You’ve seen the trailer footage: Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, clad in Greco-Roman armor, pausing to stand tall amid a fire-blackened landscape, before charging into overlit tracer bullet fire. The footage doesn’t make entirely clear that she’s just risen from a British trench in the Great War, crossed into No-Man’s Land, and begun to charge the German line. And, when those numerous, fast-moving bullets inevitably pin her down, men crest the trench and follow her lead.
This doesn’t just create a good visual. After a three-movie streak of stinkers from DC studios, this moment demonstrates what makes superheroes, something Zack Snyder apparently doesn’t appreciate. Heroes represent, not the recourses we’re willing to live with, as with Snyder's Superman, but the aspirations we pursue, the better angels we hope to achieve. We all hope, faced with the nihilism of the Great War, that we’d overcome bureaucratic inertia and face our enemies head-on.
In some ways, this Wonder Woman, directed by relative novice Patty Jenkins, accords with DC’s recent cinematic outings. Diana’s heroism doesn’t stoop to fighting crime, a reflection of cultural changes since the character debuted in 1941. Ordinary criminals, even organized crime, seem remarkably small beer in today’s world. Crime today is often either penny-ante, like common burglars, or too diffuse to punch, like drug cartels. Like the Snyder-helmed movies, this superhero confronts more systemic problems.
But Snyder misses the point, which Jenkins hits. Where Snyder’s superheroes battle alien invaders, like Superman, or pummel the living daylights out of each other, Wonder Woman faces humanity’s greatest weaknesses. The Great War, one of humanity’s lowest moments, represents a break from war’s previous myths of honor. Rather than marching into battle gloriously, Great War soldiers hunkered in trenches for months, soaked and gangrenous, seldom bathing, eating tinned rations out of their own helmets.
This shift manifests in two ways. First, though Diana speaks eloquently about her desire to stop Ares, the war-god she believes is masquerading as a German general, this story is driven by something more down-to-earth. General Ludendorff’s research battalion has created an unusually powerful form of mustard gas. The very real-world Ludendorff, who popularized the expression “Total War,” here successfully crafts a means to destroy soldiers and civilians alike. He represents humanity’s worst warlike sentiments.
Second, this Wonder Woman doesn’t wear a stars-and-stripes uniform. Comic book writer William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman as an essentially female version of Superman’s American values, an expression externalized in her clothing. This theme carried over into Lynda Carter’s TV performance. But this Wonder Woman stays strictly in Europe, fights for high-minded Allied values rather than one country, and apparently retires to curatorship at the Louvre. Her values are unyoked to any specific nation.
Recall, Zack Snyder’s Superman learned from his human father to distrust humankind, and became superheroic only when threatened by Kryptonian war criminals. Diana, conversely, learned to fight for high-minded principles—which she learned through myths which, she eventually discovers, are true without being factual. Snyder’s Superman, in fighting General Zod, showed remarkable disregard for bystanders, his film’s most-repeated criticism. But Diana charges into battle specifically to liberate occupied civilians. The pointed contrast probably isn’t accidental.
Unfortunately, Diana learns, war isn’t about individual battles. She liberates a shell-pocked Belgian village, and celebrates by dancing with Steve Trevor in the streets. But General Ludendorff retaliates by testing his extra-powerful chemical weapons on that village. No matter what piteous stories she hears about displaced, starving individuals, ultimately, her enemy isn’t any particular soldier. It’s a system that rewards anyone willing to stoop lower than everyone else, kill more noncombatants, win at any cost.
In a tradition somewhat established by the superhero genre, Diana culminates the movie with a half-fight, half-conversation with her antagonist. Ares offers Diana the opportunity to restore Earth’s pre-lapsarian paradise state by simply scourging the planet of humanity. (Though Greek in language, this movie’s mythology reflects its audience’s Judeo-Christian moral expectations.) Diana responds by… well, spoilers. Rather, let’s say she simply resolves that fighting the corrupt system is finally worthwhile, even knowing she cannot win.
Wonder Woman’s moral mythology resonates with audiences, as Superman’s doesn’t, at least in the Snyderverse, because she expresses hope. Watching Diana, we realize it’s easy to become Ludendorff, wanting to not just beat but obliterate our opponents. Yet we desire to emulate Diana, standing fast against human entropy and embodying our best virtues. Diana is a demigod, we eventually learn, and like all good messiahs, she doesn’t just rule humanity, she models humanity’s truest potential.