched We Can Rule Together speech. Instead of being a superb and subtle manipulator, Ares comes off as a cardboard character who exists only for Diana to punch out. If a story must have a villain aid the hero, the villain must believe he will benefit in some way, ideally leading to the hero’s destruction. That would make for a more clever and complex story, portraying the villain as smart and Machiavellian, and give the hero a chance to shine by reversing the scheme.
Central to the movie is a German superweapon, a new chemical weapon that its developers believe will allow Germany to triumph. This Wunderwaffe is seen as an ominous orange gas destroying gas masks and breaking glass, killing all it touches. And just what is this Wunderwaffe called?
Hydrogen-based mustard gas.
This is utter nonsense. Mustard gas isn’t a gas; it is a liquid. It is deployed as a fine mist of clear droplets, not a thick billowing colored cloud. Further, mustard gas is composed of sulfur, chloride and, in a couple of formulae, oxygen. ‘Hydrogen-based’ mustard gas would yield, among other things, hydrogen sulfide (which was actually used by the British as a chemical weapon and later discarded) or hydrochloric acid. The only reason ‘hydrogen’ comes up would be to justify the final major explosion, which is ridiculous. Having hydrogen atoms does not automatically make something explosive: water, among other things, will not ignite.
This is the third lesson: if you must use technobabble, it must make sense. If you have to use technobabble in a story, then the properties of said technobabble must be employed in some fashion later on. If you encounter a reader who actually knows something about the science you’re pretending to employ, you’re going to annoy him. For the purposes of the movie, it would have been easier and quicker to simply call the Wunderwaffe an improved version of mustard gas, or just refer to it by some ominous-sounding codename, and have a character note that it is highly flammable. This achieves the same effect without having to delve into eye-rollingly bad psuedo-science. If you must use technobabble, it should either be clearly fictitious (i.e. made-up science like Minovsky Particles) or suitably and convincingly complex (like everything by John C. Wright).
Like every good superhero story, Wonder Woman has plenty of action. Like every Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen, I turned off my brain when the action began and tuned it out. The action scenes are competent…for Hollywood…but I hold my entertainment to much higher standards of realism.
A critical action scene takes place at the front. Diana hears of the Germans occupying a town and catches sight of refugees somehow being allowed to linger in the Allied trenches. She is outraged, but the army won’t help her. She leads a one-woman charge across No Man’s Land, plows into the German lines, inspires the rest of the Allies to help her, and single-handedly liberates the town.
This scene establishes Diana as an idealistic, driven and impetuous woman. If she can’t get what she wants, she simply plows straight through the obstacles, heedless of the consequences. There were just so many things that could have gone wrong.
The Germans could have fired on her from so many angles she couldn’t block all of the bullets. Shells could have detonated against her armour instead of being deflected. She could have stepped on a mine. She could have run into a cloud of poison gas (and she never has chemical protection). A nearby blast could have blown her off her feet and showered her with shrapnel. Even if she makes it all the way across, the rest of the Allies are mere humans–and the German defenses would have cut them down. The Allies would support their hasty offensive with machineguns and artillery, and she could have been hit by friendly fire.
This could have been a scene where Diana discovers that her training was woefully inadequate to prepare her for the horror of modern industrial war. At the very least, Diana could have unleashed her superpowers, justifying her survival. Instead, she survives all this because the plot demands it , and because in Hollywood, Strong Action Females are more powerful than men and never pay the price for brashness.
Here is lesson number four: action scenes must make sense. The protagonist cannot survive simply because the plot demands it; her victory must be justified. On the flipside, the enemy must be believably threatening, and an enemy as powerful and dangerous as the Imperial German Army must act in a manner consistent with their portrayal. This means proper defensive tactics and measures designed to defeat an attack they were expecting.
