So Wonder Woman balances realism and heroism and it manifests a truly feminine feminism. It also elevate the whole superhero genre.
I will be the first defender of superhero movies as more than just mindless action. From Nolan’s Batman to the Russo’s Captain America, these movies, at their best, have made comment on contemporary issues while manifesting a variety of eternal themes, most especially heroism.
However, the superhero genre has always had a fault in juxtaposing these extraordinary individuals as paragons of human ideals and yet always ending things with their fists. The balance is often struck by having some primary villain which needs to be defeated, or by means of some allegorical storytelling. Better stories, like Captain America: Civil War, reveal the complexity of human struggles and how these can escalate to violence. All, though, tend to posit that some specific villain needs to be defeated to win.
In Wonder Woman, we see this basic idea whimsically played with before, not deriding it, but transcending it. It’s a wonderful arc from naive “destroy the bad guy, save the world” to a maturity which recognizes the wickedness in man himself but affirms the need to continually fight against it.
In a way, it manifests John G. Cawelti’s Generic Transformation. Genres, in his theory, go through a four-stage transformative process of exhaustion – satire, nostalgia, demythologization, and reaffirmation of myth. No one stage is present on its own in any given piece of media, though each piece of media tends toward one of the other.
Wonder Woman begins with Diana wanting to go out into the world of men to defeat Ares. As told to her by her mother, Ares originally corrupted men and the amazons were created to ultimately kill him and free man from his influence. She quickly identifies the cruel, peace-hating, warmongering General Ludendorff as Ares and seeks him out. Along the way, she is forced to confront the horrors of war and even the failures of her friends. Steve keeps from killing Ludendorff for political reasons and a liberated town is gassed in the aftermath. Diana then takes it upon herself to ride down the general and kill him.
It’s here, in a great twist, that the real enemy is revealed. Ludendorff, while a definite bad guy, isn’t Ares. And Ares, well, he may have tipped man this or that way, inspired their plans and weapons. However, as he makes clear himself, the wickedness Diana seeks to remove is not his doing. Man has corruption within him. Ares did not put it there. He has just recognized it and desires to speed on man’s self-destruction so as to remake the world as a paradise.
It’s at this point where the movie both demythologizes and reaffirms the myth of the superhero in one fell swoop. Diana’s original assumption is proved as naive. You can’t fix the world just by beating the bad guy. Killing Ludendorff doesn’t halt the war. And killing Ares won’t fix the heart of men. Diana is confronted with an enemy she can’t beat into submission or slay with a sword – sin.
Trevor, always aware of this, commits the ultimate act and sacrifices himself to try and end the spread of the dangerous gas. This is even more horror loaded onto Diana, losing the man she’s come to love. It’s a moment that can send anyone over the edge, and she becomes, for just a moment, a true goddess of wrathful war.
In the end, though, it is Trevor who brings her to reject Ares and recommit herself to fighting for the good. Remembering his final words to her, words of love even in the midst of horror, she is also called to listen to her better angels. She does not fight to end the war, though that is a commendable goal. She fights to defend the good. And though man is full of wickedness, he is also full of good. She loves and chooses love no matter the horror.
The superheroic myth is reaffirmed, fighting with extraordinary might with and for extraordinary ideals, for love itself. It’s actually a beautiful ending, one which proclaims that love conquers all without ever feeling saccharine or preachy.
Many wish to see in Batman a Christ image – a man who takes on the disrepute of the world to save us from crime. I’ve always found this wrongheaded (for all my love of Batman). Vigilantism is never justice and never Christ-like love.
In Wonder Woman, we see a much better Christ image. She confronts the horrors of the world, has them loaded upon her, but through it all clings to love. Yes, she does finally beat Ares with her fists, but the whole event leaves her transformed, aware of the evil in men’s hearts, but ever fighting, ever giving, in order to turn his heart to love.
It’s things like this which make me fascinated with genre fiction. You can do this in more literary and high brow media, but it has a visceralness when done in genre fiction. The elevation strikes us in the gut, in the passions, in the imagination. Yes, it should rise to the intellect to become truly transformative, but sometimes the passions need to be in order to let the mind take the reins. Wonder Woman does just this with astounding success.