My best friend asked me to go see American Assassin with him opening night. We hadn’t gone to a movie together for a while, so I went, excited to hang with my buddy and despite having no desire to see this film, having seen the very uninteresting trailers, knowing it was adapted from Vince Flynn’s novel, and despite my admiration for Michael Keaton. Oh, and the thing is a conservative wet dream in the spirit of 24, American Sniper, and Open Range. Of those three, only the last I enjoy, as its genre trappings and compelling composition and craftsmanship pushes it into very cool territory, while still being an ideological disaster. More on that in a bit. Basically, I was at the show to hang with a friend more than any desire to see the film. But I’ve watched plenty worse, which is no excuse to keep watching crappy shows, so I justify it as useful to see what seems clearly designed for someone with the polar opposite world view and personal politics than myself. Good to get a peek into the other side, I guess. Plus, I’m of the opinion that just because a movie is dumb, doesn’t mean you can’t still have an intelligent thought about it. I don’t know if the following will provide that, but I’ll give it a shot, as these questions have nagged at me for years.
So how was the movie? As bad as I thought it would be. Worse perhaps. It hit all the buzz points beloved by contemporary American conservatism: terrorists, man pain, nukes, irrelevant female nudity, more man pain, torture, Islamic terrorists, vigilante violence, the most man pain, white people killing Arabs, evil Iranians, eternal man pain, dead women, protecting Israel, saving the military, terminal man pain. So, yeah, it’s A Lot. The most even. It’s the most extra conservatism I’ve seen in a long time. Its morality a false dichotomy between state-sanctioned murder and vigilante murder. Which is a pretty damn cynical, even nihilistic, world view. There’s a militant atheism at the heart of American Assassin that is colder and more sinister than even Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.
I often hear Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and John Hillcoat’s film adaptation, described as the most depressing, devastating, and/or bleak story. I disagree with that; The Road has glimmers of hope, but it doesn’t offer it easily. And even if you interpret it as a devastating smothering of hope, despite efforts to overcome a collapsing world, the fact that you tried, suggests a Herzogian defiance in the face of our inevitable destruction. You don’t just resign yourself to a world gone wrong. American Assassin, in contrast, believes exactly that: kill or be killed, take absolute vengeance on not only the individuals who wronged you, but the entire apparatus. American Assassin coldly endorses Donald Trump’s view that we slaughter not just terrorists, but their families as well. An argument many, rightly, identified as a war crime, while, wrongly, neglecting to mention that American Standard Operating Procedure has essentially been exactly what Trump advocated, evidenced by the numbers of civilian casualties killed by American forces in the so-called War on Terror. Step aside, Viggo Mortensen, because American Assassin‘s Dylan O’Brien is the new Millennial face of American nihilism.
And yet. Something that American Assassin has is honesty of presentation. It doesn’t lie to you about its world view. It embraces it, wears it proudly, on full display without apology. This doesn’t exactly make up for the problems I see within that world view. But there’s something to respect there, especially considering a few higher-profile and much more successful films that I find disingenuous, even actively and deceptively dishonest, in presenting their view of the world. I will settle on two from this year: Split and Wonder Woman. Both were praised well above what American Assassin received. Split was hailed as a return-to-form for the insufferable M. Night Shyamalan. Wonder Woman as a revolution in female empowerment, crushing glass ceilings for superhero flicks and women as lead actor and director. Fair enough. As far as it goes. Which, really, isn’t very far.
In both cases I think a certain degree of straining for quality and amplifying alleged positive aspects beyond their reality is happening. With American Assassin, no one felt the need to do so. It’s a film that can much more readily and easily be dismissed by audiences and critics because it doesn’t carry the same cultural clout as a superhero juggernaut name-dropping buzz themes swirling through the popular discourse of contemporary gender politics, even if it does so in a surprisingly retrograde fashion. Split was praised for its suspenseful technique and structure, as well as its approach to mental illness, trauma, and feminism (again with the popular buzz topics).
