Warner Bros. executives breathed a collective sigh of relief two weeks ago when Wonder Woman debuted to massive box office receipts and widespread critical acclaim. It’s the first unequivocal hit for the new DC Extended Universe, and the timing couldn’t be better given the public’s growing exhaustion with the franchise. Though commercially successful, Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Suicide Squad were not quite as successful as The Avengers (all three were also critically panned), and patience seemed to be fading after a Justice League trailer that looked to be more of the same.
It’s therefore unsurprising that Warner Bros. has been quick to cash in some of the goodwill it earned with Wonder Woman. The studio promptly announced that Robin Wright’s Antiope and Connie Nielsen’s Hippolyta would both be reprising their roles in the upcoming Justice League, and while that was probably always the case, the timing of the announcement seems significant. With several months to go, the Warner Bros. marketing team is eager to associate Justice League with the one movie that people liked instead of the three they didn’t.
However, that does raise some interesting questions for the future. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is so different from the rest of the DCEU that I have no idea how it fits into the broader enterprise, and I say that knowing full well that Gal Gadot already appeared in Batman vs. Superman. It feels like we’re watching a battle for the soul of the DCEU, and it’s going to be difficult for Warner Bros. to reconcile the two creative visions moving forward.
That has more to do with theme than it does with any specific character. Wonder Woman is optimistic. Gal Godot’s Diana wants to be a hero. She leaves Themyscira to be a hero, and while her faith is tested, her resolve ultimately holds. She climbs out of the trenches in WWI because there are human lives at stake and she’s going to protect them. Hers is a movie about a superhero making the choice to be a superhero, without any expectation of praise or reward.
That’s more or less the elevator pitch for superheroes as a concept, but it’s strangely at odds with everything we’ve seen from the DCEU thus far. Prior to Wonder Woman, DC’s output included two grim deconstructions of Superman and a third film about supervillains. All three have been skeptical of altruism as a concept, as if the most implausible thing about superhero movies is the hero’s willingness to help other people.
Most of that trickles down from director Zack Snyder, the primary architect of the DCEU. In his two Superman outings, Snyder struggles with the idea of basic human decency. In fact, it seems to be utterly mystifying to him. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent spent most of his screen time in Man of Steel trying to convince Clark not to be Superman, to the point that he was willing to die so his son wouldn’t have to be a hero. He lets himself get picked up in a tornado instead of letting actual Superman carry him to safety, based only on the assumption that there would be witnesses and that Clark would then become a public figure.
The sequence is absurd to the point of parody, but it informs much of the DCEU. Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Suicide Squad all espouse a fundamentally selfish worldview — where heroism is a test of self, not a service performed for other people. Batman views it a somber responsibility, forcing himself into action because he believes he’s the only individual with the ability to stand against Superman. Meanwhile, the protagonists in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad are incarcerated supervillains, mercenaries who will save the world because they expect to be compensated and/or they’ll be punished if they don’t. Amanda Waller runs the show as a government operative (and ostensible good guy) who argues that coercion is more reliable than doomed altruism before murdering her fellow agents to cover her own tracks.
In both cases, there’s an inherent mistrust of selfless behavior, as if no one ever does a good deed unless that good deed is incentivized. In Snyder’s DCEU, superheroes aren’t volunteers. They’re either gods saddled with a heavy burden, or conscripts recruited against their will.
That’s what makes Wonder Woman — ironically the only true god of the bunch — such a striking contrast. Beginning with the alternate creation myth in which humanity is built in the image of a benevolent Zeus, Patty Jenkins’ film assumes that people are compassionate. Even the villains are afforded a relative degree of humanity. The German soldiers are not evil, but are merely under the influence of the manipulative God of War. People on both sides of the conflict are misguided yet noble, and Diana willingly defends her utopian vision of what humanity could be at its best instead of what it sinks to at its worst.
She also stands next to people in a way that Batman and Superman do not, fighting side-by-side with Steve, Charlie, Chief, and Sameer for a shared set of principles. That’s the other thing that separates Wonder Woman from the rest of the DCEU. From London to the trenches to a little village in Belgium, Wonder Woman is filled with workaday civilians. When that little village falls, it clarifies the stakes for everyone in the audience. We understand what Diana is fighting for because we understand our position relative to the protagonist.
In comparison, Snyder’s DCEU is cold and empty. Man of Steel received deserved criticism for Superman’s complete disinterest in search and rescue and the implied body count during the final battle. Snyder heard those complaints. Bruce Wayne retroactively saves a few of those citizens in the opening of Batman vs. Superman, but Snyder’s primary solution is depopulation. We’re told that the fight with Doomsday takes place in an abandoned lot so we don’t have to worry about collateral damage.
It’s telling only because it indicates that the audience doesn’t have a place in Snyder’s DCEU. He wants to see Batman have a dustup with Superman, and he’s not overly concerned about how mere mortals relate to the personal struggles of gods. Metropolis and Gotham are not densely populated urban centers. They’re backdrops for a test of wills, a one-on-one contest to determine who has suffered more.
That will be the real challenge for Warner Bros. moving forward. Despite the critiques, there’s nothing wrong with the premise of Batman vs. Superman. A deconstruction isn’t as effective if you didn’t take the time to build someone up in the first place, but there is something noble about a person’s willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.
The problem is that Snyder’s DCEU is fueled entirely by ego. His superheroes are Nietzsche’s ubermensch, figures that are so powerful that their motives are somehow beyond the comprehension of the peons who can only get close to Superman when they buy a ticket. It’s as if he expects us to worship his Superman because we’re supposed to show deference to a superior being, a request that’s off-putting because it’s so condescending.
With Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins has returned the focus to humanity writ large. She recognizes that superheroes resonate precisely because their stories are familiar. Yes, Diana is better than the rest of us. As a fictional character, she can do things we can’t, from both a moral and physical perspective. However, that doesn’t make her alien. In the film, her actions instill the allied forces with courage and resolve. The later heroics of Steve, Sameer & Co are less spectacular, but their contributions are no less meaningful and the audience is equally able to learn from that example. Diana inspires everyone around her to be better. That gives the film genuine warmth and makes Wonder Woman relevant to anyone watching in a theater.
Now Warner Bros. simply has to make a choice. Is the DCEU a distant fight club reserved for gods, or is it a place that amplifies our core values, a playground where anyone can go to recognize an aspect of themselves? Given the positive response to Wonder Woman — combined with the Nightwing movie from the The Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay and the upcoming Batgirl film from noted ensemble enthusiast Joss Whedon — I’d expect the DCEU to bend towards the latter. Wonder Woman has proven that DC’s characters can connect with audiences, and there’s no longer any reason to hold them to a separate standard.
Eric is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster, and (occasional) theatre practitioner. He is currently the Games Editor at DorkShelf.com. His single greatest accomplishment is the horror short story Nacho Terror. You can find him on Twitter @Harry_Houdini.