How Wonder Woman solves the DCEU's origin story problem (for now)

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Jun 24, 2017, 4:47 PM EDT (Updated)

Of the four films that make up the DC Extended Universe so far, two of them are origin stories for individual characters: Man of Steel and Wonder Woman. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad are origin stories in their own way, setting up two superteams in the universe, but in each of those cases the characters were already established by a previous film or just assumed to be (Squad, for example, just threw Killer Croc at its audience without any major preamble). So, for our purposes, let's focus on the first and so far only solo films the DCEU has offered up, establishing the Man of Tomorrow and the Princess of Themyscira as individual forces in our world.

(Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel and Wonder Woman)

They are, in many ways, quite similar. Both films star characters who are not human begins imbued with power or purpose, but beings existing in some way outside of humanity -- an alien in Superman and a demigod in Wonder Woman -- who by some circumstance or other reveal their identities and their powers to the world. Both films feature villains -- Zod in one case, Ares in the other -- who are also outside humanity and insist that human beings are weak and ultimately pointless creatures standing in the way of their agenda (a common supervillain belief). Both films also feature parental figures -- Jonathan Kent and Hippolyta -- who want to protect their children from human beings who would corrupt, fear and destroy (physically, emotionally, or both) them and their gifts. And both films feature a central character unaware of their true strength until it is unleashed: In Wonder Woman's case the moment her godlike powers first manifest, and in Superman's the moment he takes flight for the first time.

There are certainly other similarities, but those are the big beats, and it feels like we superhero fans can all agree that they present a pretty solid set of starting themes. Man of Steel and Wonder Woman both, ultimately, have a similar story goal: Take a powerful character, place them under major superheroic stress for the first time and, in the process, have them discover something about the kind of hero they're going to be. This is Origin Story 101, which means success or failure is all in the execution. They may start and even end from a similar thematic place, but -- while neither film is perfect -- Wonder Woman solves many of the origin story problems of Man of Steel.

It begins with a rather basic difference in the way we get to know each character: Namely, that Wonder Woman actually wants to be a hero. When we first meet her as a girl, she's air punching and begging to start her battle training even as her mother resists, teaching her that "fighting does not make you a hero." Even as she trains secretly with Antiope, Hippolyta is teaching Diana about the very nature of her people, how they came to be and what their purpose in the world (namely truth and justice) is. As such, Diana arrives at adulthood with a strong sense of right and wrong and phenomenal ass-kicking powers. When we first meet Superman he's wandering the Earth looking sad and growing a beard because ... having superpowers sucks, maybe?

Even with flashbacks to his childhood, it's a little hard to tell why Clark Kent is living the way he is, aside from confusion over his own origins. His parents, as far as we can tell, taught him to be a decent person, but he was also taught that he couldn't let anyone see him using his powers because he would just freak everyone out. The notion of embracing his unique place among humans only comes later, when a Jor-El hologram simply tells him to go and be a hero, and even then he doesn't ever fully embrace it. Even by the time Dawn of Justice rolls around he's still struggling with the very idea of being Superman. Wonder Woman has her own struggles with the right and wrong of what she's doing, but her struggle throughout her origin story isn't about helping or not. Her mother taught her that the Amazons were supposed to stop war, and so she springs into action when she learns of one. Even when she arrives in the world of men, and Steve Trevor continually attempts to explain to her the compromising nature of his ways of life and warfare, Diana is resolute. Other things are up for debate, but saving the world is not.

It's certainly not a one-to-one comparison, of course, and each film has concerns that the other does not. Superman, for one thing, grew up among humans and thus has a more complex view of the way the world works. He would not always subscribe to Diana's sense of absolutism, and I suspect that after a century of living among humans present-day Diana wouldn't either. That absolutism is necessary for her origin story, though, because it comes into play during what for me is the key difference between Wonder Woman and Man of Steel, the thing that makes the former work while the latter doesn't.

