Superhero films are now the adamantium-coated backbone of Hollywood’s studio system, and nothing – save, perhaps, for a certain space opera franchise – stokes more fiery and unintelligible internet discourse than the continuing celluloid adventures of the spandex-donning saviours of our favourite comic books.
Emerging from this eternally passionate, intolerably incessant debate, then, has been a singular focal point on which all superhero movies are now judged; the cross on which fans will live and die, and the most widely argued debate upon the futures and pasts of the respective properties:
Hang around the forums and comment sections long enough, and you’ll see more discussions of tonality than a class on musical theory. Internet warriors love to point to tone as the be-all and end-all of superhero films. “Marvel movies are too light,” they’ll say, “their tone isn’t mature enough”, as if the two are intrinsically linked – bound at the hip like unfortunate twins. “No,” the other side bites back, “DC movies are too dark, their tone is too unlikeable”. You could be mistaken, when bombarded with this perpetual back-and-forth, for truly believing that the tonality of a film is the be-all and end-all of how it functions as entertainment.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than the 2017 release of Warner Bros’ (and DC’s) Wonder Woman. Granted, it’s undeniably a tonal departure from its grittier (and objectively worse) shared universe titles such as Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman became the poster-child for the ‘lighter tone’ crowd to wave as a banner against those who staked their claim for the dark. It was vastly more successful, more universally-loved, and was a shining beacon of hope amidst the dreary and moody landscape of its brethren.
But it also suffered from similar maladies; a bizarre bookending sequence involving correspondance with Bruce Wayne served only to solidify Wonder Woman’s position for the (at the time) forthcoming Justice League film, and this is before one considers the climax of the third-act devolving into a familiar, noisy, CG-drenched spectacle similar to her other big DC universe set piece – her much-maligned fight with Doomsday in Batman v Superman. So why, then, were these issues overlooked? Was it simply the tonal change? Are audiences more forgiving if you simply make them smile?
Well… yes. That is part of the reason, of course. But it isn’t the sole underlying crux of why audiences so whole-heartedly accepted Wonder Woman into a crowded pantheon of beloved superhero favourites. Whereas most internet warriors stake their flag on tone, drawing themselves into ‘us vs. them’ battles of tribal idiocy, there’s another force at work within Wonder Woman that sets her and her film apart from the crowd:
You see, director Patty Jenkins’ sincerely loves the character of Wonder Woman. Jenkins is also, by her own admission, an enormous fan of Richard Donner’s original classic Superman (a film she has described as ‘her Star Wars‘), starring the late, great Christopher Reeve in the title role. And though her film shares many aesthetic decisions with that older, iconic patch of cinema, it also shares a sincerity of heart, and a devotion and adoration of its source material.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the definitive and most memorable moment of Jenkins’ film; Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of Themyscira, casts off her robe and strides out onto the muddy desolation of No Man’s Land, takes all of fire from the opposing German forces, and creates a path to the stranded, captured town of Veld. The moment in which Diana, for all intents and purposes, becomes Wonder Woman. Not by striking a villain, or giving a trite speech. Through true, undeniable heroism.
“She doesn’t punch people in the face. That’s not the most effective way to stop something from happening,” Jenkins says of the Amazonian hero, “And she doesn’t stomp on somebody’s chest to get information. She’s not that kind of person.”
And it is in that sincere devotion to the nature of heroism that Wonder Woman dazzles. Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to ever win the US Open, once described heroism as “not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost”. It is the simple, basic act of selflessness for the greater good, and a choice to aid others at no benefit to one’s own self that makes a hero. Aiding the town of Veld, clearing the path for the Allied forces… this isn’t part of Diana’s mission – something her companion Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) points out to her before she charges onto the front. She believes she is on the way to slay Ares, the God of War, whom she considers responsible for the death and destruction surrounding her. She sees it as her “divine right” as an Amazon, her “foreordinance”. She should not, by all accounts, be delaying that mission to help save one place. But she cannot help herself. She is defiant.
As lawyer and veteran Robert Green Ingersoll says, “When the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honour scorns to compromise with death – that is heroism”. Compare this, then, to the other recent DC films. Zack Snyder’s Superman in Man of Steel does not choose to act unless forced to – every time he saves someone, it is because he was simply there at the time, or called out personally. He doesn’t seek out the need to be a hero, nor does he act of his own volition. Similarly, Batman acts initially out of vengeance, a desire to honour those lost – not to be a hero. The films that carry these characters, too, are insincere in their portrayal of heroism. Displaying their superheroes as god-like beings, briefly shaking off their indifference to play immortal chess amongst the world of their denizens.
It is ironic, then, that the most god-like amongst them also be the most human. Diana, as naive as she is, has a genuine and sincere love for the human race, and a genuine and sincere desire to help others. This is what makes her a superhero, and this is what allowed her film to connect with audiences in the way it did.
Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, lighter as it is, can suffer from a lack of sincerity – undercutting its emotional moments at several turns with an overwhelming need to quip, and to never miss a chance to indulge in the humorous short-term reward granted by bathos. Compare Wonder Woman’s ‘the hero has arrived’ moment with Doctor Strange’s (which arrived a year earlier). When Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) readies himself for the fight, bloody and beaten but now determined to win, he stands in front of a hospital mirror. He swirls his sentient cape around himself, the music soars, and then his collar begins to touch his face. He bats it away, and the scene is played for laughs. It’s amusing in its subversion, certainly. But it is insincere to the character, the audience, and his decision to act heroically – it undermines the narrative arc at the heart of the film. Wonder Woman is given her moment, because Patty Jenkins understands that the weight of that moment is important, that the second she stands tall on that battlefield – her armour shining, her gauntlets leaving trails of sparks in the air as she deflects bullets with them, and begins to run towards the German army – she has become what she was always meant to be.
Going forth, it would perhaps aid in discussions concerning the directions fans want these characters -and their respective universes – to go to perhaps focus less on tone, and more on the particular vision each director has for their characters, and how sincere they want to be in translating those characters to the big screen. Tone is important, certainly. But there is no need for sincerity to be a dirty word – especially when it comes to our heroes.