Wonder Woman is a game-changer for the DC Extended Universe, whose future was, until recently, looking less than bright. So much of the fledgling cinematic universe -- from Man of Steel to Batman v Superman to Suicide Squad -- seemed dour, dark and superficial. But now Wonder Woman has brought with it the promise of a new dawn -- not of justice, but of wonder.
That raises the question of what, exactly, director Patty Jenkins' hit film has done right that so many other superhero movies, in the DCEU and elsewhere, have gotten wrong. There are lots of answers, but one is specific to DC: It’s myth, it's legend.
See, the DC Universe isn’t like ours. Grant Morrison said it best in his appropriately titled book Supergods. “In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment, and from their union something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear," he wrote. "... He was Apollo, the sun god, the unbeatable supreme self, the personal greatness of which we all know we’re capable. He was the righteous inner authority and lover of justice that blazed behind the starched-shirt front of hierarchical conformity. In other words, then, Superman was the rebirth of our oldest idea: He was a god.”
DC heroes aren’t human; they’re something more. That’s why when Morrison reinvented them in JLA, he chose a lineup that would form a new pantheon of gods. He believes in DC's superheroes as archetypal god-like figures so much, he says you should even perform magic with them. That's because Morrison can be a bit of a weirdo, sure, but his larger point still stands. DC heroes are larger than life, and any attempt to ground them is akin to dissecting a butterfly: We’ll learn how it works, but in doing so we kill it.
A World of Marvels
Since the birth of its modern fictional universe in 1961, Marvel Comics has attempted to ground itself in some sense of reality; its heroes live in, and protect, recognizable settings (New York City, mostly), and struggle with real-world problems, even as they battle invading aliens and brightly costumed villains. However, DC Comics is different.
In the DC Universe, however, each hero protects his or her own fictional city, often situated in a nebulous, and occasionally shifting, location on the globe. The key characters are archetypal -- a super man, a dark knight, a wonder woman, and unlike the Marvel Universe, which is grounded primarily in science (or maybe pseudo-science), DC's heroes often have their powers bestowed upon them in near-mythical ways. For instance, The Flash -- arguably one of the more science-based members of DC's pantheon -- was struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals, an origin that makes no sense whatsoever, and yet is so repeatable in the DCU, it serves as the origin for the original Wally West as well. Even better, Billy Batson became Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) after taking a magical subway car to an underground throne room inhabited by an ancient wizard who bestowed upon him the powers of the "gods."
And then there's Wonder Woman, who, depending which origin you go with, was either sculpted from clay and given life by the Greek goddess Aphrodite, or is a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods.
The DC Universe is larger than life; it isn’t meant to be realistic. Does it make any sense for a billionaire to dress like a bat and go out into the night to battle outlandish criminals? Of course it doesn't. The DC Universe works in a dream-logic, the same way that stories of Osiris and Horus do, the same way stories of Hercules and Zeus do.
Batman Begins, like it or not, is the best of the Bat films. (Yes, Heath Ledger was nothing short of revelatory as The Joker in its sequel The Dark Knight, but the movie is otherwise a snooze-fest.) That’s because it depends on the notion of Batman as myth. It attempts to deconstruct that myth, but at the same time strengthens it. The film shows Bruce and Alfred ordering parts for the Batsuit, but it also depicts a wild blue flower plucked from the side of a mountain as the key to conquering fear. It’s a dream-like film.
But then came The Dark Knight, and everything went downhill.
The Dark Before the Dawn
Director Jon Favreau has acknowledged Batman Begins as an influence on Iron Man and, by extension, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due to its realistic take on the modern superhero. That works, of course, because it’s what Marvel has done for decades in the comics. But while Marvel has always been about squabbling, bickering people, the DC Universe is about gods.
The Dark Knight forgot that. It was a film about a man investigating an anarchist in a ratty suit. It was about the very real threat of terrorism, and as a result, the DC Universe got smaller. Even the return to metaphor in The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t alter that course.
The lesson Warner Bros. took from the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight was that audiences wanted their heroes to be gritty and grounded, and applied that lesson to the most fantastic of DC's pantheon in Man of Steel. Because of this, the first chapter of Zack Snyder's DC story isn’t a story about Superman, but rather about an angry young farmer with superpowers.
It's Chronicle, if the hero had impulse issues.
One of the biggest criticisms of the film is that Superman kills General Zod. The filmmakers have argued that he had to take that route to bringing down the villain, but that's a disingenuous stance. Superman doesn't have to do anything; he doesn't exist. He could have defeated Zod in any number of fantastical ways, but the creators chose instead to make Superman human. As a result, he stops being above us. He sinks to our level. That approach -- taking something super realistic and making it grounded -- permeates the whole movie, and is the reason why, ultimately, the film fails.
Man of Steel deals realistically with the idea of an entire city being destroyed. It deals realistically with what a young boy from Kansas with superpowers would be like. Neither of those things turns out to be good or even slightly pleasant. Turns out that maybe realism isn't what people go to superhero movies for. Because that's the thing, Man of Steel tried to make Clark Kent "real." But, Clark Kent isn’t a real boy. He’s not meant to be taken at face value. He's a myth, a symbol, a god. Attempting to see him as a human misunderstands what he's about.
In the same vein, the point of superheroes isn’t to show exactly how they achieve their stupendous feats; rather, it's to simply celebrate the fact they can outrace a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings. DC heroes, at their core, aren’t meant to be realistic, and that's the problem they've faced on the big screen... until Wonder Woman. With Wonder Woman, the mysticism is unavoidable -- she’s a daughter from a mythical race with ties to ancient gods. You can’t make her seem realistic, because every bit of her is born from myth. Heck, the entire story of Wonder Woman is a myth, something huge and larger than life. That’s why that film works where the DCEU's previous offerings failed.
We don’t want to see a realistic Joker, because then it’s just Jared Leto with a grill. We don’t want to see what a real-life Amazon is like... because the Amazons aren’t real. DC superheroes are bigger than life -- that’s what makes them so fascinating. The comic elements are unrealistic and make no sense and don’t match up with how gravity or logic or, well, anything works, and that’s why fans have loved them for generations. Wonder Woman's plot is about a beautiful goddess coming down from her personal heaven to save the world from the personification of War.
DC Comics' heroes (and villain) are, simply, legends.
Gods & Monsters
For DC to succeed, it needs to embrace the idea of its characters as gods. Superman is Apollo, bright and beautiful, burning in the sky. Wonder Woman is the warrior. The Flash is the fleet-footed Hermes. Batman is the lord of the underworld. They reside together in a kingdom above the world, looking down on the Earth, protecting it from evil.
For DC to succeed in the future, it needs to let its heroes be what they are -- gods. It also needs to free the villains from the confines of mortality. No more Killer Croc wearing a hoodie, a Harley Quinn that wears a t-shirt and wields a gun. Let these characters be cartoons; it's what they're supposed to be. These characters are supposed to be huge, monstrous, and (frankly) insane. They should be massive mythical beasts rising from the depths, not common criminals. Making them be the type of characters you'd see in Goodfellas robs them of their specialness, making both the villains and heroes seem less than super.
The DCEU has always been, at its core, about things that are unimaginable, good guys, bad guys who could not ever truly exist. Stories about beings that monitor all of time and space, the cruel vengeance of a god, parallel Earths (just a vibration away!), a man with no powers safeguarding an entire city, a sun god that loves us, and a warrior who will do anything for us.
DC heroes are mythical. The DCEU will never work properly if its heroes are continuously thrown down into the dirt. Stop giving them bank accounts, and let them be gods.