It's About What You Believe (Wonder Woman)

Wonder Woman Movie CoverI’m a sucker for superhero movies. They’re a sub-genre of sci-fi, and the best sci-fi takes us out of our reality, out of our time and place, to better comment on that reality and force fresh eyes on our time and place. A good superhero picture isn’t about the cool powers and mega-battles; it’s about becoming better versions of our boring ol’ selves.

Well, that and the cool powers and mega-battles.

Marvel has generally done a much better job bringing its moneymakers to the big screen without losing the elements which made them work in pencil and ink, but DC has learned a few hard lessons along the way and occasionally breaks through with something wonderful. The premier example of this is 2017’s Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot.

Lynda Carter Wonder WomanI can’t speak with any authority about how faithful it is or isn’t to the comics. I was more of a Spider-Man and Fantastic Four guy, so Lynda Carter was about as close as I got to really knowing this character before now. So it’s this recent movie version of Wonder Woman, and the ethos surrounding her, that fascinates me at the moment.

Like I said, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

In keeping with most origin stories, the script relies heavily on the traditional “Hero’s Journey.” Diana has a miraculous birth, is called to action when her world changes dramatically, faces trials and tribulations, loses a mentor (in several forms), and eventually overcomes both internal doubt and external obstacles to find herself fundamentally changed as a result.

There’s nothing wrong with following a predictable path. Most great symphonies follow internal rules, as do pop songs, lesson plans, or recipes. They provide the skeleton onto which the creator grafts the specifics. Endless variations, yet always wonderfully the same. That’s why they work.

Wonder Woman makes several choices about specifics which I’d like to ramble about for a moment. Because it’s my blog and I can if I want to.

1) It shamelessly pushes the power of breaking through our doubts (the internal) as well as overcoming those who would limit or oppose us (the external). Otherwise we never rise to our calling. Our potential. Our gifts. While certainly not a unique concept, Wonder Woman does this particularly well – and with a feminist twist which somehow avoids alienating the boys.

“You keep doubting yourself, Diana.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

{*clank swords clank smackdown*}

“You are STRONGER than you believe. You have GREATER powers than you know. If you don’t try HARDER…”

Wonder Woman GirlGranted, in this context the words are literally true. Diana – our “Wonder Woman” – is supernaturally created to fight the God of War and Human Corruption. But they’re also universal – especially for so many of our young ladies. As a culture, we’ve indoctrinated them to doubt everything about themselves, insisted they remain weak, and exploited them as part of our fallen nature.

But they can be more. They are more. And that’s the second thing that works…

2) It's comfortable with powerful, complex women. Wonder Woman herself, of course, and an entire island of Amazons who receive ample screen time without anything naked or even sexy happening. They’re like… people. Less obvious, though, are characters like Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s secretary, who manages to be uniquely herself throughout the story. She’s not there as eye candy, not starry-eyed for her boss, and not two-dimensional comic relief. She’s essential – just not super-powered.  

Dr. Maru is an evil, twisted woman with a side of sad fragility. She’s fascinated by pain and destruction, yet yearns to be wanted, maybe loved. She’s brilliant, but disfigured – wearing a literal half-mask to compliment the metaphorical sort ubiquitous with such characters. Like our heroes, she, struggles with doubt.  Her weaknesses make her a sympathetic character; her choices make her a villain. 

The Amazons were created to save man from himself, echoing a recurring theme in Occidental history which elevates women as a civilizing force, as educators, as the voices of kindness, nurturing, or morality. These aren’t universal of course – women are more often marginalized as the source of original sin and as irrational, untamable creatures, and even Republican Motherhood or the Cult of Domesticity carry presumptions of inferiority in more traditionally “male” roles. But the idea that women add something essential to the mix is as empowering as we allow it to be – and Wonder Woman chooses that empowerment.

Gal Gadot Wonder WomanOnce highlighted, this message is everywhere in the picture. The next time you watch it (and you know you will), notice moments like this one in the trenches of WWI as Steve Trevor tries to argue with our hero:

“Diana, this is No Man’s Land. That means no man can cross it!”

He doesn’t see it. She doesn’t even recognize it. But this time, we do. So we know what’s about to happen.

