WONDER WOMAN: Exploring war and agency

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This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Exploring Entertainment through a Gospel Lens

WONDER WOMAN gives us heroes, heroines, and and thought-provoking themes the rival most other films in the superhero genre. I was genuinely moved by the film and inspired by its protagonist.

WONDER WOMAN gives us genuine role models

The past two decades have given us a plethora of protagonists who are “chaotic neutral” (but chaotic good when the occasion comes). See, for example, the closing lines of the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, where Peter Quill asks, “What should we do next: Something good, something bad? Bit of both?” Gamora responds, “We’ll follow your lead, Star-Lord.” Peter concludes, “A bit of both!”

Similarly, we have a long string of superheroes who have no problem saving innocents and beating up bad guys, but few who truly exemplify moral goodness. Except for Steve Rogers, almost none of the heroes of the Marvel cinematic universe are role models. If I asked you to describe each character in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) in terms of their moral character and virtues (based only on the movies, at least), without any reference to their skills and abilities, you might have a hard time.

For example, it is not clear that Tony Stark’s penitence from his former weapon-manufacturing has lead to true humility of character — he is arrogant, cocky, and has little respect for legitimate authority (until, perhaps, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, where he over-corrects to a nearly villainous extent). He is haunted by innocent deaths he has inadvertently caused (from when he manufactured weapons and from his activities with the Avengers), but does this make him a role model?

Take away Natasha Romanov’s participation in the Avengers, and her fighting skills, who is she? That is, morally? Is she compassionate? Courageous? Bruce Banner is also on the “good” team, but aside from that, what makes him good? Clint Barton? We know next to nothing of his moral priorities, values, and virtues. Mostly, we’ve allowed the team jersey to act as a stand-in for moral virtue.

Steve Rogers is a rare exception. He’s a man who isn’t going to pirate and steal alongside Peter Quill or womanize alongside Tony Stark, and has no checkered past to haunt him like Natasha Romanov. He’s a man you can depend on to stand up to bullies no matter the uniform, and to defend freedom (of the classical-liberal, home-grown American variety, no less). He’s not going to make morally-compromised choices to win, no matter how noble the motives. He exemplifies the traits enshrined in the Scout law: Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, and so forth. He’s virtually the only the MCU character we can describe in terms of his moral character at all!

It works precisely because Steve Rogers is a “man-out-of-time,” a character who embodies timeless virtues of an age prior to ours where we fill our heroes with checkered pasts, illicit hobbies, foul mouths, and moral compromises. An age where heroes were admired for more than their skills with a bow or the power of their punch. An age where heroes embodied aspirational virtues such courage, integrity, perseverance, and compassion. Or, at least, we romanticize the past this way.

In the same way, WONDER WOMAN gives us a “woman-out-of-time” — or better put, out-of-place — a character who is similarly transplanted into our world from a different moral universe. In her universe, women are expected to be leaders. Generals lead their armies into battle, rather than commanding them from the safety of home, as she chastises the British strategists. Courage to act, rather than cowardice, is her moral center. She’s the one who will step out of the trenches into open machine-gun fire and charge the enemy, because she doesn’t know she’s not supposed to. This courage is perhaps initially born of naiveté, but is eventually cemented as a defining characteristic of her personality.

I loved THOR when it was first released, and still do. However, WONDER WOMAN showed me how far the movie THOR fell short of of its potential. Like Diana, the character Thor could have expressed moral assumptions that clashed with the modern setting of the film (hint: they don’t, not really). The first movie showed us the consequences of Thor’s arrogance and his conversion to humility. But if you asked me to describe Thor’s personality, “humble” would not be on the list. The moral texture of the first THOR film was lost in subsequent appearances of the character.

