Essays · Movies

‘Wonder Woman’ Explores a World of Nuance

Diana of Themyscira makes our war hers, digging into what it means to understand. We explore how Patty Jenkins found the nuance in Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman Arms Crossed
By  · Published on June 9th, 2017

Wonder Woman is indeed a dope movie with a badass hero finally getting her due on the big screen. The world saw Diana’s journey from child to the empathy-driven superhero: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). And it is glorious. However, as is the challenge with all origin stories, the pace is brisk. That’s okay! It has a few clumsy transitions and the final battle has an awkward beat or two, but it crushed the challenge. At the very least, it doesn’t have to rely on four or five montages to get to the end (I’m looking at you, Captain America: The First Avenger!). Yes, the story deals in broad strokes. However, it is clearly distilled from challenging moral nuances, a complex world, and the struggle to succeed in a world where the Evils of Man are not defined by one man.

Superhero movies typically paint in broad strokes. This does not mean they are then incapable of giving us complete characters. The best of these types of movies will offer distilled versions of the complex material. Wonder Woman has this in spades. All credit to Patty Jenkins (director), Allan Heinberg (screenplay and story), and Jason Fuchs and Zach Snyder (story). They put together an outstanding film.

Wonder Woman is entirely about Diana and her journey from a world of black and white to a world that, while not amoral, is certainly morally gray. This is an important lesson! Part of coming into our own is about understanding that everyone isn’t going to agree with us. And, more importantly, learning to appreciate disagreement as essential to solving problems.

Is disagreement an important part of problem solving? It’s true, I say. It’s true. People naturally do not share the exact same opinions or worldview. Over time, and more failure than I’d care to admit, I’ve come to a frustrated acceptance that nuance in purpose and thought may feel small but can actually be quite divisive. I wanted to leap into action and accomplish great things! When undertaking team efforts, it is necessary to ensure your partners are not just playing from the same page but are on the same note. A discordant note stands out to everyone. Even a group of well-trained professionals, acting on cue, can fail to achieve the success they set out for. The less people embrace their disagreements, the more complicated it becomes to work together.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in right and wrong. But, the difficult part of that is in meaningfully understanding when something is a matter of right and wrong, when it is simply differing approaches to life, and when it is both. This is why World War I is a perfect setting for Diana’s exploration of a complicated world. And, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and his “peace at any cost” plan had to be the role Ares chose to play.

I don’t want to weigh you down with a history lesson, so here are two quick points about the Great War: First, the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand is the easiest cause to isolate for World War I, right? That murder instigated the chain of events that led to the Great War. A closer investigation will lead you to find that there’s still quite a bit of disagreement over the causes of a war that ended almost 100 years ago.

Second, the armistice that halted the fight was signed on November 11, 1918. The Treaty of Versailles, which truly ended the war, was not signed for another seven months. That is, it took the Allied powers seven months to agree to the terms of the treaty. Yet, despite all that effort, the failure of the Treaty of Versaille is without a doubt a primary cause of World War II. It financially crippled Germany for a generation by requiring nearly half a trillion dollars (in 2017 money) in reparations to the Allied partners.

As events unfolded toward the beginning of the second world war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took an approach defined by the idea of peace at any cost. Nobody thinks very highly of appeasement in retrospect, but Winston Churchill, his successor, had this to say at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1940:

“Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.”

It takes more than heart to win the day. It takes more than a determined view of what is right and what is wrong to gain ground against adversity. Problems are shape-shifters. They don’t typically yield to a determined voice. Appeasement is a terrible approach! We have to engage.

Diana leaves Themyscira like the Blues Brothers head to save that orphanage: on a mission from God. She uses Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) as a navigator to get to where the fighting is most intense. As she experiences London and eventually the front lines, we see her start to come to terms with the world not being as clear as she expected it to be. Even the sillier beats of the film work for me as a way to reinforce how much baseless nonsense fills our daily interactions.

Two moments really stand out on that journey towards a deeper understanding of how easy it is to make rash judgments about who people are and what motivates them. First, Diana is furious when Trevor acquiesces to his general’s rejection of his plan to go to the front to destroy the gas. He confesses to lying to his superiors and assures her that they will go to the front regardless of what he said. Her shock at his deceit is genuine. This very simple truth is surprising to her. Why would anyone need to be deceitful to do the right thing in a room full of people who want to do the right thing?

The story gives us a more complex version of that same path when they disembark the train at the front. As they walk to the boat, Diana casually dismisses someone she describes as a liar, a thief, and a murderer. Trevor immediately points out that he meets every one of those qualifiers. The film doesn’t linger on that moment, which is fine. It’s done the work of laying the importance of that exchange in an earlier scene. They move on to show her sharing the road with the walking wounded. If war is the misguided failings of mankind, then the people who pay the price are those caught in the war machine. The consequences of failure to see the truth are repeatedly tied to these lessons in morally confusing situations.

Make no mistake, this is a major theme of the movie. It climaxes on the tower after Diana has killed Ludendorff (Danny Huston), thinking he was Ares, and finding nothing has changed. Trevor gives a very passionate speech that, in the end, Ares’s influence or not, we are all susceptible to the failure of mankind: chaos and destruction. He agrees with her, we don’t deserve help. And that is important to the hero that Diana will become as Wonder Woman. Helping improve the world is never about what people deserve. As a group, we’re vicious and always ready to fight about it. Even if we can’t change humanity, doing something good to help someone is always a better answer than doing nothing. We have to try. Even if we won’t win, we have to try.

Ares’s plan exploits our willingness to dwell on what people deserve. All Sir Patrick had to do was argue for peace and let human nature run its course. And there you go, the Treaty of Versailles. Whether the Germans deserved this or not, it’s a primary cause of World War II and makes for a surprisingly effective act of villainy. Diana’s passionate, empathetic response to Ares is what I want to see in these movies. Fixing problems requires heart and a willingness to fight for the glimmer of hopefulness. Diana starts the film as a passionate warrior, focused on mastering combat to fulfill her duty. She finishes the film with an ability to see beyond the mission. This is awkwardly tied to her realization that she is a god, but I appreciate that the exploration of the movie is not about a quest for power. Rather, it becomes a quest for understanding. For truth, with context and hope.

I’m thrilled for the future of the DC Extended Universe. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice both have nuance under the surface. However, Superman is resolute that his ideals shall be realized, and Batman is logical to a fault. This makes for intractable heroes not particularly interested in learning. Batman wants to know the answer to the problem. Superman wants to fix the problem. Wonder Woman wants to understand the problem. They’re different approaches, none of which are necessarily wrong. But, I find the desire to understand problems to be the most appealing. I have no problem with the characters, but I am hopeful that Wonder Woman will not only lead the Justice League in Superman’s absence but take on Batman and Superman as their equal. This cinematic universe is in desperate need of boundless empathy and an ability to respond to difficult situations with nuance and persistence.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.