Split hinges on the assumption that in order for a woman to survive in the modern world, she needs to know certain hostile realities about men. Our protagonist, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, doing the best she can with what little she’s given), is considered an awkwardly uncool outsider by her much more hip, and therefore ignorant, companions. Casey is an introvert, and awkward; a painful caricature of a tumblr profile, which we learn is because she was sexually abused as a child by a much older family member. Her childhood trauma has taught her some harsh realities about the world: namely regarding men and violence against women. She’s resourceful and able to overcome her trauma, even turning it into a strength with which she can beat our mutiple-personalitied James McAvoy. It sounds and looks like a pretty cool bit of female empowerment, embracing contemporary discourse on abuse and trauma. Discussion of rape culture, trigger warnings, trauma, and mental illness makes Split a timely work, and on the surface it might appear to be quite the feminist and PTSD manifesto. The response from audiences and critics alike tend to praise its feminism, while pushing back, to varying degrees, on its presentation of mental illness.
I won’t begin to broach the topic of mental illness in this film, other than to say it does a bad job. By which I mean, I don’t need scientific accuracy. But I need something that strategically works within its own cinematic world in order to speak to some broader real-world truth, and Split doesn’t deliver. But it doesn’t deliver on its feminism either for the simple reason that Casey’s experience depends completely on her being abused.
Casey’s fellow prisoners, Claire (Hailey Lu Richardson) & Marcia (Jessica Sula), are essentially helpless. They’re ignorant, weak, and don’t ever do anything except be leered at by the camera in their fashionable clothes that accentuate both their sex appeal and their vulnerability. They’re victims from the start and because they don’t like Casey, the film cuts us off from ever caring about them. They’re stock slasher film throwaway victims, mere props for spectacular slaughter rather than dynamic, fully-formed characters. That their deaths aren’t as drawn out or gratuitous as we find in endless numbers of slasher films doesn’t really make up for their narrative and thematic function: they’re disposable, designed to die as a lesson in ignorance–to the point of slut-shaming and victim blaming. After all, if you hadn’t been so concerned with fashion, you’d have something more practical on, because of course you’re supposed to always dress like you’re gonna get kidnapped by a mentally ill sexual predator.
More than that, they die precisely because they’re ignorant to the alleged cruel realities life imposes on women. If only they’d known how bad it can be! How could they have known? They had clothes to buy and selfies to take; there’s no time to be sexually abused by a family member as a child, like Casey, which thankfully enlightened her to life’s cruelty. The key to preventing future sexual assault is to first be assaulted. It’s completely, ludicrously insulting and degrading to women. It’s a double-standard, where the story can condemn sexual abuse, while suggesting that such abuse is the only, or at least the best way, a woman can empower herself. But then it essentially gaslights Casey by saying her trauma is actually a strength. Which, well, doesn’t sound feminist at all.
Even framing it as “this is how life is,” as my prior paragraph did is incorrect. Life needn’t be this way. It’s not a given or absolute. There’s little attention to the role of patriarchy as an ideological force over-determining the world. That’s conveniently absent, replaced by a man whose primary characteristic is his mental illness. Not an especially good move when people with mental illness are in fact much more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. It’s a nice deflection technique, shifting the focus away from patriarchy and systems privileging men over women, and onto mental illness. And while horror operates on anomalies, and inexplicable deviations within “reality,” Split‘s flattened approach turns a potentially promising basic premise into a terribly exploitative portrait of trauma, where the trauma is essential and necessary to your survival. If you aren’t traumatized and abused, then you’re ignorant and will be killed. Survival requires trauma, as if survival was the basic framework of a woman’s lived experience, rather than being simply life.
This is not to say that trauma can’t offer experience and sources of strength. Many survivors attest to gaining valuable insight from their experiences. And, yes, trauma and difficulty can be turned to strengths, offering experience and knowledge to help navigate our strange and often hostile world. But the film’s broad-stroked approach fails to sufficiently develop a metaphor or parable that functions beyond a cruelly shallow level. There’s no nuance. Casey is one-dimensionally resourceful, her “friends” one-dimensionally helpless. Paper-thin women whose function is to be terrorized and killed, or terrorized in order to survive. It’s a narrow, gross world view that thinks it’s one thing, but actually is another. Deeply disingenuous and dishonest, in many cases only highlighting the ignorance of its creator, Shyamalan, who has the male luxury to be ignorant and survive to make more insufferably pretentious, shallow films awash in well-worn gimmicks and platitudes. And then he ruins Unbreakable as well. Goodness. He’s like the U2 of filmmakers (which is giving him too much credit), where his current work is so shitty that even sticking to the old stuff can’t get you away from the smell. You gotta just abandon the whole thing.
