The moment DC announced that Wonder Woman, seventy-six years after her first appearance in the pages of DC’s All-Star Comics, would finally get to star in a film of her own, a part of me began silently dreading the release date. The previous DC Extended Universe films under Zack Snyder’s creative direction failed to impress me, and I knew I wasn’t alone in that regard; fans and critics have been giving DC’s cinematic endeavors grief since the underwhelming Man of Steel arrived in theaters in 2013, and last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice became the subject of much mockery and derision. Poor Wonder Woman, who so desperately deserved a chance to shine on the big screen, seemed set to follow the dismal path of her male predecessors. Had things turned out badly, I was prepared to heave a jaded sigh and simply turn my head.
Well. Today, more than a week into Wonder Woman’s theatrical run, record-breaking box office returns and oodles of critical praise (I still maintain that the Tomatometer mustn’t be taken at face value, but 93% fresh is nothing at which to sneeze) have made it abundantly clear that things have not turned out badly. Even if Wonder Woman still falls prey to some of the foibles common to its genre – broad-strokes characterization, oversimplification of complex real-life problems, heavy reliance on action and spectacle, and so on – something is obviously better this time around. But what?
I know I’m not the only (or even the first) writer to have a run at this question, but I thought it worthwhile to jot down my thoughts while my head was still abuzz with some measure of excitement. I enjoyed the movie – I really, truly did, far more than I enjoyed Man of Steel and Batman V Superman – and I believe that my enjoyment can be boiled down to two primary factors, two significant ways in which Wonder Woman distinguishes itself from the first two films of the DCEU.
The first factor is tone.
Terror, Triumph, and “Realism”
My biggest complaints about the previous DC Extended Universe films had mostly to do with their downbeat atmosphere. Man of Steel, for instance, was a dreary affair, its characters as dull and moody as its color palette was muted. Worst of all were its action scenes. Thrilling as they were, they seemed to revel in the widespread destruction the battling heroes and villains created: we saw skyscrapers crumbling, clouds of dust enveloping the camera, panicked civilians fleeing for their lives – often not fleeing fast enough. They bore little resemblance to the clean, stylized combat of Marvel’s comic book flicks. Even Christopher Nolan’s grim, grounded Batman films leavened their scenes of violence with touches of action-movie panache (who in the theater didn’t stand up and cheer when the Batpod overturned the Joker’s stolen semi in The Dark Knight?). By contrast, the overwhelming impression that Superman’s urban brawl with Zod left upon the viewer was not wonder or excitement, but simple horror.
The filmmakers’ intent, as I understand it, was to aim for realism, to strip the superhero tale of its romance and show how terrifying a superpower smackdown would be if it took place off the pages of a comic book. To that noble aim I have no objection. Perhaps a cold dash of “realism” (or something close to it) is even a necessary antidote to our contemporary fixation with comic-book heroics – a chance to reflect on the problematic aspects of one of our culture’s biggest entertainment juggernauts. But in robbing Superman’s story of its romance, Snyder robbed it of any appeal at all. The absence of joy and wonder and the abundant brooding and violence alienated audiences from the hero they loved and left them wondering why they ever cared for him in the first place. Man of Steel was a film that doubted its own hero and invited viewers to do the same; is it any wonder it left fans cold?
What Wonder Woman offers is an antidote to the antidote, as it were – a conscious reaction against Man of Steel’s pessimism – and nowhere is this better on display than in the “No Man’s Land” scene about midway through the film. Having been led into the trenches of World War I in search of the war god Ares, Diana (Gal Gadot, not yet truly Wonder Woman) hears from frightened civilians of a captive village on the other side of the German trenches, where innocent women and children are in danger. Her companions tell her repeatedly that there’s nothing to be done, that no one can brave the gunfire to cross the No Man’s Land that separates the trenches. But Diana is not to be dissuaded; her compassion has been awakened, and without hesitation she climbs out of the trench.
