My Problems with: Wonder Woman and Superhero Formula

SPOILER WARNING!!!!! I straight up spoil the everything of Wonder Woman, if you have not seen the movie yet, I highly recommend you do before reading this. You have been warned. Also minor spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger.

I just want to clarify, up front, that I liked this movie. I don’t adore it, but I like it all the same.

The cast is really strong, and they even roped (heh) some really strong performances from actors I don’t tend to like. It has some beautiful production design, with impeccable and detailed designs on Themyscira and especially the World War 1 recreation.  Despite it being well over 2 hours long, it never drags and there’s nothing in it I could say you can cut out to or was highly unnecessary, even the light comedic relief did some character building. The action, when not overladen with ramping shots or distractingly bad CGI, was pretty well thought out and excellently physical.

This isn’t meant to be a tear-down of this, or an expectation that this movie has to be perfect simply because it’s the first movie of an iconic female superhero, or the first one with female superhero in ages because they tend to suck. It is successful entirely within its own right, and I don’t want to hold it to an impossible standard due to its social relevance.

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So what has gotten me slightly peeved?

So why is ‘Problems With’ in the title, then? Well, I think what really weighs Wonder Woman down isn’t any failings in its intent. It’s how it sticks so rigidly to formula. Superhero fiction, especially of late, is ridiculously formulaic, and what really hurts this movie is that it has so much to offer that feels abandoned simply because it has to be a Hollywood superhero blockbuster. It’s far from the only one to suffer from an adherence to formula, but it’s definitely one I think gets hurt by it the most, especially when we get to the ending.

What do I mean by this? Well, I need to start from the beginning to explain the ending! Let’s just roll with it.

Originitus

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Origins are important, obviously. For superhero fiction they are vital for setting the right tone and personality if you want to get future films. Yet origins are difficult to write and make interesting. They force you to set up all this background and mythos while also building this character from the ground up, making it a contemporary telling without boring your audience AND having its own standalone plot to keep up the tension and give their hero that first challenge into becoming…well, them.

When a lot of these characters were created, especially DC, they were gimmick-oriented first, character driven second. The hook of the character, and what crazy thing he or she added was more important than motivation and depth. No kid picked up a comic with Plastic Man to find out his existential angst about his body’s contortions that leads him into a spiralling depression and a lifetime of drug abuse (they waited for the modern era of comics for that!).

This tended to mean that the origins for superheroes tended to be…basic. Hell, what made Batman’s so unique was that it was so different and emotionally resonant. This changed with the advent of Marvel comics in the 60s, and the general push to make characters more than their gimmicks and appeal to their readers through genuine flaws and pathos. This usually meant a lot of their origins were either learning about humility or fighting persecution (both in Spider-Man’s case).

Wonder Woman’s origin actually is really interesting , simply because of the hidden world aspect and being forced into something a lot more complex than the paradise Diana grew up in. This adds a lot of potential, and thankfully the movie capitalises off that, which I’ll go into later.

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The issue here, then, is that there’s not much else to the story outside of the subtle fish out of water aspect. This is due to how origin stories are structured-usually becoming the hero happens at the end.  This worked so well for Iron Man, now no character is really the hero without a dragged-out conflict that brings them to that place of heroism. Instead of reaching their moment of heroism either near the start of the first act like Spider-Man or the midpoint like Batman Begins, and allowing an escalating conflict or danger to grow entirely contrary to teaching our hero to be all heroic-like.

This worked for Iron Man, however, because back in 2008 this tactic was fresh. Also, Tony’s conflict is entirely internal and social, from his relationship to his own arms dealing company to his friends and co-workers. It pits Iron Man against Tony Stark’s life. Diana’s is more external, it’s her reaction to the world and how different it is from her naïve viewpoint. Wonder Woman comes from Diana essentially realising a life lesson naturally given to her had she been part of this world at a younger age. Her conflict is more nebulous and harder to get a consistent emotional grasp on Diana’s. Especially as, outside of Steve who she just met, she’s separated from her family for most of the story. I’m not saying the conflict itself isn’t an interesting one, it’s just not a lot to base an entire movie off of.

One way recent superhero films have avoided falling into this trap is to just have the hero be active before their start-off movies and just roll from there. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk literally just showed Bruce Banner’s origin via scenes flashing over the credits, hoping the audiences’ familiarity with the character would make this more than enough to just roll with it because of how immensely well known he is. The recent iteration of Spider-Man and Black Panther got bit and supporting roles respectively in Captain America: Civil War, allowing their solo efforts to just spin-off from that starting point and explore their worlds and evolving characters from the vantage point that they have been active superheroes beforehand.