Fixing this sequence is simple. Diana tries to cross No Man’s Land. Trevor holds her back, and explains to her in graphic detail what happens to idiots who try to make a frontal attack across No Man’s Land. She insists on going, convincing him that liberating the town is a worthy cause, and he in turn convinces her to launch a night time raid. Our heroes sneak across No Man’s Land, infiltrate the enemy lines and knock out the defenses, allowing the rest of the Allies to overrun the Germans and liberate the town. This scene would have satisfied the demands of characterisation and action while not being suicidal.
Despite the issues mentioned above, Wonder Woman isn’t all that bad. What sets it apart from other similar films is the character interactions.
Diana is a brave, headstrong, stubborn, rash and naïve woman who was raised on an isolated island. She is utterly ignorant about the outside world beyond knowing how to speak multiple languages (a convenient plot device to justify how everyone can talk to each other and how she can read a coded notebook). This shows throughout the story: she doesn’t know anything about fashion, she is filled with curiosity about the outside world, and she operates under the childish-yet-believable assumption that stopping Ares will stop the war. Despite all this, she acts in a consistently heroic fashion, fighting for the weak, the innocent and to end the slaughter of millions.
This is lesson five: heroes must be heroic. Heroes are memorable because they are larger than life. They have ideals they fight for and lines they will not cross. They will go the distance and commit themselves to their cause. Every aspect of their personality is magnified and consistent throughout the story, and their behaviours flow organically from their backstories and personalities. Diana walks with an aura of charisma because she lives and acts with honour and integrity, and Gal Gadot convincingly portrays this on the silver screen.
Wonder Woman might be Diana’s story, but Steve Trevor plays a significant role too. He helps her navigate the modern world, fills her in on critical details, and fights alongside her in the action scenes. At the climax, he gets a big action scene all to himself, stopping the mundane threat so Diana can concentrate on Ares. Throughout the film, the duo enjoy a respectful relationship. They may have their differences, but instead of sniping at each other or wasting time on pointless bickering, they solve problems and support each other, building each other up all the way to the end.
Lesson six: supporting characters must support the protagonist and the story. If a supporting character does next to nothing in a story, then that character can be deleted and his actions handed off to other, more important characters. If a support character does not support the protagonist, then there is no reason why the protagonist keeps him around. This is especially important for stories about superheroes and high-level violence professionals: such people will not tolerate the presence of people who could drag them down and potentially undermine the mission. Instead, they will keep around people who build them up and help them overcome problems, and Steve Trevor fulfils this role magnificently.
As an aside, consider this: how did modern culture reach the point where having a male supporting character contribute significantly to the plot and action scenes in a female-led story without being denigrated by the heroine become a noteworthy novelty?
Women are Wonderful
The main flaw running through Wonder Woman is the assumption that Women are Wonderful. Diana makes no major mistakes and does not pay the price. She walks around with a sword in wartime London and nobody bats an eye; she wears her sword in the back of her dress at a fancy dress ball and nobody notices or cares. She leads an Allied army on a suicidal attack across No Man’s Land but it somehow makes out unscratched. Ares conveniently comes to her instead of making her fight to find him. As an Amazon she is destined to defeat Ares, so instead of having to work for her victory all she has to do is pour on MOAR POWA until he is defeated.
This is the Women are Wonderful trap. In fiction, women cannot be seen to make mistakes so women get away with making stupid decisions. In reality, the police would have hounded her, the Allies would have taken horrendous casualties to support her solo charge (and every death would be on her), and Ares would have opposed her every step of the way and forced her to find him. At every critical juncture, the Hand of the Director intervenes so that Diana need never suffer the consequences of her actions and never has to work hard or change her perspective to accomplish her goals.
This is the final lesson: actions have consequences. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Charge in recklessly and you get killed, or your allies get slaughtered. Slip up and the enemy will exploit it. Diana survived this adventure and remained an idealist simply because she suffers no consequences for any of her actions. As a writer, you must make your characters reap the bitter harvest of bad decisions. Only then can you have a believable story.
Wonder Woman could have been great. Instead, it is distinguished from other Hollywood blockbusters only by virtue of the characters. Learn from Wonder Woman, and craft better stories.
