Wonder Woman: The First DC Movie to do the Work

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Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" conquers where many of its DC predecessors did not: in its resounding message of hope. (PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS)

By FRANCO GIACOMARRA
Contributing Writer

Alas, DC Comics fans can finally rejoice. The first successful entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has arrived. “Wonder Woman” is a record setting blockbuster praised by critics and fans alike that has drastically altered the narrative of the DCEU. In just one weekend, the franchise’s future has changed from hopeless to potentially on its way to greatness.

But what is it that makes the new entry into the DCEU so engaging, refreshing and, to be blunt, good? Contrary to what one might believe from listening to the wide array of reviewers proclaiming this achievement a miracle, the reasons for this success are clear cut. Patty Jenkins’ film is the first DCEU product to actually do the work of investigating the essence of these heroes, investing viewers in them and demonstrating exactly why they are needed in the world right now.

“Wonder Woman” sets out to make us understand who this character is at her very core, a concept that seemed low on the priority lists of popular director Zack Snyder and the rest of the DC cinematic brain trust. This understanding was sorely missing in Snyder’s first two entries into the franchise, “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016). Throughout “Wonder Woman,” we as the audience meet a Diana who is brave and noble, yet simultaneously naïve and stubborn. All internal and external conflict that occurs with Diana stems from the traits that are essential to her being: she is a godlike figure predisposed to protect and serve humanity and goodness in all of its forms. This is the key idea that drives her actions through the movie, even as she learns that life beyond her secluded worldview is much more complicated and nuanced than she could ever have anticipated. While the film totally nails Wonder Woman’s essence and motivations, it also succeeds aesthetically, hitting all the cues that longtime fans and newbies alike might associate with the character. She is beautiful, charming, funny, driven and crucially, heroic. These qualities, combined with the crystal clear values of the character described above, combine to create a character that is impossible not to connect with, and is probably the reason that she has remained such a popular character in the first place.

To be fair, would be Superman epic “Man of Steel” (2013) tried. And, for what it’s worth, Snyder’s ambition in that particular case is to be credited. Rarely do we see a major movie, much less a superhero movie, fall flat on its face because it has too much it’s trying to say rather than too little. “Man of Steel” provides a lot of threads of ideas, as well as endless amounts of lip service toward them, in an effort to try and tap into themes that have proved to be defining to Superman’s character throughout his decades long history. But, ultimately these ideas are rendered useless due to the fact that they are so thinly explored and so incompetently executed.

“Man of Steel” presents itself as Clark Kent’s journey of self discovery that ultimately ends with him donning the red cape and becoming the Superman we all know and love. But, the so called ‘journey’ doesn’t actually exist. Clark has been selflessly saving people from the very beginning of the film, and only ever stops because of the awful conflicting advice he gets from his earthly parents that he need not give of himself because the world will only shun him. This culminates in perhaps one of the worst scenes in any superhero film ever, in which Jonathan Kent prevents his son from saving his life in order to prove his own cynical point. This is a sequence that presents itself as a formative dilemma on the surface, but really only serves to cheaply make the audience feel something and provide a superficial obstacle to Clark deciding to become a hero, even though in reality he already is one.

There are far too many instances like this in the film and they are precisely emblematic of the deepest problem with Snyder and his movies. He presents us with these seemingly incredibly moving and significant moments in the lives of these characters, but rarely are they ever earned. He gives us the spectacle, but never engages in the deeper work of mining the essence of these characters and showing us what makes them special beyond their incredible abilities.

If sheer ambition was the sole evaluator for these kinds of movies, then “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) would be nothing short of a masterpiece. Sadly, however, this is not the case.Where Snyder attempted to give us a character study of Superman in “Man of Steel,” he doesn’t even really try with Batman, instead creating a carbon copy of the character from Frank Miller’s comic series “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986) and going from there.

To be fair, this approach actually turned out to be quite entertaining and one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie, but only because Batman is a character that is extremely overexposed in today’s culture, and thus the zeitgeist was ready for an alternate take. Perhaps Snyder deserves some credit for this insight as well, but it is still cheating. Snyder relies so much on the fact that everybody already knows who Batman is that he doesn’t bother to develop him or grant us any true insight into this version of the character beyond subverting Bruce’s traditional qualities for the sake of shock factor. There are few nods to his damaged psyche in the gratuitous amounts of nightmares and flashbacks, but nothing that we don’t already know from the mountains of other media that the character has lived in for over seven decades.

While turning the world’s most popular costumed superhero into an unstable psychopath whose only goal in the film is to murder the other most popular superhero in the world is great for novelty’s sake, eventually the gimmick wears off. In it’s place, Snyder and Ben Affleck (Batman) will need to give us something truly special to separate this version of Batman from the pack— a challenge that not many are confident will be met.

And so it is in the wake of these first two missteps for the franchise that “Wonder Woman” is such a revelation— a terrific film about a timeless character that is objectively well crafted and remarkably entertaining. How is that one of these films has finally managed to stick the landing so deftly?

The answer is the same as it has been for any great film, superhero or otherwise: it is largely the result of hard work by talented and creative people who find inventive solutions. Nearly every choice made by Patty Jenkins and her collaborators is pitch perfect and elevates this piece to a level of excellence that is shared by only the most well made of superhero films. The World War I setting evokes a watershed time in the history of human civilization that saw the infancy of mechanized warfare and ushered in the era of mass manufactured human carnage. This completely rewrote humanity’s conception of the possible extents of human violence and cruelty, and thus is an ingenious backdrop through which to tell a story about reaffirming the idea that there always goodness to be found in people, even in the worst of circumstances.

“Wonder Woman” succeeds because it does the work of establishing a character and placing her within a story that tests her mettle and reminds us why we and several other generations of fans have gravitated toward her for the last several decades. But, it also does the most important work of justifying the very existence of a shared cinematic universe of DC superheroes in the first place. “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” were films that were not just poorly made, but were also steeped in a deep bleakness that cynically insists that the world may not be a brighter place if these heroes existed in it at all. “Wonder Woman” emphatically counters this point with a resounding and radical sentiment of hope. The film ends with Diana reflecting on love, specifically its power and importance. On paper, this may sound overly sentimental. I assure you it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it is exactly what the film needed, and probably what we need too.