WARNING: While this article attempts to be spoiler-free, it does refers to plot elements that worked in Wonder Woman.
The future of the DC Extended Universe has been looking grim, with a decidedly mixed response to early entries Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, director difficulties and uncertain timelines for The Flash, Justice League Dark and The Batman, and the loss of Zack Snyder from Justice League in the wake of a family tragedy. But then came Wonder Woman.
Director Patty Jenkins’ film, which opened this weekend to critical acclaim and an estimated domestic box office of $101.4 million, may have single-handedly revitalized the struggling DCEU, in part because it’s so disconnected from the rest of that cinematic universe. However, before we wade into the best lesson Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment can learn from Wonder Woman’s success, let’s look at the many things it does right that, sadly, so many other superhero films tend to get wrong.
Wonder Woman is easily among the best superhero movies since 1978’s Superman. Filled with color and humor, it’s a joy to watch; it brings back a sense of wonder. With other films there may be a tendency to gloss over the destruction and the superpowers as tropes of the genre, but here here there’s a sense of awe as Gal Gadot’s Diana walks across a World War I battlefield and fights dozens of soldiers. In that moment audiences feel that she really is a superhero.
While it may not seem as there’s no concrete lesson to learn from that, there certainly is. One of the reasons we can see these superpowers as amazing is because we have a ground-level view of this fictional world, courtesy of of Steve Trevor and his fellow soldiers. Through them we can experience what it’s like when a god drops into their reality. In many other superhero films, the central protagonists are primary focus, so the audience experiences the story from their perspective. But in Wonder Woman, we see what gods look like to mere mortals — and it’s incredible.
That’s tied into another important lesson to learn from Wonder Woman: Let superheroes be super. Think about Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Batman v Superman; their plots can be distilled to “Big Scary Person is mad at Batman/Superman, and hurts a bunch of other people to get to the hero.” The protagonist isn’t so much being selfless and going out of his way to help others as he is dealing with a crazy person who wants to kill him.
However, the best superhero movies are about someone fighting for the common people. That’s another lesson to be taken from Wonder Woman: Focus on the common people in danger. When Sokovia is attacked in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron or Metropolis is under fire in Man of Steel/Dawn of Justice, you know it’s happening to hurt the hero. What we see most is the hero’s pain, which is what we care about. But in Wonder Woman, the focus is on the pain of the people in the war, and Diana doing everything she can to save them.
Let superheroes be super; don’t make them have super-powered hissy fits. It’s not that difficult.
That said, even in the darkness, Wonder Woman has humor and heart. One of the biggest complaints about the DCEU movies thus far is that they’re all style and no substance, that there’s no heart to any of them. Well, Wonder Woman has heart.
We’d mention making more movies starring women, but with Wonder Woman well positioned for a sequel, and Gotham City Sirens and Batgirl in development, the DCEU would seem to have that under control. Or, at least it’s doing a heck of a lot better than Marvel Studios.
There are a lot of lessons that can be taken from Wonder Woman, but perhaps the most important one the DCEU should learn is that these characters thrive … alone.
While it may seem a small thing, one of the most notable aspects of Wonder Woman is that the film — aside from a brief note at the beginning to set up the story — stands on its own. There are no surprise cameos, and no post-credits sequence to tease Justice League or even a sequel. The film doesn’t set up a long-running arc or name-drop other heroes — both things the otherwise-spectacular Captain America: The Winter Soldier spent time doing.
Compare Wonder Woman to Batman v Superman. You can’t get through the titles alone without seeing the stark difference: Wonder Woman is about the character, while Dawn of Justice was about setting up a shared universe.
But here’s the dirty little secret: DC doesn’t need a universe. For Marvel to beat its competitors at the theater, the studio needed to create a cinematic universe. Despite being a good film in its own right, 2008’s Iron Man is primarily remembered as the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But here’s the thing — DC doesn’t need that. Its characters have always stood alone, with their own cities to guard, their own worlds to protect. They don’t need to see each other every Tuesday; sure, having a Justice League film isn’t the worst idea ever, but keep the characters separate aside from that.
Wonder Woman works because it’s a movie about Wonder Woman — not a universe, not the sequels, and not other heroes. Given Wonder Woman’s success, the DCEU should take a lesson from that. What will happen next? We’re not certain, but if the DCEU learns anything from Wonder Woman, it’s sure to be brighter for it.
In theaters nationwide, director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman stars Gal Gadot as Diana, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Robin Wright as General Antiope, Danny Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, David Thewlis as Ares, Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta, Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison and Lucy Davis as Etta Candy.