I’ve recently seen Wonder Woman and thought I go ahead and try to reconstruct the major story structure elements and share my take on the character arch at hand. Please note, this is my opinion and I do not claim to know what the scriptwriters had in mind. Still, I think they did a pretty good job.
More posts concerning the DC universe: Aquaman
For all who have not yet seen the movie, please be aware of major spoilers if you read on – obviously I’ll have to go into detail when analysing the story’s structure. I’ll be using the basic Three-Act-Structure to do so. Like most stories, Wonder Woman does follow it as well. Additionally, and because that’s been one of my chief research topics on the craft, I want to look into the character arch for Diana, Princess of Themyscira. If you are not familiar with the Three-Act-Structure I recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog. It’s a treasure!
Overview of the story arch for the motion picture:
Hook: Modern Day Diana and slightly misleading “entry statement”
Inciting Event: Capt. Steve Trevor arrives @ Themyscira
Key Event: Antiope sacrifices herself for Diana
First Plot Point: Diana decides to leave
First Pinch: Attack by Ludendorff’s thugs in London
Midpoint: Diana charges the “No-mans-Land” and rescues the village
Second Pinch: Ludendorff and Dr. (Poison) Maru launch the gas and kill everyone in the village
Third Plot Point: Diana kills Ludendorff but the war does not end and Sir Patrick reveals himself to be the true War God
Climax: Diana fights the real Ares
Climactic Moment: Diana realises her destiny and empowers her godly self, kills Ares
Resolution: The war ends. She fondly remembers Capt. Trevor
Detailed Analysis – Story Structure:
The movie starts with a Hook that is a prologue of sorts – Diana Prince as curator in the Louvre receives a highly guarded delivery from Bruce Wayne (We all know who he is, don’t we?) containing an old war picture of Diana amidst several men. We learn that the story we are about to see is, in fact, a memory of Diana. The scene serves several purposes: 1) it sets her apart as a “special” kind of person – she is unchanged by time and looks just like in the hundred years old photograph; 2) it sets the mood and expectation for what is to come – a war tale; 3) it (seems to) hint at the ending – a victorious squad shows in the picture.
With these issues taken care of, we are quite ready to “go back in time” and start the actual setup of the main character by watching Diana grow up on Themyscira as Princess of the Amazons. In this section of the film, we get a lot of foreshadowing done as well as the setup for the “Lie” the main character Diana believes: “It’s the Amazon’s purpose and destiny to fight against Ares when he comes back one day to protect the inherently good human race from his rotten influence.” (See Character Arch further below) We learn the myths she believes, we see her train and get better and better until, just when she defeats her aunt Antiope with powers unknown, we hit the Inciting Event of the story – the arrival of Capt. Steve Trevor and a pursuing army. Following right after that comes the Key Event where the Amazons, at utter disadvantage weapon-wise, manage to defeat the invaders at great cost and Antiope sacrifices her life for Diana at the end of the battle.
The Amazon’s decision to battle the Germans at the beach of Themyscira is the Key Event because it is the moment when the overall conflict – the first world war – comes crashing into Diana’s, the protagonists, life. With the deaths of her fellow Amazons, especially her aunt’s, Diana is pulled into the story and gets personally involved with the conflict. But it is not the “doorway of no return” to Act II. By that time she could still walk away, mourn for the dead and carry on with her life as a princess – a path her mother is actually preferring.
We only hit the First Plot Point, when Diana, guided by her values, decides to go and fight Ares in the outer world to “end the war of all wars.” She steals the “God-Killer-Sword” and the Lasso of Truth and travels to the outer world with Capt. Steve Trevor. There, she acts and behaves like she has learned and naturally rubs the military command and other humans of modern London quite the wrong way.
When Diana and Steve are first cornered by Ludendorff’s men in a lonely alley and later learn about his plan to use a new and deadly gas, Diana concludes Ludendorff must be Ares in disguise and resolves to kill him. This Pinch Point, the showing off of the power and dangerousness of Ludendorff, serves as a perfect “red herring” to credibly deflect attention from the true but only later identified antagonist.
