Wonder Woman: A Conservative and (Demi-) Religious View of the Human Race
CAUTION: Spoilers ahead.
Director of Wonder Woman Cathy Jenkins has said that she doesn’t think of herself as a female film maker or Wonder Woman as a female film. And while there’s a lot in this film for women to like, Jenkins has used the superhero genre to give us a meditation on mankind at its worst but also at its best. On the one hand, this is the story of a sheltered young woman’s coming of age, but this coming-of-age narrative is set within the context of a meditation on whether there’s enough good in “mankind” to make it worth saving or even fighting for. And this is the decision the demi-goddess Wonder Woman has to make near the end of the film.
As the film opens we see a photo of earth and hear the voice of Diana Prince (Wonder Woman in street clothes) saying that once she wanted to save the world but had “learned the hard way a long, long time ago” that that was not so simple. We see her walking into the Louvre, where she receives an old newspaper photo of her as Wonder Woman, with a young soldier by her side and the both of them flanked by a group of somewhat motley looking men. The message with the photo, from its sender, Bruce Wayne, reads “Maybe someday you’ll tell me your story.”
This sets up the segue to the “long time ago” -- the time of World War I -- in which the movie’s action takes place, and to Diana as a pre-teen girl standing on a path elevated above the Amazon’s training field, imitating with her arms and legs the punches, slashes, and kicks of the women training below. And soon, against the objections of her mother, Diana’s aunt, the greatest of all Amazon warriors, begins to train her.
Angry at her sister, and wanting to sober her daughter up about war, Diana’s mother tells Diana the creation story of the Amazons. In a mashup of the Book of Genesis, Greek myth, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Zeus, the king of the gods, has created a race of human beings to share the paradisiac world previously enjoyed only by the gods. Mankind has been created good and, for a while, the world remains paradise. But Ares, the god of War, out of envy of Zeus’s creation, poisoned the humans’ souls with jealousy and suspicion. Of course this picture is far more evocative of the biblical Satan than the portrayal of Ares in Greek myth. Later in the film we will see Ares as the “accuser” of mankind, a portrayal far more appropriate to the Satan of the Bible and of Milton’s Paradise Lost than it is to the Ares of Greek myth
The coming of age story tells us of Diana’s introduction to the world of men. Those who know the Wonder Woman backstory know that this occurs when Diana rescues a pilot who’s crash landed into the sea. Only after she gets him back on the island and looks at him does she realize he’s a man. But what she comes to realize about Steve Trevor is that he’s motivated by a sense of duty that evokes and reinforces her own sense of the duty of the Amazons to fight on behalf of mankind and on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves.
Since the Amazons don’t want to release Trevor or go with him to fight in the war, Diana makes a bargain with him. She’ll show him the way off the island if he takes her with him to “the war,” where she will seek out Ares, kill him, and thereby, she believes, stop the war. But just as they’re to leave, her mother and a contingent of Amazons rides up and her mother warns her, in words that will be echoed later by Ares himself, that mankind does not deserve her.
The film also shows us Diana’s growth from a sheltered young woman who believes uncritically the myths told her by her mother to a disillusioned awareness that the evil in the human heart has not been put there by Ares but is born within each human being. The most often repeated motif of the film is whether mankind (which includes the evil woman chemist Dr. Poison) deserves Diana’s help.
Ares (concealing himself as the perfidious Englishman, Sir Patrick Morgan) reveals himself to be more like the biblical “accuser” of mankind, Satan, than anything like the Greek god of war. He even calls himself not the god of war but the god of truth. His “truth,” though, is his contempt and hatred of mankind, who has ruined the paradisiac world originally created by Zeus. His speech against mankind near the movie’s end, if not prepared for by all we have seen of the desolation wrought by war and the evil personified by Dr. Poison, would seem little more than a tiresome misanthropic rant. But Diana, in the depths of her disillusion, seems tempted to accept this “truth” when her memory of Trevor’s self-sacrificial act of love, for her, yes, but also for the multitudes he will save from a hideous death, inspires her to say good-bye to her mother’s misandry and renew her fight against the “accuser.”
But, does “I believe in love” really serve as an answer to the devastation we have just seen? Does it even stand up rhetorically to Ares’s indictment of mankind? Certainly not if we are to take that as the “love” of popular music and of a well-known Beatles song. Similarly, Diana’s “only love can save the world” philosophy. It’s only if we can take the word as meaning the self-sacrifice we have also seen, or to mean the love that Diana comes to experience for a broken humanity, that we might actually believe that love can be enough. But is a superhero fantasy even the vehicle for such reflections? Not everyone will think so.
The end of the film brings us back to Diana in the Louvre, meditating on the photo from the day in Vend she went all Wonder Woman on the Germans. She reflects that humans have darkness within their light and that no hero can make the choice for them of which they will choose. Reflecting back to her experience of both the depravity and the glory to be found in mankind, the demi-goddess also reaffirms the choice she made in her final battle with Ares, a choice to say good-bye forever to her mother and to the island of the Amazons, a choice to stay in the world of mankind, ”to fight, and to give,” without any easy Utopian expectation, “for the world I know can be“--a choice that, “since it’s not about deserving,“ is a kind of grace.
NOTE: Well down in the scroll of credits after the film, just below the song titles, the viewer who waits to see it will read this epitaph: In Memory of Captain William T. Jenkins.
William Terrell teaches English at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois.