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.

Icons Matter

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I’ve wanted to write about this for a while now, but I didn’t want to be reactionary. Recently Zack Snyder made some comments in an interview regarding his treatment of Superman in the upcoming Batman v Superman film.  He describes the universe of his films as a place where “There’s no winning anymore for Superman,” because of the public’s perception of the hero. Believe it or not, Snyder isn’t even trying to be ironic. Yet he’s inadvertently making a commentary on himself and the people who like his approach to these characters. Because they’re unwilling to believe in a Superman who sees the best in people, inspires hope in all but villains, and always does the right thing, they’re stripping the icon’s ability to be that pan-inspirational character in our culture at large. Arguments for the logic and integrity of such a story are irrelevant. It’s the wrong approach to take to the character of Superman and many other beloved, cultural icons in the DC universe. Unfortunately, there’s no discussing this issue anymore without stoking up passion over reason and enflaming old war wounds. So let me use a hypothetical example to illustrate my point.

But first, a disclaimer: I’m an avid fan of Disney entertainment and their company in general, and Mickey Mouse is one of my favorite folkloric characters. That said, imagine that Disney announced they were working on a new feature-length Mickey Mouse film. This one, though, was going to be rated PG13 and would explore the more realistic struggles of such an American icon. The director speaks out about how he wants to show the psychological strain of being a star for so many years. Mickey’s relationship with Minnie is tense from working together so long. Donald Duck is in negotiations for a film with Bugs Bunny to outshine Mickey at last. And at Micky’s public appearances, children now flock past him to Sponge Bob and the Minions. The director wants to explore the reality of a Mickey Mouse who isn’t sure what he wants to stand for anymore in a world that is jealous, jaded, and unreceptive.

Now, unless you see where I’m going and you’re busy digging your opposing trench even deeper, you should be rolling your eyes at this concept, or at least raising an eyebrow. “That’s not who Mickey Mouse is!” you might think. “Children should be overjoyed and learn from a movie about the world’s favorite mouse!” Now imagine that you encounter a group of fans looking forward to the new approach. They tell you at first that you’re not allowed to have or voice a negative opinion about the film since you haven’t seen it yet. They stand by this claim, even as trailers are released that show poor Mickey staring at an empty whiskey bottle and wondering about his place in the world. They even defend such scenes. After the film comes out, with Mickey confronting Donald in anger and Minnie starting an affair with Goofy, fans of the movie point out how much sense each and every scene makes to the plot of the film. They call you bitter and shout you down. They claim the film didn’t change the character of Mickey Mouse. It’s just a realistic and contemporary exploration of the character.

If you’ve been a fan of Mickey and the Disney’s “fab five” universe (sensational six, once Daisy comes along), you’re scratching your head at how anyone can be so blind to the tragedy this is for the character. And you wonder if anyone is bothering to listen to your critique before launching into their diatribes. You said “that’s not who Mickey Mouse is” and that his movies should be made for children, to bring them joy and inspire them to good behavior. How could the new movie not change the character of Mickey Mouse when it shows him throwing temper tantrums and unable to get along with his closest friends? That is not the type of story that should ever be told about Mickey Mouse. That’s not what his character is for. It’s not his genre, not his purpose, and not his role in our culture. If filmmakers want to tell a story about the realistic struggles of popular stars, then they should choose an appropriate character or create one for their purposes. Folklore, our culture’s mythology, is a reflection of the values and principles of our culture. It’s not malleable on a storyteller’s whim. If you take a beloved, safe, and moral character and corrupt his universe until he’s broken and morally ambiguous, you’ve not only corrupted the character, you’ve corrupted our culture and, through eventual repercussions, you’ve corrupted our future. You’ve taken away one of the few characters that made us reach higher just so you and audiences could feel better about not wanting to stretch.

Whether we’re talking about Mickey Mouse or Superman, these are not just fictional characters marketed to make money. They are cultural icons. They are characters from our mythology. And mythology reflects and affects culture. Whichever is the case regarding the budding DC cinematic universe, Superman fans and our culture in general is lessened by the existence of such a “reimagining” of mythic landmark characters.