Will Wonder Woman Never Cease?
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
There are all kinds of nits to pick in Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, and yet I agree with fans who consider it a breakthrough movie – perhaps a classic as well as a blockbuster. And that’s without even focusing on it as iconically feminist.
But of course, it is a feminist triumph – a blockbuster hit directed by a woman, and sure to lead not only to sequels and other movies about superheroines but to greater opportunities for women generally on the big screen and the small screen. And it isn’t just the women watching – male comics fans love the movie. Still, it was surely overdue, after generations of male dominance in the category.
Few if any other movies have taken so long to reach the screen; the Wikipedia entry details a number of false starts since 1996; during which time the DC Comics heroine has changed a lot – in 2011, she was rebooted as an actual goddess, daughter of Zeus, rather than an ordinary Amazon formed from clay and given life by the Greek and Roman gods. It is the new version that Jenkins embraces – only with Diana herself being unaware of it until the very end.
But the new version of Diana (Gil Gadot, who seems born for the role in both her beauty and the aura she projects – and is nothing like Lynda Carter in the old TV series) is still born and raised in Themyscira, the hidden island where there aren't any men but where women are masters of combat just in case they need to fight – only with just swords and bows. When the World War I Germans discover the island, in pursuit of the American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), we are asked to believe that the Amazons can outfight the invaders armed with automatic weapons and kill them to the last man, while suffering only one fatality themselves – they can even shoot three arrows at a time and unerringly hit three invaders.
When Diana ventures forth with Steve into our world, hoping to stop World War I by taking out Ares, the god of war, there is the same disconnect. She is armed only with a sword (supposedly meant for Ares) and shield. As in the comics, she has bracelets – well, upgraded to gauntlets here – that can deflect bullets. But in the comics, she faced only ordinary gunmen. Here she can lead a charge across No Man's Land in face of torrential machine gun fire – how can she possibly move her arms fast enough, or protect her lower body and her legs (beyond gauntlets; reach)? It's the same in a latter battle to take out the base where the Germans are producing a new poison gas that could kill millions are win the war for them.
There are related incredulities. Nobody seems to think it odd that Steve has brought a woman to the trenches, nor do the soldiers seem awed when Diana does her stuff. It's the same when she liberates a Belgian village from the Germans – the villagers dance for joy, and Steve gives her a dancing lesson. Yet none of the Belgians seem to react as one would expect them to to the advent of an actual goddess with superhuman strength and agility. When she later crashes a German party, taking the place of a German woman, nobody notices the sword poking out the back of the stolen dress she's wearing (She has already shown she knows foreign languages, but Jenkins should have taken a lead from Judgment at Nuremberg, and had the people there speak German at first, then shift into English.).
One of the Germans is General Erich Ludendorff, who in real life was the supreme commander of German forces – after the war, he promoted the stab-in-the-back legend of Germany's defeat, and allied himself with Hitler – although he later turned against him. He even wrote a book called Total War, in which he argued that the entire physical and moral forces of the nation should be mobilized, because, according to him, peace was merely an interval between wars. Diana believes him to be Ares, as well she might. Only she's wrong. Only, what's right about the movie, what redeems it from the failures of other superhero movies, is what happens Next...
Most superhero movies are about nothing but fighting, often over trivial issues – as in Batman vs. Superman. Wonder Woman, by contrast, is about something – about human nature, about good and evil, about the forces of darkness and the power of love.
Diana has believed that Ares alone is responsible for the evils of mankind, but she is in for a rude awakening when she confronts the true God of War – a seemingly meek British diplomat named Patrick Morgan. Morgan, unlike Ludendorff, is a man of words rather than action. And it is the ordinary men of words, rather than the men of action, who have led us into the darkness. Wars began as just exercises in plunder – smashing enemies to grab their things. It was the men of words who turned war and oppression into causes. It was they who created ultra-nationalism, religious fanaticism, racism, fascism, communism and all other isms that have plagued us through the ages and seem to be reaching a climax in our time.
Just look around you, Morgan tells Diana before their final battle. Look at what they are, what they have made themselves. She seems helpless to gainsay him, and yet she does.
"You were right about them – but they are so much more."
She knows we are so much more because she has met and found comfort with Steve, who declares his love to her just before he must part from her – to hijack a German bomber, loaded with poison gas, which is about to take off for London. He must destroy that plane, and its cargo, at the cost of his own life, to save his people. Greater love hath no man…
Yet Steve isn’t alone. He has recruited old friends, no longer in the military themselves, to help him and Diana with their mission. They are comic types, but good men and true – the salt of the earth. And we have already seen others, like the Belgian villagers, taking joy in the ordinary things of life.
There is still the final reckoning with Morgan/Ares to come. But in a sense, that is anti-climax; it has to be built up into a more conventional superhero battle by giving him a monster outfit that conceals – for a time – the nebbish face of Diana’s adversary. The real culmination of the story has come with the final parting between her and Steve, who gives her a token of his love – his wristwatch, which she has always thought rather silly. Only she doesn’t think so now; it has become precious to her.
Sentimental, yes. But perhaps sentimental values are the only true values, as opposed to the sundry causes that contend for our souls but threaten to turn us into moralistic automatons. Diana knows this, at the end:
I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves - something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know... that only love can truly save the world.
In A Criminal History of Mankind (1984), Colin Wilson makes the case that the wars, mass murders and terrorist outrages of our times do not grow out of ordinary crimes like rape and robbery motivated by nothing more than the desire to get something for nothing, but are rather “the outcome of a twisted kind of idealism, an attempt to create a ‘better world:’”
The frightening thing about the members of the Japanese Red Brigade who machine-gunned passengers at Lod airport, or the Italian terrorists who burst into a university classroom and shot the professor in the legs - alleging that he was teaching his students ‘bourgeois values’ - is that they were not criminal lunatics but sincere idealists. When we realise this we recognise that criminality is not the reckless aberration of a few moral delinquents but an inevitable consequence of the development of intelligence, the ‘flip side’ of our capacity for creativity. The worst crimes are not committed by evil degenerates, but by decent and intelligent people taking ‘pragmatic’ decisions.
It’s very much like the take we get from Wonder Woman.