The DC Comics Extended Universe is currently basking in the warm glow of its first critical and commercial success in “Wonder Woman.” That immediately begs a question: What does Warner Bros. and DC have to do to maintain its success?
With a character like Wonder Woman already fleshed out in the franchise, the answer is clear: Put her in charge. DC’s Wonder Woman stands out ahead of her counterparts in the DC Extended Universe, because in her movie, she’s the only one who has handled the standard adversity of being a superhero even remotely well. DC can use Wonder Woman to correct the course of the rest of the franchise, by letting her be the torch who lights the way for the DCEU’s wayward Superman and Batman.
It’s hard not to categorize the DC movieverse endeavor endeavor so far as one misstep after another. The Superman reboot “Man of Steel” was rightly dinged for portraying one of the world’s most popular superheroes in a way that was at odds with his fundamental traits. As often a lifesaver as a brawler, Superman (Henry Cavill) seems callous about suffering in the movie, especially in his big fight with General Zod (Michael Shannon) that ravages Superman’s adopted home city of Metropolis.
The follow-up to “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” continues that brooding conception of Superman and throws in an even broodier version of Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s one who not only beats on criminals endlessly in the uber-corrupt city of Gotham, but who maims and even murders them.
Superman and Batman are both such seemingly bad guys in “Batman v. Superman, each thinks the other is literally a villain. Both are versions of beloved characters that are distinctly un-heroic.
Enter “Wonder Woman,” a movie predicated on a superhero who’s driven by her intrinsic morality and her love of others. Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) comes face-to-face with the evils of humanity — and chooses to fight for the world’s redemption. It’s a battle that’ll never end, but for Wonder Woman, it’s one that’s worth fighting.
And because of that take, “Wonder Woman” stands above its predecessors for finding a way to marry its downbeat, realistic setting and tone — it’s tough to get darker and grittier than World War I, really — to a hero that not only chooses to oppose it, but who is shaped by it for the better. DC should learn something about how to deploy its darkness and grittiness.
But the next time we see Wonder Woman, she’ll be back with her “Batman v. Superman” counterparts for “Justice League” later this year. There’s an easy way for DC to transfer its success in “Wonder Woman” with that movie: just make Diana the team’s moral, heroic North Star.
To do that, DC should look at the best scene in “Wonder Woman” for how it builds Diana’s character — the moment she crosses No Man’s Land.
The big action scene in the middle movie defines “Wonder Woman” and its protagonist in the film’s best, most important moment. It finds Diana, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and their ragtag group of mercenaries heading into Belgium to stop General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who, together with psychopathic chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), is working on a new weapon of mass destruction to loose on the Western Front to kill thousands.
As the group enters the trenches on the front, Diana is struck by the fearful soldiers stuck there, and the civilians who’ve managed to escape their nearby German-occupied village. One explains that the villagers who weren’t murdered have been taken as slaves. Diana listens to their plight and refuses to go on, even as Steve tries to dissuade her to stay on-mission, and that they can’t stop and help everyone.
But Diana won’t leave without lending aid, and alone, she climbs out of the trench to face down German machine guns. Blocking bullets first with her gauntlets and then with her shield, she draws enough fire that the British troops are able to climb out of their trench and charge the German line. Steve, The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Sami (Saïd Taghmaoui) lay down cover fire to help her. It’s the first moment in which Diana becomes Wonder Woman, and it’s absolutely key to her character.
So much about the sequence is essential to the movie. Diana refuses to abandon those in need; she risks herself when no one else is willing or able; she inspires those around her to rise to the occasion; and she works together with her team to win the day, because even a superhero Amazon warrior can’t face every threat on her own. The fight in No Man’s Land is the pinnacle of “Wonder Woman” because it gets every single thing about its superhero right.
That important scene was almost cut from the movie, according to Director Patty Jenkins. She fought studio execs who she said at first didn’t really “get” why the moment was needed — it’s not a by-the-numbers superhero battle in which she’s fighting a clear enemy and that enemy is clearly bad. It’s a war moment, focused on Diana as a character, and if Jenkins hadn’t managed to keep it in the movie, it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to say “Wonder Woman” might have actually been ruined.
“Wonder Woman” works in the DCEU framework because it does give Diana a chance to struggle with the internal conflicts both Superman and Batman endure in their movies, without that struggle compromising who she is as a character. The No Man’s Land scene perfectly embodies Wonder Woman, and that’s the kind of stuff DC should embrace in its films. Superhero movies can be realistic and give their characters those big, tough to reconcile ideas to deal with, without reducing the “hero” part of the equation.
So how does DC maintain the goodwill of “Wonder Woman?” By having her lead the other heroes in this shared universe, and and have them learn from her. In “Justice League,” DC can challenge its heroes while still making them inspirational, and not just because they’re big, tough people who punch good.
With the characters the films have already established, Diana is in a perfect position to be the group’s moral compass. What DCEU needs is more of that kind of leadership, and less smashy superhero fights that ruin cities.
In fact, “Justice League” can do the job not just by taking cues from “Wonder Woman,” but by making those best parts of her character part of the story and character development for Batman and Superman. In “Wonder Woman,” Diana inspires the people around her to be better, as part of the story. She can do the same thing in “Justice League.” And that character development can bleed into the DCEU’s Batman and Superman franchises, allowing DC to correct its past missteps thanks to Wonder Woman’s influence.
In Wonder Woman, DC and Warner Bros. have a character that can elevate their entire cinematic universe. But like in the No Man’s Land scene, they have to be willing to let Wonder Woman lead.