LeFou of Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is the lackey of Gaston, the main antagonist. By turning LeFou into a gay man for the 2017 live action adaptation, Disney has sunk ever deeper into the abyss of social justice. Through this act of mutilation, Disney has demonstrated its contempt for the original story. In recent years, Disney has been pushing the social justice agenda hard, producing film after film starring Strong Independent Female Protagonists Who Don’t Need Men. What makes LeFou’s distortion especially egregarious is that Disney’s attempt at virtue signalling is really tokenism.
The original novel was published in 1740. The Disney animated film shifted retained the setting of 18th century France. The live-action movie also keeps this setting. And 18th century France was cruel to gay men.
During the Ancien Regime, homosexuality (specifically, male sodomy) was punishable by death. The last gay men to be executed for sodomy were burned to death in 1750. Homosexuality was decriminalised only in 1791.
There was no mention of the French Revolution or the French Terror in the source material or the 1991 animated film. Thus, it’s safe to assume that the events of the story took place before the Revolution. By exploring his feelings for Gaston, Gay LeFou runs the risk of arrest, jail and execution.
Even if the story were set after the decriminalisation of sodomy, he would not be immune. New laws do not automatically lead to new social attitudes. Homosexuality was still widely seen as immoral and unnatural. If Gay LeFou were open about his feelings, he could be ostracised and run out of town. Everyone would spurn him, leaving only the company of the pederasts who frequented the public urinals and the molly houses where they pretended to be women.
This is not to say Gay LeFou is doubleplus ungood. Rather, by casting a gay man in 18th century France, Disney had the perfect set-up for drama, angst, and conflict.
And they squandered it.
The Most Interesting Man in the Room
The most interesting person in an area is the one who is most different from everybody else. In homogenous societies like 18th century France, minorities like gay men are the most interesting people around. They have to face legal repercussions, societal disapproval and disease just to be who they are. Gay LeFou would face enough drama and conflict for an entire movie all to himself.
But the story is not about Gay LeFou. It is about Belle and the Beast.
All things in a story must serve the story. A subplot about Gay LeFou finding his feelings adds nothing to the story. It will have no impact on the protagonists or their relationship; LeFou, both Gay and Regular versions, have exactly no influence over them. That makes the gay subplot a distraction at best, a time-waster at worst.
Disney claims there will be a happily ever after moment for LeFou. This flies in the face of historical fact. The gay subculture of mid-18th century France was marked with profligacy, prostitution, casual sex and group sex. Men in committed relationships with other men were despised — especially those with reputations for being debauchees.
A happily ever after for LeFou doesn’t do anything for the core story of Beauty and the Beast. How his life turns out has little to do with the main characters. As such, Gay LeFou’s story is just a sideshow, a sop to progressives, and nothing more.
By turning LeFou gay, Disney has injected modern liberal attitudes into a setting with vastly different values and attitudes. Through its focus on Belle and the Beast, Disney turned the spotlight away from the struggles Gay LeFou would realistically face in a believable 18th century France, bringing him out only to reaffirm that Gay Is Okay.
Disney’s first gay character is just a token, an object to be trotted out to signal to left-wingers that Disney shares their values, then quietly hidden away when it comes time to actually explore what it means to be gay in such a society. And yet Disney continues to be lauded for its progressive ideas.
In other words: tokenism is okay is progressives do it.
The Altar of SocJus
Gay LeFou isn’t the only indicator of social justice infection. Emma Watson, a self-proclaimed feminist, plays Belle. In the movie, Belle says, “I’m not a princess.”
This is a time and place when girls and women aspired to be treated with the grace, courtesy and respect accorded to princesses, and to receive the wealth and luxury the title implies. Further, in that time period, such a retort would indicate that a) Belle is a troublemaker who will not acknowledge the roles of women at that time, b) Belle disrespects the Beast’s servants, and by extension her host, and c) the Beast (who is a prince) has poor taste for choosing such a troublesome woman as a companion — which suggests his ability to judge people and make decisions is impaired. This, in turn, would lead the Beast’s servants to either ‘educate’ Belle on proper manners and/or convince the Beast to find a new companion.