And then there’s Wonder Woman–the massively successful DC entry that everyone wanted. Why did they want it? Well, because we haven’t had a contemporary superhero film with a female lead. And we haven’t had one directed by a woman. And all of DC’s other films have mega-sucked, and DC has long had a sexism problem (not that Marvel doesn’t have one; it does: that leering dude bro kissing moment in Civil War–maximum yikes). So a lot was riding on Wonder Woman; big expectations, big hopes, and so much future money to be made.
By all accounts it was a smashing, complete success. Raked in the cash, the reviews, the everything. Women everywhere praised its feminism, praised director Patty Jenkins’ direction, went on and on at how ungazey it was, how toweringly tough Diana (played terrifically by Gal Gadot) was. She was a combat badass, yet loved babies. Her weapon is mostly a shield (wow! defense rather than offense, which isn’t actually true because the shield enables violence over and over again). She’s a warrior for love! But she also throws tantrums that slaughter people for no reason. And the supposed villain, who she fights and kills, turns out to not be the actual villain and there was no need to kill that guy (a point we never return to or interrogate, because killing stock evil Germans is still one of the great uninterrogated bits of wallpapering spectacle of slaughter left to Hollywood). Wonder Woman is basically Hacksaw Ridge: a self-proclaimed pacifist film that endorses violence against a demonic Other by way of divine right. But now with women! Yay! It’s a rush to the bottom, where instead of asking us to rise above the baser aspects of human nature–hatred & violence–which the film is saying it opposes, but really just wants to be allowed to commit those very atrocities in an equal opportunity fashion. It’s the ultimate display of Sheryl Sandberg lean-in feminism: white, corporate, imperialist. A movie proclaiming itself to be about love or violence can’t also have this much un-interrogated violence slathered across the screen. It’s saying one thing, and showing another, which is nasty to the visual form of cinema, and–more importantly–to its audience, of whom it doesn’t think too highly.
The problem here is that for all the gushing praise of its progressive feminism, it’s, well, not that progressive, or feminist. In part, because it can’t be. This is big budget blockbuster economics. You can’t take many risks. You gotta play it real careful, because to really push would be to alienate much of your needed audience. We saw that with Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, where to radically revamp the beloved male establishment is met with vitriolic torrents of sexist fragile masculinity. The revolt against Ghostbusters had little to do with any shortcomings in the film’s craft–and there are some real shortcomings there–and had more or less everything to do with the remake’s perceived perversion and feminization–dare I say, emasculation–of a beloved male classic. It didn’t matter that the cast of the original Ghostbusters all endorsed the remake (it shouldn’t matter that they did or didn’t–remakes needn’t happen only with the blessing of the ‘original’ artists–but as the arguments decrying the original often pointed to the original cast, for the naysayers, it clearly mattered a lot what Murray, Ackroyd, and Hudson thought–did Weaver’s opinion matter?). It didn’t matter that the original actually had its own blaring shortcomings–the EPA as villain? Really? Ghost blowjobs? Really? The entire push-back centered on the film’s female cast. As if Shakespeare had never happened. As if Battlestar Galactica didn’t already rewrite the beloved Starbuck character as a woman, and thus make the character infinitely better than its predecessor. Galactica, furthermore, gave space and voice to more women than the original series. The attack on Ghostbusters and other similar examples, reveal a selective tunnel vision at work among the dissidents that only exposes the entrenched sexism within our culture, while–less importantly–also revealing inanely stunted notions of adaptation, remake and the ever-evolving world of artistic creation and industry. This is what Wonder Woman was up against, facing massive pressure to be a success, in a landscape no one wanted to admit stacked the odds against it. So Wonder Woman needed to play a very careful cultural, creative, and business game. And it absolutely succeeded at that game, but not by being overly honest.