This could have been enough for Diana in Wonder Woman. She was introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and that could have been plenty sufficient to get us going with her own film. But instead we’re taken into her past and told her entire origin. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it does do a lot to avoid being unwatchably terrible, but it’s a sign that superheroes need a more exciting way than just making an entire movie the origin of their hero, with the promise of sequels to do really exciting things with them fully formed.

Anyway, let’s jump into how the movie opens, because now it’s time for:

Cinematic Universe Worldbuilding

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The success of the MCU has rather unfortunate consequences for the rest of the industry, and this is the most annoying. I hate the amount of worldbuilding that goes into comic book movies to connect them to other movies. It’s what killed Avengers: Age of Ultron, Man of Steel and…wounded Dawn of Justice. They spend so much time talking about other movies, they don’t bother talking about their own.

Thankfully, there’s very little of it here. In the very brief opening scene, Diana gets her picture back from Wayne Enterprises, which was her reason for being in DoJ, poor her. And she emails him after the movie cuts back to present day. And that’s really it in terms of vaster worldbuilding. Most of the other references to DC comics lore (another thing comic book movies tend to do) is mostly just stuff that’s specifically tied to Wonder Woman’s mythos, like Etta Candy or Doctor Poison.

I tend to really hate media res openings, but that’s beside the point in terms of them just cramming all the unnecessary build up for future movies into there. Good for them for the restraint, I guess.

So what’s in this feature-length, flashback, then? Well, what’s usually told in flashback:

Backstory

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To note the difference between ‘origin’ and ‘backstory’ here, at least for the purposes of this analysis, origin compiles the entire story of how we are introduced to the character. Backstory is how the character first comes into their own world. So, Diana’s origin is ‘How she came to be Wonder Woman’. Diana’s backstory is ‘How she came to be Diana’. Hope that makes sense. Anyway!

Diana’s backstory in the source material is kind of…out there. She’s an Amazonian raised in an island primarily of women who were once slaves to Hercules but broke free. She gets taken to the world by Steve Trevor, sees Hitler as the same kind of oppressor that Hercules was, and vows to help humanity fight this kind of tyrannical evil. Also, in one version, she was made of clay.

This is something that you could work a lot with, as long as they don’t do something stupid like rewrite her story to have some kind of destiny plot and that’s exactly what they do this is a pretty lazy set-up I know. It’s been revised slightly that Diana thinks she was made of clay, but in actuality is the demigod daughter of Zeus. His son Ares, God of War, is a bit of an arse, and Diana is a destined weapon that will destroy him.

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I’ll get back to this because this is not revealed until the very end of the movie, so thankfully the Chosen One narrative isn’t too overplayed. Though her uniqueness is highlighted, and most of the start of the movie is just Diana trying to train and Hippolyta trying to stop her and failing. I have a giant bugbear with ‘Disapproving parents’ subplots, but it makes even less sense here because why not have Diana train? When she’s a child sure, but when she’s older wouldn’t it make sense to train her in case she has to fight Ares? Even if most of the Amazonians don’t think he’s coming back, it’s just there to give some stock mother/daughter conflict (as well as conflict with Hippolyta’s sister, Antiope).

It doesn’t even feel like a pay-off when Hippolyta lets her daughter go with Steve later, because there’s no indication that Hippolyta came to this decision naturally, and it’s a really rushed moment. Because so much of the backstory is focused on this conflict, it feels like wasted story time, especially as Hippolyta does not return to the film after this.

So yeah. A lot of the backstory here feels trite and cliched, and a lot of the set up goes against the main theme of the story, which I’ll have to wait until we’re talking about the climax . A lot of it just feels like worldbuilding for its own sake, especially as Themyscira doesn’t return after Diana leaves. I’m not saying don’t set up Diana’s origin and home, but a lot of these elements feel rushed and don’t add much to the main conflict of the film, just the main story of Ares. A lot of this could be shaved down, but I guess we needed the training montage and that ‘Our hero shows off/discovers their major power for the audience for the first time’ moment. Clichés for all!

Things do get more interesting once Steve gets here, though we’re faced with another cliché with Antiope getting killed for emotional stakes. She’s literally just there to die and make the tension of Steve’s arrival and the War have more weight. She’s barely mentioned shortly after she dies! I guess we can’t have a cliched hero’s backstory without the tragic mentor death. Ho-hum.

But now we’re into the interesting stuff!

