Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Heroes We Need: Moana & Wonder Woman

Of the movies I've seen in 2017, two have hit me with an emotional punch that no others have. Those films are Moana and Wonder Woman. This won't be a traditional review of either film, rather an unpacking of ideas and feelings about why they really hit a nerve with me.

Author's Note: I'm aware Moana was released theatrically in 2016.


I loved both Moana and Wonder Woman

I love the brightness, vivid color, and clarity both films presented. Both films are buttressed by a terrific musical score. Both women are portrayed beautifully, by Auli'i Cravalho as Moana & Gal Gadot as Diana, and they get splendid support from Dwyane Johnson as Maui and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Both films touched a nerve for me in really unexpected ways. Both are elegant in the simplicity and directness with which they engage their audiences. 

There's real pleasure and joy in watching these women fulfill their destinies. As befits great heroes, they have to overcome everything: their parents, social norms, overbearing machismo, and finally using love to both overcome the final challenge and fulfill their own considerable potential. Both films' heroes achieve greatness by simply becoming that which they have always been, and being willing to commit the ultimate act of love - sacrifice - to save humanity.

With this in mind, I'm going to spend some time comparing these two films and seeing what it is they've done well and why I've felt so moved by both of them.

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get to it. More below the jump.

The False Paradise of Isolation: Motunui and Themyscira

Both Moana and Wonder Woman have an initial setting which appears to be a paradise. In Moana, the island is Motunui, which is a Pacific volcano surrounded by a coral atoll. Wonder Woman's paradise is Themyscira, a lush island located in the Mediterranean Sea.

Setting aside that both locations are islands, there's another significant parallel between them.

  • Motunui's coral atoll provides both shelter from the perceived danger of the ocean and a lagoon with plentiful fish for the islanders to eat. 
  • Themyscira is protected by Zeus by a fog bank which is intended to provide a literal shelter from the world of men, and by extension Ares (The God of War - we'll come back to this later).

Interestingly, the inciting incident in both films occurs once this protective barrier has been breached by the outside world. In Motunui's case, it is the failure of crops and the disappearance of fish from the lagoon. For Themyscira, it happens when Steve Trevor's stolen German airplane breaches the fog bank which surrounds the island and German Naval units follow him through the fog. As a result. both Motunui and Themyscira are exposed as untenable false paradises.

Moana's tribe has become satisfied with with Motunui at the expense of their seafaring culture. As a matter of fact, the tribe's rigidly traditional outlook (our island has always provided for us, so we just need to continue doing what we've always done) has caused them to forget their history; the tribe has literally hidden their ships away in a cave. The obvious solution for Motunui's inhabitants when the famine arrives - even putting aside the greater quest which Moana undertakes - is to reclaim their heritage as seafarers and find another island. They've become so satisfied and dependent on their island that they've forgotten who they were; the blight on their food literally and symbolically becomes ashes in their mouths.

With Themyscira, the reason the paradise is hidden is made quite explicit over the course of the film. Zeus (and by extension Queen Hippolyta) has to protect Diana - the weapon which can defeat Ares - until she is ready to meet his challenge. The tragedy of Themyscira is that once the world of men intrudes, the larger Amazon culture is exposed as being unable to meet the modern threat (this is an indictment of man's developing technology used to fight wars and not of the fierceness and devotion of the Amazon warriors). As a former US President said "Oceans no longer protect us." The ocean being both literal and symbolic statement of the vast gap between the world of men and Themyscira.

In both cases, the larger point is that eventually, these islands would no longer serve as sanctuaries. The famine and destruction caused by Te Kā (Te Fiti's corrupted alter ego without her heart) would reach Motunui eventually. At some point, if not World War I, men would've eventually encroached upon Themyscira. Importantly, both films also assert the traditions and rituals of both island societies have become a hindrance to the development of the very societies they are designed to serve.

Thus, Moana and Diana have to leave their sanctuaries behind and enter a larger, much more dangerous world. In other words, they have to escape their epistemological bubble.

