“For as long as man has walked the Earth, he has warred with his fellow man. And as long as there is war, there will be Ares.”
The news of Ares’ inclusion in Wonder Woman has interesting ramifications, especially with the film being positioned as the potential saviour of the DCEU. If it works, there’s hope for this series yet! If it doesn’t, that gives Warner Bros. a hapless zero-for-four track record, making it all but the final nail in their superhero coffin. That’s an awful lot of pressure for the first modern superhero film lead and directed by women, but it’s also a fourth entry into a franchise built on shaky ground when it comes to approaching the fascist nature of superheroes.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are saturated with issues, but the chief among them is their muddled approach to power, trickling down and colouring every scene and every interaction. In Man of Steel, Superman circumvents the idea of diplomacy entirely, pummeling his opponent in a fit of rage from their very first encounter before going on to execute him extra-judicially. Putting aside the debate on whether or not he “should” kill, it’s a poorly contextualized decision where neither the options nor the character stakes are weighed, and the film’s Batman-heavy sequel presents a murderous Dark Knight who crushes goons with his car, and whose response to the fear of a Godlike murderer is, well, more murder.
We can certainly debate the merits and demerits of this kind of tone in superhero cinema (a post-9/11 redefinition of “Truth, Justice and the American way” vis-à-vis foreign policy, perhaps?), but the contextual glorification of Batman and Superman’s actions amidst stories that position each of them as responses to power poses an interesting question for Wonder Woman and the film’s big villain. Not only is Diana up against The Great War and the darkness of (hu)mankind, she’s up against the embodiment of war itself.
Wonder Woman, while certainly a warrior, now bears the weight of a rather potent thematic question. She isn’t just embroiled in war, but will have to on some level contend with the idea of violent conflict. That isn’t to say there’s necessarily one correct answer – superheroes are violent power fantasy whether we admit it or not – but however the narrative approaches what could be its central theme (intentionally or otherwise) will likely impact how we see this DC universe.
Will it adhere to the DCEU’s current status quo, wherein violence begetting violence is treated as mantra as opposed to inadvertent side-effect, let alone a reason for self-reflection? Or will it stand apart and contextualize said violence in the vein of the questions about power Batman v Superman merely paid lip service to?
Is violence the most effective solution in this universe? Probably! It’s part of what we pay to watch, and the fictional mechanics are created in service of that. Save for Doctor Strange, the Marvel movies are no different, and that’s okay. But perhaps a better question would be whether these characters represent an outlook wherein violence is seen as the only solution to conflict. That has its narrative pros and cons too, especially for a group comprising Superman and his friends, but it isn’t something that can be contextualized or dramatically expressed if it’s presented as the first resort from the start without the protagonists themselves reflecting on this modus operandi, and that's before we even get to the topic of lethal force. This leaves no room for any actual narrative debate on the subject, which is something these films desperately want to give the appearance of having, with their numerous news broadcasts of politicians discussing it and ghost-fathers giving conflicting advice that rarely presents a dilemma.
Maybe none of this will be remotely relevant to Wonder Woman (it would be weird if that were the case, given what we know), but for a cinematic universe still struggling with its identity and with films that feel like corrective responses to their predecessors, it’s a question worth keeping an eye on given how widespread these criticisms have been. And given all the conversations we’re currently having about politics in America, it’s going to be a central talking point one way or another.
Wonder Woman hits theatres June 2nd, 2017. I hope it’s the best movie ever.