Marvel movies are commercial bonanzas, but DC has a bigger and better idea
By SONNY BUNCH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 10, 2017
Marvel and Disney have created a sort of perpetual motion machine, churning out intellectually spare but critically and commercially successful films based on beloved properties. But DC has done them one better, creating a morally serious cinematic universe devoted to thinking about an interesting question: How would humanity react to the discovery that gods walk amongst us?
“Wonder Woman,” like “Man of Steel” before it, tackles that question largely from the god’s view of things. Diana (Gal Gadot), a demigod raised by the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, was raised to believe that mankind was inherently good until the Loki-esque god of war, Ares, corrupted him in an effort to sour Zeus on his inferior creation. Diana, trained in the art of war for the purpose of ending Ares’s wickedness once and for all, enters the fray after war comes to Paradise Island in the form of WWI and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy attempting to bring news of a German super-poison back to the Brits.
Throughout, Diana is defined by her naivete, her unfamiliarity with the World of Man. This serves a comedic purpose — the scenes of Diana trying on Edwardian-style outfits while commenting on their fitness as combat garb and trying to get through a revolving door with a sword and shield earned numerous laughs, earning goodwill from critics leery of the supposedly too-serious tone that DCEU mastermind Zack Snyder has adopted.
But it serves a thematic purpose as well: Diana simply does not understand this world or the people in it. She’s hopelessly naive, committed to a children’s fable about the nature of man. Steve Trevor helps her understand her folly, helps her see that maybe humans, writ large, are not prone to violence or evil because of outside forces but because of the choices they make. “Wonder Woman,” then, is an examination of the idea that gods may be able to save men — from bullets, from bombs — but are wholly unable to save or redeem man.
The broader question, of course, is whether or not man even wants to be saved, an issue considered in Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” Though much derided by those seeking a campier incarnation of Krypton’s last son, Snyder’s film took seriously the idea that an alien with godlike powers would have a radically destabilizing effect on humanity.
Pa Kent (movingly portrayed by America’s Dad, Kevin Costner) understood the dangers such a revelation would present — to his boy, to those who would fear and try to harm him. Whether or not Clark would be “good” or “bad” was largely irrelevant to the fundamental fact that he existed, that he proved not only that man was not alone in the universe but also that he was inferior.
This is why, in the prologue of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a title card informs us that we are witnessing Metropolis’ introduction to “the Superman” — not “Superman.” Though one might be tempted to dismiss this as little more than pseudo-intellectual frippery, one would be mistaken: It’s the whole point of the movie. “Batman v Superman” is an examination of how the most powerful men in the world would respond to their displacement at the top of the food chain.
Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is a psychotic billionaire trapped in J.J. Watt’s body; Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is a psychotic billionaire trapped in Mark Zuckerberg’s. One is driven by the generalized need to protect humanity, an urge created when his parents were brutally murdered in front of him; the other, by a more personalized need to maintain his own place in the world, to ensure that no one can hurt him ever again. Neither man can be faulted for wanting a silver bullet to take down the alien whose appearance coincided with the destruction of Metropolis and the deaths of thousands, even if they were, ultimately, misguided.
Speaking of misguided, we finally come to “Suicide Squad.” A cinematic train wreck, David Ayer’s film still had an interesting idea at its core: How would the government respond to the appearance of the Superman? The answer, unsurprisingly, was “in a way that makes things worse”: Federal agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) hoped to counteract the superhuman threat by establishing a team of super-powered villains under her control. The effort backfires horribly when an ancient Aztec god whom Waller thought under her control lays waste to a major American city.
It’s true, an interesting idea can’t make up for the bizarrely incompetent way in which “Suicide Squad” unfolded. But an interesting failure in its mold is almost always more memorable than bland competence such as “Ant-Man” or “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. II” — even if bland competence seems to be what critics prefer.