These days, innocence is a difficult thing to come by at the theater. We're smack-dab in the middle of a love affair with grimdark and gritty on screens big and small. It's even a rarity in comic book movies, that heroic genre full of exceptional people meant to uplift and inspire. We have the exuberant youth of Spider-Man and the stranger-in-a-strange-land element of Thor, the earnestness of Clark Kent and a man out of time in Steve Rogers. But real innocence? Purity? There is none of that.
Which is why Wonder Woman is so refreshing. While her origin story and her personality in the comics have changed over the decades, depending on the era and the writer, Diana's provenance has always been rooted firmly in her upbringing in Themyscira, a Paradise Island removed from both men and mankind. In Patty Jenkins' live-action version of Wonder Woman's story, men don't even exist to be sold as slaves or killed as babies (as they do in some questionable comic book runs).
Diana's upbringing has been entirely one of duty, set on her path by a fate laid out before she was even born. She has been raised as steeped in her beliefs as any religious zealot: Become the greatest warrior the Amazons have ever known in order to protect humankind, because we are ultimately good and worth saving. In Diana's sheltered life, humans have been placed on a pedestal, a benevolent and compassionate race that is inherently noble, one that could never be corrupt on its own but only if influenced by the vengeful deity Ares. How could she know any different? She's never met a human.
Wonder Woman's profound misunderstanding of human nature could understandably be skewed toward comedy, and there are a few humorous fish-out-of-water moments between Diana and Steve Trevor, the first man she's ever encountered. Going the comedic route would have been expected and easy. But Gal Gadot's Diana never crosses into triteness, never becomes the butt of the joke.
Instead, earnestness becomes the hook. In Diana's heart of hearts, she believes humankind is only fighting in the Great War because we've been corrupted by Ares. Find and kill Ares and humans will go back to being the good and loving race she believes us to be. It's the simplicity of a childhood belief, but Diana is a grown woman and not stupid.
As the audience and part of that human race, we find sad compassion welling up in response to the inevitable heartbreak for which Diana is being set up. It's the sorrow of wisdom and experience. We know what Diana doesn't: Mankind is often cruel and selfish and merciless and unkind. As a child, Diana might have absorbed this truth without much trouble. As an adult, with beliefs held since childhood, what will it do to her to have those beliefs shattered? How will she recover?
And shatter they do. Heartbreak, it comes. The world, embroiled in the midst of a global war, is not good and kind and Diana gets an abrupt and rude awakening in regard to human nature. She is fundamentally betrayed, wounded at her very core in a way that does far more damage than any arrow or sword ever could. It's a scene that resonates with us humans watching.
There are two particular formative moments in anyone's life while on our path to adulthood, moments that break our spirit and, depending on how the break sets, determines who we become. The first is when we realize the ones we look up to are fallible, when our heroes fall from grace. The second is when our fundamental beliefs are truly challenged for the first time. For Diana, both pivotal moments happen simultaneously. Her belief was in putting humans on a pedestal and not only do humans fall from that pedestal, she realizes they never even deserved it in the first place.
The payoff of building up her innocence is the poignancy of the moment. It's a grief that doesn't feel hollow, as grief so often does in tentpole films, but an emotion that is truly earned. It's an uncomfortable, guilty moment for us to watch. We knew it was coming, and still it hurts to see Diana, with her goodness and purity of spirit, turn away from the humans who betrayed her. It hurts not because we don't understand her, but because we do.
But like I said, it's all about how the spirit sets after it breaks — and Diana's spirit is strong. It's easy to be a hero when you're rarely challenged, easier to be a hero when you've walked into the role with eyes open about the reality of the world. It's quite another to be a hero when your heart is broken, when you're asked to save the very ones who broke it.
More than Superman, more than Captain America, more than Spider-Man, Wonder Woman is our most noble superhero in any movie universe. She's a fighter who always gets back up, regardless of whether the punch is a physical or emotional one. She just shakes it off, the avenging angel she knows in her heart she's born to be. No destiny or fate, no indoctrinated beliefs, the Wonder Woman we get is one who chooses to be a protector of mankind for herself and herself alone. It's a wonderful twist on the superhero origin story. In her innocence being lost, Diana finds her purity of spirit. And in her pure spirit we find our champion.