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.