Wonder Woman's third act is certainly the film's weakest. For one thing, it just sort of happens, and for another, the final battle with Ares unfolds like a generic CGI slugfest without much of the Amazonian grace present earlier in the film. Thematically, though, it's a potent counterpoint to the climactic fight in Man of Steel. Both Superman and Wonder Woman are fighting a villain whose hope is not elimination of their foe, but conversion. Zod wants to remake the Earth as a New Krypton, wiping out humanity in the process, and wants Superman to join him or die. Ares wants to remake the Earth as the domain of the Gods, wiping out humanity in the process, and wants Wonder Woman to join him or die. Both are only fighting because the hero has vowed to stop them, and both spend portions of the fight arguing for a truce. Both fights even end the same way, with the villain dead at the hands of the hero.

A lot of people assume that some fans hate the Man of Steel ending because Superman kills someone, and while that is distasteful, it's not actually the biggest problem with the scene. The biggest problem is that Superman proves that Zod is right. Zod says that he is going to end humanity or die trying and that Superman's only way out is stone cold murder, and Superman, post-kill shout of anguish aside, basically says "Yup." It's a valid response for the right character (like say, Wolverine), but it's the least interesting possible outcome when we're talking about Superman. For one thing, Superman's whole deal is that he's either stronger than or as strong as basically everyone, so a physical fight is either easy to win or pointless, and yet the DCEU keeps wanting him to just pummel everything until one of them dies. For another, this version of Superman was raised to not rely on his powers. Hey son, don't get too showy with those special abilities of yours, you'll freak someone out. It's why, on more than one occasion, we see Clark Kent face off with a bully and either turn the other cheek or play a trick on the guy later. Now here he is with the ultimate bully and his response is murder, just as Zod told him it would be. The bully's right, the hero's sad, the end. Enjoy the drive home, kids. Sure, it could work eventually as a payoff for a more mature Superman, but as the ending of an origin story film, it feels very off indeed.

Wonder Woman also kills a bullying villain trying to win her over, but in this case, the situation is played much differently. Ares also gives Diana a join-or-die ultimatum, with the battle only really getting heated when it becomes clear that he can't win her over, but that fight starts from a different place. Diana spends almost the entire film knowing that the only way to stop Ares is to kill him. It's not a choice she has to make. It's her mission. He's an unreasonable god whose entire reason for existing is war, and so if she doesn't end him he'll engulf everything in destruction. That is a simple, absolute truth to her until she kills the wrong guy. When Diana is confronted with continued warfare even after she thinks she's killed Ares, she begins to wonder if everything she thought she knew about justice was a lie. This doubt is compounded by Ares' assurances that humans are not worth it and even further compounded by the new knowledge that she is the child of Hippolyta and Zeus, a being created with the sole purpose of being a godkiller. She was lied to, he promises, and this world she's trying to protect will only keep hurting her. Then Diana, as Steve (who never stopped reminding her of the complexities of humanity) dies, makes a decision: It doesn't matter.

Yes, her true heritage and purpose was hidden from her. Yes, humans are flawed creatures easily driven to destruction. Yes, things would be simpler if the world were free of them. Diana realizes all of this, even as it contradicts the absolutes of right and wrong that she set out from Themyscira to believe. And then she decides that the love and goodness in the world outweighs all of it. She sides with the messy, frustrating world of men not out of desperation or rage or obligation, but because she's better than us, she knows she is, and she has the power to make that choice. When Superman kills his villain it's an angst-ridden, desperate ploy to end a fight. When Wonder Woman does kill hers it's an act of benevolence to save the world.

DC Comics and DC Films creators love to talk about the mythic nature of their heroes. It's why we call Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman "The Trinity," and why you often see the main roster of the Justice League framed as a "pantheon." When confronted with criticism over the massive collateral damage in Man of Steel, Zack Snyder said he wanted the destruction to be "mythological." And yet, DC also wants its heroes to be relatable. It's why modern Batman films are so gritty, and why the reigning movie Superman is an angsty, often reluctant hero. This dichotomy does not always work, and I'd argue that so far for this Superman it absolutely hasn't worked. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a character with inescapably mythological roots who discovers the very relatable truth that the world of adult humans is much more complicated than she'd like it to be throughout her first adventure. She makes those opposing ideas work over the course of her first movie, establishing herself as the soul of the DCEU and (hopefully) the blueprint for its origin stories going forward.

Put another way: If the future of this movie universe is less like Man of Steel and more like Wonder Woman, we have reason to be very excited.