WONDER WOMAN is a genuinely anti-war film

But for me, the moral center of the film was its message against war. The film shows us war through the eyes of Diana, who wrongly believes that human beings are not, by themselves, capable of slaughter and cruelty. They only do so because they are under the influence of Ares, the Greek god of war, who in his resentment against Zeus’s creation corrupts men’s hearts and turn them to savagery against one another.

From this vantage point, when Diana steps onto into the theater of World War I, she’s not beholden to national loyalties or tribal assumptions about who is right and who is wrong. Steve, of course, tells her that the Germans are the “bad guys,” but she insists that Ares is the bad guy, and that she’ll find him where the killing is the worst. She’s not fighting a war against Germans. She’s fighting a war against Ares, or, in other words, a war against war itself. Neither does she hate Germans; she hates Ares, for turning Germans into killers.

The film never once shies away from the true effects and horrors of war. The filmmakers shows us (and Diana) the soldiers maimed and shell-shocked returning from the front. It shows us characters haunted by the ghosts of those they’ve killed, permanently damaged by PTSD and other psychological horrors. It shows us children crying out for their (likely dead) mothers. And through all of this, there is never a slightest sense that we were supposed to hate Germans for this. We were supposed to hate war.

To contrast, those same scenes in Captain America would have led both us and Steve Rogers to conclude that some more Nazis need punching. (In fact, Captain America’s very identity as Captain America was born out of a propaganda stunt to rally support for the war against Nazis.) Captain America has its roots in nationalism (it’s in his name, after all); the broadest, best form of nationalism as embodied by the “greatest generation,” to be sure, but nationalism nonetheless. Diana comes at this from a different angle: despite growing up admiring generals and learning to fight, Diana grew up believing that war was something to be stopped, not merely fought and won. Her goal is not to win war, but to end it.

It is fascinating, then, that Ares ended up being the British strategist who was calling for an armistice, and working to sign a cease-fire with the Germans (or, at least, pretending to). In Steve’s world, Germans were the “bad guys” (one of his first lines in the movie, in fact), and British forces were the “good guys.” But Ares, the demon god of war, was playing the role of a British strategist. We presume that his meddling in British affairs was actually prolonging the war. Perhaps a message here is that, even in wars against those who we rightfully demonize (ISIS, the Soviet Union, al Qaeda, for a few examples), there are elements on all sides who profit from and love the thrill of war itself, and who undermine efforts for peace. It reminds me of the famous anti-war speech-turned-tract, “War Is a Racket,” which was born out of Smedley Butler’s experiences in World War I.

In Diana’s outsider’s take on human hostilities, I see a lesson for us all: In our various wars (both cultural and literal), are we in the fight to win the fight or to end the fight? (Those aren’t always mutually exclusive, but I doubt they are ever as synonymous as we think.)

WONDER WOMAN celebrates human agency, culpability, and responsibility

Tribalists at heart, we like to believe that the world has unambiguous good guys and bad guys, conveniently separated by a no-man’s land large enough that we can never mistake one for the other. But a central theme of WONDER WOMAN is that the battle line between good and evil is not found somewhere in France (or wherever the front lines are in any war of today), but within each and every human heart.

While Diana insists that Steve take him “to the front,” where the fighting is the most intense, we learn that “the front” lies in the hearts of everyone we meet along the way. We meet people within whom good is winning, people like Sammer, Charlie, and Chief Napi. People like Steve Trevor, who ends up sacrificing his very life for the safety of his country. Conversely, we meet people within whom evil has won, such as Isabel Maru and Erich Ludendorff.

As Steve says towards the climax of the film, we might want to believe that we can blame the tremendous evil and suffering in the world on one person. We might want to believe that all moral culpability lies with Satan, Lucifer, the father of lies, the one who started it all. Like the alien invaders of The Avengers, or the swarming Formics of Ender’s Game, we might fantasize that evil in the world would be stopped if we can just eliminate a central locus of evil.

But as Steve tells Diana in the emotional climax of the film, it’s not true. We are all moral participants in this drama of life, and we are all wholly culpable for the wrongs we do. And this means that there is no formic queen that we can kill and restore the world to peace.