I recently attended a conversation lecture at Utah Valley University by renowned culture critic bell hooks, wherein she made the amusingly lovely remark that “Wonder Woman should have been called Wonder Woman Meets Steve“. Sounds like a flippant quip, right? Something for a laugh, right? Low-hanging fruit perhaps? This would be a fair criticism of her comment if the resounding, overwhelming, consuming response from critics and audiences hadn’t insisted that Wonder Woman was the most immense leap forward in female empowerment and representation E V E R. And what’s central to that praise is how Diana isn’t beholden to any man–she does what she wants. And the movie isn’t objectifying. At least those are the shorthand claims. And yet. This is still a film in which a woman basically ditches her homeland to follow a hot guy into a fray, where she joins up with other dudes, who get to remark how they’re both “frightened and aroused” by Diana, and everyone notes her beauty (over and over). And Diana still needs to have a relationship with Steve. The depiction of that relationship might be better done than in other superhero films, but as a plot point and narrative device, this is classic gendered structuring. Steve saves the day (also not terrible in itself) and Diana’s reaction is to slaughter a bunch of wallpaper German soldiers without consequence (quite terrible). Guess she’s not here for Love after all? Or she is, but that love is for Steve and “women and children”; you know, that super progressive classic line stemming from, eh, chivalric, chauvinistic patriarchy.
Love is, according to many of Diana’s actions and the film’s visual language, not for faceless masses of German soldiers who are not even the primary villain of the piece–as Diana now knows. At no point does she or the film interrogate this major misstep. But it comes close enough for complexity to be confused with incoherence. If you focus simply on her character, where Diana believes she can overcome evil by killing the primary villain, only to realize that’s incorrect, then it’s an interesting bit of character development and internal conflict. But her external actions remain grounded in killing people, who she now knows don’t need or deserve to be killed. At least, she would know that if she (and the film) didn’t still consider them disposable props, non-human cannon fodder. The film only marginally tries to correct this by reframing our villainous scientist as someone to be pitied rather than feared–a pity that stems from her physical facial deformity. Yikes as that bit of physical shaming, that is compounded by the attention to Chris Pine and Gal Gadot’s beauty–they’re both “above average,” unlike our villains.
While I’m thinking about what it means to love people, remember when the film threw secretaries under the bus for the sake of a joke? Or women getting the vote? These are jokes designed for audiences and filmmakers to pat themselves on the back for being so much more progressive and enlightened than those earlier generations. This is the shallowest acknowledgement of gender disparity and sexism, of the 1910s or today, and it mostly is there as a convenient foil in which the film can position itself as the enlightened product of the Liberated Woman (written by a man, of course).
This applies to costuming, as well. Diana is baffled by the bulky old dresses of the era, which are restricting and impractical. She finds something more her speed, which, indeed she wears magnificently while looking cutting edge for the time. This is mostly fine, because it adds to her mobility to move in and out of gendered spaces freely, and Diana walking around in a room full of dudes like she belongs there is one of the more effective jabs in the film. However, if the impractical restrictions of women’s clothing is what’s being scoffed at, then I’m a little confused why contemporary Diana is sporting the pencil skirt? There are reasons why that would make sense–women can wear whatever they want, and wearing restrictive and form-fitting clothes isn’t inherently bad or anti-feminist, but the film never really deals with it. The fashion comment rests more in the very deliberate emphasis on the most ludicrous fashion choices available in order to juxtapose archaic symbols of female oppression and sexism with the liberated enlightenment of our modern day, in which most women’s jeans still doesn’t have real pockets. It’s a wonky, muddled attempt at audience deception more than genuine critical engagement with culture, history, and the characters’ own journeys.
But audiences swallowed this wholeheartedly, without much interrogation. At virtually every turn, audiences gave the film a pass. Some of the most common defenses actually are easy deflections–red herrings designed to villainize other works rather than properly interrogate this one. “Well, the Joss Whedon script was super sexist!” Fair enough. But that’s irrelevant to assessing Heinberg’s script used for the film. Stay focused on Heinberg’s script, wherein all of the aforementioned examples exist. “Well, this is the first superhero movie by a woman! You can’t expect it to be perfect!” No, I don’t. That’s not what I’m demanding. But it does seem that audiences need it to be if not perfect at least impervious to serious critique, with any criticisms against the film small potatoes and irrelevant against all the great things it does. Eh, no. Some criticisms are small potatoes. Example: the alleged devastating chemical agent that’ll destroy everything and is so much worse than mustard gas, doesn’t actually look worse than mustard gas. Chris Pine sucks a bit down, coughs a little and then clears out. Mustard gas woulda melted his guts. So the bomb doesn’t seem all that terrible really. That’s a small criticism. A large criticism is that the movie basically liberates white women to participate in the American colonial project. To which I will return to bell hooks, who rightly stated “you can’t be pro-women and pro-war.” Because women are always the most severely brutalized in warfare. And Wonder Woman is a movie drawing on the rich heritage of American colonial war films.
