Still Zack Snyder’s Wonder Woman

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Strung along for so long by Warner Bros, fans are desperate for a Wonder Woman movie. They are inclined to hope against hope that this upcoming movie will be a good one. I understand that. But we must maintain standards for such an important character to our cultural mythos. She is, after all, the quintessential female superhero, and it should take more than a couple lines of feminist speak and scenes of prowess on a man’s battlefield to convince us she’s being faithfully portrayed. True, the movie has not been released yet. I’ve not seen it and neither have you. By exerting just a little critical thinking, though, it’s clear that this movie has already failed the Wonder Woman mythos. I say this because of two reasons that play into each other.

The first reason is the DC cinematic universe has already introduced Wonder Woman as the wrong category of hero. All superheroes fit into one of two categories, the aspirational or the more ubiquitous cathartic/motivational. The cathartic/motivational, like Spider-Man or Green Arrow, fail—a lot. They make mistakes, act out in emotion, and reap the consequences of their rash actions. But they have good hearts, and they show us how to pick ourselves up after failures to try again. The cathartic/motivational characters are important to culture, but they only work if we have the aspirational heroes setting the standard for which the cathartic/motivational ones strive.

The aspirational heroes are simply good. They don’t need to fail first or overcome some emotional trauma. Heroism is simply in their nature. As psychologist Robin Rosenberg puts it, it’s the destiny in their origin. Precious few aspirational heroes remain. And their numbers dwindle with every continuity reboot. Shortsighted storytellers and fans believe that the aspirational heroes are too difficult to relate to, so they systematically try to rewrite them as cathartic/motivational ones (see the New 52 in comics or the DC films made so far). The problem with this rewriting is that once you’ve changed all the aspirational heroes in your universe into cathartic/motivational ones, you have no believable standards for your so-called heroes to strive for. They lose the audience’s investment, and the stories ultimately fail.

In the DC Universe, Superman and Wonder Woman have been the first and most important aspirational heroes. But Zack Snyder doesn’t believe in the aspirational hero. This isn’t an attack. It’s simply a fact. Look at the things he’s said about heroes in interviews, and look at the themes common to his films. He has torn Superman, and now Wonder Woman as explored below, ruthlessly from the aspirational pedestal and rebuilt them slap-shod as cathartic/motivational heroes. Though the characters are apparently just taking their time until the Justice League film, in which we’re told they’ll finally embrace a standard of heroism, how will they know what this standard of heroism is? They have no point of reference. You can’t develop into an aspirational hero. As already stated, the defining aspirational trait is in a heroes origin. Superman has allowed people to die and has, himself, killed. Batman has resorted to torture and killing, and as this second Wonder Woman trailer shows us, she decided after World War One (a pointless change from WWII, better suited to her origin story), that the darkness in the world is too great to bother making a difference in. “I used to want to save the world,” she says, presumably before she changes her mind around the events of BvS. Aspirational heroes might have moments of weakness or doubt, but those moments do not last a century.

This leads us to the second reason the Wonder Woman film, and ultimately the entire DC Cinematic universe, will not be remembered as a success: It’s lazy writing. Let’s look at Snyder’s “fresh” take on Superman. Clark wants to do good but grows discouraged by the public’s reception. He fails to save some people, kills a villain, and considers quitting. Then a grave new threat to the world causes him to reconsider his purpose and methods.

Now let’s look at Batman. He’s an established hero wanting to do good but grows discouraged by the existence of super-powered aliens in the world. He fails to protect people and instead begins torturing and killing on a crazed mission to execute Superman. Then a grave new threat enters the world and makes him decide to change his ways and put together the Justice League.

And finally, let’s examine Wonder Woman. She reveals herself to the world of man to fight for hope and try to do good. Then something happens to discourage her during WWI, causing her to give up. Then a grave new threat convinces her to reconsider her place in the world and her willingness to save it again.

Each member of the DC trinity, the characters who are supposed to represent the wide spectrum of the Justice League’s heroism, have the exact same backstories! And from the looks of it, Cyborg and Aqua Man are set to follow the same path There’s nothing more realistic or believable about this approach. You can’t write multiple characters in the same story to share the same beat-for-beat psychological growth. It impedes character and theme development. It’s bad writing! Storytelling is not Zack Snyder’s strong suit. As his fans often point out, he’s a visual director. It takes more than visuals, though, to make a good film.