Likewise, Belle wears a dress that conforms to modern fashion sensibilities, flying in the face of historical female fashions of the time that emphasise narrow, inverted conical torsos. The excuse is that Belle is a more active heroine than before. Which is nonsense — clothes do not define a character. As any good creator knows, having your character deal with clothing hang-ups at the most inconvenient of times is a prime source of comedy and tension. At the very least, everybody would look askance at Belle’s fashion sense and actions, and start whisper campaigns against her, forcing Belle to change her ways. At worst, the Beast would believe them and ditch her.
Again and again, the movie sacrifices verisimilitude on the altar of social justice. Instead of capturing the little details like the difficulty of wearing women’s dress of the period or the drama that arises from making social faux pas, Disney chooses the easy way of toting a token gay man and a feminist from out of time, and pretending the drama that should have occurred would not happen.
The live action film had so much potential. It could have been filled with the angst, drama, social sniping and prejudices that define an epic historic fantasy romance. Instead, Disney sacrificed it all to signal to progressives that they, too, hold modern ideas.
Such a poor prize for such a grand price.
The disease of virtue-signalling must be fought wherever it appears in fiction. It robs stories of their full potential, turning them from potential epics to hollow tales, just so that the creator can say, “Look at me! I believe in SocJus too!” Creators like these are not interested in fiction. They are only interested in ramming their ideas down your throat.
Still: Beauty and the Beast, 1991, first sourced from Disneyfied or Disney Tried
The Fifty Shades of Grey movies surpasses the original prose trilogy while capturing its original spirit. Unlike the novel, I could endure the film until the end — mostly by picking apart everything wrong about them. With the release of Fifty Shades Darker, I’m confident that I cannot be further entertained by the franchise.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
In Fifty Shades of Grey, literature senior Anastasia Steele interviews billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey and is utterly attracted to him. Grey instantly falls for her, and begins to pursue her. Classic female fantasy. If Grey were a homeless bum or just an everyman, this would be a psychological thriller, but since Grey is a billionaire it’s billed as a romance.
It’s easy to understand why she is attracted to him. Christian Grey is wealthy, powerful and not ugly. But what does he see in her?
It’s obvious that neither E L James nor the scriptwriter have any inkling about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Billionaires do not live in the same world as regular people. The one percent hang out at exclusive clubs and societies that cater to the ultra-wealthy. They attend galas, pageants and social events to network with their fellow one-percenters and strike up marriage alliances. They are the guests of honour everywhere they go.
In these appearances, they smile and strut and schmooze and scheme. They know they are the movers and shakers of society, and they know that there will always be people waiting to pounce on the slightest sign of weakness. Thus, they have to learn impeccable manners and social skills, and see and be seen only by the luminaries of the world. The companions they bring to these events reflect their wealth, status and taste; they choose their mates very selectively and demand a hundred percent at all times.
An eligible bachelor like Grey will have no end of women throwing themselves at his feet. He will be invited to events where supermodels, actresses, athletes and fellow billionaires will be in attendance. During meetings with clients and investors, there will be no shortage of opportunities to meet glamorous hostesses or hire gorgeous escorts. More ordinary women (like Ana!) would do everything in their power to gain the privilege of a single night with him. Wealth and power are the most potent female aphrodisiacs in the world, and men like Grey would be spoiled for choice.
So why Ana?
Anastasia Steele is slim and pretty, but she is not supermodel material. She doesn’t demonstrate any sign of superior intelligence — her one shot at this, when interviewing Christian, was entirely unmemorable. The movies offer no opportunities for her to demonstrate qualities like resilience, independence and determination to him. As she makes abundantly clear, she does not share Christian’s sexual tastes.
Men like Christian Grey can afford to be picky. People do not become billionaires by the age of 27 by thinking like regular people. A man like that knows that he has to be highly selective to hire the right employees, and be ruthless in firing those who fail to meet his standards. Christian isn’t a complete naif either; he’s implied to have plenty of sexual experience in his past. Ana clearly doesn’t completely suit him — so why should he care about her?