It’s fair to suggest that Wonder Woman, as a superhero film, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with actual warfare, and that the entire thing operates as a metaphor for something else rather than a concrete commentary on and endorsement of war. And yet, the film goes to certain lengths to suggest precisely that. And the history of Wonder Woman is overly political in nature. Wonder Woman, similar to Superman, is an extension of America. Lots of these comics originate as anti-fascist narratives, where Nazis are the villains, and America, by way of these superheros, is the hero out to vanquish the evils of the world–which it does in part by positioning itself as a threatened nation who now needs to defend itself. You know, with a shield. And then a sword and whip. Diana’s primary weapon, like Captain America’s, is often her shield–a protective, defensive tool. Lots has been made of this. We see it as defensive, because Wonder Woman defends goodness, and protects people. That’s virtuous, right? That’s not the tool of the violent aggressor. Except she uses the shield to then enable British soldiers to aggressively attack and overrun the German forces. It’s a terrifically staged sequence. Shot and cut quite well. But it’s also basically PG-13 war porn, where swaths of Germans are rapidly killed, without blinking or reflecting on the human slaughter. This isn’t particularly emblematic of an advocate of peace. She just doesn’t actually shoot the gun. It’s a Lewis Bloom kind of violence from Nightcrawler, where he successfully manipulates people and elements around him to cause destructive and horrific violence to undeserving peoples. He’s at a remove, and therefore escapes blame. But he absolutely is exploiting crisis in order to cause further harm, and thus preserve his job. Wonder Woman does this same thing, exhibiting less interest in human life than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, wherein the debate about violence for the greater good is tackled head on. The Terminator is designed to destroy. And yet young John Connor emphatically denies the Terminator this right. So The Terminator switches tactics, immobilizing opponents rather than killing them (something cops might wanna try someday when stopping people of color). Even Miles Dyson, the man instrumental in designing Skynet and inciting Judgement Day, gets a bit of a pass. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor believes he must be killed to save the future. John and the Terminator move to prevent her from doing so. And it’s in no small part because of the horror in the faces of Miles’ wife and kids that ultimately keep Sarah from killing him. So, like Diana, Sarah is moved by the women and children–the inherently innocent, according to this particular brand of sexism–but unlike Diana, Sarah actually puts down her weapons of war, and attempts a different solution to the problem. Dyson still dies, which is convenient to the film’s intent and thus presents a possible contradiction wherein the film pulls a mild Louis Bloom on us. But it’s a much more interesting engagement with the problem inherent to stories shaped around violence, as action & superhero movies are. Some of the superhero films within the Marvel universe have grappled somewhat with the question of violence, with varying success. To date, none of the DC universe films have done so with any success. And this is central to Wonder Woman‘s success.
The DC universe has been stagnating. The films aren’t good. They’re not succeeding with audiences or critics remotely to the degree Marvel’s universe is. One of the recurring issues within the reception of these films is that they’re unnecessarily violent without conscience. Man of Steel showed massive obliterating destruction and mass casualties that the film never stopped to interrogate. The killing Zod wasn’t the main issue, though that stirred a lot of chatter and discussion. That’s less interesting or important to me than Superman’s complicity in annihilating civilians. Batman v Superman didn’t fare much better, with Ben Affleck’s crusty sad Batman running over people in the batmobile, because . . . he’s old and numb I guess? And the utterly useless killing off of Jimmy Olsen, which Zack Snyder explained as poorly as one could:
“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”
Uh, cool? No. And not because of fidelity and history. I don’t believe one needs to hold onto characters in adaptations just because the original has them, even when they are important characters. You can rework these things and eliminate some people. Casino Royale worked like crazy, precisely because it deviated so drastically from key aspects of the Bond franchise–Moneypenny wasn’t there, the gadgets were largely absent, for example. The Lord of the Rings lacked Tom Bombadil, a sad loss, but makes sense within the world and narrative pursued by Jackson’s trilogy. Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining dramatically reworks its source material, taking the film in directions the book does not. Certainly that one rubs the wrong way with a lot of fans (and, famously, King himself). But even King, along with numerous fans and critics, concedes that Kubrick’s film is a tremendous one. So, no, we needn’t keep Jimmy Olsen in the film’s lineup. But where this goes wrong is that his murder becomes casual spectacle in the name of “fun.” The pragmatic decision to write him out of the world is clumsily added as background noise in an action sequence–a disposable death that no one noticed until the credits rolled.