But by far the most dominant theme of the picture – one reinforced repeatedly throughout – is my favorite…

3) It’s not about what others deserve, but about what we believe. Perhaps what we choose to believe.

Early in the film, Diana’s mother tells her the story of man’s creation – by Zeus, in this case, but in terms clearly emulating the Genesis account. Ares – here filling the role of the serpent in the garden – corrupts man, leading to misery and war on a grand scale, and the eventual creation of Diana, who alone can save mankind from this corruption by defeating the one true remaining source of all evil, Ares.

Jesus. Harry Potter. MLK. Malcolm Reynolds. Obi Wan Kenobi. The sacrificial lamb who redeems the fallen is part of that universal narrative we referenced earlier – part of the skeleton on which the specifics are layered.

In Wonder Woman, these specifics are anchored in that tension between belief and worth. Between what others deserve and what we choose to do anyway. And the value of our choices isn’t determined by the odds of success.

Early in the story, Trevor insists on going back to the war, despite realizing that nothing he can do is likely to impact the outcome.

“The way this war is going, I wouldn’t wanna let anyone I care about near it.”

“They why do you want to go back?”

“I don’t think want is the word. I guess I gotta… try. My father told me once, he said, ‘When you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”

Wonder Woman Photo From MovieDiana, of course, decides to join him, convinced that “if no one else will defend the world from Ares, then I must… I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” She does not yet know that she is chosen for this; it is duty, made by choice, which drives her. Her mother explains that if she leaves, she can never return – literally true in Amazon mythology, but universally true of any meaningful journey. Whatever we set ourselves to do, once we step out, we will be forever changed in some way. None of us can ever go home – not in the sense of returning from where we came. We’ve changed. It probably has, too.

Mother gives her a gift – that snazzy tiara we all recognize – with an admonition: “Make sure you are worthy of it.” This followed by a warning in the opposite direction: “Be careful in the world of men, Diana; they do not deserve you.”

Diana’s only reply is to go nonetheless. Perhaps she’s read the script and recognizes that this theme will develop loudly throughout the rest of the picture.

Trevor is hesitant to lie next to Diana in the boat. Because they’re not betrothed, he hasn’t earned that sort of intimacy. She insists he sleep with her (non-sexually) anyway. It’s not about deserve, it’s about choice.

They arrive in London and interrupt military leaders arguing strategy. Diana scolds a general who has been calloused about the lives of the men he commands – he should be ashamed for “hiding in his office” while good men die. They deserve better; he deserves less.

Even our hero falls prey to the dynamic. As Trevor assembles his team of ne’er-do-wells, she questions whether they are, in fact, worthy of such a mission. “Are these even good men?” she asks. Trevor, too, carries the weight of his own inadequacy, both in her eyes and – less obviously – his own. They are broken. They are flawed. They are inadequate. But they are, after some deliberation and hesitation, willing. So they go. Around the campfire before entering enemy territory, they make a toast:

“May we get what we want!”

“May we get what we need!”

“But may we never get what we deserve!”

Wonder Woman Golden AgeEverywhere Diana goes are people (and animals) suffering who don’t deserve to suffer. Corruption hurts everyone, not just the bad people. Or maybe it does – maybe we’re all ‘the bad people.’ As events begin to unravel (an essential part of any hero’s journey), Wonder Woman begins to doubt… 

“My mother was right. She said the world of men… do not deserve our help, Steve.”

“It’s not about deserve! It--”

“They do not deserve our help!”

“Maybe we don't! But it's not about that. It's about what you believe.”

Wise words. Diana will soon echo them to Ares – defiantly choosing faith over evidence. It’s this realization that finally allows her to overcome the God of War – well, that and Steve Trevor laying down his life, literally taking the sins of the world into the clouds with him. In a plane. Which he then blows up.

So there’s more exploding than with Jesus, but the message is still pretty clear.

Diana chooses to believe in what people can be – not just what they are. She chooses to fight for them. It’s cheesy, and it’s predictable, and it’s ridiculous. And it makes me want to do the same thing, only boring, and old, and not wearing tights.

That’s what the best sci-fi does.

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