Even with the Rotten Tomatoes score, I wasn’t ready for this. Wonder Woman is a revelation. We now have a new standard bearer for what a superhero movie can do. There are no spoilers here, obviously. The movie just came out last night! Everyone needs to see this and experience for themselves just how inspiring a comic book movie can be. Marvel, and the world, need take notice too. DC’s cinematic comic book universe has arrived and Wonder Woman is their flagship hero, carrying both the DCEU forward and the possible potential for all comic book movies. Finding what I did in watching Wonder Woman was the most incredible surprise. And you deserve that surprise too! So I’m not talking spoilers but I will speak of the film thematically and speak to how it managed to move me so profoundly.
I obviously knew who Diana, Princess of Themyscria, was before seeing the film because, well, how could you not know who Wonder Woman is if you’re conscious and live in the United States of America?? She’s been an enduring part of our popular culture for decades. But it was only that sort of loose cultural knowledge. I’ve never really read any of her comics. I’ve wanted to but, as I’ve said before, I’m a Marvel guy through and through. I’ll flirt with DC, reading them a bit here and there, but no lasting relationship has ever blossomed. Well, all of that certainly changed after seeing Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman last night. I needed this film, this message, this hero. I think we all do.
The film opens with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a present from Bruce Wayne – a picture from 1918, taken near the end of World War I. This prompts her reflecting on her entrance into the “World of Man.” Raised on the hidden Isle of Themyscria under the watchful eye of her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, Diana grew up as the first new child among the Amazons in ages. She’s trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), to perform an Amazon’s duty, given to them by Zeus King of the gods, to protect the world should Ares, the God of War, ever return. One day Diana sees a plane crash off the shore of Themyscria and swims out to save British intelligent officer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) after he was shot down by German soldiers. Hearing tales of “the war without end,” Diana believes Ares has returned and, against her mother’s wishes, journeys back to London with Steve in an attempt to end the Great War. They recruit a small team of Steve’s old allies – Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – to infiltrate a German weapons plant behind enemy lines in an attempt to end the war by stopping production of a new chemical super weapon. Simply put, in all of this, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is INSPIRING in the best possible way.
I’ve always felt superheroes are meant to do that, to inspire. They should show us the very best in ourselves and encourage us to reach for that potential. Diana of Themyscria epitomizes that sort of character. As the film drew to a close, my heart was swelling, I had literal chills all over my body, and my eyes were a bit misty too. The final scene was far from the only point in the movie I experienced these feelings. I walked out of Wonder Woman in awe of what I’d just seen. This is a brilliant film. This is a comic book movie performing at its highest potential. This is how the genre rises to a new level. I’ve never seen a superhero film like this before, which is saying a lot given how many of these movies we get each year. Well, that’s only partially true. Yes, we get a lot of superhero movies every year. But we’ve never had a movie like Wonder Woman before.
It’s easy to be swept up in the moment after seeing a new superhero movie. I loved Ant Man and Dr. Strange after seeing them too but, truth be told, months later I have no real recollection of the specifics of the plot of either film. They were fun…but forgettable. Wonder Woman however is unforgettable. I believe Wonder Woman is the most important comic book movie to be made this year (which is saying a lot because I still haven’t been able to write about Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 as I struggled to truly express how much the film means to me). I’d go as far as to say this is the most important comic book movie ever made because of its heart and message. Wonder Woman has left as indelible a mark on my thoughts as it has on my heart.
Thematically, much of the film was built around the idea of war. Anchored in Greek mythology, one of Wonder Woman’s greatest enemies in the comics has always been Ares, the god of War. In this film, Diana ventures into the world of man for the first time amidst the Great War, believing it is Ares’ toxic influence that’s leading the human race to destruction. This idea, that it’s war that has caused the corruption of humanity is a powerful one. It’s not without merit either. We often look at war and think it’s unavoidable. It’s human nature, we sigh to ourselves with resignation. But that’s not historically accurate.
Looking back through human history we see war was nonexistent before the Agrarian Revolution, occurring during the Neolithic Period roughly around 8,000 B.C.E. It was only after we, as a species, had settled and developed a sense of land being ours that we began to engage in war in the attempt to take from others to increase what was ours at the expense of those who lived there first. When we were hunter-gatherers, war didn’t exist. Sure, you may find conflict amongst groups from time to time but no more than you’d see anywhere else in the animal kingdom. We were living in balance with our environment in the way everything else does. Everything changed with the advent of the cultivation of land for farming and the idea of settling somewhere permanently. So from an evolutionary understanding, war is not a part of our nature. Rather it is a habit we have learned, a habit, tragically, we’ve become all too good at over the millennia.
So, with that in mind, the idea that war is this outside influence that seeps into the human consciousness and corrupts us is something that rings true with our literal human history. In that way, Wonder Woman becomes a champion who isn’t simply fighting villains to protect New York City or to protect the earth but she’s a champion who is fighting to save us from that which corrupts our best nature. She’s fighting to lead us back to what we once were and what we’re still meant to be. However, the film doesn’t give a simple binary read of good and evil nor does it offer an easy way out of the mess we’re in. It’s bold enough to own not just the light in humanity but our potential for destruction and our potential for evil as well. In owning the reality of our evil and the sometimes very real difficulty in finding a way to rise above that evil, it makes the film’s belief in and call for our transcendent transformation all the more inspiring and all the more important.