What follows are some of the most riveting minutes of action cinema I’ve seen in years. The music swells as she ascends. She sheds her cloak, revealing the bright colors of her iconic costume, shining in the sun. She charges the German lines. Bullets bounce off her shield. Soldiers rally behind her, inspired by her courage, and together they storm the enemy trenches and make their way to the village. Diana’s movements are gorgeously choreographed, graceful but strong, and stylishly shot with a generous helping of slow-motion. Her main theme pounds on the soundtrack, punctuating her strikes. When it’s all over, a crowd of grateful townsfolk erupts into applause. Diana smiles – a warm, earnest smile. Wonder Woman has saved the day. It’s triumphant and bombastic and gratifying – “heroic” in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
This would all be for naught if the film shied away from depicting violence and suffering in a serious manner, but director Patty Jenkins is wise enough not to fall into that trap. The camera never hesitates to show soldiers hobbling home from the front, faces scarred and burned from mustard gas attacks. Charlie, one of Diana’s companions, is visibly shell-shocked from the long grind of the war, and no simplistic Hollywood psychology is applied to solve his deep-seated issues. Even the innocent villagers Diana rescues from the Germans are not exempt from the horrors of the Great War, as we see a little later, undermining some of the joy of her victory. Yet what is remarkable (and so very appealing) about Wonder Woman is that, in the face all this darkness, the film remains unafraid to celebrate Diana’s simple virtues of compassion, valor, and the defense of the weak, or to revel in the eucatastrophic joy of our heroine’s victories just as much as Man of Steel reveled in its hero’s destructive capabilities. All of humanity, every aspect of lived experience, is on display here, not just the ugly, unhappy bits.
My suspicion is that, for their first two films, at least, DC had fallen prey to the belief that stories which are “realistic” must be uniformly dour. This is understandable as a reaction against historical trends in superhero storytelling (comic books have long depicted worlds too sunny and sanitized to be believable), but it leads to another, equally perilous kind of mental trap. For the filmmakers, packing gloom, terror, and little else into their films and selling them as “realistic” is tantamount to claiming that even simple virtues like joy aren’t fit to be depicted in art because they don’t “really” exist. Wonder Woman merely provides the next logical step in this long-running artistic dialectic by zooming out, refusing to focus only on one side of the coin. Here is a film that can make us laugh or weep (just like real life), that can make us cheer for joy or reel back in horror (just like real life); it “admits the exhilaration as well as the terror” inherent in the heroic narrative, to borrow a phrase C.S. Lewis once applied to the novels of G.K. Chesterton. The impression Jenkins has created is of a world richer, deeper, more robust than the monochrome reality of Man of Steel – not more “realistic,” precisely, but (and we can sense this somehow) much truer to life.
Another noticeable difference in tone between Wonder Woman and its predecessors is the presence of humor where previously there had been none. Working only from memory, I can count on one hand the number of moments in either of Snyder’s films that seemed intended to provoke laughter; every scene was smothered in gravitas and gloom, as though the filmmakers were afraid that viewers wouldn’t take them seriously if the characters didn’t sound serious. The few moments of levity that shone through were, like the rest of the film, mild and muted: Lois Lane’s interview with Superman in Man of Steel has one or two lines that might get a chuckle; some of Lex Luthor’s antics in Batman V Superman were meekly, if awkwardly, amusing. But the overall impression those two films created was of a world populated by people who can barely crack a smile.
