Why Wonder Woman Is the Superman the DCEU Needed
A righteous and supernaturally powerful hero emerges to help save mankind from evil, selflessly throwing themselves into the fray and inspiring others with love and courage to be bold and fearless. Though that has historically described Superman, in the recent DECU movies, it has instead been Wonder Woman. In her solo film, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) becomes the kind of Messianic figure Superman has been in the past, yet one who does not come off as a cold god, but someone who embraces her humanity.
That is the beautiful simplicity at the core of Wonder Woman. Unlike Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in Man of Steel, Diana wholeheartedly embraces her fate as the savior of Earth. She leaves her island paradise willingly and with purpose, with her constant refrain for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to take her to the war, to the front, to where things are at their worst. She seeks out the darkness so that she can bring hope and light to it. Diana is not burdened by her purpose and doesn’t shun her abilities — she relishes in both, creating an unapologetically focused and determined heroine.
There’s a certain balance that’s essential for these characters to be at their most successful — a vulnerability that has to exist in order for us to feel a kinship even as we stand in awe. Diana Prince has otherworldly looks and abilities, but there’s a purity to her as she enters the world of men, one that allows her to have an unshakable focus in her mission to destroy the film’s villain, Ares. And yet, she still stops to listen to the story of a woman in the trenches who cries out for help, and without hesitation heroically shields the Allied troops as she takes fire from the German trenches. She helps to save a village, never pausing to consider the tactics of it (as Steve Trevor is forever trying to get her to do), but going full-throttle, motivated by a righteous indignation. Diana does the right thing because it is right.
But Diana is not just a war tank. Her powers are great, yes, but she also has a very strict moral compass, and she takes that boldness with her into the highest chambers of government as well. As Steve makes his case to his superiors about destroying the factory where the deadly gas he discovered is being mass-produced, he’s interrupted and shut down. He accepts it not because he isn’t a strong person (he may be the strongest in the movie, as he sacrifices himself for the greater good), but it’s because he knows that this is the process, the way of things. Diana doesn’t accept that, and as Steve tries to (somewhat hilariously) quiet her when she could easily fling him across the room, she tells the general to be ashamed. She’s right. But it’s just one of several occasions where Steve tries to temper her by explaining protocol (“you can’t just walk into a gala and kill a man!”), and it’s a great partnership dynamic. The movie doesn’t have the time to explore it much further, but Steve doesn’t require Diana to rescue him, or vice versa. He is not taken over the role of a damsel in distress. These two, with their team of sundries, work together for a greater purpose with affinity and friendship. It’s unique and heartening.
Last fall, when Supergirl introduced Superman, long-time fan Craig Byrne wrote about how Tyler Hoechlin might be the best live-action version of the character yet. In a criticism of the filmic Superman of late, he writes:
“Henry Cavill, for the most part, has the look. I still wish there was more red in his suit, and I still feel his version of the character is a bit of an ‘untouchable god,’ whereas Superman should be someone we can relate to and aspire to be like. Superman saves kittens from trees. He’d save people he loves in tornadoes. And he’d always stop to say hello to admiring children. I’ve seen pictures and behind-the-scenes footage of Cavill being exactly that kind of Superman, but in the movies, I have yet to feel it.”
Byrne goes on to say how Clark Kent is also, traditionally, a bit of a charming goober. He’s strong and heroic, but he’s also a kind, Midwestern guy. Similarly, Diana Prince in Wonder Woman is someone who may inspire awe, but she’s quick to put people at ease. She tries to calm Ewen Bremner’s Charlie from his nightmares, and she runs over in delight when she sees a baby (and loves ice cream). She spends a lot of time impressing upon those around her the importance of protecting those who cannot protect themselves, and genuinely, emotionally laments when innocent lives are lost.
It’s this emotional trauma that builds up to a crescendo in the third act, when Diana finally comes up against Ares (David Thewlis). She uses her frustration at the cruel acts of man — however aided by Ares’ whispers — and transfers it into a way to claim her cosmic power and destroy him.
In those scenes, the film makes a strong case for a subtextual Christian narrative. Despite the story being about Greek gods (and changing much of that tale as well), Ares is presented as a Fallen Angel / Lucifer figure, jealous of his father’s attention on his creations. As such, he acts as a malevolent force of evil, pushing them to their worst tendencies. Diana, meanwhile, is the Messiah figure — also the child of the creator god — and the one chosen to defeat this pervasive evil. When Ares tells Diana that they could use their powers to rule and restore Earth to, essentially, Eden, it was reminiscent of Satan tempting Christ. But like Jesus, Diana does not waver, and instead relies on the power of love and grace, as she forgives human weakness and defeats evil.
The analogy isn’t a 1:1, as Steve is the one who sacrifices himself, there’s no resurrection, and Diana must forever leave her home rather than triumphantly returning there. But the point is that there is just enough to paint her as that familiar Messianic figure — a character more typically embodied by Superman.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who carries that torch in the DCEU, just that someone does. Wonder Woman is an extraordinarily uplifting film, and one that creates the right balance of humor, heroism, and heart. Her motivations are elemental, and her aim is pure. There’s nothing easy about her journey or the task she must face, nor the life of isolation she seems to live in the present day. But drama doesn’t always have to come from pain and violence — it can also come from triumph and joy. In our cynical age, there may be a desire to tend towards darker, grittier superheroes and conflicted origins, but what we really need is Diana there to cut through that darkness with a powerful light.