Wonder Woman: The Structure and The Politics of The Action Blockbuster
Transcript From The Podcast:
If you’ve been following my podcast, you know that I’ve been talking for some time about the desperate need for some smart people to start writing superhero movies. Action movies and superhero movies are the mythologies of our time – millions of people see them, and as much as we might like to dismiss them as pure entertainment, the truth is, they irrevocably shape our view of the world, our children’s view of the world, the stories we tell ourselves about how to be our best selves, how to solve our problems, and what it means to be a hero. In this way, all action movies are political.
Which is why it’s so darn nice to see a movie like Wonder Woman kicking ass at the box office.
Wonder Woman isn’t a perfect movie. And it isn’t a perfect feminist manifesto.
But what it is is an action movie that actually cares about the message its audience takes away from it. It’s a film that tries to use an art form that historically, for the most part, has been exploitative of women, unquestioning of violence, reverential to hero
It’s a film that tries to use an art form that historically, for the most part, has been exploitative of women, unquestioning of violence, reverential to hero worship, and a proponent of the simplest answers to the most complex questions– and look underneath the surface in order to ask us some serious questions about our country, and our belief systems, and our desire for good guys, bad guys and magic bullets that can instantly solve our problems. In fact, to look at the very nature of war through a big silly action movie, which in itself is a pretty radical concept.
What’s interesting is that Wonder Woman does this not by rejecting the problematic elements of superhero movies (that mass audiences love and independent film minded audiences hate)– wanton violence, cliched characters, death without consequence, stereotypical love stories, female exploitation, revisionist history, perfect good guy Americans and purely evil foreign bad guys, inexplicable plot twists, unlikely action sequences, unmotivated character choices and oversimplified endings.
It does it by embracing those elements, meeting the audience where they are, and then using the elements they love to turn their perceptions of these elements upside down as the story develops: to show the complications underneath. To make us question the things we so easily accept about our action movies, and about the heroes we worship, whether they’re superheroes, political heroes, celebrity heroes or even religious heros.
This begins by simply stepping into the problem of being Wonder Woman as opposed to Superman.
Nobody ever questioned the ability or the reasoning of The Man of Steel– even when he was doing scientifically questionable things, like spinning the world backwards to turn back time.
But despite her totally bad-ass powers, Wonder Woman simply can’t get anyone to take her seriously. Not her mother, an Amazonian Queen, who for some culturally inexplicable reason among a tribe that spends most of their time preparing for battle, wants her daughter to be the one Amazon Warrior who doesn’t ever learn to fight.
Not her love interest. Not the British Government. Not her team of misfit spies. Not the soldiers at the German Front. Not even the clerks at a department store. They won’t let her dress like she wants, do what she wants, or use her incredible powers to end the war.
The woman can block bullets, jump buildings, lasso of truth bad guys, throw cars, and kick ass in a million different spectacular ways– and still, she’s treated like a wide-eyed “little lady” who needs to be protected; no one will take her seriously.
And this is what allows us to connect with Wonder Woman.
Because while we may not be able to bend the physical rules of the universe– we all know what it’s like to have a genuine talent to offer, and not be taken seriously, because of who we are or what we look like, because of race, economic standing, track record, experience, sexual orientation. We all know what it’s like to be mocked for our “naive ideas” even while the so smart guys in charge make nothing but a mess with their “realistic” ones.
We all know what it’s like to know we’ve got what it takes to go through the door, and find that door shut to us. In our careers, in our families, and in our lives as artists.
Wonder Woman helps us see these problems in ourselves by turning many of the tropes of action movies upside down.
Just like Superman has his Lois Lane, and Spider Man has his Mary Jane Watson, Wonder Woman has her “damsel in distress” as well. Except he happens to be a bad-ass American Spy named Steve.
They meet in a classic “Damsel in Distress” sequence. Wonder Woman, Diana, is living happily (if a bit “artistically” frustrated — by which I mean combat-frustrated) in a hidden world among her tribe of Amazonian Women.
And then one day, Steve literally crashes into her world from the outside– crash landing his plane into the ocean of her perfect little world and inadvertently leading a bunch of nasty nazis– who are chasing him– into her world as well.
And though this inciting incident may break the rules by happening later than we expect about 30 minutes into the film, and though we may spend a bit too long hanging in the well acted, but seen-it-before fantasy world of the Amazons, from this moment on, we are launched into a different kind of movie– an exciting mashup of superhero action and romantic comedy that starts to turn familiar tropes on their head.
While Steve flails around helplessly in the rapidly sinking plane in classic Damsel in Distress fashion, Diana quickly rushes to his rescue– saving him just in time to see her beloved mentor killed by one of nazis that have followed him into her world.
