This post contains spoilers about the ending of Wonder Woman.
Zack Snyder had a difficult task on his hands when he was announced as the director of 2013’s Man of Steel. The last attempt at a cinematic Superman, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, had gotten a muted reception from critics and audiences in 2006 after it aimed to replicate the more stirring, old-fashioned valor of the hero’s earlier films. Christopher Nolan, who produced Man of Steel and wrote its story, had drawn acclaim for his darker, more grounded take on Batman in the Dark Knight movies. So Snyder’s 2013 film focused on a hero largely alienated by humans, unsure of his purpose on Earth, and compelled to save the planet only when a hostile invader draws him out.
It was a somewhat contrary take on a character who usually embodies worldliness and compassion, who has cast himself as a protector of humanity rather than one trying to decide on his place in the world. It played into the notion of Superman as an alien, sent from another planet, raised in a land not his own. In his 2016 sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder introduced an embittered, violent Batman who mercilessly brutalized criminals and challenged Superman, whom he saw as a threat. In his efforts to diverge from the heroes audiences might be bored by, Snyder created a cinematic universe without anyone to root for.
Wonder Woman changed that. As played by Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman did appear in Batman v. Superman, but she was presented as an intentionally mysterious figure, a tease for a future film in the ever-expanding “DC Extended Universe” being piloted by Warner Bros. That film, released last weekend, has drawn positive notices from critics (including The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr), opened above box-office expectations, and generally revitalized prospects for a comic-book franchise that had been floundering under bad buzz for years. It might sound simple to say that the key was making a superhero movie about an actual superhero—but that’s exactly why Wonder Woman worked.
It helped that she arrived onscreen with fewer doppelgangers to contend with. Superman has been played by three different actors in seven major films, and Batman by six actors in eight films. Wonder Woman had never appeared on the silver screen until Gadot’s role in Batman v. Superman. Though she’s one of the most famous DC characters, and certainly the most well-known female comic-book hero, Wonder Woman was essentially given the task of “introducing” her to a cinema audience, much like Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, or Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire.
Patty Jenkins, who directed, and Allan Heinberg, who wrote the screenplay, had the tricky job of navigating the grim DC Universe Snyder had created. It’s easy, and perhaps unfair, to lay all the blame at Snyder’s feet—especially since it made sense to push for different versions of Batman and Superman, so soon after Nolan and Singer’s films. The third DC movie, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, was even grimier and more brutish, focusing on a team of amoral villains. But still, the Wonder Woman viewers briefly meet in Batman v. Superman is aloof and seemingly disinterested in the petty squabbles of humankind.
“A hundred years ago I walked away from mankind; from a century of horrors ... Men made a world where standing together is impossible,” she tells Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in that film, seemingly explaining why she doesn’t publicly fight crime like he does. It’s a funny line to think about in the context of Wonder Woman, because it feels entirely contradictory. The heroic arc of Jenkins’s film is exactly the opposite—it’s about a young hero facing a world of horror, to be sure, but it’s also about her finding the essential good of humanity in the midst of it, resolving to fight for love even if Earth seems sometimes devoid of it.
In Batman v. Superman, Gadot was very alien and dry, like all of Snyder’s heroes. In Wonder Woman, she plays her character as compassionate and full of life, first in her adolescence on Themyscira (the Brigadoon-like paradise island on which she’s raised by Amazon warriors) and then as she journeys into World War I-era Europe with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), seeking to end the conflict. Diana Prince (the alias she adopts) delivers compliments to every shopkeep and ice-cream merchant she meets, and is moved to help every person in need she finds, even if it means marching into no man’s land by herself while Steve yelps in protest.
Wonder Woman could have come off as patronizing or simplistic, and for Diana to look like an idealistic fool—after all, as Steve keeps trying to remind her, World War I isn’t a conflict she can resolve by getting rid of the bad guy. But Jenkins somehow manages to thread the needle of staying true to Diana’s essential belief—that humankind is worth saving, despite its flaws—without throttling back on the paradoxical mess that was the European front, or the reality of discrimination (against people of color and women) that Diana never encountered in her utopian home.
Her final battle with the villainous Ares (the Greek God of War, played by David Thewlis) ends up not being the clear-cut task Diana imagined—killing him does not undo all the evil she sees in the world. Ares just stands for pessimism and fatalism, a belief in man’s inherent corruptibility, a view she rejects (partly because she’s moved by a comrade’s sacrifice). The Diana of Wonder Woman has seen a “century of horrors,” but as she tells viewers in her closing monologue, she has not walked away from it, deciding instead to fight for love.
It remains to be seen how this upbeat tale of heroism will coexist with the relentless darkness of Snyder’s films. He has another, Justice League, coming in November, and it features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and many more heroes like The Flash and Aquaman. For all the critical yelping, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad earned hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide; there’s nothing in Wonder Woman’s box-office performance that demands an immediate shift in how DC and Warner Bros. tell their comic-book stories.
But Wonder Woman is still the first movie in this franchise with a tone that seems maintainable into the future. It’s fresh, rather than reacting to every superhero before it; it’s unafraid, and happy, to be sincere. Even the comparatively cheerful Marvel Studios—whose best hits, like Guardians of the Galaxy, lean on winking humor—has not produced a film this straightforwardly winning in a few years. Wonder Woman is evocative of an earlier age, one that easily conjures up nostalgia—it’s fighting for a cause everyone can get on board with.