So… Wonder Woman. It came out. It hit theaters. People discovered it was there and went to see it and it’s going to dominate the month of June and there’s little chance of anything toppling it.
And with good reason. It’s awesome stuff – easily the strongest of the DC movies, as good or better than most of what Marvel has on tap. Better than any of the Hulk movies, for example. Better than the second Avengers movie. Definitely better than anything Fox or Sony has put out using Marvel’s properties.
But why? Why is it working so well?
The reason is subtlety in both what happens in the movie and around it, and in an understanding of what the character is about and her evolution. We are told and shown a creation epic that is sort of at odds with what we know about the Greek Pantheon (spoiler: all of them are dicks except Hades, who is just really good at his job) in that they created humans (no), were happy about it (definitely not happy so much as amused), and were all eventually killed by Ares (what? No. Kratos did that).
But, whatever. We’re playing with building on a mythology and they can do whatever they want provided it’s internally consistent with itself – and it is. According to the movie, the Amazons are created by the gods to shepherd men away from being terrible people.
They’re thinkers and philosophers who get good at fighting because they have to go into where the fighting is worst and calm things down so that everyone can talk, and they fight like it: the Amazons are graceful and do impossible things in order to stop the fighting quickly, but they’re also cut off from the rest of the world. They have an academic understanding of war and of men and have drawn their own conclusions on both for thousands of years without seeing the reality of either.
When war comes to their island because Diana exposed her godhood they show that the techniques they’ve developed are good but also flawed; they adapt quickly and win the day, but they are horrified by the loss of Robin Wright – and who wouldn’t be? She’s Princess Buttercup and the President of the United States and a General. She’s awesome. None are more devastated by her death than Diana – she’s never dealt with loss or violence before and she knows Ares is responsible because, unlike the other Amazons, she’s never met a human before and she’s made some pretty naive decisions about both humanity and war.
See, Child Diana is excited by the possibility of war, like some children are. She wants to be a warrior and she wants to fight and she wants to save the world from Ares: there is a singular bad person that she can punch and if she wins then humanity will be saved. Good and simple, clean and easy.
Diana imagines herself to be the champion of humanity but she’s never seen violence and that shows in her eagerness in learning how to fight and even to get to the fight – remember, she thinks if she beats Ares that the fighting ends. We can juxtapose this with her world-weariness in modern times, in the bookends to this film and to Gal Gadot’s performance in Batman v Superman. There’s a clear line of growth through the movies that retroactively makes Batman v Superman better (but still not good). She gets a sword and a shield and everything.
The thing is, the villain of the film isn’t the Germans or even Ares but war itself. There were no good people in World War 1 and the movie goes out of its way to show the serious flaws of both sides, and even of Diana’s belief structure. The sword is a lie and is dismissed out of hand by Ares when we meet him, laughed off and melted as if it never was. The power to defeating war comes not from violence but from understanding, from talking, from within – it comes from a divinity that may or may not exist but one we all believe in, that place where angel meets ape.
It doesn’t stop there, though: the western powers are not shown to be any better than the Germans they’re fighting. Both sides use gas (there’s a reason that the Germans are wearing masks), both sides target civilians and dismiss those casualties, both are just as bad as the other. The leadership on both sides are also trying to negotiate peace but are meeting resistance by the war-obsessed members of their own people and peers, making this a four-way conflict between the people fighting and themselves, the ones who are fighting and ones who want peace.
We see how war and society has broken people – a sniper who can’t fire a gun, an actor who couldn’t get work before the war because of his skin color, a man who left his home because his home was destroyed. Those are people who were harmed by the so-called good guys and are still part of those good guys, losers who are also lost but are still struggling to find a way to help.
On the bad side we have a man so obsessed with winning that he’ll kill his own men out of hand, a broken woman who understands the science of death but has forgotten the humanity that was scoured from her, and a god who encourages the worst parts of humanity but doesn’t actually make anyone do anything. The evil is us and our need for control and dominance, the toxic aspects of our culture that is so set on competition and zero-sum games, and that’s a harder story to tell than a giant beam in the sky that makes clouds look weird and does… something.
I’m looking at you, pretty much every other movie that has superheroes in it.
Diana calls all of them out on all of their shit: she storms into an all-male war room and demands attention because she’s knowledgeable about war and has actionable intelligence and she has no time for the seedy posturing bullshit of that era. The fact that she’s dismissed out of hand for reasons of gender mystifies her, and the chicanery needed to get her to the front lines makes her just as angry as not being allowed to go in the first place. She despises the men who are willing to let others die for no reason other than to assuage their own egos. She blames a man for being Ares, not understanding that he is only a man and needing to learn otherwise. No one is honest and that dishonesty is infuriating and damages everyone and she will force the truth from us all if that’s what it takes to make us our best selves.
Wonder Woman calling that room of men out on their shit is just as important as stepping into No Man’s Land. It’s a thing I think 51% of the audience understands implicitly, but something that the other 49% might need attention drawn to. So, here it is guys: attention on a thing you might have missed.
But let’s go back to something that’s sticking in a lot of craws: comic Wonder Woman fought in World War II, not World War I – so why the change? The answer is complex: the Nazis were dyed-in-the-wool evil in a way that people seem to have forgotten. The Holocaust wasn’t evil because Nazis did it – Nazis were evil because they did the Holocaust. Despite what Marvel comics might want you to believe there’s no gray area: the systematic destruction of an entire group of people is evil and needs to be fought sat every turn. The idea of genocide and virtue of extreme selfishness doesn’t get a seat at the table and doesn’t get listened to, it gets punched in the face and sent running.
The point of this movie is that war itself is wrong, yes, but by making this story about the first World War we know the second follows, and we know that happens without Ares and despite Wonder Woman.
World War II is therefore not the fault of some external thing; it is the fault of humanity, itself, and the responsibility for the Holocaust lies at the feet of all humanity.
And so does World War I. Ares was right and telling the truth – he made things worse, certainly, but he only played on the ambitions and selfishness of his victims, allowing them their ability to kill as they saw fit. He’s an afterthought and his death doesn’t end the war so much as allow Diana to see the depth of her true enemy.
That’s why this movie is great. That’s why it’s going to speak to 51% of the audience specifically and everyone in general, why the character of Wonder Woman earns her spot as one of DC Comics’ holy trinity alongside Batman and Superman. This is how and why a DC Comics movie is going to rule over the month of June, and if this is a sign of things to come from Geoff Johns taking the helm, well, we have much more hope for everything to come.
Now, here’s the thing: I’m a male presenting asexual agender person, so there’s definitely going to be things I missed and I’m eager to learn and listen. So… what’d I miss?