What do Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Logan, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier all have in common? I mean, yes, besides the obvious details that they are all from the Marvel universe and they’re all entertaining films. They all brought in less money their first weekend than did Wonder Woman this past weekend, and for good reason.
I must confess I had a number of reservations going into the theater. While they did pick a woman, Patty Jenkins, to direct the film, the movie was written by three dudes, which was a strike against it for me. I’m no self-hating male type or anything (okay, so self-loathing is an issue for me but it’s not fundamentally tied to being male), I simply felt that it shouldn’t have been too much to ask for at least one female writer to have been in the mix, but whatever. The movie was delightful. I ended up watching it twice in the same weekend because it was just that good.
[**Spoilers to follow, so beware**]
Fiction That’s True to Life
For starters, the emotional tone of the film was spot on at every turn. There was the apprehension and protectiveness of Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, together with her bittersweet pain in releasing her out into the world to establish her own identity. Then there was the relentless determination of her trainer, Antiope (formerly Princess Buttercup!), who kept insisting that Diana was stronger than she believed. The movie was chock-full of memorable lines which ostensibly were about the situations at hand but in reality spoke truths for all times.
As a father of four girls, I was deeply appreciative of how consistently (and unironically) the movie presented Diana as the strong woman she was created to be without any apology or sense that she had to prove anything to anyone besides herself. Unlike strong women in the culture in which my girls are being raised (a very religious Deep South), Diana grew up on an island populated entirely by other strong women who for obvious reasons didn’t have to expend large amounts of time and energy battling outdated social expectations. She then freely chose to enter “the world of men” (nice double entendre, there) and kept getting struck by the absurdities of the sexual dynamics she found operating therein.
The Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg said it well:
I’ve thought a lot about the moments when I learned that being a girl (or a woman) meant taking on a series of sexist ideas and expectations…but I do wonder what it might have been like if they hadn’t happened.
The power of Wonder Woman, and one of the things that gives Jenkins’s adaptation of the character such a lift, is in the answer to that question. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) doesn’t have any idea what women and men are — or aren’t — supposed to do. Even when she does encounter other people’s ideas about gender roles, she doesn’t automatically accept them, and she never lets anyone stop her.
There’s just something so powerful about witnessing someone discovering for the first time social dynamics which we take for granted (like being whistled at on the street, or seeing military leaders sitting behind desks instead of out front leading the charge) because they were literally unthinkable to her, not having grown up in a world dominated by humans (or men). And I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud at her matter-of-fact conversation with Steve Trevor about whether or not men are needed to achieve optimum sexual pleasure.
Incidentally, I was at first critical of the fact that Diana, who grew up on an island of lesbians (you did know that, right?), ultimately fell in love with the first man she met. Nor did it escape my notice that it was her love for him which finally gave her the push she needed to realize her full power. Someone will inevitably point out that her triumph over Ares required that she absorb his power from a male god in order to use it against him. I suspect there will be many who would feel these plot points undermine the feminist message of the film.
But upon second viewing I realized that what endeared Steve to Diana wasn’t that he was a man—it’s that he was brave, and a fighter, and a hero, like her. She recognized in him a kindred spirit, and she learned to respect his value in the midst of his flaws, just as she had to do for the rest of humanity. He became her emotional connection to the rest of the human race after showing her that all of us are mixed bags, combinations of good things and bad things, and that at least for us mortals you cannot have one without the other.
When Gods Grow Up
Diana possessed power of a magnitude which Steve could not even imagine. But Steve surpassed her in knowledge of the complexities of living with humanity. She was, in essence, a goddess among men, and she did not understand them. She came from a simpler world, a binary world of good versus evil in which gods ruled over men with unrivaled power and unquestionable authority.
It turns out that in real life, people cannot so easily be divided between the good guys and the bad guys because elements of both are in each one of us. It is not gods or demons but we ourselves who are the true sources both of our own depravity and of our own righteousness. This was something Diana did not understand at first. She had to learn it from experience.
Among other things what this film is saying is that gods, like the people who create them, evolve over time.
Just try telling that to the people who worship them, though. Most of them won’t hear of it. Most worshipers believe whatever form their god currently has taken is the only one they’ve ever known. But that’s not true for any of them, including the one who the Bible says is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I know enough church history to know that the Jesus we hear about today has been through so many iterations and reinventions that I doubt anyone from 500 years ago would recognize him. I’m not even sure which of the many current versions I would pick to show them in the first place. They are legion.
I’m convinced along with Feuerbach and Freud and a host of others that gods are something we create in order to embody our highest hopes and our deepest fears. They always possess the powers we wish that we ourselves had…as well as the same flaws we wish we could eliminate. They are ultimately a projection of our own humanity written larger onto a cosmic scale. It has been said that the true subject of theology is humanity. The gods we dream up can tell us an awful lot about ourselves.
And I think that’s true of all mythologies. We are constantly inventing characters who are larger than life in order to express our own desires and fears in narrative form. They become a teaching tool in order to encapsulate and pass down our ideas and values to future generations.
I would argue that superheroes have become our preferred form of mythology today. They are the gods of modernity, and as expressions of an increasingly technocratic society, these superheroes are often created through scientific and technological innovation. Since humans are becoming more skeptical as a general rule (just don’t look at where I live), our superpowers now have to come with at least a quasi-believable scientific explanation. Either some new and mysterious technology is at play, or else it’s contact with alien life forms that give us what we need. Maybe Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were onto something after all.
Sometimes, though, the gods of old reappear in the midst of our Avengers and our Justice League only to discover they have to adapt to a new world they could not have previously understood. They always end up needing something from us because we no longer believe in perfection or pure goodness—in anyone. We know too much now to embrace such naive notions. Our gods now have to learn to deal with the world as it really is, just as we do, and they undergo the same challenges that face us, even if on a different scale.
That, to me, was one of the main lessons of Wonder Woman. It represents a snapshot of our own development, demonstrating how much our ideals have evolved to account for the world the way it really is instead of the way we wish it would be. That, plus a woman kicks ass for two hours straight and appears to enjoy just about every second of it, because she knows she’s better at what she does than everyone else around her. How could that not be enjoyable to watch?
You can bet this movie will be in my girls’ movie collection the second it comes out on DVD. They hit a home run with this one, and I desperately hope to see a whole lot more movies written like this in the future.
[Image Source: Warner/DC]