In all of this Wonder Woman functions as a form of modern mythology in the purest possible way. I write often of how, when they are operating at their best, comic book superheroes have the potential to be the sort of unifying and instructive myths for our culture that the great mythic heroes of old once were. And (as I always like to quote) the great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell reminds us, “the folk tale is for entertainment. The myth is for spiritual instruction.” So a myth, to be a myth, must offer spiritual instruction. Wonder Woman teaches us how war is this toxic force that corrupts us and allows the darkness within us to grow and, in that growth, poison all of creation. Naturally it doesn’t speak of the Agrarian Revolution but, as with all mythology, it shares the greatest of truths through vivid, powerful, thoughtful metaphor. Importantly (because a myth must speak to the times in which we live) it wrestles with not just a general idea of war but the horrifying reality of modern warfare. In World War I, we find the birth of increasing technological terrors allowing us to kill more people with greater ease from further distances and with that grows the casual acceptance of the loss of innocent life. In the film Diana of Themyscria acts not just as a superhero but as a messianic figure to instruct us how to find salvation by rising above our darkness to live in the light. The messianic figure is an important albeit tricky trope to truly do justice. (Maybe that’s just my opinion, as a theology nerd who’s studied this stuff for years, but that’s what I think.) I left them film absolutely certain that Diana is the most well executed messianic figure I’ve ever found in a superhero film.
There’s also great theological weight in Diana being the one to see things differently, to see a different path, in the “world of men.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s Wisdom has always been personified as the feminine side of God. When we speak of God’s Wisdom in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we speak of Sophia. Hinduism has Saraswati as the Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. She’s part of the Hindu Trinity, the partner of Brahma (the God of Creation) and she supplies the knowledge that fuels/shapes/guides creation to make it work. In Greek mythology, Athena is the Goddess of Wisdom. For the Celts, we find Brigid as the Goddess of Wisdom. I could go on. All of this adds another level to Diana’s potential mythic importance. The idea that it’s the Divine Feminine which leads the human race to wisdom is something that’s anchored in our myths across many cultures with examples spanning millennia. Wonder Woman makes powerful use of this idea of the Divine Feminine in the character of Diana of Themyscria.
Diana then is important to us all. Obviously, as I wrote the other day, we need a strong female superhero film. It’s a sin that we haven’t had dozens already, given the vast array of incredible female characters out there. Young girls deserve to see themselves and their own brilliant potential in the power of Wonder Woman. Young boys too deserve to be able to cheer for, identify with, and get excited about a powerful female hero, learning that female superheroes are every bit as exceptional as their male counterparts and that there’s nothing wrong with a boy loving a female character. Wonder Woman does all of this and does so by simply letting Diana be the hero she’s always been. I can’t say I’ve seen Gal Gadot in much else but she impressed me so much with the strength, determination, emotion, vulnerability, and complexity she brought to her portrayal of Diana I’ll certainly be IMDbing her later and making a trip to the video store. She’s an amazing actress, easily carrying the film. But it’s not simply the fact that she’s a “female superhero” that’s worth cheering on here. Diana is a mythic hero, a messianic figure, and a vision of the Divine Feminine that can help lead us all to a better place. The feel of this film offers a shining light of salvation that cuts through any and all criticism the DCEU has received. If this is their future, then go DC! Woo! But it also offers a path to salvation for us all, if we’re willing to open our hearts to the message the film offers. This is what places Wonder Woman in the ranks of great films and great literature.
I certainly don’t want to spoil anything (and I won’t!) because I think everyone needs to see the awe-inspiring power of this film unfold for themselves. But on a final thematic note, I will say what impressed me most about the film was also what I found most inspiring. The ultimate message of the film, what it says of the future, potential, and salvation of the human race in its final moments was perhaps the most direct, beautiful, and true of anything I’ve ever seen in a comic book film. I’ve never seen a superhero movie be so brave or so honest in its message. This isn’t a comment I’m making in the moment of excitement either. I’m not saying these words lightly. Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs have earned my greatest respect and deepest gratitude for writing a film such as Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins has earned the same for bringing such an exceptional vision to life. It wasn’t just the DCEU that needed Wonder Woman. We ALL need Wonder Woman.
As soon as the movie was over last night, I was considering making a run to Books Galore today to buy some Wonder Woman comics. But I soon realized, like my experience with Guardians Of The Galaxy, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for there. I’m just going to be chasing this feeling. It was in and through Patty Jenkins’ film that I first really entered Diana’s world. It is her vision that has shaped my experience, so moved me, and allowed me to fall in love with this character and her importance. So, instead of spending more money on Wonder Woman comics right now, I’m just going to go see Wonder Woman again (and again (and again (and probably again))). It brings the heart of this lifelong comic fan to life and, most importantly, it nourishes the soul.