In one of the many memorable strips by Bill Watterson, Calvin turns to his tiger companion and inquires, “Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of mankind?” To this, Hobbes, based on the political philosopher of the same name known for his negative assessment of human nature, aptly retorts, “I’m not sure man needs the help.” Such is the same central thesis of DC’s latest cinematic outing, Wonder Woman, trading the character’s historic misandry for the misanthropic leanings of its predecessor, Dawn of Justice.
As one of the few critics to have offered an unapologetically positive appraisal of Batman v Superman, I find the continuation of this theme laudable, not merely with respect to its consistency, but because I find it a sober perspective on human nature, lacking the saccharine sentimentality which would suggest mankind to be essentially good, with the role of heroes – super or ordinary – merely to inspire men to fulfill their moral potential. Such secular Pelagianism is prolific throughout the Superman stories in most media, including comics, cartoons, and television. Writers like Landis, Millar, and many more had established as a central conceit of the character the notion that Superman’s greatest power was his optimism, his indomitable belief in our own moral potential. Thus audiences felt betrayed when Snyder instead forwarded an interpretation more aligned with Morrison’s, a messianic figure whose struggle was to remain steadfast in proving himself meritorious of our belief in him, as opposed to vice versa. Throughout that film his perfection was subjected to suspicion and scorn by the denizens of that universe, serving to indict us mere mortals far more than the morally impeccable Man of Steel. Wonder Woman continues this contrast and amplifies it. While it lacks the christological overtones of Snyder’s Superman, it substitutes such with mythological themes more appropriate to the character of Wonder Woman. Doubly so, as the character’s mythology has always intertwined with that of the Greco-Romans, but also with regards to DC’s godlike heroes – much more than Marvel’s more fallible cast – serving as the de facto pantheon of modern American mythology.
In service of such, Diana’s main character arc in the film culminates with the disillusion of her naïve belief in human goodness sans a supernatural tempter, with Steve Trevor, speaking on behalf of all humankind, confessing to her that the evil she’d been attributing to Ares was in fact in all of us all along. Even after her defeat of her half-brother, Diana continued to acknowledge that Man indeed has a propensity towards evil in need of constant correction. Left to our own devices, the results are every bit as horrific as history attests to, whether the trenches of World War I, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the gulags of the Soviets, or even the streets of Syria still today. Contra most popular culture, the DC Cinematic Universe forwards the classically Christian claim that mankind’s moral development requires divine intervention. In Christian theology, this takes the form of Christ’s Incarnation and the Spirit’s Sanctification; in the DCEU, this takes the form of “gods” such as Superman and Wonder Woman serving as moral exemplars. Though the remedies differ in their particulars, they are surprisingly similar in their diagnosis of the essential problem and their prescribed solution for such.
Given the perennial problem of human nature, Wonder Woman need not have been a period piece. However, the Great War did prove particularly suited as the backdrop for a film arguing the universality of Man’s evil. Not only was it the first war in which technology had enabled us to express our penchant for self-destruction on a scale never before seen, and not only was it the first truly global conflict, it was also a war in which all sides bore the blame, where no one could claim their cause as truly just. Indeed, Wonder Woman smartly sets up an ahistorical and overly simplistic portrayal of the Allies as the good guys and the Central Powers as the vile villains. The subversion of this false narrative with a more historically accurate assessment of the conflict later in the film serves to underscore the thesis that it is all men everywhere – and not just the Germans – who are guilty of the evil on which the war was predicated.
This was an apt retcon of the character of Wonder Woman, who notably debuted during the Second World War, being sent in her introductory issue specifically to aid the Allies. While there was a propagandist element in having the Themysciran princess so quickly adopt American patriotism, writer William Marston re-contenctualized the conflict between Western liberalism and the forces of Fascism as instead a clash of the masculine and feminine virtues, as personified by Ares and Aphrodite, respectively. On page two of 1942’s Wonder Woman #1, the god of War proclaims to the goddess of Beauty at the dawn of human history, “My men shall rule with the sword,” to which the later replies, “My women shall conquer men with love.” A few pages and panels later, these two archetypes are once again set against each other not in the Battle of the Sexes, but in the Second World War. The seemingly victorious Ares is rebuked by Aphrodite, who tells him, “Your rule will end when America wins! And America will win. I will send an Amazon to help her.” Through this subtle shift, Marston purposefully conflates the feminine virtues with America “herself” (deliberately declined in the feminine gender to further drive home his point).
