Why do superhero movies set in the first half of the twentieth century seem to work so well? First Captain America power-punched some Nazis in his character’s introduction, and now Wonder Woman strides confidently through WWI’s “no man’s land” in her eponymous debut. The heroes may reside in separate cinematic universes—Marvel’s vs. DC’s—but the effect is the same. Wonder Woman ought to bust the summer block with the best of ‘em. It’s as good as they come.
After a framing device to remind us that this movie is part of a sequence of movies involving Wonder Woman’s Justice League counterparts, Wonder Woman jumps back to a time out of time when Greek gods govern the earth. A young Diana (Gal Gadot for the majority of the film; excellent) is the only child on an island of Amazon warriors, and, after being counseled by her queenly mother that war is not they were made for, she is trained into adulthood to be the greatest warrior of them all. The nineteen-teens present-day comes crashing into the women’s magically secluded world in the form of escaping spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, charming). He awakens Diana to the world’s current troubles, and she leaves paradise to accompany him on his mission. Actually, she goes to track down the god Ares whom she believes to be behind this global conflict. Trevor doubts Greek gods exist, never mind the fantastic Grecian things he’s just seen, and he certainly believes that all people are to blame for the war, not just one bad man or woman. The characters are sharply drawn, the pacing is spot-on, and the themes resonate.
Perhaps therein lies the appeal in situating these superheroes in our past – doing so allows storytellers to pit nostalgic understandings of binary, Good and Evil morality against more contemporary understandings of societal culpability and systemic injustice. Our “black and white”—or should it be “red and blue”—hero has to learn to see, accept, and work for Good in a grey/purple world. That’s a reverberant character arc, because it’s one most of us also travel as we mature, and, while I doubt our great-grandparents were so uncritical about the nature of good and evil—consider the nuance with which the ancient writers discussed the subject—that’s also how we view history. We think it was easy in the past to distinguish between good and evil. Now, we think, it is difficult. We “Monday morning quarterback” the past.
Still, we do need consolation, and especially so in a period that seems so rife with divisions and infighting. We need to believe it’s possible to easily distinguish between good and evil, because we feel a need to stand up against forces we fear are trying to undermine everything good in the world. We long for a hero to save us, or at least we long to believe again that heroism is possible and would be effective if we manage to muster the nerve.
I welled up watching this movie many times. I found it deeply stirring to watch that wonderful woman walk determinedly across the field of battle drawing the enemy’s fire and standing up strong before the hellfire of bullets. She cannot be stopped. And she fights not simply against a single antagonist but against the power behind war itself. The Western world doesn’t believe in those kinds of gods anymore. That’s probably for the best.
But we Christians are reminded in Ephesians that our struggles are not against flesh and blood, but against dark powers and principalities in this world and against forces of evil in the spiritual realm. Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians of this so that the weapons they’ll use to fight will be the right ones – truth, righteousness, and peace—and so that we’ll go to save not destroy, so that we’ll keep the bolstering words of the God of love on our lips, not words of fear and hatred that destroy. The old ways of understanding the world may be old, but they’re also ageless, eternally beautiful, forever life-giving and alive.
For what it’s worth, I also cried watching the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film Dunkirk before Wonder Woman began. Ordinary people bravely doing whatever they can to save each other in a time of great turmoil is just as stirring to me as watching someone as remarkable as Wonder Woman standing up for all of us. This is one of the great gifts of good stories. I likely won’t have to endure anything as terrible as WWI or WWII, God willing, but this is a time of great anxiety. Spending a few hours alongside fictional characters enduring troubled times is cathartic. I recognize my naivety in theirs in the first part of the film. Empathizing with their pain as the story continues allows me to cry. Their victories rekindle my spirit. This is what good stories, symbols, some would say “icons” do. And Wonder Woman is quite good.
You might also find these reviews of Wonder Woman helpful:
Hollywood Jesus (Eric Tiansay)
Larsen on Film
Reel World Theology