The answer is simple: the series is not about Christian Grey. It is about the enduring female fantasy of being swept off her feet by a powerful man who finds her irresistible.
Romance? What Romance?
Romance stories are driven by interactions between the main characters. But when characters are flat, the story falls flat.
Take a look at Vox Day’s socio-sexual hierarchy and Heartiste’s Dating Market Value Test for Men. Grey is described as ‘dominant’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘intimidating’. By all accounts he should be an alpha or a sigma. But he acts like a low beta (Heartiste) or delta (Vox Day).
A high-value man seduces women by careful displays of wealth and attention, attracting them to him. Grey lavishes time and money on Ana, but receives no financial gain in return. A high-value man sets the pace of the relationship — he may negotiate boundaries with his mate, but the relationship is on his terms. Grey does everything Ana asks of him without the slightest complaint or protest. A high-value man employs wit, charm, game and deep penetration to win women over. Grey’s dialogue is either utterly bland or breathless proclamations of how much he adores Ana. A high-value man will run background checks on potential mates to guard himself, and hide that fact from people. Grey casually surrenders that knowledge to Ana without even drawing a concession. A high-value man seeks to maximise profit and cedes ground in negotiations only reluctantly. Grey displays none of the drive that makes men billionaires. A high-value man maintains frame. Grey surrenders it.
Christian Grey doesn’t act like a dominant high-status male. He doesn’t even act like a billionaire. Men like that do not have the luxury of dropping or delaying appointments on a whim just to chase a girl, not if they want to land the multi-million dollar deals that made them rich in the first place. They know that women are everywhere, but a sales opportunity may be once in a lifetime. They will remain focused on their mission of making money, especially if they are single, and only turn their attention to their women after they are done.
And if the woman keeps complaining about it? She’s fired and replaced without a second thought.
Christian Grey acts like every woman’s fantasy. He is rich and powerful, but eats out of Ana’s hand. He has the ability to devote time, money and attention on her, and will change his essential nature for her. He won’t ever chase other, higher-status women with more compatible sexual fantasies because he is utterly obsessed with her.
And in the real world, men who act like Christian Grey become hollowed-out shells of their former selves, losing everything that made them great.
Characters? What characters?
Every person in the film franchise revolves around Anastasia Steele. Their thoughts, feelings and actions revolve entirely around her. When she is not in the frame, they cease to exist. Case in point: Fifty Shades Darker.
The trailer promises that people from Christian’s past shows up. They do, but not in any significant way.
Mrs Robinson, the woman who originally seduced Christian, makes hostile remarks at Ana and…nothing more. As Christian’s business partner, she has leverage over him. She can whisper into his ear, spread rumours about Ana and use her resources to make life difficult for Ana. Instead, the movie resolves the conflict simply by having Ana throw water on her and walk away.
In the real world, women as powerful as Mrs Robinson don’t act directly. They will plot their revenge, hire thugs and lawyers, and ruin their target without any trace of suspicion falling on her. It may feel good to throw water on her, but people like Mrs Robinson won’t rest until she or her target is destroyed. And Christian ought to know that too. The movie shows no attempt to resolve the conflict, wasting an opportunity for drama.
Leila Williams, Christian’s former submissive, also shows up. She appears for a few scenes, utters a couple of lines, and fades away. There is no sense of personality or motivation to her. The one moment she makes an impact is when she breaks into Ana’s home. And even then, Ana’s reaction isn’t one of fear for her safety (what if someone else breaks in?) or relief (thank God Christian and his bodyguard dealt with this madwoman) but jealousy. Leila is simply a device to make Ana jealous, compelling Christian to further emasculate himself through signalling his loyalty. Once Leila has served her purpose, she disappears.
