After watching Wonder Woman, I left the theatre overwhelmed and compelled to write about the experience, but who wants to read another movie review? Instead, let’s discuss the film from a writer’s perspective. We’ll illustrate how and why the story works for contemporary moviegoers–
And obviously it works! The film has a 92 percent at rotten tomatoes.com, a truly impressive rating for a superhero yarn (the first Ironman film and The Dark Knight ranked a 94 for some comparison).
Even more impressive is that according to producer Charles Roven, in an interview he gave to Screenrant, over a half dozen writers worked on the script at various stages for over a decade. Entire drafts by well-known scribes like Joss Whedon were abandoned. In the end, after what I’m sure was a lengthy Writer’s Guild arbitration to see who deserves credit, three names emerged: Allan Heinberg (screenplay and story), Zack Snyder (story), and Jason Fuchs (story). Usually when a film is endlessly rewritten, the results are less than stellar. Thankfully, Wonder Woman has finally emerged as a powerful and effective film delivering five stories woven into one.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
(PLUS YOU’LL ENJOY THIS BLOG A LOT MORE IF YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM)
The Origin Story: “Be careful of mankind, Diana. They do not deserve you.”
Diana’s voice over in the opening scene begins to establish the film’s theme and the character’s desire: “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness simmering within. I learned this the hard way, a long, long time ago…”
This statement and the accompanying photo from the war, transition us back into Diana’s childhood. We learn about the island Themyscira and the youthful Diana’s desire to be trained as a warrior. Great stories have characters with clear and compelling desires. However, desires aren’t enough to create drama. You need obstacles in the path of those desires, obstacles that represent some form of danger.
The formula for drama is simple: desire + danger=drama. Diana wants to become a warrior, but her mother’s fear that Ares will find her stands in the way. Additionally, her mother knows about the evils of humanity and warns that we do not deserve her (more tension and obstacles foreshadowed here). Wonder Woman’s origin story establishes character, conflict, and desire. In fact, later on in the film, Diana repeats her desire aloud, “The gods made the Amazons to restore peace to the world, and it’s what I’m going to do.”
In addition to establishing conflict and desire, the origin story presents a mystery: was Diana really molded out of clay by her mother? If she’s not “the God killer,” then why does her mother fear that Ares will find her if she’s trained? We eventually learn the truth that Zeus is Diana’s father, and that truth empowers her in the film’s final showdown.
It’s true that many storytellers are afraid to “begin at the beginning” because it seems too expositional or just plain boring. Consider The Force Awakens. The screenwriters hold back Rey’s origin story as a point of mystery. That can be fun, but it’s also annoying as hell! Wonder Woman’s origin story ensures that we never forget the little girl we saw in the opening, and we see her in the adult Diana’s eyes.
The Fish Out of Water Story: “Where I come from, we call that slavery.”
Great storytellers want to deliver exposition to their audiences as covertly and seamlessly as possible. One method to do that is to introduce a rookie character into a setting. Then, of course, you have the trainer, the wise one, teaching the rookie. As the new person learns, the audience learns.
When Diana comes to London, she knows very little about culture, customs, wardrobe, and gender roles. She’s the fish out of water, the character in a strange place. We’ve seen this situation dozens of times before, from Tarzan to Mr. Spock in San Francisco to Doc Harrison on an alien planet (shameless book plug). It’s a very familiar film trope, but here, it REALLY works because in nearly every encounter, Diana makes us realize that it’s our world that’s insane not hers. From secretaries being called out as slaves to generals deemed as cowards, Diana takes no prisoners, and we can’t help but smile as we realize that this warrior princess is talking truth! Instead of trying to fit in like many fish out of water characters, Diana critiques nearly every situation and stands her ground. And yes, a woman’s fashion should provide plenty of room to fight! The writers’ choice to explore the fish out of water trope from a different angle makes these scenes even more effective. And yet, as already mentioned, the writers never abandon Diana’s child-like innocence… just watching Diana eat an ice cream cone for the first time… or experiencing snowfall… makes us love her even more. Here she feels joyful without question, even praising the ice cream maker: “You should be very proud!” (Trivia: that scene was borrowed from the comics, Justice League #3 to be exact).
The Coming of Age Story: “It’s about what you believe.”
