Wonder Woman Worked Because It Was Self-contained

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures

Very few superhero-comics stories have remained perpetually in print since their release. Throughout the history of the genre, story arcs about Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and their ilk have generally come out in serialized individual comics, then are either never collected, or collected in one paperback edition that never finishes selling its initial print run. They float into the ether, half-remembered and unimportant.

But the super-sagas that do remain in constant demand — Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: The Killing Joke, Marvel’s Civil War, and a few others — have one thing in common: They are, for the most part, complete narratives. Though your enjoyment of them may be increased if you’ve read previous tales about the main characters, such knowledge isn’t required. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. No “previously on” or “to be continued.” Few — if any — Easter-egg shout-outs that will be lost on a lay consumer. They’re stories, not just episodes.

This notion of remaining self-contained is one of the great virtues of this past weekend’s mega-smash comics adaptation Wonder Woman. It’s a film that, with the exception of a few seconds at the opening and closing, completely stands on its own. You can walk in cold and not only get the story, but also not have to sit through Über-geeks cheering at dog-whistle references to comics lore. That notion is also something that sets it apart — like their comics forbears, contemporary superhero flicks are beset by interconnectedness. That’s not an inherently bad thing, as those connections can create a massive tapestry of meta-narrative that’s gripping and grand. But you can very easily get too much of a good thing.

For example, to really understand Captain America: Civil War, you needed to have seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you had to sit through scene after scene of moments that didn’t move the internal narrative, but were rather placed to set up this year’s Justice League. Even relatively isolated films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Suicide Squad are chock-full of intrusive references to comic books and their respective studios’ other projects; even origin stories like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man end with teases of how their title characters will interact with their brand mates.

Wonder Woman largely avoids this, though there are about three minutes of the film that might be a wee smidge confusing to folks who didn’t see Batman v Superman. The movie is bookended by scenes in which the protagonist, the superpowered Amazon Diana, goes to a museum and gets an email from Batman, then sends an email back to him. If you just went to the multiplex to support woman-directed action cinema and had no familiarity with the previous films in the DC universe, those two scenes might have been a tiny bit confusing. But Wonder Woman is hardly the only period piece to have a shoehorned-in framing device, and the rest of the film truly does stand alone.

Whatever your response to the emailing, the rest of the film is gloriously devoid of callbacks or call-forwards. Diana may have debuted in Batman v Superman, but she doesn’t talk about how anything in that debut affected her, and the core action of the film takes place a century prior to it. To be honest, it’s a little surprising that there were no disguised winks about WW’s history — no streets named after her creators, no casual mentions of beloved Wonder Woman characters who don’t actually appear in the flick, and so on. Surprising, but relieving, too.

All of that narrative independence is also surprising given the tie-in-heavy nature of the last two DC Extended Universe movies. What changed at Warner Bros.? We can only speculate, but my suspicion is that it has to do with the new regime at Warner superhero subdivision DC Entertainment. After the critical drubbing of Batman v Superman, DC Comics writer and DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns was elevated to become the co-head of DC Films, alongside producer Jon Berg. He may have brought with him a fresh approach, one that emphasized individual creative energy over brand synergy.

After all, that’s the approach he took just last year when he helmed DC Comics’ massively successful “Rebirth” project. It’s not worth getting into all the details, but suffice it to say that DC’s comic-book output had been plagued with confusing and oppressive line-wide consistency for years, and Johns opted to clean house by letting individual writers and artists reimagine their characters however they wanted to, consistency be damned. It was a winning strategy — DC’s comics have undergone a major sales turnaround.

So perhaps, once he was in charge, Johns had a similarly light touch when it came to Wonder Woman writer Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins. It’s hard to imagine a bold indie director like Jenkins wanting to submerge her first huge-budget picture in the waters of continuity, so it’s entirely possible to assume that she simply wasn’t asked to. That was certainly true of the visual aesthetics of the film — cinematographer Matthew Jensen just told me that DC hadn’t told him anything about making sure his movie looked like any of the others in the line. Why not do that with the narrative, too?

Whatever the reasoning, the proof is in the pudding: The self-contained approach worked. Critics may have had their complaints, but none of them were about excessive interconnections. More important for the corporate overlords, you don’t really hear fans complaining about the movie feeling isolated or off-brand. And hey, the thing made a ton of money. I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be a portent of things to come for DC. It’s no secret that they were shaken up by the critical assault and financial underperformance of Batman v Superman and, to an extent, Suicide Squad, which made a lot of money, but had a huge drop-off in second-week ticket sales due to bad word of mouth.

As a result, the studio has started announcing movies that weren’t in the original six-year-plan that was announced in 2014: Nightwing, Batgirl, Black Adam. Other films like The Flash and The Batman are allegedly being rebuilt from the ground up, too. It’s not inconceivable to think that DC might covertly move away from their mission of imitating Marvel’s byzantine cinematic universe and, without blowing the whole DCEU up outright, simply make their future movies (with the exception of Justice League and its potential sequels) more like their own individual things, rather than puzzle pieces. For the first time in DC history — comics included — it seems like Wonder Woman might be leading while Batman and Superman scurry to follow her.

Why Did Wonder Woman Work? It Was Self-contained