Compared to those two films’ screenplays (both penned by Christopher Nolan’s writing partner on the Dark Knight films, David S. Goyer), Wonder Woman’s script positively bubbles with mirth, thanks in large part to screenwriter Allan Heinberg’s wildly different approach to scene- and character-writing. For an illustration of what I mean, watch the scene where Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) awkwardly tries to work out sleeping arrangements as he and Diana sail from Themyscira on a small boat. Notice the missteps and verbal backtracking that make their exchange feel like a real conversation. Notice how each line conveys the speaker’s disposition without either character having to go on a motive rant. Notice, also, how long the scene runs. It’s longer than it needs to be if its only purpose was to establish certain plot points, but that’s not its purpose. It’s there to make us laugh, to help us get to know these people better, and to help them get to know each other. Now compare that to the stiff, stilted dialogue that pervades Man of Steel, where conversations serve only to establish plot points and bare-minimum characterization (see Clark discussing his newfound powers with his father) or to give characters a chance to wax eloquent about their motives (see Zod’s impromptu speech after his attempt to rebuild Krypton is thwarted), and the difference is one of night and day. The performances in DC’s films have always been strong, but Wonder Woman finally allows the actors (and the characters) enough breathing room to simply be themselves – and to let the viewers bask in their vibrant personalities.
Most importantly of all, the humor avoids falling off the opposite precipice and into the equally gloomy well of cynicism. Wonder Woman wants us to like, even respect, its characters, and they remain endearing even when the script pokes fun at them. We laugh at Diana – gently – when she tells the ice cream vendor that he ought to be proud of his craft (a scene lifted directly from the comics), when she mistakes 1910s women’s fashion for battle armor, and when she struggles valiantly to get the better of a revolving door. But the film does not make a fool of her. She is compassionate, it reminds us; she is dedicated; she is competent, even when her unfamiliarity with the modern world forces her to rely on Steve’s knowledge. And, thanks to the movie’s aforementioned faith in its heroine, we can believe that these qualities mean something. We laugh at our heroine for being a fish out of water, but we are never invited to laugh at her goodness.
But a brighter tone is not the only way Wonder Woman strikes out in a different direction from its predecessors. The second factor – and just as important, if somewhat less obvious – is the film’s handling of theme.
Christian Parallels and Moral Complexity
Among many other things, I seem to recall also that Man of Steel caught some flak for its overuse of blatant Christian symbolism. I can’t say I disagree with the critical consensus on this score; certain shots in that film felt rather like being clubbed over the head with a heavy crucifix (particularly the church scene, where the camera just couldn’t stop itself from juxtaposing Superman with a stained-glass depiction of Jesus praying in Gethsemane). Batman V Superman followed much the same path, what with its repeated likening of Kal-El to a deity and the ostensibly Christ-like sacrifice at the climax. Christian symbolism is on display in Wonder Woman, too, and, to be fair, it’s no less overt, but I’m prepared to argue that it’s handled better than it was with Superman.
An early scene establishes that a kind of Christian metanarrative is at the root of this world’s central conflict. The mythological backstory of Wonder Woman’s universe uses characters from Greek myth, most notably Zeus and Ares, but the creation story that Queen Hyppolyta tells her young daughter bears little resemblance to any classical myth. Here Zeus is recast as the benevolent creator of mankind, with Ares as his rebellious son, a corrupter and instigator of violence in what might otherwise have been a peaceful creation. The Christian echoes could hardly have been made louder without painting Ares’ horned helmet red and arming him with a pitchfork.
The Christian parallels don’t end there, though they do become a touch subtler. Diana’s single-minded quest to hunt down and destroy Ares, thinking his death will rid mankind of its self-destructive impulses, parallels certain strains of Christianity that place greater moral culpability on Satan than on the willful, disobedient humans whom the Bible holds chiefly responsible for the Fall. There’s a kind of naïve faith in the natural goodness of humanity that drives Diana onward, blinding her to the possibility that her mission is misguided. Late in the film (and I’ll speak in vague terms here to avoid spoilers) a moment comes when Wonder Woman is forced to confront the persistence of human ugliness even after she thinks she’s succeeded in destroying its source, and in this moment she comes face-to-face with a hard reality that no force of arms can overcome: humanity’s intrinsic tendency toward violence – or, as Christians call it, sin nature.