The stages of Diana’s growth throughout the film are clear and even voiced aloud. This story is structured through “bookends.” It begins with Diana’s opening voice over mentioned earlier (“I used to want to save the world…”). Here she’s literally telling us, “I was young, naive, but I came of age and learned something… now I’ll tell you my story…”
And so she does. Diana receives her training on the island and finally uses her bracelets to create a blast wave (a moment of awakening). She meets Steve and gets caught up in his war. She leaves the island, embarking on the hero’s journey. She believes she can defeat Ares, stop the war, and bring peace and happiness to humanity. Once she kills the man she believes is Ares and nothing happens, she concludes that humans are evil and can’t be saved. She gives up and won’t help Steve. But then the true Ares appears, and in the showdown, the sword she believed would kill him fails. He tells her she’s the God killer, not the sword. Only she can save humanity. But Ares tries to convince her that humanity is evil, a terrible creation. However, Steve’s final act to sacrifice himself convinces Diana that people can be good. We are worth saving. Her belief in humanity returns. “It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”
At the film’s close, the other bookend provides lessons learned: “I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both… the choice each must make for themselves–something no hero will ever defeat.”
To review, the coming of age story unfolds like this: little girl becomes warrior princess, wants to save humanity, concludes humanity is evil, witnesses a selfless act of courage that changes her mind and then “saves” humanity, only to conclude once more that we cannot truly be saved from the evil that lies within our hearts. We must choose. The message that there will always be good and evil in every heart and a superhero can never change that is both poignant and sophisticated.
The War Story: “This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it!”
Unsurprisingly, Diana is caught up in the war which serves as the backdrop and representation of humanity’s evil. This happens even after Diana’s mother tries to illustrate that war is a terrible thing. Once she leaves the island, Diana experiences firsthand the horrors of war, staring into the eyes of wounded soldiers and speaking to women whose lives have been shattered. The war story elements allow the writers to illustrate the brutality of humanity to Diana and provide some spectacular action sequences. Additionally, the metaphor of war creates layers of conflict throughout the film. Diana is at war with herself, struggling what she should do and who she is. She’s at war with Steve, trying to make sense out of what he’s trying to tell her. She’s at war with the Germans who continue to perpetrate evil acts. And finally, she’s at war with Ares, trying to defeat him and end his destructive influence on humanity. Arguably one of the most effective illustrations of Diana’s power and inspiration is the No Man’s Land sequence where she braves enemy machine guns and leads the charge into battle. Her courage motivates the others to rise up and conquer the Germans. And of course there’s no mistaking that Diana, a woman, is the only one who can cross “no man’s land.” Perhaps that’s a bit too obvious or glib for some, but it underscores her role and influence in the film. Finally, as alluded to earlier, the movie ends with the inference that the war between good and evil, a war that lies inside us all, will never end.
The Love story: “I can save today. You can save the world”
Okay, I cried when Steve died. A lot. Come on, it’s Chris Pine, Captain Kirk! Seriously, I love his character and how he tries to impress Diana but understands and respects her. The chemistry between the actors is undeniable. Given their discussions about Steve’s watch while he’s naked and their hilarious banter about “pleasures of the flesh” while aboard the boat, it’s clear these two will be hooking up. But again, the writers’ of Wonder Woman do something more clever than previous superhero films. Steve is a fully realized character in and of himself, not a mere sidekick or boyfriend to be thrown in jeopardy and rescued by the hero. He’s a very capable spy, as evidenced in the flashback scene where he escapes with the book and blows the living hell out of that German base. He helps the Amazons fight on the beach. He does the best ass kicking he can throughout the entire film; in fact, he’s more than just a capable combatant, he’s also Diana’s teacher, struggling to explain the insanity of war and the evil that lies within us all. In the end, he teaches Diana the ultimate lesson about the human heart, helping her to realize that people can be good, that they can make the ultimate sacrifice to save the ones they love. She even repeats his line: “It’s about what you believe” to Ares in the final showdown to emphasize that she’s learned this from Steve. By falling in love with Steve and witnessing his sacrifice, Diana realizes that only love can save the world.
Wonder Woman is hardly a perfect film, but there’s much to admire from a writer’s perspective. The ambitious origin story sets the stage for many more ambitious choices throughout the script, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to give it a more thorough analysis. What do you think? Do you see other aspects in the film that I missed? Are there other clever writer’s tricks/devices you’ve discovered and would like to share? Let’s talk Wonder Woman and how we can learn from this story.