‘Wonder Woman’ Is a Lesson in Making ‘Dark and Gritty’ Superhero Movies Work (Commentary)

The latest and best DC Comics movie doesn’t abandon all of the tone and setting cues of its predecessors, but uses them better

Wonder Woman dark and gritty
Warner Bros.

The Zack Snyder era of DC Comics movies, and the Christopher Nolan “Batman” films” before that, are often described as being “dark and gritty” comic movies. Sometimes that’s an adjective — and sometimes it’s a knock against the films.

When it comes to “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the heavy focus on dark themes and deadly superheroes is a pretty definite negative. Those movies get a lot of flack for being obsessed with their dark tone and imagery. That’s how you get Superman, a hero defined by his empathy and lifesaving actions, participating in a city-destroying battle that must have killed hundreds. It’s also how you wind up with a version of Batman that shoots people, and when he’s not shooting them, he’s branding them.

“Wonder Woman,” which is often lighter and much funnier than either “Man of Steel” or “Batman v. Superman,” is being held up as an answer to the “dark and gritty” approach to superhero movies. You don’t need to be so dark or so gritty to make superheroes work, some critics are saying.

But we knew that already. Just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In fact, “Wonder Woman” is dark and gritty. In fact, It’s hard to set your movie during the Great War and not get into some pretty horrific subject matter. It doesn’t get much darker or grittier than a muddy trench full of World War I soldiers worried about getting gassed. Lots of people die in “Wonder Woman,” and the heroic Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) kills several of them herself.

Despite being a movie about World War I in which the primary antagonists are looking for newer, better ways to kill as many thousands as possible, “Wonder Woman” can feel like it shouldn’t fall into the “dark and gritty” category. It’s got a lot of humor, especially in the first half of the film, before it finds itself actively embroiled in the war.

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But removing “Wonder Woman” from the more dour designation of other DC universe films also does it something of a disservice. The movie still pushes for something of a “realistic” take on the superhero, digging in on violence and war and their consequences. But it stands out from its DC Comics predecessors because it’s not nearly as dark as DC’s other films, and because it makes much better use of its darkness and grittiness.

And really, there’s a distinction between describing a movie as being serious and downbeat and deriding it for being overly so. The reason many people react poorly to some of DC’s tone choices comes down to, for one thing, the novelty of the scarier and more realistic brand of superhero films having worn off. With “dark and gritty” no longer being especially interesting for being different, a setting and tone that pushes too hard on the downbeat end of the superhero spectrum can feel like it’s doing so for no reason other than a hamfisted attempt at edginess.

Whereas the tone of “Man of Steel” feels out-of-step with the character of Superman and “Batman v. Superman” seems to wallow in just how in-your-face tough the movie is about its depressing “realism,” “Wonder Woman” utilizes its tone and setting as character development for Diana. When it does trench warfare, soldiers missing limbs, and vicious gas attacks, it uses those things to build the characters in the film.

“Wonder Woman” stands in contrast to “Batman v. Superman” and “Man of Steel” because of the way it employs its darker elements. Snyder’s Batman turns to murder and maiming his victims. His Superman often seems indifferent to suffering. But Wonder Woman looks at the darkest parts of humanity and decides her role is the never-ending battle to protect the world from them.

“Wonder Woman” puts a DC Comics superhero in a dark and gritty movie, but instead of that making Diana worse, downtrodden and compromised, she embraces her heroic identity even more.

That makes “Wonder Woman” less a movie that proves superhero movies don’t need to be dark, and more one that shows how to use that tone to the benefit of the character. “Wonder Woman” takes its hero to one of the worst conflicts in history, but its protagonist is shaped by it without being beaten by it. “Wonder Woman” goes dark and gritty, and Diana Prince becomes a better hero because of it. It’s a good lesson for DC on how to make that kind of tone work for its heroes, rather than letting the tone overtake them.