WONDER WOMAN MADE THIS MAN CRY
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
I am a male, age 73, and a feminist and a Quaker. I went to see Wonder Woman with a male friend. We both like adventure movies, and I was curious about how “feminist” this movie would be. VERY feminist is the answer, but that’s not why I wept.
Not wept, but sobbed. So uncontrollably that for a short while I could not speak. I am glad that I was there with my dear friend, someone who has been on the front lines of the movement for social change for over 50 years. Someone who has lain on the train tracks and put his canoe in front of an arms-laden ship, just as I have risked bullets in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and at the Selma March. Our biggest risk now is old age — but the fire, the pain, the yearning to make the world a better place: still there.
Go and see Wonder Woman. It’s good on several levels, and at the very least you will have fun. Many people are discussing just how feminist it really is (yes, there’s a woman director, but the scriptwriters are all male; yes, it seems feminist, but would Amazons have shaved their underarms; yes, it’s feminist, but is the woman-as-warrior the best we can do?)
Many readers will know that the creator of Wonder Woman was William Moulton Marston, an early feminist who was much influenced by Margaret Sanger. Marston deliberately set out to create a female and feminist comic superhero, and his character was an instant success with boys and girls. Now it is a blockbuster movie, having earned $664,000,000 worldwide as of this writing.
This is not a “message” movie. Warner Brothers doesn’t invest $149,000,000 to send a social message to the world. Wonder Woman is part of the DC Comics franchise, and we will see her again in the November release of Justice League. The sole goal of both DC Comics and Warner Brothers is to make money.
Even so, every movie can be viewed and critiqued as a collaborative work of art. I was schooled by film critics Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael, reviewers who believed that theme and intent were critical to the quality of a film.
The producers are to be commended for picking a female director, and for hewing closely to the feminist quality of their main character. Yes, there is a love interest, but he never rescues her — just the reverse. The only “need” he meets is to take her to the warfront. From that point on, she leads a ragtag band of male heroes through no man’s land, up to the castle where arch-villain General Erich Ludendorff is showing off his new nerve gas weapon, across the fields to the armaments center where the plane is being loaded which will deliver mass murder and tilt the balance to the German side, and then she puts her sword through Ludendorff without need of assistance.
All very exciting, and no doubt a host of girls and young women will take inspiration from her character. I have a daughter, now 35, who would have been thrilled by Wonder Woman, just as she was captivated by Xena, Warrior Princess in 1995. I very much enjoyed Gal Gadot’s steely portrayal of Diana Prince, but feminism was not behind my stunned reaction.
Wonder Woman is feminist, but it is not about feminism. This movie is about saving humanity from itself. This is clear from Diana’s opening voiceover: “I used to want to save the world. But the closer you get, you see the great darkness in humankind.”
This film works at the deepest spiritual level. It is every bit as powerful as any mythic tale told by the light of the ancient campfire. At its heart, it is about the embodiment of Good and Evil. Zeus versus Ares. God versus Satan. Ahura Mazda versus Angra Mainyu.
Diana Prince is strong, determined, and virtually bullet-proof. But she is also stunningly naïve. Little Princess Diana was raised with a central myth, told by her mother. Zeus created humans, and at first they were good to each other. But his son Ares was jealous of his creation and sowed discord among the gods and among the humans. Zeus and Ares fought an epic battle over the future of humans, and Ares was defeated and banished — but not killed. Queen Hippolyta tells her daughter that the Amazons have been placed on a shielded island, called Themyscira , to train for a coming battle to defeat Ares and save humankind.
Early in the film, World War I intrudes in the form of airman and spy Steve Trevor. His plane breaks through the protective shield, to be followed shortly by ships and crew members of the German Navy. The Amazon warriors dispatch the Germans, but not without significant casualties. Captain Trevor tells Diana and the Amazons about WWI. He tells them about the millions of lives being lost in this grinding war. Diana decides that the time has come to leave the shelter of Themyscira, find Ares, and kill him once and for all. “Only I can defeat him. And once I do the war will end.”
The rest of the action follows Diana as she looks for Ares. She assumes he must be at the hottest part of the war, and tells Trevor to take her to the “Front.” Sure enough, Ares is found — in the form of General Erich Ludendorff, a man who is determined to use a new nerve gas superweapon to assure German victory. Thus the mission becomes simple: kill Ludendorff.
The penultimate moment comes when Diana confronts Ludendorff at the secret site where the gas bombs are being loaded onto an airplane. There ensues an epic struggle, ending with Diana thrusting her sword — named “Godkiller” — through his chest. Now the war should be over, but as she looks up, the German soldiers are still loading the plane. Nothing has changed, the war will go on.
This is a crisis point for our hero. Queen Hippolyta’s mythic fable turns out to be untrue. To understate her situation drastically, Diana faces an identity crisis. This is the point at which a good movie becomes brilliant.
HITLER, PINOCHET, AND IDI AMIN
It’s January 31, 1933. Adolf Hitler has just become the Chancellor of Reichstag. You are in a room with him, and you have a loaded pistol. You know what is going to happen over the next 12 years. Do you kill him?
Most people would say yes; a thousand times yes; even if I go to hell: Yes. Including me, and I am a pacifist.