The Interesting Stuff

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Like I said, I do like this movie, and it’s appropriate I talk about what works in it for me. One of the biggest things I love  is Diana’s personal arc. To point out why it works, I turn attention to the superhero film that inevitably this one gets compared to the most, Captain America: The First Avenger. I mean, both are easy to compare to, as they are set in the two most destructive wars in the 20th Century each, beginning and ending briefly in the present day. Both have exaggerated versions of the real, uh, ‘villains’ of said wars (though, to be clear, the Nazis were very much villains). Both have plucky sidekicks to help our inexperienced hero guide their way around this horrific war. Both end with the male side of the main breeding pair sacrificing themselves after a poignant goodbye. There’s a lot here. The main difference is in the structure and, more importantly for our purpose, the main character arc.

Steve’s arc is to be taken seriously. It’s not for him to realise something, it’s for him to become the Captain America history will remember. Most of the story is about people underestimating him, both before and after he gets his powers. That’s why the support the troops attraction, while slightly overplayed, is really interesting-this is a treatise about what makes a hero in a time where being a hero seems impossible. It’s about Steve seeing in himself what Erksine did when he recruited him for his experiment.

Diana’s arc, conversely, is about her learning something. That the world is complex and people can just be immoral and destructive. Throughout the movie, she’s constantly realising how complex and disproportionately unfair ‘Man’s World’ is, from blatant sexist roles to the way wars are constantly dished out for gain of power or resources. She still blames Ares, hence the importance of the storybook at the beginning in the least. Steve is there for contrasted, being more world weary but still a heroic presence. It’s only after she thinks she kills Ares does all that learning she made come crashing down upon her, and she realises that there is no Ares. This is just who people are. But alongside that journey she’s learning to be a compassionate, caring person who fights for people because it’s the right thing to do instead of just being destined to murder the big baddie and save the world forever.

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All of this is, of course, challenged by the way the movie ends. But before we discuss that, and once again shit all over a movie I pertain to like, let us bring up some more points in its favour. Because, as much as it matches superhero clichés, it does just as much to subvert them.

-Steve Trevor is our token love interest, except he isn’t. He actually has a lot of involvement in the main plot, being Diana’s conduit to the world and counterbalancing her naïve optimism. He’s well-defined, funny and has a satisfying arc, and Chris Pine does a decent job of making him very everyman-esque even with being a spy.

-The comic relief is Etta Candy, who like Steve is an important Wonder Woman supporting character. She thankfully avoids being too annoying due to the movie’s infrequent use of her and Lucy Davis’ rather wonderfully understated performance. Her snark and flustered actions are great, and she doesn’t overstay her welcome.

-There’s some playing with the fish out of water trope, but thankfully it’s not overdone. Diana isn’t a complete moron and adapts quickly, so they don’t exacerbate it for gags. They even have a dressing montage, and it’s really short! That gag with her carrying the sword and shield around in the dress is great, too.

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This moment is really genuine and cute. Lifted straight from the books, as well!

-The sidekicks! Steve gets an entire team ready of people to help them navigate No Man’s Land. These guys are great! They emphasise the effects of war and the unjust ways humanity punishes and antagonises itself. All are well defined and got pretty great personalities and are well acted. They don’t really do much plot wise, but they’re a fun and welcome addition.

-The sub-bosses! We get a pair of villains we need face off before our final baddie, and they’re…kind of boring. Yeah, no, these guys don’t really work at all for me. Though Danny Huston’s character is based on the real life World War 1 General Erich Ludendorff, and he gets very unambiguously killed despite having survived the war in real life. it’s not a huge thing, it’s just…weird, especially as they make him this kind of hulking out beast of some sorts.

Okay, so! Down to the big moment. Here we talk about:

The Fucking Ending

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Before we get into that moment, let’s show the opening and ending monologues from this film. First let’s start off with the opening:

“I used to want to save the world. This beautiful place. But I knew so little then. It is a land of magic and wonder. Worth cherishing in every way. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness shimmering within. And mankind? Mankind is another story altogether. What one does when faced with the truth is more difficult than you think. I learned this the hard way. A long, long time ago. And now, I will never be the same.”

Cool, foreboding. Fits perfectly well with her saviour complex and how it comes crashing down around her. Now let’s look at her closing monologue:

“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their mind, and learned that inside, every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world. So I stay. I fight and I give for the world I know can be. This is my mission now. Forever.”

Bit cheesy, but good cheesy. Superhero cheesy. And it follows the throughline of the opening; Diana faced humanity’s darkness and it changed her. But it changed her to realise that you cannot save humanity from itself, but you can show it compassion and strength to make the world that little bit better.

And this balances out great with her seeing the town they save being gassed by Doctor Poison. Having her fight with Steve over Ares not being real. Her killing that real-life guy who didn’t die in World War 1, and it not changing anything. And then we have this line from Steve:

Diana: “Ares is dead. They can now stop fighting. Why are they still fighting?”

Steve: “Because maybe it’s them! Maybe…Maybe people aren’t always good. Ares or no Ares. Maybe it’s just who they are.”

