With Wonder Woman on the horizon and Zack Snyder's Justice League following close behind, the future of the DCEU seems perfectly poised to change its outlook. For some, such a shift in tone or 'excitement' is a clear response to criticism of its dark, bleak tone... for other inside the production, Batman V Superman was always the darkest chapter of the larger story that Snyder and his collaborators were telling. So if Justice League is the DCEU's rebirth, as some may claim, then it's tempting to see Wonder Woman's origin story as a (hopefully) entertaining romp in the meantime.
But that seems to sell Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman short. After all, it was Diana's arrival in Dawn of Justice that saved the day, her voiced doubts about mankind that allowed Bruce Wayne to seem an optimist at its close, and her partnership with Batman will help the League take shape. Once we reminded ourselves of the core question being answered by her solo movie - why did Diana turn away from the world? - the potential for that story to act as a pivot point in her larger arc, the structure got us thinking.
Since we've made our case for the DCEU ignoring critics and telling the story it set out to tell, that larger narrative Snyder and co. are telling demands a bit more attention. Taking what we have, and looking at what's coming, that story seems to be one of optimism, renewed heroism, and hope. And while it may be built on the three heroes introduced thus far, the DCEU's next chapter starts with Wonder Woman.
The Mortal Fall of Batman
The world established in Man of Steel was intended to reflect our own: one in which an outsider, no matter their intention or merits are bound to face some discrimination (implied as a universal trait, not just a human one). But that fear of the unknown, the suspicion of the unfamiliar and different is condensed into human form with Bruce Wayne. As Batman V Superman shows, the point at which Superman's people - the most radicalized of his people - showed their power to inflict terror and harm was also the moment that sent Bruce Wayne on his own descent into extremism.
When the audience next meets him, he has sunken to depths upon which even Alfred must comment, claiming Bruce has followed a path to cruelty and torment - becoming one of the criminals he used to fight. Bruce is blind to the compromises he's made, being manipulated by Lex Luthor for an unknowable length of time. But his fall from heroism and a righteous cause doesn't come from the villain of the film. It comes when Bruce becomes a pawn to intensely human emotions he's typically shown to be above: anger, hate, and fear. He's even prepared to unwittingly become the villain himself until Superman (and good fortune) returns him to the murders that first acted as his call to a higher purpose.
In the end, Batman must watch as a good man dies - the cost of his own failure, his weaknesses, and his commitment to the idea that only HE can do what's necessary to protect the world. And as BvS ends, Bruce takes a moment before beginning his ascent... fueled by the renewed belief that "Men are still good... we can do better. We will."
The Divine Fall of Superman
As mentioned above, it's Superman whose literal fall is what finally ceases Batman's descent, sending his wheel of fortune turning back up into the light. But it has just as much impact on Superman, who - spoiler - isn't going to be staying dead. This fall should probably play a larger role in conversations and predictions about what's in store for Justice League and beyond, since it speaks directly to the filmmakers' proposed vision of the world. A vision that, thanks to recent political shifts, the DCEU now speaks to more than ever. But it remains for many a vision of the world that is simply too bleak, and one that needs to be left behind quickly.
It's hard to talk about Superman's emergence, suffering, and death without pointing out the clear parallels to the New Testament story of Jesus, since Snyder and co. present a deceptively thorough allegory when all is said and done (for now). While Bruce's vendetta against Superman carries a political theme (judging an outsider based on the most radical of his people), Lex's opposition fits a more theological framework: Superman might be a nice guy, but it's how people see him that's becoming the problem. Superman is just being himself, but he's being viewed as a Messiah.
And history has shown that people hailed as such saviors have a tendency to impact people in potentially dangerous ways - "dangerous" to those already in power, at least...
Now, presenting Superman as a more direct Christ-like figure than usual doesn't make it any more powerful or better a story on its own. But it does help place the story of Superman being told by Snyder in a larger context - specifically, the story of a hero gifted to our world, persecuted by those within it, and for which he nevertheless gives his life to save. It's not a narrative limited to the Christian, or even Judeo-Christian tradition (Moses can work as an allegory here, too), as most cultural and religious mythologies include similar savior figures whose power is only truly grasped after martyrdom.
In the DCEU's version of the story, Kal-El/Clark Kent was better and truer than humanity realized, making his protection of them even nobler. To undo what all that fear, suspicion, hate, and anger had wrought, he sacrificed his life. His heroism was compounded by the fact that, as his mother put it, "he never owed this world a thing." While that set the stage for Superman's sacrifice to be more man than super, narratively speaking, all these parallels raise Superman's fall and sacrifice to the level of the divine.
But, as is also the case in the Christian account... it's his rebirth that really makes the story.
Wonder Woman: Diana's Spiritual Fall... And Rise
There's no coincidence behind Wonder Woman's place in this unfolding story, having stepped in to singlehandedly save Batman and Superman from ruin (a literal dawn in that respect). Far from a moment of heroic self-realization or emergence, the film made clear - through Bruce's investigation into Diana's immortality, and her own skepticism of man's character - that audiences were witnessing a bit of a crisis for its leading (super) lady. She's not eager for a fight, she's reluctant. Unlike most traditionally optimistic heroes, she doubts that the modern world will even allow the alliances and friendship Bruce is after. And wouldn't you know it, her solo movie is about to explain why.