Consider the horror of this realization for someone like Diana; she had a heart at peace towards humankind because she believes none of them were culpable for their crimes. Ares was to blame, not them. But now she discovers that instead of one evil being, there are now millions. Now she discovers that the cruelty she’s seen along the way is the consequence of willful choices by thousands of people, rather than the doings of one.

Satan cannot be blamed for the trenches of WWI — human beings like you and I are to blame. We all have the seeds of divinity within us, a divine potential to become like the Creator of the Universe. We have as well the possibility of great evil, an immense capacity for cruelty and apathy. We are, after all, spiritual siblings with Lucifer himself as well as children of the Divine. This means that there will never be (and can never be) a “war to end all wars” (as Steve described the war), because the seeds of war lie within every human heart. War can and will be ended — but it won’t be war that does it.

In a final, cheesy line from Steve, he tells Diana its not about whether human beings deserve to be saved. It’s about what you believe. And Diana later concludes that she believes in love. The implication here is that she believes that there is an infinite capacity for goodness in the human race, alongside their capacity for cruelty. I think that grace would have made an equally good theme here — we may not deserve salvation, but that’s point. It wouldn’t be grace if we did.

And so it is that when Diana slays Ares (the god of war), she does not end war. Her character will witness yet more wars in decades to come, and witness humans commit atrocities far more hideous than anything she has already seen. And yet she will seek to end their wars nonetheless. To maintain a heart at peace, filled with good will towards man, after such a realization is the spirit of grace itself.

That gives Diana’s mission and purpose far more moral texture than anything Thor had (the most comparable character in the Marvel cinematic universe), and one of the few modern cinematic superheros besides Steve Rogers who can be admired for his or her moral character instead of his or her skills, powers, and team jersey.

WONDER WOMAN gives us a true romance

Like CAPTAIN AMERICA, WONDER WOMAN gives us a romance based on mutual admiration of character, rather than merely physical attraction or infatuation. I suspect this is mostly possible because of the eras in which the films are set. Steve Trevor, Steve Rogers, and Peggy Carter are all products of an early twentieth century where chaste courtship was still a thing, and where romance was not overly sexualized as it is now.

A note on the implied love scene in the film. It was fun to hear Steven talk about early twentieth century sexual mores, and to juxtapose them with Diana’s upbringing on an island of females. It’s interesting, though, to hear anachronistic echoes of the upcoming sexual revolution in the way Steven talked about it: he didn’t say it was impolite to sleep with a woman outside of marriage; merely that it was impolite to assume. And notice that he used the rhetoric of “manners,” not chastity. The question of morality is wholly absent.

Back in that era, it was view as more than bad manners to sleep with women before marriage; it was viewed as immoral. CAPTAIN AMERICA dodged the issue by dodging sex altogether. Steve Roger’s and Peggy Carter’s was an unconsummated courtship. They never had that date they planned, never had that first “dance.” WONDER WOMAN doesn’t dodge the issue, but mitigates it by never actually showing us the sex (as most other films would have). This gave the film a more “chaste” feel fitting of the era.

But it’s an illusion. Fornication happened (we assume), and the audience is expected to cheer for it despite the “bad manners” of it all. This is not an indictment against WONDER WOMAN so much as our modern culture. We can’t help but project the sexual revolution into our past, even in subtle ways. Such is our age.

(Note, this is not to say that fornication was anachronistic — it certainly happened all the time, especially war times. It was just more likely to be viewed as transgressive by those involved, rather than a conventional second date with someone you are infatuated with. DOWNTON ABBEY does a much better job of this, and takes place during the same time period: there’s sex in the show, but it’s treated much less anachronistically. Fornication was a scandal, not the proper fruition of a budding romance, nor something to cheer for.)

WONDER WOMAN gives us feminism without politicizing it.