It’s true that after BvS didn’t achieve the numbers they wanted, Warner Bros took back the God-like control of their cinematic universe they’d given Snyder. But they’ve elected to continue building on his foundation. I’ve heard people claim that we need not worry, since he’s not directing this one or is only nominally involved. But be realistic! It’s a film shot in his cinematic universe, no matter who it’s shot by. Though they’ve apparently struck his name from the credits, it has to follow the template he laid out for the universe since he’s still in control of the Justice League. I know Warner Bros is trying it’s best to bend away from his influence, but how far away can they bend while standing on it? Not far at all, it turns out. Wonder Woman is finally receiving her own film. I wish it was a cause for celebration, but unfortunately it’s a film that feels the need to change her character to appeal to a culture she’s been captivating since 1941.

What Would Superman Do About Batman v Superman?

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Spurious versions, fundamentally wrongheaded premises, can, and often do, prevail from time to time, but eventually the character, Superman himself, Tulpa Superman, will–somehow, somehow–resist and reverse that meddling, reconstituting himself in the world as he means to be. ~Alvin Schwartz (paraphrased by Tom deHaven)

In my research, I divide superheroes into two archetypes from a mythological perspective. Some are aspirational, and some are cathartic/motivational. The aspirational heroes, the pure ones (think Captain America or the traditional Superman and Wonder Woman), exhibit an unrealistic standard of purity and goodness. They always do the right thing, and in their stories, there always exists a way to do that right thing, no matter what. The example they set is unrealistic, but that’s not the importance of their role in cultures. The aspirational heroes are essential. They cause us to believe in better versions of ourselves and in a better world, so that even if we can never achieve those versions, we’ll still come closer to that standard than if we didn’t have it at all or had only a lower standard to strive for.

We also need the cathartic/motivational characters. These heroes, like Spider-Man and Green Arrow, have some moral failings that show through at times, but they’re not consumed by their faults. They make mistakes, pick themselves up, and eventually do the right thing in the end. We need these characters to encourage us on our way to striving for the aspirational. In fact, the characters themselves really only work when there’s an aspirational one in their universe to inspire them. Spider-Man wants to be like Captain America. Green Arrow often bristles against Superman, the big blue boy scout, showing the archer what he lacks morally.

We need both types of characters, but we need both in context and balance. Some of the defenses I’ve read of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman have been in response to the novelty of placing Superman in moral catch 22s and asking what he would “really” do. They want to treat him as a cathartic/motivational character. The problem, though, is that we already have a plethora of flawed but overcoming, cathartic/motivational superheroes (that exist in better-told stories than Batman v Superman). By making Superman “more realistic,” we decrease the precious few aspirational heroes that don’t need a great moral failing to figure out life. Mythologically, that means we lower the standard our culture strives for.

Defending the iconic Superman drained the emotional energy of many of us this weekend. My impression is that those who try to defend BvS fall into two camps, the nihilists who enjoy moral uncertainty and the fans who found some cathartic/motivational merit in the portrayal but fail to understand the harm that alteration does to our culture. Cast as a cathartic/motivational hero in these films, who does Superman have to show him a better way? Who instills a belief in humanity and our potential in him, like Captain America does for Spider-Man? The answer is no one. The films even rob him of the Kents in that role. As a result, there is no hope in either of these films, no matter how much they throw around the word. And the rare claims of an uplifting experience by watching these films, come from an outside interpretation or knowledge of the character, sloppily overlaying the film’s message of moral uncertainty. It’s disheartening, to say the least, but the real Superman wouldn’t give up or stall out in self-pity.

The very existence of the debate disheartens traditional fans. In the past, the purity of Superman has solved such debates about heroes in general. Titles like Kingdom Come and What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way have corrected such wrongheaded approaches to hero stories. So what would our Superman do when confronted with the current slanderous interpretation of what he stands for? First and foremost, he wouldn’t devolve into the same hate-filled rhetoric thrown around by so many Batman v Superman defenders. The insults and mean-spirited comments directed toward dissent are the most damning evidence of how the film truly inspires people to behave. The real Superman would never devolve into such behavior, and his fans should keep that in mind when tempted to respond to bullying with insults in return.The real Superman wouldn’t give up on humanity, even when it’s showing its darkest side.

With the monumental box-office earnings, due to advanced ticket sales, curiosity, and good marketing, WB is unlikely to turn away from their dark path until the fad runs its course throughout a few more films. But Superman wouldn’t be silent. He would continue to exhibit his aspirational example until the world sees the light. So never tire of pointing out what the real Superman would do and what type of stories should be told about him in place of the current darkness. The rise in bullying and hate we’ve seen is a sign of fear and desperation to silence the truth. Don’t let them do it. Keep trending honest critiques of the films, recommending iconic Superman tales, and sharing the real Superman’s joy and inspiration. He’ll return to us, as Alvin Schwarts prophesied, soon enough in contemporary media, but it’s up to us to pave the way.