Moana of Motunui & Diana, Princess of Themyscira: The Hero's Journey

Thanks to the success of Star Wars, many people are acquainted with The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and its explanation of the Monomyth (also known as The Hero's Journey). In many cases, the template is followed so closely that it has caused narrative boredom in many films which try to repeat the success of Star Wars.

With that in mind, the success of a story using the Monomyth template relies heavily on the variations brought to the story by the filmmakers.

There are 3 major acts. For the sake of brevity (and sanity), we'll not get into the individual steps within the acts, as they don't always appear in each variation, and they often appear in varying order. Let's see how well they match up with the journeys undertaken by Moana and Diana:

  • Act I: The Departure: This Act deals with the call to adventure, some form of denial of the adventure, the appearance of a helper or guide, and the decision to leave the known world behind.
  • Act 2: Initiation: The Act is where the majority of conflict occurs. Various trials and temptations are placed before the hero to hinder their journey. There are often setbacks for the hero from which they learn lessons to be applied later, and either defeating the villain or achieving the goal of the quest.
  • Act 3: Return: This Act is when the hero returns having completed their journey or having achieved the goal of the quest, and is ready to share their treasure/cure/knowledge with the rest of the world.

Moana literally sings about being called by the ocean to leave her island. She is forbidden to leave by her father. With the help of her Grandmother and the Ocean, she accepts the call and leaves. Later, she gets help from Maui, endures the trials of the Kakamora pirates, helps recover Maui's hook from the crab Tamatoa, and fails her first attempt to return the heart to Te Fiti. She endures a crisis of confidence before choosing to complete her quest. Crucially, she realizes that the demon Te Kā is the corrupted version of Te Fiti - the goddess of life without her heart. Once she restores the heart of Te Fiti, she returns to Motunui having saved the world and reclaimed her tribe's seafaring knowledge and heritage.

Diana learns her destiny is to defeat Ares, and bring peace to the world of man. She is stalled in her development by her mother; Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but later trained by Antiope (Robin Wright). Steve Trevor's arrival forces her to accept the call and she leaves, forbidden by her mother to return. On her journey, Diana has to overcome an overbearing patriarchy, doubts about her powers, her developing love for Trevor, and her mistaken assumption of the identity of Ares. Diana's crisis of confidence is caused when Trevor prevents her from fulfilling her destiny as she understands it, causing many innocent people to be killed in a gas attack. Diana struggles against Ares once he reveals himself, but finds the strength to win after Trevor sacrifices himself. Forbidden from returning home, Diana returns to London having discovered she is in fact a goddess herself, and that the world of men is worth saving.

While Wonder Woman largely eschews (or modifies, depending on your point of view) Act 3, Moana follows the Monomyth all the way through to the end. Further, I'd argue that even thought both films follow the Monomyth template (almost too) closely, they still succeed because of one hugely significant variation:

The heroes are women.

Do You Know Who Maui Is: Male Privilege As a Corrupting Influence

In Moana, the corrupting influence of male privilege is examined with Maui, and to a lesser extent with Moana's father. Moana is interested in showing how male privilege adversely affects the rest of the world, and Moana asserts that femininity must restore the balance.

At the beginning of the film, the demigod Maui decides to steal the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess. Maui hopes to be celebrated by humanity when he gives them the heart, which contains the power to create life. Once Maui steals the heart (a green stone), he is attacked by Te Kā, a demon of fire and lava. Te Kā's attack causes Maui to lose his magical fish hook, which gives him the ability to transmogrify into any animal he desires. He also loses Te Fiti's heart to the ocean.

Moana is chosen centuries later to restore Te Fiti's heart - it's revealed to her as a toddler when the ocean (represented here as a supernatural force for good) reveals it to her on the shores of Montunui. Moana's quest requires her to locate Maui, and enlist his help in returning the heart to Te Fiti.

When Moana encounters Maui, she expects a heroic demigod. What she finds is a self-pitying, self-absorbed clown. His first act is to feign thanks while leaving her marooned on an island.

