Premise: An Amazonian goddess living on a remote island has her world turned upside-down when a World War 1 Allied spy shows up on her island, with the German army in tow.
About: The Wonder Woman project has had quite an exciting history. First it was asked if audiences would pay for a female-led superhero film. Next came the outrage of it taking so long to put a female director behind one of these films (Patty Jenkins), then came early reports that the movie was terrible. Tack onto that DC’s struggles with finding their identity as a franchise, and you had one big giant question mark. Well, Wonder Woman answered that question mark with a resounding 100 million dollars, 30 million more than most analysts were predicting just a few weeks ago. The movie is a hit, and is, in fact, the best film of the new DC universe by far. The writing situation on Wonder Woman is an interesting one. Credit goes to Allan Heinberg, who some would frustratedly point out is not female. However, Heinberg is a successful TV presence who’s written almost primarily on shows that are popular with the female demographic (Gray’s Anatomy, The Catch, Scandal, Sex and The City). This is his first feature credit.
Writers: Allan Heinburg (story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs)
Details: Coming in at a Zack Snyder friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Since we’re talking about Wonder Woman here, I’m going to throw her lasso around myself and be honest: I was not expecting much from this movie. I was on the fence on whether I would even see it and then I saw this Gal Gadot Conan skit and was taken by Gadot’s innocent charm. She didn’t seem to be in hyper-sell mode or “I would rather be anywhere but here” mode like most actors promoting their films. Displaying her cute dorky side, she genuinely seemed like she was enjoying herself.
So that got me to the theater. But then what happened?
I always say that you know if a movie is going to work immediately. In that first scene, you can tell that everything’s clicking. It was the right script choice to open with that scene. The directing is confident. The lead actor is dialed in. The score hits just the right chords.
Wonder Woman didn’t have any of that.
If I’m being honest (I have to since I’m still wearing Wonder Woman’s lasso), the whole all-women’s warrior island thing bordered on goofy. Women running around, battling each other, spinning off horses and shooting arrows at each other upside-down. Everything looked too clean, too staged. I was thinking, “Man, I don’t know about this.”
However, I got used to it surprisingly quickly, mainly when my new slightly more than platonic crush Gal Gadot showed up. And once I was in, I was in for good.
The story really picks up, however, when Steve Trevor arrives. Steve is an American (I think?) spy who’s infiltrated the German army, which is in the thick of World War 1. This is the first man Wonder Woman has ever seen, so some time is required to get used to him. But once she learns that there is a war going on and that people are dying, she becomes convinced that Ares, the God of War, is behind it. She wants Steve to take her to the front so she can kill Ares and stop the war (this is “G” in the “GSU” for those taking notes).
Steve is all, like, “I’m sorry but say that one more time?” But he quickly realizes that his only shot off this island is feeding into this woman’s delusions, so he agrees to take her to the front.
Once in Europe, the two recruit a rag-tag team of idiots, former colleagues of Steve’s, to get into the heart of Germany, where Wonder Woman believes Ares is hiding. However, the journey proves more challenging than she originally anticipated, seeing as she doesn’t know which human form Ares has taken. There’s also some chick named Dr. Poison or something who’s creating the ultimate gas weapon that will win the war for Germany. Can Wonder Woman, and shifty Steve, stop her in time? If there are going to be Wonder Woman sequels, they better.
What was once old is now new again.
Wonder Woman takes a gamble by going full origin-story on us, a former staple of the superhero industry that’s been abandoned after numerous geek-boys proclaimed the predictable format boring-sauce.
But Wonder Woman teaches us a lesson on this front. After a trend has been banished for long enough, a window will open up for you to use it again. It’s simple math. The reason people wanted the trend gone in the first place was because it had become predictable. Therefore it would only stand to make sense that if it were gone for long enough, bringing it back would be unpredictable.