The film’s focus on its singular argument about the human nature common to both sexes necessitated that it sanitize the story of any commentary with respect to gender, despite such being so central to the Wonder Woman comics since their inception. According to Grant Morrison, the writer of Wonder Woman: Earth-One, in his autobiography Supergods, “[The Amazons’] was a kind of radical Second Wave separatist feminism where men were forbidden and things can only get better as a result.” Many of the mot inspired interpretations of Wonder Woman have succeeded specifically by focusing on her femininity, per Marston’s intent. However, this film would have suffered for such, first and foremost for mixing its metaphors. Whether “Man’s World” to which Diana absconds derives its essential problem from the human heart or from a patriarchal social structure makes all the difference, and the two motifs cannot co-exist simultaneously in any given scene.
Secondly, despite the fact that women in American society have made enormous social strides since the days of Marston, this progress has resulted in raised expectation, corresponding with a rise in disappointment among his intellectual inheritors in the Third Wave. Society is as deeply divided with respect to sex as in the days of the Suffrage Movement. Simply having women’s only screenings of Wonder Woman resulted in a firestorm of controversy, let alone had the film actually peddled in identity politics (instead of deftly avoiding such). Not that cinema should steer clear of controversy; insofar as Art can communicate Truth, it is its obligation to do so, critical and commercial reception be damned. But with respect to the particular issue, I’ve yet to see a movie which successfully spoke with clarity on all the nuances of the debates regarding the relation of the sexes, and as surprisingly wonderful as Wonder Woman was, strongly suspect such would have been too lofty and elusive a goal for any film, whether an indie arthouse or tent-pole blockbuster. Hopefully one day I’m proven wrong in that assessment; perhaps even with the sequel.
Indeed, if the gulf between the sexes is bridged at all by this film, it is behind the scenes. Gal Gadot was certainly serviceable as the titular Wonder Woman, but the real stars here are husband and wife producers Zack and Deborah Snyder. Zack’s script (written alongside Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Geoff Johns) in particular deserves a great deal of accolades. In addition to its laser-focused thesis, it’s peppered with all the humor of a Marvel movie without losing the self-seriousness which the DCEU has established for itself. One particularly delightful scene which struck this balance perfectly came early in the film, as the protagonist – clad in black-rimmed glasses and a fedora – and love interest walk into an alley together, accosted by a gunman, whose ineffectual bullet is the first evidence as to the extent of the hero’s imperviousness. Such was the perfect homage to what remains one of the greatest superhero movies ever made: 1978’s Superman starring Christopher Reeves. Less successful, though still completely competent, was director Patty Jenkins, who proved a poor man’s Zack Snyder, emulating his iconic cool color palate without ever quite capturing the particular flow of his signature action scenes. It’s an excellent counterfeit of Snyder’s style, but fails to either be a perfect imitation or new and unique in itself.
Even as the most vocal defender of Dawn of Justice, I walked away from Wonder Woman shocked as to how successfully the character had been translated from the comics to the silver screen. Much had been lost in that translation, but this was clearly deliberate, a conscious reflection on the distinctions and differences between the respective media. Trading the fully feminist (and when taken to the extreme, misandrist) Wonder Woman of the comics for a demi-divine intercessor on behalf of all humanity was absolutely the right move for the cinematic adaptation. And the film executed on this re-envisioning of the character with absolute aplomb. If this is the new standard of quality theatergoers can come to expect from DC’s films going forward, then all audiences ought to be anticipating Wonder Woman’s next appearance in Justice League every bit as much as I’ve been all along.