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.

Bro, Do You Even Verb?

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Few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many content themselves just knowing what a verb is, no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs cause writing to stand out. It causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there express the passive act of existence. To be verbs, as they’re called, include the forms is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. It’s impossible to avoid these verbs completely (I finally succumbed to one in this sentence). Avoiding them for too long sounds awkward, but the best writing shows moderation. If you remain unconvinced, consider this paragraph with nothing but to be verbs:

It is a fact that few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many are simply proud to know what a verb is, which is no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs are what cause writing to stand out. It is what causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there are the ones that express the utterly passive act of existence. To be verbs are is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. Only the novice uses these verbs all of the time (See what a breath of fresh air that was?). Using them for too long in succession is awkward, but moderation is the key. So now you’re convinced of the importance of strong verbs.

You’ll notice that the sentence structure had to be changed in places to accommodate the to-be verbs. Since the use of these verbs requires extra work, people naturally opt for more active ones, right? Sadly, as a writing professor, I’m sad to say the opposite is true. For whatever reason, first drafts come in riddled with long, awkward to be structures. A forced sense of formality causes students to write differently than they speak or think. Don’t worry, though; the problem is easily remedied. After bringing verb choice to a student’s attention, the second draft shows vast improvement. So if you read this and think you’ll never get the hang of strong verbs, don’t despair! Start slow. Take time to read over what you write a second or third time. Whether it’s a story, a blog post, or even a tweet, you’ll notice a big difference in how your writing is received.

Active Reading

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Many people roll their eyes at the thought of analyzing a piece of writing. They say things like, “I just like the story.” But if they experience a good story while reading, they have good writing to thank for it. Story is important. Being able to imagine and structure a narrative is an admirable talent. Writing, though, is the delivery of that story. Effective communication through written words is its own unique craft. Too many readers feel that enjoying the writing as well as the story takes years of schooling or some innate ability. But it’s only a matter of practice and active reading, paying attention to the choice of words and the manner in which they’re written. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s work, for example. Poe is known outside of scholarly circles for his fantastical tales. But look at the writing choices he’s made in the opening of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Start with big picture observations. The story is obviously in the first person (the narrator is telling us his own story). And he’s obviously “not all there” (hearing all things in heaven? earth? hell?). Knowing we’re inside the head of an insane man helps create a suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to make sense of the nature of the universe we’re in; we can just believe what the narrator says as 100% true to him, because he is insane.

Where Poe really shines, however, is in his use of repetition and rhythm. Always a poet, he ratchets up the tension and terror of the tale with the repetition of phrases and short sentence structures, relieved at greater and greater intervals by longer ones. Look for repeated words and the progression of sentence length in the following passage.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it – oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly – very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha!

It’s impossible to read this prose and not hear the quick and slow, loud and soft ravings of a madman. The tension is in the writing, it evokes a visceral response from an engaged reader that serves the content, the experience of the story. Poe calls this the “unity of effect.” The next time you read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or any other story, do it with a highlighter and appreciate how careful writing can convey and add to a great story.