As the film continues, Maui attempts to deflect the damage he's caused with his macho recklessness. At one point, he tries to blame humanity for his taking the heart - he did it because he wanted adulation. Later, he tries to play it off as a joke. He pretends to go along with Moana's plan, primarily so he can re-acquire his magical hook. But he wants no part of Te Kā, and when Te Kā damages his fish hook in the first attempt to restore the heart, he abandons the quest.

His male privilege is the primary reason this world is turning to ashes, and only when he renounces it by choosing to help Moana does he become a hero. Even then, Maui is marginalized - he's a spectator as Moana faces Te Kā to restore the heart. Once the heart is restored (and Te Fiti with it), Te Fiti makes it quite clear to Maui that what he did was wrong, and that he hurt her badly. Not until Maui takes responsibility and apologizes does she restore his beloved magical fish hook. As an added bonus, he receives true gratitude from Moana, as opposed to the hollow adulation he hoped for when he stole the heart.

Moana celebrates femininity, specifically as it relates to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth using a spiral symbol. This is made explicit as Te Fiti lives, then dies - becoming Te Kā when Maui steals her heart, then is reborn as Te Fiti when Moana restores her heart. Moana sings to Te Kā "this is not who you are." She touches her forehead to Te Kā's forehead, as though an intuitive understanding passes between them. At the risk of sounding trite, Moana feels her pain; as a woman whose nature is thwarted by male privilege (her father's stubborn insistence on her inheriting his position as a shore-bound tribal chief), and as a member of a culture which no longer remembers who they are.

It's the compassion, understanding, and intuitive connection between two women which allows Moana to make things right again. Moana's love matters more than Maui's strength.

Only Love Will Truly Save the World: Does Humanity Deserve a Savior?

In Wonder Woman, there are 3 specific acts of loving sacrifice which underline and reaffirm Diana's commitment to love as a guiding force. The first is the death of Antiope on the beach, taking a bullet to save Diana's life. The second is the symbolic death of Queen Hippolyta when she allows Diana to leave Themyscira, never to return. The third is Steve Trevor's death when he destroys the airplane loaded with hydrogen-fueled gas bombs.

What's fascinating about each of these moments of sacrifice is how they build on each other as the film progresses, informing Diana's understanding of what it means to be an Amazon, and how to translate that meaning in the world of men.

Starting with Antiope: she's Diana's Aunt and the member of her family who embraced her desire to become a warrior. Antiope trained her harder than any warrior before her, and so Diana becomes her symbolic daughter. Further, Antiope is renowned as the the greatest Amazon warrior. Her being felled by a bullet conveys to the audience that the Amazons are fierce, but not invincible. Also, if the greatest Amazon warrior can be killed this easily, then the outside world has more danger than Diana realizes, regardless of her incredible abilities (of course, we don't know the extent of her powers yet).

Next, we have Queen Hippolyta's symbolic sacrifice. By banishing Diana from Themyscira, Hippolyta essentially sacrifices herself for the sake of Diana's development. She knows Diana's destiny is to become a great warrior who can defeat Ares, but has hidden that knowledge from her in an attempt to keep her safe. The intrusion of the world of men has made that fantasy impossible. Still, she warns Diana explicitly about the world of men - telling Diana "they do not deserve you" before Diana chooses to leave with Steve Trevor.

During her time in the world of men, Diana sees what her mother means. Men are capable of war and cruelty without Ares' help. Diana has to confront a dishonorable and misogynist society: men willing to command others to die but unwilling to fight themselves, men committed to fighting each other but not committed to protecting the innocent, and men willing to kill to continue a war which could be stopped. Once he reveals himself, Ares wants Diana to help him exterminate the human race, deeming them unworthy of the Earth.

Here's where Wonder Woman charts its own course in the genre. Instead of questioning what it means to be a superhero in a postmodern world - the dominant idea in the genre since Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy - Wonder Woman asks a simpler question with an equally complicated answer. Do humans even deserve a hero like Diana?