What sets Wonder Woman apart from DC/Warner Brothers’ previous installments is not the presence or absence of religious elements, therefore, but the superior depth of its execution. The Christian symbolism in Superman’s films left a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths precisely because it felt forced, tacked on; as others have noted, the similarities between Superman and Christ have always been superficial. Wonder Woman, however, makes matters of sin, suffering, and human nature into central threads of its protagonist’s development, all while refusing to offer tidy answers to such enormously complicated questions. Obviously some viewers won’t be especially keen on either flavor of Christian subtext. But, looking at Man of Steel’s shallow Christ-figuring on one hand and Wonder Woman’s serious consideration of a tough Biblical concept on the other, it’s easy to see why fans are more open the latter. It’s not deep stuff, not really, but it’s got substance where the previous movies had none.
Moreover, these religious threads aren’t dropped as the film builds toward its final, climactic confrontation. I’m not sure whether this particular difference accounts for Wonder Woman’s greater popularity with critics and fans, but I think it well worth mentioning that this new movie succeeds in one vital area where both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman fell flat on their faces, and that’s in the resolution of a genuinely compelling moral conflict.
The distinction I’m discussing here is most apparent when we compare Wonder Woman’s thematic conflict with the one Snyder and Goyer attempted in Batman V Superman. Last year’s film sets forth an interesting moral quandary by bringing up the complicated morality of Superman’s unilateral decision-making power. However good or trustworthy he may be, he acts without the consent of any world government and must be held accountable for his actions to someone, mustn’t he? This is a weighty question with implications not just for this one franchise, but for nearly all superhero fiction; it’s a question that forms the backbone of Alan Moore’s iconic deconstruction of the genre in Watchmen. But Snyder’s team sidesteps the debate altogether by allowing the narrative to deteriorate into a good-versus-evil brawl (Batman and Superman are RIGHT; Lex Luthor is WRONG) and slapping on a sentimental heroic sacrifice in place of a proper resolution, as though the film were trying to make viewers forget that it hasn’t even attempted to answer its own questions.
Wonder Woman, by contrast, resolves its story by doing what X-Men: Days of Future Past did so well three summers ago: it forces our heroine to make a decision, a decision with serious gravity and moral implications, and it allows her choice to flow organically from the development she’s received up to that point. Without getting into specifics, a disillusioned Wonder Woman faces a terrible temptation at the climax of the film and finds she must make a choice concerning humanity itself – our cruelty, our inevitable tendency toward violence, our worthiness to live, and how best a hero should approach a world so full of difficult, destructive, contradictory beings, with all of our worst traits embodied in the figure of villainous scientist Isabel Maru, Doctor Poison. A couple of admitted missteps hamper this resolution (most notably that murky, quasi-philosophical one-liner Diana utters upon making her ultimate decision), but the film makes up for it, more or less, with an ending narration that does a better job of summing up Wonder Woman’s unique approach to world-saving, ending the tale on something resembling a strong note.
The best superhero stories, I believe, are always the ones that present the hero with challenges no feats of physical strength can overcome. Superman needed only to best Zod and Doomsday in combat to save the day, but Wonder Woman makes the whole of human suffering and violence her adversary – and her ultimate answer to this challenge, while not exactly on par with the answers we might find in Dostoevsky or even Chesterton, is still more mature and nuanced than I felt I had any right to expect from a comic-book movie. Wonder Woman’s task, this film understands, is one for which no easy solution exists, no matter how many buildings she punches Ares through.
So! In the wake of its first real artistic triumph, what does DC have in store for Diana of Themyscira next? We know that she’s set to appear in Justice League, DC’s late-to-the-party answer to Marvel’s Avengers franchise. My great fear at this point is that poor Diana will lose the distinctiveness that gave her own film such (ahem) wonderful appeal as she’s absorbed back into the grim, strange, inconsistent world of the DCEU. But only time will tell. Whatever happens, I will remain grateful that she was allowed this moment to be herself: a shining little memento of the first (and, hopefully, not the only) time DC/Warner Brothers got it right.