How Wonder Woman can save the DC Extended Universe

Five ways director Patty Jenkins and Warner Bros can create a feminist hero we will truly root for – and put the DC superhero system back on track

The first DC movie of 2017, the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman, is a month away from release. With the fledgling Extended Universe (DCEU) so far looking perilously underpowered compared with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the pressure is on to ensure this latest comic book romp from Warner Bros is a smash. So what does the new episode need to achieve to ensure it puts the studio’s slate of interlinked superhero movies back on track?

Give us a hero we can truly root for

The DCEU seems to be confused about what makes a good hero. We’ve seen a Superman racked by doubt and lacking his usual optimism, and a jaded, gun-toting Batman who is motivated almost entirely by malice. So untrustworthy are the supposed good guys in the DCEU, the world turned to a gaggle of supervillains when it wanted to take down the evil Enchantress in Suicide Squad.

Wonder Woman is supposed to be different, embodying a very feminine sense of peace, justice and what star Gal Gadot has described as “emotional intelligence”. Jenkins’ movie is set against the backdrop of the youthful superhero’s first interaction with mankind during the first world war. But even this very green Diana of Themyscira needs to retain the character’s traditional bearing of dignity and decency.

Re-establish the DCEU’s feminist credentials

Wonder Woman was created by the American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston, who created an empowered totem of strong femininity (despite an unfortunate tendency to project his own bondage fantasies on to the superhero at every available opportunity). Given the criticism the DCEU faced over Suicide Squad’s leering treatment of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, there must be no doubt in audience’s minds by the time the credits roll that Gadot’s version of Diana of Themyscira can more than hold her own with any of the universe’s male superheroes.

Is Wonder Woman’s statuesque beauty a problem for a feminist reading of the character? Jenkins doesn’t think so, describing her take on the Amazonian princess as “total wish-fulfilment”. She has said: “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass and look great at the same time – the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.”

DC has an opportunity to steal a march on Marvel here, because the Disney-owned studio has been dragging its heels on delivering a movie led by a female superhero (Captain Marvel isn’t due until 2019). Jenkins has an impressive history of telling women’s stories: she directed the Oscar-winning crime drama Monster and has overseen several episodes of the excellent US version of The Killing.

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot in a scene from Wonder Woman.
Chris Pine and Gal Gadot in a scene from Wonder Woman. Photograph: Clay Enos/AP

Reinvent the DCEU origins movie

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel didn’t exactly set the world on fire, despite having the world’s best-known superhero, Superman himself, in its armory. DC may be able to rely on the forthcoming Justice League movie, widely seen as the DCEU’s answer to The Avengers, to boost its chances of box-office glory. But if the new universe is to rival Marvel’s, it also needs to start nailing these standalone adventures.

Warner Bros has wisely disentangled Wonder Woman from the current mess the DCEU has got itself into by setting the movie in the early 20th century – two decades or so before her traditional second world war comic book origins story. Jenkins therefore has plenty of room to establish Diana, build Greek mythology into the wider DCEU – Wonder Woman is the daughter of Zeus – and hype expectations for her appearance in Justice League and future adventures. There really are no excuses here if yet another episode goes south.

Balance world-building with support for the director’s vision

Warner Bros has traditionally been known as a director’s studio, but the company has been discovering how tough it is to give film-makers free reign when building a cinematic universe. Wonder Woman audiences need to be confident that the DCEU can hold true to the bigger picture without destroying a director’s original vision, as appears to have happened with David Ayer’s heavily edited Suicide Squad.

Jenkins has gone public to deny rumours that Wonder Woman is another tonal mess, and we can only hope there is no last-minute studio interference this time around. It did not, after all, ultimately do anything to save Suicide Squad from utterly savage reviews.

Find a tone that works

Judging by recent trailers for Justice League and Wonder Woman, Warner Bros appears to believe that critics hated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice because it wasn’t funny enough. But Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy wasn’t exactly filled with bellylaughs either, and those movies remain well regarded.

Wonder Woman trailer: trailer for DC superhero film – video

Jokes can help audiences adjust to preposterous plots by reassuring them that both the film-makers, and indeed the superheroes themselves, are well aware how intensely fantastical their stories have become. The classic example might be Joss Whedon’s The Avengers – the first really funny Marvel movie – in which Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man describes the sudden arrival of Norse God Thor as being a bit like Shakespeare in the park.

The DCEU started out by trying to blend the bleak and realistic tone of the Dark Knight trilogy with Snyder’s penchant for heavy-metal CGI battle sequences. But Nolan’s hard-boiled, unfussy take on Gotham City simply isn’t suitable for a cinematic universe in which myriad colourful superheroes are expected to share narratives. With luck, Jenkins will help establish a tone that feels appropriate when bringing the entire, wildly diverse DC comic back catalogue to the big screen.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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