The new Wonder Woman movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot made a powerful impression on me. It was inspiring to view it with a posse of female friends and family, including my mom-of-choice and some of her lesbian activist crew. Readers of this blog know I struggle with mixed feelings about my gender(s). But I turned to my best girlfriend and said, “This movie makes me proud to be partially female!”
As portrayed in this film, Wonder Woman has a goddess energy that is pure and empathetic, never engulfing or saccharine. She and the other Amazons are gorgeous, but not gratuitously sexualized by the camera–probably thanks to having a female director, Patty Jenkins. The emphasis is on their bodies’ athleticism and dedication to their divine mission of protecting Paradise Island from the God of War.
Pop culture and fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo wrote in their glowing review: “a new template for the female hero emerges; one that doesn’t rely on the male gaze or a fetishized ‘badassedness’ that obscures an inner life…Diana ‘grows up’ in this story without being shamed or pummeled into submission. She changes her perspective but is not fundamentally changed by her experiences. She is not, in other words, ‘taught a lesson.'”
The freedom from objectification extends to the minor characters, up to a point. American pilot Steve Trevor’s plus-sized assistant, Etta Candy (alas, the fat-shaming name is canon), is a feisty and stylish suffragette. All the characters treat her with respect. The film doesn’t fall into the trap of using Etta as a comic foil for Diana’s more conventional attractiveness. The poisoner Dr. Maru is apparently also canon as a mask-wearing and mannishly dressed woman. I was upset that her current iteration is disfigured, because the trope of the deformed villain is an ableist cliché, and her insecurity about rejection by men made her seem pathetic in a sexist way. It felt like a holdover from the James Bond era where butchness, foreignness, and sadism are coded together. Perhaps she needs to read the Amazons’ 12-volume manual on pleasure, which concludes that men are necessary for reproduction but nothing else!
What most affected me was the film’s sophisticated theology, which is psychologically integrated where most superhero movies are dualistic. Fantasy/action stories generally locate evil in an individual, an ultimate Big Boss who has to be killed (or neutralized, to leave room for a sequel). Wonder Woman starts out believing this as well, but learns that evil is both systemic and inherent. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The gods are dead. It’s all up to humanity to choose love over war.
This realization nearly breaks Wonder Woman’s heart. The people she’s trying to save are not innocent victims of an external force. We’re partly to blame for our own destruction. Not to give away too many spoilers, but there is a temptation scene where the villain makes a persuasive case to let humanity wipe itself out. A good character, who later sacrifices themself in a Christ-like way, teaches Wonder Woman that you don’t save people because they deserve it all the time, but because it’s what you believe in. So she stays in the world, like the Holy Spirit after Jesus departs, to keep turning our hearts to the good.
In keeping with this merciful ethic, Diana refuses to yield to war’s logic that the end justifies the means. By their choice of focus, action movies and thrillers set up an implicit value judgment that not all lives matter: we follow every twist and turn of the main characters’ fight for survival, while multitudes of anonymous background characters are blown up and mowed down. Wonder Woman never loses sight of her long-term goal of ending World War I by destroying Ares, but she won’t rush past the wounded people who need her help right this minute. In a world where even the gods have limited powers, the triage problem is another explanation of why suffering and violence are still with us.
“Wonder Woman” boldly contemplates the death of God as a possible theodicy. All that remains is immanent divinity, not omnipotent, requiring our cooperation.