So Snyder has some figurative blood on his hands regarding his treatment of Jimmy Olsen. But, perhaps more importantly here, the audience only cared because they knew who Jimmy was, and were then upset that such a favored character was treated so poorly. Had Jimmy not been Jimmy, but instead some rando, no one would have noticed or cared. That dude’s death would not have mattered, except as a function of violent spectacle. But because we “knew” him (only because of the comics, not because he was anything in this specific cinematic world) we are bothered by how poorly the creators treated him. By extension, Jimmy’s unimportant death is fun not just for Snyder & co., but it’s fun at the expense of the very audience they claim to respect. Therein are the filmmakers unnecessarily and unjustifiably cruel and disingenuous to their audience, their fans.
The anonymity of superhero cannon-fodder is a frequent problem in these films, and Wonder Woman is absolutely no exception. But because there isn’t a Jimmy Olsen lurking in the crowd, and the victims are part of a familiar narrative trope–Evil Nazis, er, Germans? Which War are we in again?–no one stops to question what’s happening. Diana doesn’t even stop to question this. She moves on through very easily. The Jimmy Olsen equivalent in Wonder Woman would probably be, the horribly named, The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). The casually racist name is one thing–where everyone will defend this racism as being historically accurate, while demanding we skirt past all the other historical inaccuracies because this is a superhero movie–but more significant for my purposes here, is his one moment of “characterization” when talking with Diana. It’s here revealed that Chief’s own people were wiped out by Steve’s people, white Europeans. This is designed to illustrate the cyclical violence between peoples while also creating some complexity between Diana and her opinion of Steve. The scene largely is to service people who are not Chief or Native populations–it’s for the colonial force represented by Steve and Diana, and crafted by Heinberg and Jenkins to their own comfort. And the issue is never returned to. Diana gets over this potential problem with Steve and his heritage exactly when the scene ends. The general response I’ve seen to this is, well, it’s bold for them to have brought it up at all. This is deflective white nonsense, that forgets an entire history of white nonsense regarding Native peoples and their extermination by white colonial invaders, which has been documented over and over throughout the history of American cinema. The allegedly racist films of the American Western have often done a far superior job of addressing this issue. Hell, the lackluster Hidalgo did a better job, and that flick is embarrassing. It’s as if Dances with Wolves, the whitest movie about Natives ever, never happened.
Now, part of this is optics and narrative space. I’m throwing around films that focus much more specifically on Native American history than Wonder Woman. So it would make sense to say that they can do a better job because they have more space. This is a fair point. Compression and short-hand is absolutely a tactic used by every narrative. So the problem isn’t so much that there is one tiny scene, and that Chief is largely sidelined after that (though that’s a thing for sure), but that the scene operates as hollow dramatics within its own narrative. This is drama as plot-point, but only just barely. As earlier stated: Diana gives Steve a wary look after hearing Chief’s words, but by the very next scene she is back to liking him as she did and never again does the issue come up or create any difficulty between characters or with the story’s trajectory. And it most certainly doesn’t get Diana to question whether or not the Allied forces are in the right or if the Germans might be not monolithically Evil. I would say this presents a flaw in her character, but the film never really does that either. It does nothing with that scene, because its singular function was only for the duration of the scene, with no resonating connection to the film as a whole. Alienation effect. Isolated incidents without impact or consequence. Capitalist Imperialism in its finest form. As if acknowledging that Europeans killed some Natives one time is sufficient treatment of the past and the present.
I’ve belabored the point I think. Wonder Woman keeps telling us it cares about women, feminism, love, and peace. But it cares in that message only as far as a cheap meme on pinterest. But this one is way longer, costs way more money, and doesn’t actually believe the shit its peddling anyway. And herein may be the difference between it and American Assassin: both essentially hold the same ideological position, but only one of them is honest enough regarding that position to unashamedly, without apology, state exactly where it stands. The other one is a superhero juggernaut too afraid, and too beholden to corporate, financial interests to be sincere.
