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Why ‘Wonder Woman’ Worked

The film's historic box-office numbers augur a bright future for female action stars and DC Comics.
June 16, 2017
9 mins read

Girl Power

The film’s historic box-office numbers augur a bright future for female action stars and DC Comics.

By Carli Scalf, Ball State University

While watching the new “Wonder Woman” movie, several scenes prompted me to have an emotional response.

Some were predictable, like a character’s death scene, but others surprised me. When heroine Diana Prince walked bravely onto a battlefield into no man’s land, I felt a mix of awe, joy and sadness; I could barely breathe. Even just watching Diana kick some slow-motion ass, a typical, unremarkable scene for most superhero movies, inspired in me a giddy, empowered feeling.

I realize that I may have been buying what the movie was selling a little too hard, but after a seventy-five-year wait and a $103 million opening weekend, I don’t think I was the only female viewer feeling this way. DC’s new “Wonder Woman” movie is poised to make history, both for the franchise and for female film heroines overall; its focus on character development, story and Wonder Woman’s rich history allowed for a deep connection with fans and an unprecedented box office performance.

The movie begins on the mythical island of Themiscyra, where Princess Diana is raised to be a fierce Amazon warrior by her mother and aunt. Their paradise is ruined when British spy Steve Trevor crash lands on the island, bringing a fleet of angry Germans behind him and news of “the war to end all wars” waging in the outside world. Diana determinedly joins the war effort, believing she can stop it if she kills Ares, god of war.

The journey brings her to a new land, where a mix of wonder and naiveté make her human, not dumb, and never outweighs her strong moral code and belief in humanity’s inherent goodness. The audience can’t help but root for her earnest faith in truth and justice, even as it breaks their heart, knowing that she will be let down by the evil that humans are capable of creating on their own.

This insight into Diana’s thought process, and the chart of her growth from a sheltered warrior princess to a champion for a flawed humanity, gives the story the heart many DC movies are so desperately missing. “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Supermanhad much gloomier tones that, while struggling with similar ideas about good and evil, were weighed down by the lack of hope they provided (“Batman v. Superman” ended with Superman’s death; probably not permanent, but how much more depressing can it get?!).

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Despite the weighty tones, I didn’t come away from these movies feeling I knew the heroes any better; they seemed to get lost in the convoluted message the movies were trying to send. The determination of “Wonder Woman” to focus on the motives and personalities of its characters, particularly its heroine, allowed for a real audience connection that will serve as the sturdy foundation that a long-term superhero saga requires.

Critics have compared “Wonder Woman” with the 2008 “Iron Man” movie, whose success allowed Marvel to launch its seemingly unstoppable freight train of interconnected films (fourteen Marvel movies have been released since then, with two more coming this year and additional titles in production). Though the disparity in time between “Wonder Woman” and her male counterparts’ movies is inexcusable, adapting the character to film for the first time may have given the story creators a leg up.

Batman and Superman had to contend with years’ worth of movies, TV shows, cartoons and a myriad of other depictions, making a fresh take on the characters feel a bit forced. The filmmakers also may have assumed fans were familiar with Superman and Batman’s motives, causing them to focus more on tone and less on character development. Because “Wonder Woman” was a new story with years of history behind it, more attention was paid to introducing audiences to the new film version of the hero.

Perhaps most important, the search for Diana’s identity was centered around a coherent plot and message. Instead of struggling with a purely internal problem, Diana wrestled with understanding the motivations of humanity. Watching that search through her fresh perspective allowed the audience to think critically about a deep issue, while still feeling hopeful and entertained. Setting the story around World War I highlighted the theme by allowing Diana to come into humanity at a critical juncture, strengthening her ability to grow as a character. Instead of feeling like the action scenes were fluff, every fight seemed to challenge and change her ideas around the central struggle.

Image via Vox

The merits of a World War I focus, however, also came with conflicts and complaints from fans. It strayed from her original origin story, which had her entering during World War II instead. Others felt the feminist ideals that propelled the character’s creation were noticeably absent. Jill Lepore, the author of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” wrote in the “New Yorker” that the film “renders invisible—erases—the fights women waged a century ago for representation, contraception and equality.” It’s true that when Wonder Woman was conceived in 1941, her main motive was equality for all. Many of her comic stories have focused on women’s issues and more explicitly highlighted her role in women’s rights.

Though the lack of explicit feminism was initially disappointing, my hope is that Wonder Woman is given the freedom to explore these issues in subsequent films. The Diana Prince we meet in “Wonder Woman” is just being introduced to the world; it wouldn’t have made sense to zero in on specific issues when she’s overwhelmed by humanity in general. Now that the foundation has been laid, the opportunity to explore Diana’s continued engagement and changing feelings about the human world can include specific issues on feminism and equality. With a large disparity to make up for, I can only hope that additional Wonder Woman movies are already being discussed.

Beyond controversy, there’s no doubt that “Wonder Woman” is a big deal for both DC and female-centered action movies as a whole. The film has already become the biggest U.S. opening by a female director (Patty Jenkins), and has set the stage for more installments in the DC Comics universe. Just as Wonder Woman concludes, at the end of the film, that love is the only answer against war, DC would do well to consider that a focus on character’s hearts and inner workings (and a huge increase in heroic female leads) may be the best weapon against box office foes.

Carli Scalf, Ball State University

Writer Profile

Carli Scalf

Ball State University
English & Journalism

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