Jack Hyde was Ana’s boss, working as Commissioning Editor at Seattle Independent Publishing. When he first shows up, he serves to make Christian jealous. His existence signals to the audience that Ana is attractive to other men. When the three meet at a bar, Christian introduces himself to Jack by saying, “I’m the boyfriend.” This is a signal of anger, jealousy and insecurity; it is a definition of identity based on someone else instead of who he is. It is what an ordinary man would do, not a true high-status man.
In the real world, a true dominant would smile broadly, focus his gaze on Jack, extend his hand and say, “Hi. I’m Christian. Nice meeting you.” At the same time, he would wrap his arm around Ana’s waist and pull her into him. This is a demonstration of confidence, superiority, ownership and frame — without openly giving Jack a reason to get mad at him.
Later, Jack threatens to expose Ana’s relationship with Christian unless she provides sexual favours and tries to assault her. She fights her way out (the only time we see courage from her), then runs outside into Christian’s arms. Christian moves to have him fired. Jack naturally seethes at this treatment and plots Christian’s downfall, paving the way for the next story. Here, he simply exists to provide an element of danger and set up the next story.
In the real world, a man like Christian wouldn’t settle for having him fired. He would call the police and use his influence to have Jack locked away for sexual assault. Any regular person would do that, but once Jack is off-screen, he is immediately forgiven of all sins. This makes no sense whatsoever — unless you want a reason for the next story.
Kink? What kink?
All I will say about the sex scenes is that you can find much harder porn on the Internet for free.
Bondage, domination, sadism and masochism is the forbidden fruit that draws in customers. It is taboo, yet dramatic and glamorous. But its on-screen portrayal is tame. The movies walk the fine line between showing just enough BDSM to tantalise the audience while staying clear of the hardcore aspect that will alienate the vanilla audience — and errs on the side of the latter.
It’s All About Ana
Despite being named after Christian Grey, Fifty Shades is all about Ana. She effortlessly attracts and changes a wealthy man, but has no need to mold herself to him. She is the focus of his attentions, but since she can tell him off and he respects her limits, he isn’t really a stalker. There is just enough kink to lure in the audience, but it’s always on her terms and he never pushes her. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn Christian’s affections, but he makes grandiose displays for her. She enjoys the attention and wealth of a billionaire, and has no need to hold up her end of the relationship.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the perfect female fantasy. It allows a female audience to insert themselves into Ana’s shoes and pretend that they, too, can haul in a billionaire without having to lift a finger. No matter how cringe-worthy you may find the franchise, it is the textbook for understanding the solipsism, fantasy and hypergamy of the modern female.
Fifty Shades Darker No More Secrets Poster: Universal
Christian Grey: Fanpop
Fifty Shades of Grey still: Aceshowbiz
Leila Williams: The Daily Mail
Meh: Media Makeameme
Fifty Shades Darker No More Rules Poster: Universal
The first official trailer for Ghost in the Shell is out…and, if anything, I’m even more skeptical about the movie.
In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not enthusiastic about the movie. After watching the trailer, I’m almost certain my fears will be realised.
To be fair, this movie is visually stunning. The art direction is top-notch, and it captures the cyberpunk aesthetic of futuristic cities with broken rain-slick streets. However, it seems that the producers focused on amazing visuals instead of faithfully adapting the characters, story and tone.
Major Kusanagi Motoko drives the franchise. In the manga, she is an exuberant, cheerfully destructive woman with a juvenile sense of humour. In the anime, both movie and series, she morphs into a cold, ruthless operator hyper-focused on the mission. In this incarnation, the ‘Major’ (no name given) is a brooding cyborg who feels alienated from society. In the trailer, she says, “Everybody feels connected to something I’m not.”
This is a major departure from established canon: the Kusanagis of the anime and the manga have made peace with the fact that they aren’t part of ‘regular’ society. They don’t brood about it. In the manga, Kusanagi pursues relationships; in the anime, she just doesn’t care.
In the real world, special operators are chosen for their ability to be decisive and adaptable; there are very few navel gazers and moody brooders in their hallowed ranks. Going by the trailer, that makes the anime and manga Kusanagi more believable in my eyes.