Despite growing up in a tribe of women warriors, it’s the first time Diana has actually seen war. The first time she’s actually seen evil. And having been raised in the simplistic action-movie mythology of her own people–she knows exactly who to blame. Not complicated political forces, not imbalance of wealth and power, not politically enfranchised racism and xenophobia– but Aries, the God of War, who corrupts good men and turns them against each other.
Like any good protagonist, Diana now knows her mission– her purpose in life. Or what we call in screenwriting, her superobjective– the big thing she wants more than anything.
And from this mission– this superobjective, this goal– will grow the entire structure of Diana’s journey, of Wonder Woman’s change.
The obstacle, as we’ve discussed, is that she’s a woman, and Steve’s a man. And quite frankly, so is everybody else who has power in Steve’s world.
So despite the fact that she’s just saved his life, defied her mother, stolen the magical “G-d Killer” sword bestowed upon her people by Zeus, and left everything she knows to go with Steve and save the world, Steve immediately assumes he has to protect her– from her naive ideas, from the German front, from the danger of war, from other people’s opinions of the way she dresses, from making a fool of herself in front of the powerful men he reports to, from carrying out her plan to go to the German front and defeat Aries–
Early on, we experience this in one of the most lovely and funny scenes in the film– and the point where you realize you’re definitely going on this ride– a scene that allows you to fall in love with the two of them as a couple. In a reversal of the classic romantic comedy awkward but chivalrous first date– Steve tries to chivalrously protect Diana from the obvious chemistry between them by finding a separate place to sleep on the boat carrying them to London– only to find that she’s way more comfortable with her sexuality than he is. Just as later he will find that she’s much more confident with her power than he is.
Just as she’s much more determined to follow her own voice, rather than the voices of those around her, than he is.
And what’s lovely about the film is that rather than judging Steve, the film develops him. Allows us to recognize him, not as a bad guy, not as a chauvinist, not as an antagonist, but as a product of his times– a man with his heart in the right place, slowly waking up to the idea that the woman he loves might be even more capable than he is of taking care of herself.
And by refusing to judge Steve, the movie once again allows us to see ourselves in him. It allows us to recognize the same flawed judgment in ourselves– not our malicious intent, but our unconscious biases. The way we unwittingly hold back those who could help us, and also the internal limits that hold us back from truly being ourselves.
And what’s best about Wonder Woman is that it does so without letting Diana off the hook in the structure of her own story.
The film doesn’t depict Diana as a victim of the patriarchy– but as a woman who refuses to be a victim to it. The film resists the urge to set Diana and Steve against each other, and instead develops a sweet, funny and mutually evolving love story between them. And most importantly, the film doesn’t turn Diana into Cassandra– the perfect woman who can see the truth but who nobody will believe. It doesn’t turn her into the perfect savior. Rather, it allows her to be a real human being– or at least a human God, complete with flaws in her thinking, misplaced beliefs about herself, and things that she too has to learn.
The film resists the urge to make the women right and the men wrong (as Diana’s mother believes) and also the urge to make the men right and the women wrong (as the British Patriarchy believes). Unlike the recent pseudo-feminist take on Ghostbusters it doesn’t simply reverse the stereotype, casting a man as the bimbo assistant, or as the one dimensional arm-candy-in distress.
Rather, it allows Diana and Steve to both be right and both be wrong, to work toward the same purpose and also at cross purposes, to fall in love, and to change and grow from their relationship with one another.
No matter what kind of movie you’re writing, this is your real goal as a writer.
Not to allow your characters to sit comfortably on their pedestals or in their dens of iniquity, but rather to strip off the masks they wear, and find the cross currents and the undertow inside of them, the complexities and contradictions underneath the roles they play that make them human, and that they must reconcile in order to earn their happy endings– or their sad ones..
When you do this, you not only allow your character to go on a journey of profound change. You also allow your audience to do so– to see themselves in that character and to grow and change in the same way.
Because we’ve seen action movies before, we, as the audience, think we know the rules of this simplified universe. Which means even while Steve is protecting Diana from her naive notions that a forgotten Greek God is the cause of World War II, we’re pretty darn sure that at the end of the day, however unlikely, she’s going to be right and Steve’s going to be wrong. Aries is going to appear, and she’s going to kick his ass. And peace will be returned to the universe.
Because that’s what happens in action movies.
We’re walking in Wonder Woman’s shoes– wanting to believe in the same way she does– in the same way that so many action movies, and so many politicians, and so many news sources, have trained us to do– that “we,” as the good guys, are inherently good, and “they,” as the bad guys are inherently bad, and that evil can be vanquished by a magical savior or G-d killer or a lasso of truth and that suddenly the world can be saved.
But as much as Diana is right about her own power, and her own instincts, she’s wrong about the stories she’s been told, and the stories she’s telling herself: about the nature of evil, the nature of war, the nature of man, and even the nature of Steve.
