Of Gods and Mortals


On this episode of The Void, we look at how the notable similarities between Moana and Wonder Woman explains why one works as a film while the other falters.


The more I watch it, the more I notice how very similar Moana and Wonder Woman are on a story/plot level. And looking at both of them this way really highlights why one worked so well and why the other did not.

And it really boils down to this: active vs passive protagonist.

KEEP IT MOVING

Moana‘s titular lead is the driving force in her own story. Her personality and choices are what allow the movie to progress. Her vulnerability and decision to set out and save her people is what makes her brave. Her love and devotion to others is what ultimately allows her to resolve the main conflict of the movie when death is a persistent threat.

Wonder Woman, meanwhile, features a lead character who isn’t active but reactive. The plot could progress with or without her. And given its backdrop is the first World War, the outcome is a given seeing as how all of that happened one-hundred years ago.

Now when the Nazis accidentally arrive on Themyscira while in pursuit of Steve Trevor, several of the Amazons die as a result. But they also have little issue with dispatching of all the soldiers. And from what we’re shown and told, there’s no more Nazis coming. And as a result, the movie has no central conflict.

This long setup in the first act is just an excuse to get Steve on the island and meet Diana, which then gives her a reason to leave the island.

Steve Trevor does have motivations and a conflict to resolve as a soldier looking to put a stop to a new chemical weapon that could turn the tide of the war. He has information that he needs to get back to his superiors, but the Amazons effectively have him prisoner on an island that exists in its own bubble in the middle of who knows where.

Diana’s only conflict at this point is her mother telling her “no” when Diana only wants to hear, “Yes.”

If Steve were allowed to leave, he could return to his superior officers in time, inform them of what he knows, and the war is won. Conflict resolved, far as we know.

Diana is a tag-along. She goes with Steve back to the “real world”. She goes with him to London. She hangs around as Steve deals with bureaucracy. And she hangs around as he, a mere mortal man, heads off to the front with a group of other mortal men to destroy the weapon.

Steve, alternatively, drives the entire movie forward with his conflict, with his choices and his heroics. Diana is there to provide some sort of social commentary and to provide the expected superheroics–the bigger than life fights, and all that.

THE REAL HERO

In essence, Diana is the Maui to Steve’s Moana. Aside from being eager where Maui is hesitant, she’s a demi-god tasked with helping a mortal to save the world from a great darkness. And in the end of both movies, it’s the mortal who resolves the central conflict. Steve destroys the weapon and Moana returns the Heart of Te Fiti, thus the world is saved.

Yes, Maui and Diana end up looking more like the hero we know they’re supposed to be. Yes, they have the physical battle with the embodiment of death and destruction. But it’s still the mortals who do the real heavy lifting while the gods provide the spectacle.

Even more so, both Steve and Moana’s words and actions implicitly guide their respective demi-god to act heroic.

That said, Maui is a supporting character. But Diana is *supposed* to be the lead.

Except that’s not the case. Instead she, like us, is largely observing the real hero’s adventure play out to the end. Moana is about Moana’s journey. But Wonder Woman isn’t about Diana at all–it’s about Steve Trevor.

And this is why Wonder Woman ultimately fails as a movie while Moana succeeds.

PURPOSE MEET DIRECTION

Moana left her island because she needed to. She had purpose and direction. She had drive. The movie constantly hits home that being “chosen” or “special” isn’t what makes you a hero, it’s the choices you make and the actions you take that make you one. Moana chooses to fight to save her people and constantly risks dying to do so.

Diana, meanwhile, needs a contrived excuse to leave her own island. And even then, she has no purpose or direction of her own. She’s seeking meaning the entire movie. And it’s Steve Trevor who provides it. Even after her destined battle with Ares–the only time Diana is ever in actual danger (the movie constantly points out that only a god can kill another god, thus she is completely in the clear until she finds and fights Ares). Even after this, she resolves nothing. War still exists. Nothing she does ultimately contributes as much as anything done by the mortals around her.

In the end, Wonder Woman is a long, roundabout way of giving the lead character the purpose and direction she should have had by the end of the movie’s first act. It takes two hours to do what better movies manage in their first twenty or so minutes.

IN THE END

Even the respective final scenes and shots highlight how well or poorly these movies handled their material.

Moana ends with Moana leading her people to a new home. She faces the burning light of the setting sun, a fleet of boats following her lead. She’s proven herself and taken her place as both the hero and leader of her people.

Wonder Woman ends with Diana jumping out of a window into a setting sun…for no reason at all. There’s blatantly heroic music. There’s a heroic pose. But it’s all empty posturing. She’s not hearing the cries of pains of others and coming to their rescue. She’s not acting like the hero she was inspired to be over the course of the preceding two hours. Instead, she’s doing something without purpose or direction, just as she does for the majority of the movie.

Only one of these is a movie about a motivated young woman choosing to fight to become the hero. The other is about an unmotivated, shallow character looking for something to do.

Only one gives us reason to care, shows us reasons to care. The other simply tells us that we should care.

Moana is a beautiful, inspiring film that succeeds in telling its story. It succeeds in delivering on its themes and promises. It consistently works for and earns the respect and praise that fans (and those involved in the making of) Wonder Woman simply demand be offered up for what amounts to two hours of lazy posturing.

When Moana is inevitably and invariably remade by Disney, it will be in an effort to bring to life one of their greatest works. But when Wonder Woman is eventually “rebooted”, it will be in the hope of finally, maybe getting it right.