WONDER WOMAN is a thoroughly feminist film. Even the supporting female protagonists — Etta, Hippolyta, Antiope, etc. — were women of competence and courage.

But the film never even hints at the typical feminist narrative that would have made it feel political. In the typical feminist narrative, our heroine is living in a misogynist culture, and must prove herself worthy of the respect of the men around her. She struggles against whatever patriarchal traditions or oppressive attitudes that hold her back, and ultimately dismantles them in favor of a more egalitarian framework. For an example, consider AGENT CARTER, which gives us the typical feminist narrative in full form: Peggy Carter is a capable woman struggling to prove herself in the company of men who disrespect her and ignore her contributions to the team. Agent Carter’s male comrades, except for one, were mostly incompetent misogynists.

There’s nothing wrong with this narrative per se. In fact, there are a great many stories worth telling with this narrative, particularly true stories of great women who really were facing oppressive traditions that discounted their voices and contributions, and who worked to overturn those traditions. I take no issue with that. For many, though, these narratives can feel political. The lead actor of A HANDMAID’S TALE has implied that their show is timely precisely because President Trump is marching us straight back to an age when women were treated like chattel, merely because he claims to represent women who oppose abortion or government funded birth-control.

It’s refreshing, then, to see a truly feminist film give us genuine women role models, and highlight the strength and courage of women, without scornfully attacking the broader culture as misogynistic or waxing political. While setting the film in 1918, no less! Further, the lead protagonist and a major villain (Dr. Poison) were female. And most of the (non-villain) male characters were presented as admirable and competent as well. So there  is no demonizing the culture surrounding our female protagonist, and no need to write men as incompetents so that our heroine can shine.

Note, I loved AGENT CARTER, so I’m really not opposed to the traditional feminist narrative. It is just refreshing to have a feminist film that does none of that. That armies of war in 1918 did not send women to the front lines is commented on, but the “chivalry” of the age is respected by the film. Steve’s initial instincts to protect Diana are not treated as a misogynistic failure on his part. He’s still a hero and role model.

Problems with WONDER WOMAN. (There are plenty.)

The Amazonians are arbitrary.

Why in the world couldn’t the queen tell Diana who she is? Why would her knowing who she is help Ares find her? It’s not like he had any trouble finding her anyways, as she walked right into his speech to the British parliament. Why train her like crazy, only to unleash her on the world without a vital piece of information? “We’ll train you, give you special weapons, and reluctantly let you go out into the world to seek and destroy Ares, but… to ‘protect’ you, won’t tell you the one thing you’ll need to know.” That’s… dumb. Not knowing her true nature did nothing good for her — it just gave Ares some emotional ammunition later on.

For that matter, why can’t she ever come back to the island? What’s stopping her?

It felt like very major decision made on the island was arbitrary and contrived, in ways that didn’t actually further the drama.

Plenty of plot holes.

What happened to the huge German ship that the soldiers were attacking the Amazonians from? Did all the soldiers come to shore? Do no one stay on the ship? And if they all did, what did the Amazonions do with the ship? Is it still floating out there?

Are we to seriously believe that the German strategic counsel could be gassed and killed by Dr. Poison and general Ludendorff, and that this would have no noticeable effects on the politics of the war or the coming armistice? And that the German elites will all be dancing at a gala the very next day as if nothing had happened?

Why gas that one specific town as the test for the poison gas, instead of, well, the trenches as we assumed they had already planned? How far away was this gala in a castle, anyways? Because the British soldiers just overran the German trenches and liberated a nearby town, and the German elites are just partying it up a few miles away with no substantial military protection, as if nothing happened? Did they have cannons that shot gas bombs 50 miles away?

These were just a few of a number of head-scratching moments like this. All-to-often, screenwriting depends on its audiences not asking the obvious questions. My chief complaint with WONDER WOMAN is that is suffers the same problem as so many others: they expect the audience not to ask too many questions. I think filmmakers should respect their audiences enough to at least patch over obvious plot holes when writing and presenting their stories.