But you have to be there right when the window opens. Arrive too early and people are like, “Really? Another origin story?” Arrive at just the right time and can slip into the home of genius choices. “Oh, it was such a fresh choice to go back to the origin story!”
But there’s something bigger going on here. There was a time, long ago, when large-scale movies only had to do one thing to be successful – take you to a place you’d never been to before. Back when the internet was called an encyclopedia, just taking us to a new country or a new time was reason enough to plop down money at the theater.
But these days, we’re so inundated with visual information, both real and imagined, that that art has been lost. How do you take someone somewhere new when they can go anywhere they want with the click of a button? When I was in Prague last month, I went to a museum. I wasn’t enjoying myself and I wondered why. I realized it was because I had seen all of this stuff (in some form or another) already.
Wonder Woman came in with this island we’d never been to (I may have been jarred by it, by I admit it was unique) then joined a war that we rarely get to experience in cinema (World War 1), since almost all war stories choose World War 2 as their center point.
These choices are what made Wonder Woman fresh. I truly felt like I was somewhere I didn’t know anything about. And this goes back to a constant Scriptshadow theme, what some may say is the key to writing something great. You must look for ways to make your story fresh. Whether it be location, time, point of view, cleverness of concept, a radical character. Wonder Woman used time and place to give us a different experience. What have you done to achieve the same in your screenplay?
However, this is only part of the reason Wonder Woman succeeds. The other reason? Take a guess.
Wonder Woman herself?
The other reason Wonder Woman succeeds is the crackling relationship between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. This was a deft and daring move by the writers, who were probably tempted to move away from a love story, less the fake outrage crowd blast them for daring to imply a powerful woman could be interested in a man.
But what a great choice, and the best example of smart screenwriting in the script. Take note aspiring screenwriters, as this is a lesson you’ll want to learn. What you want to do in most stories is establish a main character with a belief system. For Wonder Woman, it’s to be truthful and always do what’s right.
That way, when you build in the other half of the relationship, you can create a character WHO HOLDS OPPOSING BELIEFS. So who is Steve Trevor? He’s a spy. He… say it with me… LIES FOR A LIVING. Placing someone who tells the truth opposite someone who lies is the kind of choice that studios pay big bucks for.
And it’s not just to win the “correct screenwriting decision” award that gets you points with bloggers like myself. When you do this correctly and establish opposing belief-systems with your main characters, you ensure a stream of conflict between those characters that lasts – ORGANICALLY – the entire movie. Why “organically?” Because the differences are built into the core of the characters. They can never agree because their beliefs are fundamentally the opposite of each other. Even the most basic conversation will lead to an impasse.
Even when these views don’t come up, and the characters are, say, enjoying a dance together (like they do in the film), there is still an underlying tension since the characters know they can never be together because they lead diametrically opposing lives.
If you want to know why these guys get paid the big bucks, it’s because they know how to do things like this. And you can learn it to! Now that you know about it, study it. Watch for it in films. It’s at the core of a lot of great movie relationships.
Now whenever I write a positive review and only give the script a “worth the read,” commenters think there’s some conspiracy involved. So I’m going to tell you why Wonder Woman only gets a “worth the watch” from me despite my, so far, glowing review.
It’s because the villain is so effing bad. Like embarrassingly bad. When you don’t have a threatening villain, your hero’s journey feels too easy. We must always doubt that our hero will succeed. We never once doubted that Wonder Woman would win here, and it’s specifically because the villain never felt like a threat. One of these days I’m going to have to write an article on villains since everyone’s obviously forgotten how to write them. But it was a major mark against an otherwise good movie.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I would be careful about making your villain a late surprise reveal. It’s not impossible to make it work. But by keeping the villain a secret from the audience the whole movie, you’ve lost the opportunity to develop that character as a villain. This forces you to develop their villain-ness within the last 20 minutes of the movie, which is not easy to do. Again, it can be done (The Fugitive comes to mind) but I would think long and hard about this choice, as it usually ends up like it does here in Wonder Woman – dumb.