Oh my gosh, see Wonder Woman. Like, close this window, buy a ticket, go. to. it. now.
Done? Great. (Otherwise: major spoiler alert!)
So holy crap, right?! The scene in No Man’s Land? GAH!
The marketing team at Wonder Woman know what they are doing. Because they released this video wherein Gal Gadot (and honestly, what better name could Wonder Woman have than that?) gushes about her daughter and how playing a female super hero is so important to her and hints that Wonder Woman has a uniquely female approach to super-heroing and shows that she really honors the impact this will have on other little girls and cue the tears.
So I knew going into this movie that I would feel all sorts of Girl Power feelings. I imagined fist pumping and cheering at bad-guy-slaying and being impressed by her muscles probably.
What I found instead was something so much more profound. And deeply human.
Superman is an incredible hero. He’s unflinchingly Good, he’s handsome, he has a steel-strong sense of right and wrong, and the ability to dole out judgement. Superman is primarily about Justice. He’s about giving the bad guy what’s coming to him (usually jail). He fulfills that desire in us to see evil punished, to see bad behavior met with demise and he confirms our theory that locking up the bad guys will keep us all safe. He is somewhat disenchanted with humanity and their inability to keep the world out of emergency, but he persists because he’s long-suffering and loyal to a fault.
Batman is like Superman with sarcasm and a few less scruples. Captain America is like both of them with nauseating amounts of patriotism. The Men in Capes are our warriors, our vigilantes, our dirty-work-doers so that we can rest easy at night knowing the world is less one Joker or Lex Luther. Because villains are always wearing gobs of make-up or living in secret lairs, easy to sort out from the rest of us.
Diana (Wonder Woman) begins her hero’s quest in like fashion. The villain is Ares, the God of War. She believes that he is the reason for all the fighting among humanity and if she can just defeat him she will defeat Violence itself. She will deliver humanity’s true nature back to itself and everyone will be free to be kind and creative and enjoy one another. She is so sure. When confronted with how absurd that sounds she basically just ignores the scoffers with her magical truth lasso.
As a viewer you’re kind of confused during the whole movie about this. Is she going to meet a literal Ares? This movie is set in an actual war which, when it finally ended, began again a few years later. You understand from the outset that her mission is futile. Unless the writers of this universe completely change history, Diana will not defeat whatever makes men want to kill.
All throughout the movie Diana is told by trusted friends and enemies that humanity doesn’t deserve her – they don’t deserve mercy and second-chances and belief in their good. In a visually stunning climax, she does meet Ares, but defeating him changes nothing. She is forced to face the fact that humans do terrible things to each other, that it’s part of our nature. We are not forced by an ancient god, we are voluntarily awful.
Ares articulates this most clearly as he presents to her an evil person responsible for massive carnage named Dr. Poison. Ares encourages Diana to kill her as an admission that humans are corrupt and despicable and not-worth-living. “Destroy her, Diana, you know she deserves it,” he says.
Which is the message we don’t know we’re telling in most of our stories: The stories with our heroes parsing out the evil from the good, dichotomizing humans into two basic categories. We do this in all forms of art and most harmfully, in religion, too. As long as we are in the right Camp – through rites or blood or grace or whatever – we’re okay. But throughout this movie, Diana sees selfish men act valiantly for the sake of their friends. She sees a cowardly sniper find courage at a piano. And as she stands over Dr. Poison she sees fear. Ultimately Diana is so overcome with humanity’s capacity for beauty and love that she decides we are worth the fight anyway.
It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.
Which is like the best response to all those Men in Capes. Our idea of justice is one thing, but what matters when all the stories are told and all the violence is matched and all the tallies are scored?
Wonder Woman rejects the camps altogether. Her fight is not about Justice, it’s about Love. She doesn’t want to weed out the bad guys, she wants everyone to find the good she knows they possess. Her view is more compassionate, more nuanced, more… maternal. I don’t think women are the only ones able to see the good in people, but I do think this approach to the problem of evil is the fabric of motherhood – let’s nurture the world to restoration; we’ve tried the scorched earth approach.
Which, if you grew up in the tradition I did, should sound familiar. It’s the Jesus story. It’s the story of God insisting despite wars and politics and abuse that humanity is meant for good. It’s the story of God working hard on his end to defeat the forces of evil, and waiting patiently for us to get tired of death and become partners in creating life.
And lest anyone think this is a weaker approach, Jesus and Wonder Woman both reveal that love is power. Love is the long game, the slow burn, the “we are not going to steamroll, we’re gonna take hits as long as we have to so that everybody gets a shot at defeating their own Ares.” Love is taking in the whole of a person (and indeed, humanity) – their awfulness and their beauty. “Love,” as philosopher Pete Rollins says, “looks at this void of stuff and draws out individuals or causes as having infinite and singular value. Love calls everything into existence.”
Though I may not have a kick-ass uniform or an impermeable shield, I’m in on the calling. I believe that humanity is capable of all the good Jesus and Wonder Woman say we are and I believe that ultimately enduring the evil will be worth it. Wonder Woman was like a propaganda reel for the Gospel. I left the theater feeling inspired, empowered, ready for the fight that means laying down my impatience and my dichotomies. Ready to see everyone around me as capable of both Good and Evil, and ready to call out the good in them, ready to see them as infinitely and singularly valuable.
Ready to love. Deserve or not.
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