In some ways, this is the same challenge that we all go through as screenwriters. We come to our writing with assumptions about our stories, assumptions about our characters. These are assumptions based upon our past experiences, the stories we’ve been told, movies we’ve seen, the roles we’ve been asked to play or the vision we have of our characters or ourselves.
In other words, these assumptions grow out of cliche.
But as we come to know our characters, to know our stories, and in that way, to know ourselves, our assumptions start to get replaced with striking revelations.
Sometimes our characters do something we never expected, share something about themselves we wouldn’t have predicted, take a turn we could never have imagined, or reveal a part of themselves with which we weren’t acquainted.
And sometimes the truth comes to us like a shocking revelation– as a metaphorical image, a dream, something you know is true about your story, even though it doesn’t make logical sense.
This is exactly how the truth begins to reveal itself to Diana. Not with a sensible or logical scene, but with a moment of Magical Realism, that shocks both her, and our expectations.
Diana has finally found her way, with Steve, to the German front. And a sweet love story has developed between them. And we, like Diana, are seeing Steve through some pretty darn rose colored lenses: the goodest of the good ol’ American good guys.
And so they arrive at the German front, and a random frickin’ Native American shows up, with feathers and everything.
And he’s asked the same thing that we’re asking ourselves– the same thing we tend to ask ourselves as writers when something random pops up from our subconscious minds and into our scripts.
“What the hell are you doing here?
And his answer is much more metaphorical than literal: “Well somebody took my land.”
Who took it? “That guy,” he explains to Diana. Steve. The good guy. His people.
Which is pretty impressive for a mainstream action movie.
It’s a moment that starts to break open this simple theme of good and evil into something much more complicated. Because it threatens the fundamental assumption of all action movies: that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys– and that all we have to do to make a better world is find a way for the good guys to win.
And this is only the beginning, because in her later battle with the nasty Germans and the final showdown with the nasty G-d of War, Aries, this point will be driven home in an even more structurally powerful way.
Some spoilers ahead…
In this movie, vanquishing the bad guy doesn’t vanquish evil. As Aries tells Diana when they finally square off– he doesn’t make mankind bad, he simply whispers inspiration– creative ideas for new weapons, guns, bombs, poison gasses– it’s mankind that chooses to use that inspiration against each other.
In the same way it’s not the screenwriting Gods, not Hollywood, not the rules of screenwriting or the notes of coverage readers that dictate what we write, or whose standards we need to conform to.
Rather it’s the way we use our inspiration, bending our creativity to the service of what we believe in, or to the service of someone else’s agenda.
It’s those decisions that we make for ourselves as screenwriters that determine our journey as artists, and the journeys of those who experience our stories.
But sometimes we don’t feel like we have that kind of control.
Just like Diana, we are shocked to find that we have drunk the cool-laid, and rather than putting out beauty, put some kind of financially rewarding poison out into the world.
That we may not have been corrupted, but rather that we have corrupted ourselves, by failing to hold onto what we actually believe in.
In the film, it’s this revelation that shocks Diana– and that shocks the audience– the realization that mankind may not be totally good after all. That maybe, not even Wonder Woman or any other superhero can save the world. That maybe, we need to save ourselves– and maybe we truly don’t have the capacity, or even the desire to do it. That maybe we’re actually not so good after all.
And it’s a revelation that gets woven into Steve’s journey as well, both structurally, and expressionistically, as his facade as the perfect goody-two-shoes-bright-eyed-and-idealistic-American slowly gets stripped away. As he’s forced to confront (in dialogue if not fully in his structural action) that he’s not totally good either. That he’s a spy– a real spy, whose job is to lie, deceive, betray those who trust him. And whose ultimate choice comes from the realization that he’s potentially not a man worth saving– and maybe mankind doesn’t deserve saving… but that what we believe in, is worth preserving, even in the face of the terrifying evils and the terrifying temptations, of the world.Or as he says to Wonder Woman:
Or as he says to Wonder Woman:
“It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. …Only love will truly save the world.”
It’s nice to see an action movie that tells us to hold on to what we believe, instead of pretending that we can vanquish the evil we fear.
It’s nice to see an action movie where saving the world comes with consequences, and with real sacrifices, rather than magic bullets and happy endings.
And whatever its flaws, and there are many, it’s nice to see an action movie that shows us that, in order to change the world as artists, we don’t have to accept the cliches, or the rules or the elements of commercially successful movies. But we don’t have to reject them either.
That rather we can meet the audience where they are, not with judgment, but with curiosity. And show them who we are. And hopefully give them not only what they’re asking for, but also something more.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. if you are wishing that you were here with us in Costa Rica, don’t worry, we have another retreat coming up this October– our TV Writing Retreat in Vermont at ITVfest. And if you’d like a full transcript of this podcast, or to know more about studying at Jacob Krueger Studio, with me or any of our wonderful faculty, in NYC, online, or as part of our Protrack One-on-One Mentorship program, please visit our website, WriteYourScreenplay.com.