Furthermore, Kusanagi is a team leader. She may be the central character, but she knows how to her team to achieve her goals. The opening scene of the movie pays homage to the first episode of the anime series, with one key difference: in the anime, every member of Section 9 deploys, utilising their strengths to efficiently take out the terrorists.
Part of the appeal of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is its attention to detail, including tactics. The creator, Masamune Shirow, and the anime production team at least tried to incorporate tactics and teamwork. Kusanagi may be a superpowered cyborg, but in the world of GitS, her enemies may be just as deadly as she — and oftentimes, deadlier. Section 9 has to work together to succeed. Indeed, when the enemy catches Section 9 members working solo, Bad Things usually happen — to Section 9. This approach increases the verisimilitude of the series, and reinforces both its hard sci fi aesthetic and its gritty tone.
In the movie, we see Major Nameless soloing a room full of bad guys. Yes, this shows she is a Superpowered Female Character…but it also betrays Hollywood’s elevation of the visual. Instead of going for the gritty realism that defined GitS, the Hollywood version emphasises gee-whiz action and shallow sleekness.
We see this visual sophistry again at 1:32, when Major Nameless uppercuts a person. He promptly goes flying and spins round and round. This is painfully obvious wirework. It’s meant to highlight just how powerful she is — in the mind of a Hollywood writer — but to the eyes of a person who studied martial arts, it’s utterly impossible. Physics simply does not work that way.
Most important of all, the anime and manga were not about Kusanagi. She may be the protagonist, but she is not the focus of the story. Those stories explored how rapid technological progress changes people and society, and what it means to have a soul when your body, vital organs, and brain, can be designed and mass-manufactured. Kusanagi’s missions place her at the cutting edge of technology, forcing her, and the viewer, to grapple with the concepts of individual consciousness and emergent group gestalts. Indeed, the ‘ghost’ in the title is an in-universe term characters use when referencing their soul or consciousness, while ‘shell’ indicates their cyborg bodies. The philosophical underpinnings elevated the franchise from mere excellent to timeless.
In the trailer, we hear lines like ‘You know I have a past. I’ll find out who I was’, ‘Everything they told you was a lie’, and ‘They did not save your life. They stole it.’ This suggests that the story is about the Major seeking the truth of her past, and implies false or erased memories, and that she is an unknowing pawn of ‘them’.
Not that this is a bad story, but it is not Ghost in the Shell.
Hollywood GitS is classic cyberpunk: alienated character seeking the truth and fighting a powerful enemy to pursue personal goals. The original GitS is one of the earliest examples of post-cyberpunk: a government agent who uses morally gray methods in the service of civilisation. Cyberpunk is an arrow against the system; post-cyberpunk upholds society. And I don’t think the live action movie recognises that.
The Hollywood movie might still turn out to be a decent flick. But going by the trailer, I’m skeptical if it can live up to the original.
Ghost in the Shell was among the first animes I have ever watched, and among the first sci fi manga I have ever read. Even today, its themes, aesthetics, technology and design language influence my writing and worldbuilding. When I learned of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major Kusanagi Motoko for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the only thing I could do was sigh.
I prefer adaptations to be as true to established canon as possible. Everything from themes to technologies, settings to characters, including their mannerisms, personalities and, yes, appearance. Part of this comes from distaste of executive meddling, of Hollywood inserting ideas that are not the original creator’s, or deleting ideas the creator wished to explore. While adaptations and edits are necessary to translate a given work from one medium to another, I prefer that these edits enhance the experience and stay true to the author’s vision instead of detracting from it.
Case in point, let’s look at the upcoming movie adaptation of The Dark Tower. The series protagonist, Roland Deschain, will be played by Idris Elba. However, in canon, Roland is a white man. And his ethnicity plays a major role in the story.
In the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws three characters from different worlds and times into his. One of them is Eddie Dean from 1987 New York — a white man. Another is Odetta Susannah Holmes from New York — a black woman from 1964. Holmes also suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and has a secondary persona, Detta Susannah Walker. Who also happens to be murderously psychotic.