Diana’s too powerful.

Or, at least, selectively too powerful. She could jump through the church window and take out a soldier Captain America style, with whip and wits. But instead she jumps leaps the window (with the help of Steve and crew), and… the whole church explodes. That’s quite a punch. Where did those building-demolishing punches go at other times? Heck, earlier in the film, it hints that she’s only barely learning that she can punch bricks out of a wall. But now she power-jumps through a window and the building explodes. That’s a bit much.

Are we ever going to see her shoot god-killing energy blasts from her chest again? Or was that just a one-time thing reserved for Ares? Why would she ever not use such power against groups of ordinary baddies, now she knows she can do it? I think this is a symptom of problem with a lot of superhero, fantasy, and other films: the protagonist is precisely as as powerful as she or he needs to be to face the enemies of the moment. There’s no real sense of peril when your protagonist has literally god-like powers, so such films rely on viewers forgetting about them in moments of more mundane combat.

I’m weary of energy battles.

Seriously. Enough with this. I want protagonists who can outsmart their villains, not merely out-punch, or in this case, out-hadouken or out-lightning-blast their villains. The latter is worse, because we have no real way to gauge skill and training when it comes to energy bolts and blasts. In fact, it’s even worse, because thus far Diana didn’t even know she could do those things until then. So it’s kind of a deus-ex-machina at the end, or rather, a god-powers-suddenly-appear sort of battle.

DOCTOR STRANGE offered us a welcome relief from this trend, by giving us a victory in which our protagonist literally outwits and outlasts the villain, rather than out punching him. More of that please.

Ares should have survived.

Ares was the reason Zeus molded Diana out of clay in the first place. Fighting and destroying Ares was her “divine” mission on earth. And she accomplished that mission within a few days of stepping into the world, in her first film! There would have been more dramatic tension had Diana learned her lessons about human nature without actually succeeding in killing Ares.

Ares could have escaped, not to return for the sequel, but for a third WONDER WOMAN movie. (I assume there will be three, as all such franchises are trilogies now.) I would love to see what Ares is up to in the modern day. Was he behind the invention of nuclear weapons? What subtle machinations of evil is he inspiring behind the scenes, otherwise undetected by our heroes/heroines?

I wasn’t persuaded that Steve needed to die.

It’s necessary to the story that Steve sacrifice himself to save the world. I get that. The screenwriters just failed to convince me that boarding the plane was really a last resort. If our hero is going to sacrifice themselves, the writers had better convince me that it’s the only way. And they didn’t.

They had plenty of time to discuss among each other who should sacrifice themselves on the plane, and then for Steve to go say a few parting words with Diana, all while the plane was still being loaded and prepped for flight. But they had no time to brainstorm a plan that didn’t involve someone dying? If you have time to say goodbye, you have time to try something else, like slashing the plane’s tires.

During that time, couldn’t they have just killed the Germans loading and preparing to fly? Couldn’t they have just destroyed the plane’s propellors? (It’s not like the gas was on a timer that would explode right then, because they still had to fly it to London.) They’ve been rigging factories with timed explosives just moments before — couldn’t they use one of those on the plane?

(Note: same complaint about CAPTAIN AMERICA. Surely he had a few more minutes to brainstorm other options before ditching the plane in the ice. Or to try and land it more gracefully on the ice. Or to stick a brick on the controller and then find a way to ditch the plane before it crashes.)


I see WONDER WOMAN as a near sibling to CAPTAIN AMERICA, offering us aspirational ideals that truly inspire, and heroes/heroines that are genuine role models. CAPTAIN AMERICA gives us far fewer plot holes and fridge logic (I don’t actually remember any). WONDER WOMAN offers deeper insights into margins of human nature (both good and evil), and moral agency and culpability.

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