This brings us finally to Steve Trevor's sacrifice. Diana was badly hurt when Steve stopped her from killing a German General who then gassed a town of civilians - a town Diana had liberated the day before. Trevor hijacks a plane bound for London full of deadly hydrogen gas bombs; a mission he knows will end with his death. Before he leaves, he acknowledges to Diana that he's aware he's hurt her, he's aware of the evil in the world of men, and that he's committed acts of evil in the name of duty and country.

But in finally telling Diana he loves her, then blowing up the plane carrying the hydrogen gas bombs and sacrificing himself in the process, Steve Trevor both reaffirms the lessons Diana learned from her family and simultaneously affirms that while humans may not deserve Diana, they are worth fighting for.

That Tiny Thing Tells You What To Do? More Thoughts and Ideas

Risking hyperbole, Moana is among the most formally beautiful movies I've ever seen. The color palette is incredibly varied and bright. The images are crystal-clear. There's a real sense of texture in all of the different surfaces. All of the characters are visually engaging. You could make a gallery out of Moana and place it in a museum.

Steve Trevor gets a superb send-off in Wonder Woman. Alone in the plane, he pulls his gun and points it at the hydrogen powered gas bombs. Director Patty Jenkins leaves the camera on Trevor's face for a long time before cutting away. Chris Pine plays through a series of emotions, hesitating multiple times to pull the trigger while we see on his face all of the feelings of love, sadness, fear, bravery, duty, and honor he's going through. Jenkins makes an empathetic choice, and it results in a devastating emotional moment for both Chris Pine as an actor and Steve Trevor as a character.

Whoever came up with the idea of turning The Kakamora (coconut pirates) sequence from Moana into an elaborate homage to George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road deserves a medal. The sequence manages to be both thrilling and tremendously amusing at the same time, without playing like a total rip-off. Given the feminist subtext of Mad Max: Fury Road, the homage adds another layer of emotional and symbolic value.

Patty Jenkins does a great job integrating slow-motion into the action sequences. These shots are standard issue in action scenes ever since The Matrix, but like that film, Jenkins uses them in service of story and character. In Wonder Woman, the slow motion serves moments where Diana begins to realize just how powerful she is in dodging bullets and defeating opponents. Further, it help us relate to her by illustrating just how unique her abilities are from her point-of-view.

I loved the scene in the alley where Diana prevents Steve from being shot to death by German spies. It feels like a direct homage to a scene in Richard Donner's Superman (which served as a guiding light for Patty Jenkins). In Superman, Clark Kent (the late great Christopher Reeve) saves Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from being shot in the back by a mugger in the alley, after the mugger tried stealing her purse.

Here's a hot take: Moana was the best musical of 2016 (and yes, that includes the wildly overrated La La Land). I say this as a way to get into celebrating that both Wonder Woman and Moana have terrific musical scores. In both cases, the films rely on thematic cues in their most critical moments, instead of the typical blockbuster bombast. Specifically in Moana's case, the songs and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina are wonderful.

Closing Thoughts

This is the point where I acknowledge that neither Moana or Wonder Woman is a masterpiece.

Moana recycles the ocean gags and the continuing idiocy of Moana's chicken Heihei a few times too many. In the case of Wonder Woman, the climax relies too heavily on the usual big CGI battle, which becomes increasingly tedious and unconvincing the longer it lasts. Neither film has a particularly interesting or threatening villain.

In all other respects, both Moana and Wonder Woman represent something increasingly rare in our divided, post-modern, meta world. Both films are deeply felt, direct, and sincere. They trust their audience to be sincere in return without being laughed at. They both take the time and effort to show the best, most decent, most hopeful side of us while openly acknowledging the worst of us is right there, waiting to trip us up along the way.

To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of The Dark Knight...

We may not deserve Moana and Diana.

But they're the heroes we need right now.

Author's Note:  All screenshots from Moana are the property of Walt Disney Studios and may not be re-used in any other form. All screenshots from Wonder Woman are the property of Warner Brothers and DC Comics and may not be re-used in any other form. The author receives no money from this blog, and is intended only for educational / discussion purposes.

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