Believe the hype: Wonder Woman is a terrific film. It’s a moving and engaging story, focused on character, compassion, and courage. And in true DC fashion, it incorporates mythology in ways that connect to theology, with some pretty pleasing results.
Marvel and DC have been fierce competitors for more than fifty years, but their niches in the modern day are fairly distinct. Both create mainstream superheroes, but while Marvel’s shtick is the everyman rising above the rest, DC’s template is the gods descending to the rest (though there are admittedly exceptions to this paradigm on both sides). The story of Diana is one of mythology. A princess among a race that’s closer to deity than they are to humanity, Wonder Woman’s story as a daughter of Zeus descending to the rescue of unworthy man has some pretty clear Christian parallels, tenuous though they may be.
Not that this is a distinctly Christian story, mind you. It does not have the plethora of Christ connections that Man of Steel does, nor the atheist/theist dialogue of Batman V. Superman. But it does continue the curious connections the DC movies tend to make to theology, making their films modern-day parables of a sort. But Wonder Woman goes right where the previous films go wrong, focusing on character above all else. From her voiceover in the opening moments to the glimpses of her childhood to Steve Trevor’s crash landing on Themiscyra, it is always about Diana.
Notice I did not say, “It is always about Wonder Woman.” It is Diana who is on full focus here. That’s the case thematically, philosophically, and tonally. She is a fierce and independent spirit from the very beginning, an aspect of her character that Gal Gadot breathes veracity and life into, without it ever coming across as over-exuberant or even archetypal. Rather than being a sort of “<insert feminism character here>,” she is feminist simply by being herself. She doesn’t make eloquent speeches, guilt-trip sexists, or grandstand for social change. She is simply her: an unrelenting idealist who prizes innocence and life. Simply by virtue of being so, sexism and social injustice is critiqued implicitly. But that’s not the point. The point is her character.
And her character is continually engaging and fascinating. While there are certainly parts of the mythology that remind us of Christian ideas, that only takes us so far. The juxtaposition of the innocent woman-only race with sinful man is pretty on-the-nose. That’s consistent with the inception of the comic, as well. Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was Kinseyan-type figure who was involved in polyamory and other forms sexual promiscuity, and at times used the series to make veiled references and allegories to those lifestyles. That legacy is not obvious in the film, although it does come out at certain times. For example, Diana says that a book she had read concluded that “Man, while necessary for reproduction, when it comes to pleasure, is unnecessary.” More is made of this veiled sensuality when Diana walks in on a naked Steve (sensitive parts obscured) and then remarks, almost as an innocent child might, “Are you a typical example of your sex?”
But aside from these and a few other choice double entendres, the Amazonian mythology is not used in a distinctly sexual manner. Even the innuendo that is present is mostly there to draw attention to Diana’s innocence with regards to all things sexual. That’s a fitting connection to make. Diana is never once in this movie a sexual object. She’s given as much tenacity, independence, dignity, and respect as any male star of a superhero film would be (and considering that Thor, for example, makes a point out of having a shirtless scene, perhaps even more so).
As much as I love Diana’s innocence, her idealism is even more refreshing. That’s a significant theme in the film, as she comes head-to-head against Steve’s pragmatism. Both of them value innocent life, but Steve, a man torn by the war, insists that “we can’t save everybody.” Despite his consistent honor and virtue, he has become calloused by the war. But the innocence that Diana comes into the conflict with is a reminder of the real horror that war is, and the fact that every life matters – regardless of whether saving it will help destroy the Germans.
And yet, while her entry into the world of man is a godsend for Steve and his companions, it’s a rude awakening for her. Amazonian mythology taught that Zeus created man good and Ares corrupted them out of jealousy, causing war and destruction (this is very reminiscent of the Christian account of the fall, but with one important distinction: In the Amazonian myth, Man was corrupted, but woman was created later to absolve the conflict through love). If Diana kills Ares, she believes, she will rid mankind of his vile influence, and the world will see peace again. Her idealism is on full display here: destroy the evil influence and mankind will be good again, just as Zeus created them to be.
Of course, we can see that this is not an approach that will turn out well for her. While she never loses her heroic passion for justice, she is faced with the ugly truth of mankind’s depravity. Her mother tells her early on in the film “they do not deserve you,” and it is a man who, in the world of men, acknowledges “Maybe we don’t.” The influence of Ares is certainly not discredited, but the view of the film is that Ares might have helped, but man still pulls the trigger. Ares rants about the evil of mankind, and how they want to destroy each other. And perhaps the biggest plot twist of all for Diana is that he’s right.
I’m reminded here of much of scripture, but Psalm 14:3 especially comes to mind: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Satan may have tempted Eve, but Eve chose to eat the apple. Satan may tempt us, but we still do the evil. So where does that leave Diana?
It leaves her to find a different thing to focus on. Her mother believed mankind undeserving of salvation. In the end, Diana doesn’t deny that they’re undeserving, but says “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe.” For Diana, that means a firm commitment to love, and ultimately justice and life. That doesn’t come without a great deal of difficulty. But ultimately – and this is important – her idealism never gives way to Steve’s pragmatism. Her idealism lives on, acknowledging the guilt of man, but saving them anyway.
As a true theological parallel, the character of Diana herself comes short of a true Christ analogy, an oft-overused a over-identified feature in Christian media analysis. But in a thematic lens, he idea of an otherworldly character giving mankind salvation though they don’t deserve it is absolutely theologically relevant. Diana’s idealism is also laudable, and a reminder that it times of war, our outrage at injustice and our sense of duty and morality ought to be stronger, not weaker. But just as important as the theological and idealistic framework, Diana is a greater feminist figure than we could ever have expected from 21st century secular culture. She is an excellent framework for how a woman can be strong and sympathetic, fierce and feminine. In a time when the anti-hero reigns in the cultural landscape, I am perfectly comfortable with my daughter looking to her as an example of what a real, unabashed hero looks like.