From a technical, craftsmanship, and performance standpoint, American Assassin is a facile, bland effort. It tries to build on the supreme staging, choreography and kinetic interplay of actors and camera of sublimely superior films like John Wick, Dredd, and Atomic Blonde. The extended takes, featuring camera movement rather than cuts, sometimes almost work. But this is a crew of filmmakers without the imagination, resources, and skill to match those films–all three of which also do not hide what they are, nor do they apologize for it. But they also do, each in its way, offer some introspection or complex character dynamics that offer thematic dimension on top of formal excellence. In this respect, they fit alongside such seemingly disparate films as Kevin Costner’s Open Range, basically everything by George Romero, and the great works of Dario Argento. Romero quite famously asserted that Night of the Living Dead “doesn’t lie to you” about what it is. And that integrity traverses a range of difficulty. But again, these are work of also superior craft, on top of creator integrity. American Assassin might have the latter (kind of?), but it absolutely doesn’t have the former.
And quite frankly, it’s a cheaper attempt at offering the firm conviction of John Wick or Open Range. Dylan O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp (a name that can’t even compete with Dirk Pitt, Jack Ryan, or Jack Bauer, but really wants to). Rapp is a Nice-Guy-turned-Militant-Alt-Righter (aka American Patriot) wherein his disposable dead girlfriend serves as the sole justification for becoming an irresponsible douche bro convinced that the ends always justify the means. He carelessly gets in fights with people at the gym, is a hazard at the gun range, and even after all his so-called training and learning to believe in and fight for the higher cause espoused by Michael Keaton’s bland Stan Hurley (what are these names, my dudes?) he takes off on his own to eliminate an Iranian General set to become the new leader of Iran. The closing shot of O’Brien’s eyes looking at us as the elevator doors close, signalling the impending death by American-sanctioned vigilantism, is the most nihilistic interpretation of Nietzsche’s abyss staring back at you in modern cinema. A circling back to the irresponsibility of the opening scenes, but now with some degree of American government approval. It’s terrifyingly irresponsible, but a perfect portrait of Millennial far-right conservativism. Does Stephen Miller dream of American Assassin? I don’t know, but that 32-year-old Nazi sympathizer, living in the body of a 50-year-old man, certainly envies O’Brien’s dead-eyed monolithic worldview.
In contrast, a film like John Wick offers a brutal revenge tale that might seem similar, but distinctly different not only in the more contained and fictional world it creates, but also through strategically effective backstory and developments that give Wick a more believable motive than Rapp. It’s not just the dog and the dead wife. It’s a sense of loss. Rapp’s girlfriend is killed as catalyst to irresponsible action violence. Wick’s wife isn’t killed in the world, but is killed by the film. The difference gives Wick room as a character, while still giving us some man pain. But it’s a pain rendered more human, felt through the absence of the actual person, while seeing and hearing that person in the ordinary world around you–an alarm clock, a coffee cup, and then a puppy. So Wick flounders. He has no focus, no purpose. Suicide becomes an option, but he can’t commit. And this, we later learn, is completely foreign to his character, who is focused and deliberate, a cold functionality to his hitman work. Wick had left the underworld and his criminal past behind, buried under concrete. Yet when trauma hits, the concrete containing the darker past and personality within Wick is crushed. The classy sophistication of the underworld, with its house rules, gold coins, and tailored suits is the glossy veneer of “civilized men,” which Wick himself refutes with the snarling growl, “Do I look civilized to you?” Certainly we’re cheering Wick to victory, but because we’re outside the real world, the film operates more parabolically and metaphorically. What appears to be all surface and no substance, has some depth and heft within all that gorgeous lighting and kinetic gun-fu. After all, the symmetrical framing of the opening shots of his wife collapsing and the closing shots of him walking away with his rescued pitbull give a nice connecting harmony. He had recovered, passed through grief and emerged victorious and with a new pet. And yet, the warm lighting of the opening has been replaced by cooler lighting and darker silhouettes that evoke the closing images of Shane or Unforgiven. Certainly we’ve passed through the figurative and literal rainstorm, as the water reflections indicate. But the darkness remains. Something has been lost in the finding, and Wick walks away from us in a rather classic gunfighter-leaving-town way, suggesting a complicated form of resolution, healing, and damnation.
This finish, however, only works if we disregard the second chapter, which severely undercuts my reading. The second film loses its way almost completely, lapsing into gratuitously unnecessary violence (amidst some commendable action sequences), and implausible character action–the tipping point of the second film, killing someone on Continental grounds, makes little sense compared to the first film–Wick has rage, but he is “a man of focus.” If his dead wife isn’t enough for him to break that focus in the first chapter, it hardly seems plausible that he would deviate under less dire circumstances. And therein crumbles the whole thing.