I had a fantasy of world-saving that lasted all the way through my twenties. I imagined myself as Superman. With my bullet-proof powers I would fly to Santiago, pass through the helpless guards, grab Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet, and fly with him to a remote South Pacific island, where I would deposit him, never to be heard from again. Then I would go and get Idi Amin, and fly him to another island. And so on, around the world. Get rid of the dictator, and then Chile, and Uganda, and Nicaragua, and Pakistan would all be free. Their futures would be happy and harmonious — once I got rid of the Bad Guy.
Notice that these were pacifist fantasies. I was schooled in non-violent social change by Martin Luther King, who was schooled by Gandhi. Even so, I still would have shot Hitler.
But, in almost every instance, removal of the Arch Villain can lead to chaos rather than social harmony. And that is because The Evil One lives within each one of us.
THE REAL ARES
So Wonder Woman kills Ludendorff, but the machinery of war grinds on. This is where things get interesting. Flip: British Prime Minister, Sir Patrick Morgan, magically appears at the secret bomb site. It turns out that he is Ares. Perhaps you need to be a 73 year old activist, or an educated historian, to appreciate what has just happened.
American movie audiences know that the Germans are always the bad guys, and the British are the good guys. Up until the last 10 minutes, Wonder Woman has led us down this well-trodden path. But all of a sudden the British Prime Minister is the bad guy?
You have to realize that we are in World War I, not WWII. The Germans are Imperialist and militaristic. The British are spectacularly Imperialist and militaristic. Their army rules India. Their navy spearheaded the dismemberment of China, even fighting a war to force the Chinese government to halt its resistance to the (very profitable) opium trade. In 1913, just before the start of the war, Britain dominated 23% of the world’s population. This was when “the sun never set on the British Empire,” and its colonies and dominions ranged from British Honduras to Hong Kong. In its colonies the white man ruled, and deservedly so — the British thought — since they were at the apex of world civilization. Here is Rudyard Kipling on the subject:
Take up the White Man’s burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
In its first two hours, Wonder Woman gives us only one hint of this underlying theme. An American Indian, now a freebooter, is introduced as part of her assault team. He tells Diana that his “people” were destroyed. “Who did this?” she asks. Gesturing to American Army Air Service Captain Steve Trevor, he says simply, “his people.”
This plot twist — of the British, and the Americans, being bad guys — is not a simple gesture to political correctness. It is a key the larger theme: humans are bad guys.
Flip: Prime Minister Morgan — now revealed as Ares — does not start by fighting Diana. Instead, he invites her to join him in ruling the world. “You are the Godkiller,” he tells her, “Only a god can kill another god.” Humans don’t deserve our help, he argues. “I truly know them as you now do. They will always be selfish, weak, and capable of the deepest horrors.”
Standing in a landscape of bombed-out carnage, Ares says “We could return the world to the paradise it was before them.” And as he makes this claim, the scene shifts to a beautiful, natural setting. Any deeply seared environmentalist is now hooked: look at what we have done to the earth — and are still doing. Humans are the earth’s worst predators.
But we are also entering Biblical territory. Specifically Matthew 4:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. …the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Most viewers won’t recognize where we are, but as a Christian, I saw it and I felt it immediately. This is the eternal Temptation. The temptation to give up on this sinful world. The temptation to give in to despair. The temptation to dominate or eliminate this species which has brought us murder, rape, torture, war, the Holocaust. At the very least, to mentally abandon the species that fouls its own nest with pollution and poison, that exterminates other species, and that is making this planet less and less habitable. The species that had paradise — and lost it.
Our heroine does not give in to this temptation. She tells Ares that it’s not about what he believes, it’s about “what I believe, and I believe in Love.”
For a Christian, this is Corinthians 1, Chapter 13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Too much! Ares sends out his most deadly blast. Wonder Woman is pushed to her limit, yet, with her belief in love, she captures his evil energy (made electrically stunning by CGI), transmutes it, and rising from the earth in a Christ-like pose — arms extended, legs together — blows Satan away. And that’s when I started to sob.
This is what I believe, even in the midst of despair. This is what Martin Luther King believed, and what he taught in his ministry. The ultimate power of Love. The night of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, he gave a speech to us, the marchers, and to the nation. He told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.
COMIC BOOK VALUES
Wonder Woman is just a comic book character. Like all mainstream comics, her themes are the universal themes of good versus evil. The message is very simple. As simple as a Greek myth, or a fairy tale, or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If it speaks to us, it speaks to our wondering and vulnerable child. If it is wrapped in religion, it could be wrapped in a Greek Mystery Cult, or Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism or Buddhism or Humanism.
If we take Wonder Woman 2017 as a work of art, then the message is about love, and acceptance of the human condition. We are good and we are bad; sinful yet capable of perfection; dominating and self-sacrificing. Wonder Woman triumphs over evil — not when she thrusts a sword through Ludendorff’s heart — but when she faces the full power of Ares and transforms his hatred into love.
The end of the story is told in the beginning of the film. Wonder Woman is an archivist at the current day Louvre. She is looking back on her WWI sojourn. She no longer thinks she can save the world through her action. Humans will have to work that out, and she can only watch, as God watches, to see how the story ends.
Warner Brothers and DC Comics won’t rest there. More money is to be made. The Wonder Woman franchise is pure gold. But we don’t need to stay tuned. The film has already conveyed its message. The arc of human history is in our hands.
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
July 1, 2017
Adam Corson-Finnerty is a writer, a Quaker, and a Democratic Party activist. He lives with his wife and six cats in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.