Poignant. Resonant. Good moral for anyone to learn. Good message to pass onto the kids, even. There is no big, bad evil we can kill and make everything better. We just need to do our best to help humanity and not succumb to despair but be lifted up by love.

So, with all that in mind, why is Ares an actual villain in this? And yes, I get it. He states in dialogue that he hates humanity pretty much for the reasons Diana realises they suck:

“They always been, and always will be, weak, cruel, selfish, and capable of the greatest horrors. All I ever wanted was for the Gods to see how evil my father’s creation was.”

Which is fine and all, it’s thematically appropriate and it’s what pushes Wonder Woman to her ‘hero moment’ of realising humanity is worth it by not crushing a defenseless (if evil) woman with a fucking tank…but then the movie just pushes him to say he influenced humanity’s evil?

“All these years I have struggled alone, whispering into their ears. Ideas, inspiration for formulas, weapons, but I don’t make them use them. They start these wars on their own.”

(I did not intend for this section to be so full of quote mining, btw)

And then they all forgive each other when he dies after fighting tooth and nail to the death? Literally the scene after he dies is World War 1 over (yes, I know this whole thing was to make sure the armistice went through, and that’s not to suggest that Ares death ended the war, but that’s how this is framed and presented, and this one scene DIRECTLY leading to the other, is what the film is suggesting pretty heavily!)?  It’s so muddled and confused. They literally only make him ‘influence’ people because they need *some* reason he’s a bad guy at all. So why is he here? Simple. We need to end on a big-ass, giant climax.

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Cause that’s how superhero films end, right? Giant climaxes with dazzling (or in this case bloated and ugly) special effects that just really get you hyped up. It doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense in story-why the giant beam is there doesn’t matter, all that matters is that they have a giant beam! (at least they avoided THAT cliché). Even Logan went a little big for its climax, though it still felt keeping with the tone and didn’t go too far into Crazy Town.

Does Diana need the ‘Chosen One’ narrative of her being the God Killer tacked onto her arc? No. Did this story need Ares to be around and for Diana to have that stupid moment with the tank? Not really. Did they want a big aul, doofy action climax with magic and shit? You bet your fucking ass they did! And I have no way of proving if any of this was Patty Jenkins plan all along, or Allan Heinberg, but it just feels so calculated and modelled to fall in line with the superhero mould. And it just hurts this movie so much, because we have an action climax whose actions goes against its words and slightly nullifies the great lesson learned.

Would I do it differently? Yeah, right from the off-remove Ares. Remove the stupid ‘God Killer’ stuff. Have Steve sacrifice himself like is on film, have Diana confront Poison and come to the same conclusion she did with the tank bit. I get that you need her to be heroic, but just have her round up the rest of the fighting soldiers in a similar but less violent vain to the fight in No Man’s Land, and have her stand tall as she singlehandedly brings peace to this fight and allows the armistice to go through. This isn’t perfect (I didn’t exactly workshop this hypothetical conclusion), but it’s way less bloated, overstuffed and thematically jarring with the film’s main core.

But I guess it wouldn’t be as exciting as fighting Lupin of War. Huzzah meaningless climaxes!

Conclusion

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Before I end this, let me talk about my favourite scene, and that’s the No Man’s Land fight. Not only is it excellently shot and legitimately exciting, it’s our protagonist first realising her place in all of this and being a hero. That scene with Diana walking out into the middle of the crossfire is one of the most heroic images I’ve seen in a superhero film in quite some time. And it’s a total cliché. The hero’s call to arms, the moment they take on their duty without quite reaching their full superhero potential just yet, but an important stepping stone all the same. And, funnily enough, this moment was nearly cut!

What I’m trying to say with this is that clichés are not the issue here. Relying on them for audience expectation and for generally lazy storytelling is. Superhero fiction has been around for nearly a century now-it’s not running out of stories to tell. Hollywood needs to stop thinking there’s one surefire way to tell them, and start taking risks with their properties. That’s how a genre survives for so long. We’re coming close to burn out, but these movies don’t seem to be going away at the same time. I just think it helps these franchises stay innovative and keeps audiences wanting more, if you explore more fresh and unique character journeys or take their stories into directions people would have never guessed. That’s what the MCU did, and it continues to try to challenge itself with its new releases doing way more daring thing than they have before…even if they still mostly play it safe.

Wonder Woman is a successful movie. I’ll never begrudge it its significance and impact on pop culture. And it’s a good one, with a great cast, compelling themes, and a genuine leap into an interesting backstory that apparently will continue with the sequel. But it could have been so much more, and hopefully that’s something we can see if we remove the God of War and let superheroes fight with their own muster.

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So, what kind of risks did the MCU take, or not take…?

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