Defying the military’s order to not got to Belgium, Capt. Trevor assembles a group to bring Diana to the front as he promised. With Sir Patrick’s money, they make it to the front line. There, in the trenches, Diana witnesses the unwillingness or helplessness to assist and aid people in dire need. Not only the soldiers but her own squad, too. When a refugee woman with a small child in her arms tells her about the atrocities in the conquered village behind the front line, she can’t take it any longer. Dismissing the indifference of Capt. Steve Trevor, she charges the enemies lines. This is the Midpoint of the story. Diana changes her tactics from reaction (to the new world and new events the Inciting Event cast her in) to action (acting on the circumstances and in accordance to her gut feeling) Her attack draws all enemy fire to her, enabling and inspiring the rest of the troops to follow. They win and take back the village. And now the picture from the opening scene is taken. We learn, that it was not taken after emerging victorious from the war but only after a victorious single battle. This raises the tension for the audience as the outcome is now not certain anymore.
The village celebrates victory none the less. The squad joins in. They bond with the villagers. That’s important later on when the 2nd Pinch Point occurs. The squad proceeds with the goal to find and kill Ludendorff or at least eliminate the threat of the newly developed mustard gas. After Diane fails to kill Ludendorff at the gala dinner due to Steven’s intervention, the 2nd Pinch Point arrives when the Germans successfully launch the test missile toward the recently liberated and unsuspecting village, killing all remaining people.
The 2nd Pinch Point comes a little late in the story but serves its purpose well. It’s a showcase for the threatening powers of the antagonist. Diana, enraged beyond measure, blames Steven for the events and runs of in pursuit of Ludendorff. Devastated by the many deaths, she rushed to put an end to it all, so the 3rd Plot Point follows shortly after the village is wiped out. Diana finds and kills Ludendorff on the roof of the arms factory on german controlled premises. But it’s a fake victory. Now, by all she was expecting, the war should stop. But it doesn’t. At this point, with Diana watching the war rage below from atop the factory, Steve shows up again. He begs her to help with the gas-bomb loaded plane but she’s too confused. Her plan did not work – she is out of options.
As it is often the case with the 3rd Plot Point, also know as the doorway to Act III, it features a prominent death – in this case, Ludendorff’s. And just as often the now the prime antagonist shows off a twist or reveals the ace he’s got up his sleeve. When Steve finally leaves without her to fight on, the true antagonist reveals himself – it’s Sir Patrick and he indeed is Ares.
In the 3rd Act, the story’s stages split into the stage where Diana fights Ares and the stage where the rest of the squad seeks to eliminate the gas-bomb primed plane while staying alive. The climactic moment for the latter arrives when Capt. Steven Trevor decides on a suicide mission to destroy the plane. Diana needs longer to resolve her inner conflict to win the outer conflict against Ares. Before hijacking the plane Steven talks to Diana even though she is to shocked to understand it at that moment.
We near the Climax. Diana and Ares battle on. At first, the fight against Ares seems lopsided. He’s too strong. All seems lost when the “God Killer” sword is destroyed. Ares tests Diana’s believes and ethics taunts her and tries to persuade her to join his side. Diana gains important knowledge when she learns that she is a goddess herself and the weapon to kill Ares. However, she cannot use her full strength and win the outer conflict against Ares as long as she has not resolved her inner conflict and closed her character arch. (See below)
This moment occurs when Diana is incapacitated by a large metal ring and helplessly witnesses Steven’s demise in the explosion of the plane. Her anger and despair peaks and the resulting emotional pain gives her the strength to bursts free from prison. This leads directly to the climactic moment.
Ares taunts her even more after Steven’s death and challenges her to kill Dr Maru. Here, both the inner and the outer conflict come together. She recalls Steven’s last words to her, understands the implications of his actions and lets the woman go. With this act, she ultimately dismisses Ares’ plans in favour of her new found truth and she is finally able to fully access her godly strengths, leading to Ares’ defeat.
With the real Ares dead and the plane destroyed, peace is finally achieved. The Resolution of the story is shown when Diana is back in London, fondly remembering the late Capt. Steven Trevor.
Last but not least, the movie comes full circle with another present-day scene: Diana, back at her desk in the Louvre, is thanking Bruce Wayne in an email for the photograph. She is still a vigilant guardian of her new found truth and aims to dedicate her power to do justice in the world.