As we learned during our visit to the Wonder Woman editing bay (don't worry, no spoilers here), the modern setting teased in the film's trailers will be used for the beginning and end of the movie. Diana's place in the post-BvS world will be established, before that famous photo of her in full armor, flanked by her squadron of WWI heroes, sends her into a flashback the audience gets to enjoy as the remainder of the film's running time. In the process, Wonder Woman as a film makes Diana a central figure in the shifting perspective of the DCEU now being discussed, and witnessed.
Diana will be looking back to the roots of her own fall from heroic optimistic, before shifting her gaze to what comes next - the Justice League "rebirth" in particular.
But based on the falls we've discussed so far, the formation of the Justice League - the actual search, approach, and recruitment of the heroes - is Batman's rebirth; his means of righting the wrongs of his past. For Wonder Woman, the studio and filmmakers seem to believe that understanding the way Diana sees the world is key. Not the world she first enters during World War I, mind you, but the world she comes to see. The world that shows itself, thereby killing her will to ever again defend or improve it. And does so with such impact, she's fighting those impulses right up until Dawn of Justice's final act.
Audiences will get to see that story - ending in defeat, and a total collapse of her spirit - told in Wonder Woman. At first glance, that sounds as bleak as a story can get... or it would be, if its actual conclusion in the modern world didn't obviously end with Diana's belief rekindled, ready to fight the good fight. Whether it's Bruce Wayne's belief that the next century can be better than the last one, or that Diana's acceptance of the past reveals some greater truth, a change is coming.
And if Wonder Woman can believe in a brighter future against all evidence to the contrary, then the moment she begins to fight for it is, literally and figuratively, the point at which the pendulum of the DCEU stops - before pulling everyone back up into the light.
The Rise of Batman
The final scenes of Batman V Superman show Bruce Wayne determined to right the wrongs that led to the death of Superman. The mid-credits scene of Suicide Squad shows Wayne is even willing to negotiate with the likes of Amanda Waller to get information on the known metahumans scattered across the globe. This time, he's not conducting research on how to oppose them: he's setting out to recruit them into a community. And judging by the early footage of Justice League, he's getting as much of a thrill out of the mission as... well, anyone would.
Affleck has outright stated that Justice League feels like a rebirth for the DCEU, and it should, since the fundamental belief it's based on is the antithesis of what came before. Where Batman's fall came from feeling he had to go it alone, he has Wonder Woman at his side and is looking for more allies. Where Batman's fall came from believing the worst of people, he now seeks out strangers with offers of partnership. To Snyder's credit, that's a warmer and more communal way of building the Justice League than even the comic books usually depict. And it's all following through on the promises made in Batman V Superman.
The Rise of Superman
Since Batman and Wonder Woman are left standing at the end of Dawn of Justice, it makes sense that their respective rebirths should come first. The audience will also have seen both of the reasons they turned away from the light by the time Justice League hits, as their return to it will drive the team's philosophy. But as we mentioned above, it isn't the fall of Superman that actually concludes his story, nor will it be the real gamechanger of the DCEU as a whole. Only in death could Superman show the world he was a hero all along, misunderstood by his critics, and underestimated by his detractors. He wasn't to be feared, but appreciated.
Those closing scenes of Batman V Superman are easier to discuss as an ending to a story than a beginning to a new one, but they're worth revisiting as League looms. Lex Luthor intended to dispel the belief and worship of Superman by showing he was either not all powerful, or not all good. Fate smiled on Supes, allowing him to make a friend of his enemy and defy Lex's hope that he would commit murder, showing he was corruptible. Yet he still fell in that final battle, ostensibly meeting Lex's hope of exposing him as merely a mortal (not worthy of the reverence he was being shown as a powerful Messiah).
In Batman V Superman, as in most version of this story told throughout human history, that success had the opposite effect.
Rather than seeing Superman brought low by his death, the world accepted him as one of their own like never before. The emptied city streets even suggest that embrace was unanimous (as it hopefully would be). The military honored him as a soldier. Metropolis literally gathered around his symbol, committing to continue his legacy through their own actions. His willingness to die showed the truth of his heroism... which raises the question: how differently would people react if given a second chance? If Superman, say, returned to the world having conquered even death?
Fans may look forward to the resurrection of Superman based purely on a desire to see how Zack Snyder will present it, but it's what happens after that holds the most promise. The world of the DCEU will have no reason to doubt Superman ever again. Wonder Woman will see her faith rewarded. Batman will see his greatest failure lifted from his shoulders. And the Justice League will have a leader finally deserving - and maybe even accepting - the name Superman.
If you ask us, that's the moment that the DCEU's story is now building towards. It's only right that the daughter of a god is the one to set those dominoes falling.
- Wonder Woman (2017) release date: Jun 02, 2017
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017