O’Brien’s Rapp has no such motivation or focus. He’s a boy who sees being wronged by random violence as justification to do whatever he wants. He has no such focus, and no justification. And this is compounded by a film ostensibly taking place in the real world with real nations and peoples, which are here depicted with staggering one-dimensional demonization. But, the film believes this characterization firmly and completely. It never undercuts or complicates this conviction in the rightness of America and the wrongness of the “Enemy.” If that singular honesty is anywhere compromised it’s in the cliched reveal of an American operative as primary villain. But that, too, seems to conform completely to America’s nagging fixation on Lone Wolf, Bad Apple, individuals in regards to its own. Iranians are sweepingly villainized. Americans, well, there’s this one Bad Apple, but the rest of us are good and right. The logic doesn’t hold up at all, but it’s a perfect depiction of American ideological conservatism. No question. No one hides behind claims of love, or bullshit nods to some facile depiction of feminism, or tries to tell you that this is a movie of female empowerment, only achievable through female victimization. No. It’s not hiding. It’s staring you right in the face and it doesn’t blink.
It’s hard to then say which is more dangerous. And that might not be the most important point anyway. After all, I find both positions pretty abhorrent. But my job as an educator has revealed something about me: I value honesty. I care about it very much. Because you can work with that. There’s a clear position, of where you are, your intent, and your goals. My freshmen write argumentative papers about a range of topics, and at least 50% of the time I disagree with their position. But I cannot argue the integrity, rhetorical quality, and critical rigor of a well-argued paper, that knows what it is, goes for it, and upholds honest intent and diligent research. When papers begin to fall flat, it’s often because the argument is undercooked (lacking formal quality) and/or disingenuous in its treatment of the topic (dishonest).
Offering a strategic ploy, such as in Wonder Woman, is a little harder to pin down, because I’m not sure what any of its creators might stand for. The movie says it has firm convictions, but it doesn’t show them. The only visible conviction I see is to makes mountains of cash. I have no doubt that Jenkins and the rest would take severe issue with that claim, and they would perhaps have good grounds for doing so. But I stand by it, believing that ultimately the money is the primary fruit of this labor, with the benefits—and there are some, because folks have legitimately felt empowered and encouraged by the film—secondary to the primary goal of corporate imperialism that Hollywood has long been partnered with. Wonder Woman is primarily a cash grab, willing to use women, Natives, history, and a beloved comic book character in the service of that primary goal. I don’t see Split as anything but a floundering director desperate to recover past glory, and he’ll plunder women, mental illness, and his own past successes to get it. American Assassin wants to make money, because that’s the business and it has no problem with that business. It doesn’t hide what it is: an unwavering declaration of American patriotism against a world of evil terrorist nations intent on destroying America.
Consequently, American Assassin received poorer reviews, which I find largely accurate in assessing the film’s ideology and craft. But this is a film easy to dismiss and pan. Wonder Woman not so much. Critics need to play their own game in relation to Hollywood’s game. They had been massively criticized by DC fans for unfairly panning DC films while favoring Marvel films. Without siding too much with the DC dude bros, because they absolutely aren’t my scene, and their anger at critics has a lot of barely masked beta male 4chan sexism and anti-intellectualism. But it’s fair to claim critics have often played it safe regarding Marvel films, leaning towards praise rather than criticism, whereas they lean toward disfavor with DC. Rightly, DC has been criticized for its sexism, misogyny, and irresponsible violence. Wrongly, Marvel has gotten a frequent pass on that front. Yes, overall the Marvel films are better and do a better job than DC, but they aren’t as drastically better as reviews and audience response believe. They’re frequently better crafted, which can improve content and substance, but only so far.
With Wonder Woman, DC figured out how to better play the game. They pulled from the Marvel book, and delivered quite the tokenizing feature to illustrate how culturally aware and progressive they are, all while throwing that very demographic under the proverbial bus. Critics and audiences swallowed it completely, not seeing how Wonder Woman is saying much the same thing as American Assassin: To love is to kill the perceived offending force. And by accepting that belief, we become the citizens of Rome fawning over Commodus:
“He’ll bring them death, and they will love him for it.”