Much of the drama in The Drawing of the Three lies in Detta’s antagonism towards the men. Detta hates all white men, calling them ‘honkey mahfas’, and speaks with a stereotypical black accent. Her racism boils off the page, culminating in attempted murder.
If Roland were a black man, and if the movie version of The Dark Tower extends to The Drawing of the Three, the presence of a black gunslinger would rob the drama of at least half its power. Barring clever editing and rewriting — which Hollywood adaptations are not known to enjoy — the experience will be cheapened. Or even eliminated altogether. And if such a pivotal experience, one that gives rise to Holmes/Walker’s third personality of Susannah Dean, is weakened or eliminated — what else will be given up? What else will be eroded?
What else will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness?
When I think of Major Kusanagi Motoko, I think of a Japanese secret policewoman who fights cyberterrorism and corruption in a post-cyberpunk Japan using fair means and foul while grappling with what it means to be human. She lives in a time and place where anybody can afford a customised cybernetic body, a ‘shell’, which throws into question the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’.
It is true that the setting allows Kusanagi to choose whatever body she wants, including, presumably, that of a Westerner. It is also equally true that in the canon she chose to present as a Japanese woman. To present her as a Westerner barring specific circumstances feels like disrespect towards Kusanagi, her choices and her motivations. Further, the entire franchise is set mainly in Japan. If Kusanagi presents as a Westerner in Japan, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, she will stand out — not a good trait for a secret policewoman who operates outside the law and fights terrorists and corrupt government officials.
And what if the story is not set in Japan? Then the next question must be: Why even call it Ghost in the Shell? While the core theme of the franchise is an exploration of what it means to be human, the cornerstones of the story universe are based on Japanese concerns. Ghost in the Shell, it must be remembered, was originally a manga published in 1989. The manga dealt with powerful Japanese corporations, superior Japanese technology, growing Japanese soft and hard power, unelected Japanese bureaucrats and officials consolidating and abusing their power, and Real Robots — itself a spinoff from the pioneering mecha genre, a Japanese innovation.The manga reflected a dark vision of a future Japan, seen from 1989. The anime adaptations stayed true to this vision. If the live adaptation isn’t set in Japan, and doesn’t have a Japanese lead, then it won’t reflect the Japanese underpinnings of the story. In which case, why even call it Ghost in the Shell? It might as well be a whole new post-cyberpunk movie.
Otaku are not a forgiving breed. When they encounter questions like this, they default to the worst case scenario: Hollywood cast Scarlet Johansen in an attempt to appeal to a Western audience, and they don’t care if it ruins the creative vision of the franchise. If an American film company will cast an American to play the role of a Japanese, then will the Americans respect the Japanese ideas underpinning the story, including a cynical view of American imperialism and interference in Japanese affairs? If the film concept is about a Westerner doing things set in a cyberpunk West, with little or no reference to Japan, then is it simply leeching off the fame of the franchise like the all-female Ghostbusters remake and Mad Max: Fury Road?
In other words, what other aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism?
There may be good reasons for casting Johanssen as a Japanese woman. Hollywood may even take the safe way out and eventually brand it as a Western adaptation of Ghost in the Shell under a different title, the same way Edge of Tomorrow was a Western adaptation of All You Need is Kill. I’m hoping that the film makers will take this path, as it respects the executives’ desire to appeal to a Western audience and the otaku’s desire for integrity of the franchise’s creative vision — and also because Ghost in the Shell as a title isn’t particularly evocative to Western ears. The director may even surprise everyone and cast a second, Japanese, woman to play the role of Kusanagi Motoko, perhaps as Kusanagi’s shell when she wants to appear Japanese, reinforcing the franchise’s theme.
But until more is known about the movie, the otaku of the world are simply going to assume that Johanssen’s casting is symptomatic about a much deeper problem — one Hollywood is infamous for. And Hollywood isn’t doing anything to assuage their fears.