DC Films missed the lesson of those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. The new shared universe that kicked off with Man of Steel struggled to truly connect with critics and audiences. Why did Wonder Woman succeed? It simply ditched the dated grim and gritty approach and went back to what DC does best — showcasing inspiring heroes. Call Wonder Woman the kickoff to a DC Films Rebirth.
As usual for DC, the success of Batman led decision makers to paint most of the universe with a brush that only works for The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Batman trilogy set the tone for the DC Films universe despite being the worst possible foundation.
Nolan wasn’t trying to make a franchise. Reportedly one of his few caveats while he worked on the series was Batman couldn’t appear in other live action films (i.e. a Justice League movie). Nolan understood his vision of Batman was singular and its grounded, yes gritty take wouldn’t play well with others. Especially a super-powered alien or Amazon made of clay.
Just as Nolan was winding down his trilogy, Marvel Studios was soaring to the top of the all-time highest grossing charts thanks to The Avengers. Those films embodied Marvel’s strengths: relatable characters in outrageous scenarios. The fun, energetic spirit of the Phase I films was a direct counter to Nolan’s Batman films and it worked big time.
DC Films opted to go the other direction, doubling down on the sterner approach. Man of Steel featured a Superman who felt like an outsider searching for his place in life. While relatable, this Superman was hardly inspiring — his father ingrained a deep distrust of humanity to the point he let him die to preserve his secret identity and Superman killed General Zod as Metropolis shattered around him. And fans weren’t happy, but this wasn’t the first time.
Back in 1986, Frank Miller created his signature work — The Dark Knight Returns. It painted a dark, gloomy and entirely likely future for Batman. In the wake of its success, the comic industry followed suit and tried to recast their heroes as brooding characters in the grim and gritty phase. Some heroes like Daredevil, The Punisher, Wolverine and X-Men in general, shined in this new status quo.
DC gave it a go with less encouraging results. Lobo proved a hit, but he was the exception. Aquaman ditched his signature orange shirt for a beard and hook hand. Even Superman went through a dark phase before his death at the hands of Doomsday. And the less said about homicidal maniac Green Lantern Hal Jordan phase the better.
For decades, DC creators tried to sprinkle more Batman elements to their titles. The result was a continual cycle of death, depressing character shifts and jaded, cynical storytelling for a universe desperately in need of a Rebirth.
When kicking off its new status quo shift in storytelling, DC execs announced a back to basics approach. Essentially that meant the characters wouldn’t be getting the one writing style fits all treatment. It’s led to some fantastic portrayals of DC’s iconic characters.
Superman and Lois Lane are trying to raise a decent son and possible superhero. Aquaman balances the demands of being the king of Atlantis while trying to establish them as a political party. The Flash is training a new Kid Flash and The Titans are embracing reuniting their childhood superhero team. DC Rebirth has led to a major revitalization of the DC comic brand and the publisher is enjoying its spot atop the comic book sales charts.
At first glance, Wonder Woman looks to be the cinematic equivalent for DC Films Rebirth.
It starts with the treatment of the character. Gal Gadot’s Princess Diana aspires to be more. From childhood she looks up to her aunt and the other proud Amazon warriors. She’s determined enough to sneak off and train in secret. And when Steve Trevor arrives concerned about the latest threat to mankind, Diana quickly steps up to do what’s right. Not for fame or revenge, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Diana’s heart is evident throughout the film. She genuinely is pained at the thought of generals dismissively sending troops to fight and die on the battlefields. Diana delights in the simple joys of an ice cream cone or the first feeling of snowflakes falling. And in a weird rarity for DC Films since Batman Begins in 2005, Diana cracks a smile — several throughout the film.
The Lois Lane/Clark Kent romance feels obligatory compared to the heartfelt chemistry Diana has with Steve. There’s a physical attraction, but both reveal admirable traits that further the interest.
Wonder Woman isn’t embarrassed about helping others or looking like she’d rather be anywhere else than among a sea of admirers. Without signing off in Hero Finishing School, she instinctively gets that comes with the territory.
Also, Diana isn’t a one-note character. Most of Superman’s actions in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice could be summed up as cautious and Batman as distrustful. Wonder Woman shows a much wider range of emotions. She’s determined in training, understandably curious at the sight of Steve coming out of a bath and perplexed at the stuffy 1910s fashion. But she’s also able to unwind and enjoy life despite her pending battle with Aries.
When a fellow ally has lost his edge on the battlefield, Diana refuses to discard him. Instead, she bolsters him by encouraging him to keep the mood light with his singing. It’s a minor moment, but it’s inspiring. While most would abandon veterans after the war is over, Wonder Woman finds a way to embrace them.
On the whole, Wonder Woman is an inviting superhero film. Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg celebrate what makes Wonder Woman special instead of running from those traits to do something different.
As the comics are proving with the success of DC Rebirth, fans really just want to see their heroes simply be heroes. That’s far more powerful and inspiring than lifting a rocket or hurling a tank these days. Here’s hoping DC Films Rebirth continues with Justice League when it arrives in theaters Nov. 17.