Detailed Analysis – Diana’s Character Arch
Diana, trained and educated on Themyscira, holds dear the beliefs and values of the Amazons. She starts out with the learned “Lie” that humankind has been made inherently good and peaceful by Zeus while only later Ares’ bad influence made them prone to quarrel and war. Furthermore, it’s the Amazon’s duty to protect humankind if Ares, defeated eons ago, where to come back and kill him with the treasured God Killer. In accordance with this lie, Diana does everything she can, to prepare to be an unconquerable warrior. Her main goal is to become the best-trained Amazon of all time, a want nurtured by her aunt Antiope.
Then, war arrives in form of Capt. Steve Trevor and the German troops. With Antiope dead, her mother Hippolyta fails to do what Diana feels must be done: get the Amazons out there to fight as they were supposed to do. Her decision to defy her mother and leave with Capt Trevor as a guide is the irreversible event that leads us into Act II. Diana leaves the shores of Themyscira with her new plot goal “Use Capt. Trevor to find the God Ares and kill him to give back peace to humankind.” This, however, is only the perceived solution coloured by her lie – she does not know better at this point. But, she gets a glimpse of the Truth when Trevor admits he’s only fighting now after he chose to do nothing for a time. He is the first one to show her that mankind itself is flawed – that there is “darkness in each of us.”
Right up to the Midpoint, she reacts to new situations based on what she believes and has learned at home. She refuses to see mankind as the troubled and far-from-perfect creation, even though there’s a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise. She witnesses the lack of courage and downright disregard for life at London Military Head Quarters; sees the flaws and imperfections and even cowardliness in the team Trevor assembles.
Only at the Midpoint, after witnessing the horrors in the trenches and Trevor’s seemingly indifferent and helpless reaction to it, she realises at last, that she has to do something, has to start somewhere. She resolves to bring new hope to the people in the trenches, show them the right path. She instinctively knows that she needs to inspire them and let them experience how courage and compassion can save the day. And it works. First, Trevor and the squad follow her, later the rest of the troops charge across the battlefield and they win back the village.
Even though she just saw how people need guidance and are willing to do the right thing when guided, she holds on to her plan of killing Ludendorff. She has a better grasp on the truth (People need to choose their own destiny. Then are able to do good deeds despite their flaws. If they act out of their own free will.) but has yet to relinquish the lie (Mankind is inherently perfect and flawless and only corrupted by Ares). She still pursues her “want” – the original goal that is but a perceived solution to the problem, while the real solution would be to accept the imperfection in humankind and embrace her destiny as a role model to inspire goodness and compassion with her belief in love.
Her resolve to kill Ludendorff is further empowered when the Germans gas the village. She corners Ludendorff at the roof of the factory. There she is, in the grasp of the thing she wanted all along – she takes the chance and kills him. But Ares is not so easily conquered – and he never was Ludendorff. Diana only thought he is, but she was wrong. The real Ares personification reveals himself in form of Sir Patrick, now launching his final attack against her – not only physically, but psychologically. He mocks her and tries to persuade her to join his side. He does not try to re-establish her old lie – instead, he tries to plant a new lie into her mind: Mankind is evil and not worthy of living and should be killed once and for all.
Diana fights him. All the while Steven Trevor is off to his suicide mission and the rest of the squad fights for survival. When Steven sacrifices his life to save thousands of others and Diana remembers his last words to her, she finally rejects Ares and his new lie as well as her old lie. She fully realises that humankind is not inherently good OR evil, but simply flawed. Capable of great deeds, both good and evil. They are worthy of her protection. And if treated with love will do the right thing. That unlocks the last barrier holding her back from using her full godly powers and she embraces her destiny as God-Killer and protector of mankind.
With Ares dead, the war ends. Diana’s future and her ongoing fight as the protector of humankind are shown once again in the last scene, coming full circle to the beginning.
Wonder Woman is a very well structured movie that hits the major story structure points just right. The accompanying character arch integrates perfectly with those main structural scenes. A prime example of structure done right!
Do you agree? Please comment!