As I write this, I’m fresh off of a second viewing of Wonder Woman. The movie has remained on my mind quite a bit. Even I’m surprised by how much, and I write epics that feature Amazon-like warrior women.
I’ve written before about how Wonder Woman’s origin story is a block in the foundation of my storytelling, so it’s probably no surprise I went to see the film on opening day, or that I took my wife so I could see it again. A lot of reviews have spoken to the novelty, and even the awe felt, in seeing an entire host of skilled warrior women riding into combat and kicking ass. But I’ve spent the last decade or so vividly imaging just that.
So it isn’t just the presence of warrior women that has left me thinking about a blockbuster superhero movie (a story venue that rarely leaves me thinking beyond the drive home from the theater). It’s more about the S-word.
It’s the S-Word, Not the F-Word
Wonder Woman has gotten a lot of buzz for a superhero movie, even in the mainstream media. A lot of the talk has centered on the f-word… feminism. And I know for many woman and girls, seeing a movie of this type that features a woman is a powerful thing. I also know that, for some, WW is a slap to feminism—a side-step rather than a step forward. I’m sure that debate will not end soon.
But Wonder Woman’s gender is not what I want to address here (though I suspect it may have been an influence on what I will address). As I said, what made the experience powerful for me has more to do with the s-word… sincerity.
“I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied from sincerity, real sincerity, because we feel like we have to wink at the audience because it’s what kids like. We have to do real stories now. The world is in crisis.”—Patty Jenkins (director of Wonder Woman)
For me it was just so refreshing, and ultimately inspiring, to see a blockbuster so unafraid of embracing a belief in a “greater good.” Princess Diana of Themyscria is earnestly portrayed as a hero with innate goodness, one who is powerfully motivated by the desire to save mankind. Plus the story doesn’t shy from romantic impulses such as the innocence of youth, the corrupting influence of industrialization, and the power of love. In other words, it’s brimming with good old-fashioned sincerity.
Cynicism’s Cool/Darkness Rules
“Every ounce of my cynicism is supported by historical precedent.”—Glen Cook
I’ve been pretty dissatisfied by the superhero genre for some time, but I hadn’t fully appreciated why. There have been enjoyable exceptions, but even those seem to have become cynical. Awesome action sequences are fine, but I really don’t need another detached, sarcastic protagonist. And what’s with all of the infighting—superheroes pitted against one another? I guess it’s sort of cool to find out if Captain America can punch his way past Iron Man, or if there’s a circumstance where Batman can pick a fair fight with Superman. But it seems like there’s been an emphasis on how flawed heroes can be, and how convoluted their motivations can become.
And this isn’t just a blockbuster movie phenomenon. A large swath of popular storytelling seems determined to let us know that having hope is for suckers. Heck, over in Westeros any character that dares to speak of hope ends up either dead or tortured/maimed/imprisoned. But most often dead.
Much of my genre (historical fantasy) seems determined to tell us that history was even shittier than we’ve dared imagine, and that the only reason we’ve never noticed is because it’s written by the victors—who were likely to have been shitty people. The genre is rife with “heroes” who are assassins/warriors/soldiers who are coldly resigned to behave horribly, if only because allowing the antagonist to prevail would be even more horrible.
Who can save us when we’re not even sure what we’re being saved from, or for what real reason? Not to mention the cost. How many wars can be fought in the name of the personal ambitions of flawed characters? How many Metropolises can be leveled before we decide it’s just not worth being saved anymore? How much bloodletting will we consume only to find out that it was for nothing more than twisted motives? Dark questions indeed. Pretty cool, eh?
Maybe I’m just a bit more sentimental than most genre fans. After all, these movies, series, and books seem to sell well. And who can argue with the market?
Well, maybe that’s why I’m heartened by Wonder Woman.
Against Dark Odds, Striving for the Light
“I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in the betterment of mankind. Because I believe in it. It’s terrible that so many artists are afraid to be sincere, truthful, and emotional. It relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring joy and beauty to the world.”—Patty Jenkins
“Sincerity in art is not an affair of will, of a moral choice between honesty and dishonesty. It is mainly an affair of talent. A man may desire with all his soul to write a sincere, a genuine book and yet lack the talent to do it. In spite of his sincere intentions, the book turns out to be unreal, false, and conventional; the emotions are stagily expressed, the tragedies are pretentious and lying shams and what was meant to be dramatic is badly melodramatic.”—Aldous Huxley
I fully appreciate both Jenkins’ and Huxley’s sentiments. And Lord knows I’ve been guilty of melodramatic storytelling. One of my earliest beta-readers even used the word twee. I’ve spent years striving to achieve honest emotional impact absent of sentimentalism. And yet I know my work will always lack emotional impact for some, or will even seem downright cheesy.
I don’t want to offer any spoilers (so if you haven’t seen WW and are planning to, you might want to skip ahead to the next section), but there’s a significant moment during the third act of Wonder Woman, and it seems not everyone appreciates, or even catches it. Critics who miss it seem to dwell on the over-the-top aspects of the climatic scenes.
In the moment, Diana, all but overcome by her nemesis, is made to realize the premise of her mission—indeed, her entire outlook—is flawed. Which causes her to grasp a horrible truth: that there really is ugliness and hate in the world—that the darkness within mankind is real, not just something that’s been foisted upon us. But the power of the moment comes in what she does next. She decides to believe anyway. And to keep striving.
I don’t mind darkness in stories, as long as it’s due to an unwanted absence of light.
Cheesy and Proud of It
“I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives in their light. And I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both; a choice each must make for themselves. It’s something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, and I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”—Diana Prince, aka Princess of Themyscria, aka Wonder Woman
I suppose there’s a case to be made for dark, and even cynical, storytelling. Don’t such stories save us from naiveté? Why should we ever trust anyone—individual, group, or institution—to save us? Doesn’t cynicism insulate us from unavoidable pain and our inevitable fate, and allow us to laugh at life’s absurdities? I suppose.
I suppose there are always choices to be made, even in the speculative genre. We all seek and find the types of stories that not only suit our sensibilities, but fill some inner need.
Wonder Woman is not for everyone. I’ve witnessed its bashing, in the media and online.
And yet I was struck, sitting in that dark theater, my heart brimming as Wonder Woman earnestly strives against such dark odds. I’ve realized something in the harsh criticism and in the glowing praise; in the articles and tweets admitting to cathartic tears shed over a superhero movie; in the scores of pictures of little girls dressed as the hero they’d never before seen in a movie devoted to her.
I’ve realized that I crave stories that embody hope, that I want to create stories with characters who sincerely believe that love can save their world from darkness.
And as I watched this movie crunch the competition for two straight weeks at the box office, I’ve realized I’m not alone. I understand, more clearly than ever, that my stories are not for everyone, and that’s okay. One reader’s sincerity is another reader’s cheese.
Cheesy or not, I’m more interested in striving for sincerity in my storytelling than ever. And I have Wonder Woman to thank.
Do you strive for sincerity in your writing? Or are you allergic to cheese? Can you make a more compelling case for darkness or cynicism in stories? Or do you think they can coexist?