The early reactions to Wonder Woman have arrived, and all seem to agree that Diana’s origin story is the DCEU’s first undisputed “success.” The common theme in the enthusiastic responses and micro-sized reviews isn’t easy to decipher: director Patty Jenkins delivered a film unlike the previous DC films. But where those critical of the DCEU for its ‘grim’ style are now praising Wonder Woman‘s change of tone as a move in the right direction, and a sign of what DC movies ‘should’ be, there’s one key fact being overlooked: Wonder Woman matters because she is supposed to be different. Both as a character, and an overall idea in the DCEU.
The same words are now being tossed around widely on social media, calling Wonder Woman exactly what the trailers promised: a hopeful, inspiring, and heroic story, in the truest sense of the words. And yes, that is undoubtedly closer to the desired takes on Superman, specifically, that many of DC’s critics have vocalized. What fans, critics, and audiences should realize is that there’s a case to be made that such a treatment is a faithful adaptation of Wonder Woman… specifically, all the things that make her something special among DC’s heroes.
And in the end, viewing Wonder Woman’s very first movie through the same lens applied to the world’s two best-known, well-traveled superheroes is comparing apples to oranges. Worst of all, it undercuts the reason Wonder Woman’s presence – in the Justice League, and the DCEU – is so important.
Man of Steel: A Modern Superman Story
To explain our argument here, let’s start at the start with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first chance those devoted to DC’s big blue Boy Scout had to declare WB, DC, and Snyder had “gotten Superman wrong.” It’s easy to see the case being made, since the fact Superman’s been around for the better part of a century establishes him as an unflappable symbol of timeless, faultless heroism. In that sense alone, the ‘idea’ of Superman is an ‘ideal,’ existing outside of and above the pettiness or darkness of our world. So when Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, and Christopher Nolan decided to examine how our modern world would react to Superman, that timeless veneer was shattered.
Still, Man of Steel gets at the heart of the best Superman stories in terms of its premise: he is special at birth, raised into a good man by Earth parents, emerges into the world as a guardian angel, and must defend all of humanity as he struggles to integrate his two selves, born of two worlds. But drop that story into our imperfect world, and it’s filled in with elements of xenophobia, government structures too big to fight, unwinnable scenarios, and the simple fact that sometimes ‘choosing one or the other’ leads to trauma, not closure.
We’ve previously explored the idea that Zack Snyder’s Superman struck a nerve with modern audiences, and the common complaint that this version simply feels wrong speaks to that idea. But there’s also the challenge the filmmakers faced: present the world’s oldest, best-known hero in a new, fresh, modern, and relevant way. Richard Donner’s Boy Scout had four films. Smallville brought that version into the modern world. Bryan Singer sought a return to that nostalgia and romance, but the studio didn’t see a future.
The only thing left to try was a Superman born into our world: one which views anything different with suspicion, regardless of its intent. Can Superman even exist in so unforgiving a world? A world in which a hero is seen as an abomination by just as many… honored by all only in death. A world that, for some strange reason, needs fictional heroes that everyone can agree are ‘perfect’ more than ever. Some would say the stark division over Man of Steel answered that question definitively.
Batman V Superman: The Dark Knight’s Tragedy
Seeing the mixed reactions to dropping Superman into the muck of the world he’s traditionally hovering high above is easy to understand. But in the case of the Dark Knight presented in Batman V Superman, the conversation is one guaranteed to drive both sides apart almost immediately. Those who disliked the adaptation will similarly say this character is “not Batman,” as the other side counters by saying that in terms of adapting comics to movies, Zack Snyder is the first to get Batman right.
He doesn’t seem like a hero when audiences meet him, but as an antagonist – an embodiment of mankind’s mistrust of even Superman – he works pretty well. Because as his best writers have shown, Batman is an extreme figure. He’s capital punishment, vigilantism, and the desire to turn fear against the fearful all wrapped up in a cape and cowl. Played on the surface, it’s an indulgence of every reader’s darkest, deep-seated desires – and an entertaining one, at that. But taken to an extreme, Batman becomes a dangerous, terrifying, and intensely political idea.
That was the purpose of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (the fact that modern readers still interpret Bruce Wayne as the “hero” of that story shows how deep-seated the desires tapped into really are). Just as was the case with Man of Steel, audiences had seen colorful, cartoony, and campy Batmen. With Christopher Nolan focusing on the tormented man beneath the mask in his Dark Knight trilogy, there was only one place left to go. Start to crumble the world before Batman’s eyes… and watch the hero become the villain.
Detractors scoffed at Bruce justifying the death of Superman with “a one percent chance” he was a threat, deemed an encapsulation of everything Zack Snyder “didn’t get” about who Batman really was… as others supported that very notion as extreme, but necessary heroism in real world politics. If you like your heroes bright, shiny, and unwavering, DC’s films were suggesting that those just can’t exist – or exist for long – in our own world. And when you push Batman to his extremes, as the embodiment of a powerless person’s desire to hurt those they deem deserving… well, you won’t like the result.
Regardless of how well these aims were executed, large sections of the audience (and most critics) disliked it on its very premise. Again, it all felt wrong. Heroes are heroes, and that’s what they are paying to see – a hard point to argue. Which is also where Wonder Woman comes in – ready to show these grimdark goons what a hero is supposed to be.
Wonder Woman: A Fresh Start, or Just Refreshing?
For the devoted fans of DC Comics, it’s not difficult to see why Wonder Woman should prove refreshing to audiences. She is, essentially, a refreshing character. Where the most cynical or disappointed fans may have wondered “how DC will screw up Wonder Woman,” there was little doubt that the character – regardless of the surrounding film – would act as a salve for those who found DC’s supposed superheroes too dark, grim, internally conflicted, or simply too ‘real’ for the genre or sensibility of the audience. Because Diana is, when done right, the kind of hero who inspires in every moment, without fail.
It’s also important to remember that this is Wonder Woman’s debut, and as such, the very first exposure to the comic book character that millions of men and women will have. So it makes perfect sense that Patty Jenkins would repeatedly point out how Richard Donner’s Superman influenced Wonder Woman, since that film also hoped to convince audiences that “a man can fly” (and support a blockbuster movie franchise). As a result, it sounds as though her film debut does the same job of any comic book reboot or series relaunch: cover the foundations of the character, show why she’s unique, and deliver thrills knowing brand new audiences haven’t experienced them before.
On character terms, Diana stands apart from the previous DCEU heroes by simply being not human, and not ‘of’ the modern world. She is one of the only Justice League members to claim that ability, able to see, criticize, and hope to change the world – which she has the luxury of doing, since it played no part in shaping her. If those critical of the DCEU’s prior films want a hero who embodies the kind of optimism, heroism, and nobility that you don’t find anywhere else, Diana is the most likely to fill the void. Because she’s literally from anywhere else.
But those looking to have full, rewarding conversations – be they critical, casual, or just for fun – about the DCEU’s tone, its worldview, or its definition of ‘heroes’ need to ask why Wonder Woman leaves them with a better feeling than these new, controversial takes on Batman and Superman. Sure, it may be a case of Patty Jenkins showing what DC’s heroes should be… what Superman should be… what Batman should be, and so on. But it’s just as likely that Jenkins knew exactly who Wonder Woman should be. In no uncertain terms, she’s the kind of hero that Superman and Batman aren’t.
That doesn’t mean she can’t make them better. Make the Justice League better. Or show why a difference in character, both in front of the camera, as well as behind it can make the DCEU the kind of diverse universe that comic book publishers figured out years ago.