We like our heroes to be perfect. To be shining examples, all-mighty pillars upon which dreams and ideals can be displayed. To be like gods.
It’s why, when we find out they are, indeed, ‘only human’, it hurts us so. To see a god struck down to earth, to see an angel’s wings ragged and besmirched, tears at the heart.
Atticus Sullivan, the main character of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, is an immortal Irish druid inhabiting a universe where practically any deity that’s ever been worshiped is alive in some way and can be communicated with or even killed—from the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ to Thor—is asked at one point by (*minor spoiler*) his apprentice why he continues to worship the Tuatha De Danann, the Irish gods, even though, upon the apprentice meeting said gods, it’s perfectly clear “’they are flawed beings’” (to use her exact words).
Atticus’ reply? “’Your question assumes that gods must necessarily be perfect...People of pagan faiths are not upset by gods that reflect human foibles. In fact, it’s rather comforting.’”
Someone once told me, the difference between Marvel and DC superheroes, is that the former are humans trying to be gods, while the latter are gods trying to be human. Ever since I saw Wonder Woman in theaters, I’ve been mulling over exactly what makes her movie so satisfying, so exhilarating, that it’s now one of my favorite superhero movies (this, and the first Iron Man). Now, I think I know why.
Because Diana isn’t just one of the best heroes to appear in modern cinema. It’s because she’s so good at being human.
(*spoilers to follow! Ye be warned!*)
I have to be honest, I didn’t know terribly much about Wonder Woman’s backstory before I saw the film. I knew from watching the Justice League shows that she was an Amazon from the Island of Themiscyra, who left to fight in the World of Men for justice, and defend her fellow sisters of the world. She had an invisible jet, a golden Lasso of Truth and...that’s about it.
I knew that Lynda Carter’s portrayal of her is a classic feminist icon, and I was really excited to see a female superhero movie, especially once all the glowing reviews started pouring in.
My expectations going in were high. And the film absolutely delivered. I’ll get into all the aspects I loved as I go on, but I’d like to start, if I may, by looking at Diana as a superhero.
Again, because I didn’t know the Wonder Woman character that well, my points of comparison were limited. But her membership in the Justice League does help in this regard.
Specifically, Diana combines the best aspects of Superman and Batman.
You might think the Superman metaphor is purely the superhuman strength and speed. Those familiar with the work of Wiz and Boomstick are no doubt aware of the Man of Steel’s sheer OP-ness.
Every week, he’s got a new power, it feels like. But, no matter how much you rage at Goku’s losses, note that the end analysis is quite clear: the Saiyan is all about transcending pre-conceived limits, whereas Superman does away with limits all together. By going God Mode and beyond, Goku made power levels laughably quaint and irrelevant; but even so, Superman’s power would be, quite possibly, infinite.
And it’s that exact sense of “infinite possibility” that Wonder Woman possesses. Not just strength, though as we see towards the end of the movie, Diana in the full flush of her demigod
(hang on...she was made clay—would that make her a full god, by blood?)[EDIT: I somehow missed the part of the movie where the clay origin was retconned—thank you, lightsaber.ninja!] powers ranks right up there with the Man of Steel. Indeed, watching the Justice League cartoons, I get the sense that she would at the very least make Superman drop his whole ‘world of cardboard’ outlook and fight seriously. Clark may be slightly stronger, but Diana’s been trained since childhood as a warrior: think Barbarian vs Fighter.
To a lot of heroes, bullets are so many mosquito bites. But not to Diana: she’s technically mortal. But here she goes, striding forth across the devil’s own playground to rescue the civilians. One bullet flies across the damned earth...to be deflected in a shower of sparks.
I knew that Wonder Woman could deflect projectiles with her gauntlets. But knowing the fact, and seeing it in action are two very different things. When guns are used against Superman, they’re so pitiful as to be rendered objects of derision. But guns in Wonder Woman are very much a deadly force to everyone else, which makes the sight of the Amazon princess knocking them aside as she picks up speed all the more inspiring. The Germans fire and fire, and she no-sells them all. She takes their power, and throws it back in their face. Mortar fire? She practically bitch-slaps it away with her shield.
That shield. The sight of her, pinned down by the entire German line’s machine gun fire. Her scream of defiance, her indomitable will. It’s the voice of humanity, roaring in the face of imminent death. That’s not Superman, but Batman.
What makes Batman so beloved is that, although the Internet has turned him into basically DC Jesus, he is canonically nothing more or less than an extremely driven human. Theoretically speaking, given enough start-up capital, anyone could become Batman.
You’d have to dedicate your entire life to it, but it is technically possible. No alien genes, no mystical stones or deals with inter-dimensional beings: the only thing that Bruce Wayne’s got (apart from more money than God) is the collection of bruises, scars, and broken bones from martial arts training and detective work. And though he may be a warrior now, but he was once just a child, dreaming of swashbuckling adventure.
And while Diana may have the blood of the Olympians running through her veins, she too is mortal. But she has the same level of drive as Gotham’s Dark Knight. She wanted to fight, to defend Themiscyra and the Amazons’ ideals so badly, she began her training in secret, growing in skill until she was arguably the finest warrior on the island. She, too, was just a child.
Still is, in many ways. And that is what makes her journey in the film so very human. It’s the other part of her capacity for infinite capability. Not just strength, but love.
“Love”; how trite, how cliche, some may say. In today’s world, we’re supposed to fight hate with love, but how can love stop a bullet?
How are you supposed to love someone who spits on who you are, who makes you bleed in terror?
And what are you supposed to do when you don’t love yourself? When you look at the shadows in the world, and see them in the depths of your soul? Like you’ve been infected, corrupted by the poison spewed by so many nowadays. How can you love, how are you supposed to love, when the little voice deep in your heart whisper words to spark hatred, riots, war? What are you supposed to do when you hate what the world has made you become? A being of bitter rage and venom...the very thing you hated in the first place.
Wonder Woman, at first, blames Ares for this. She thinks, no, she believes with all her heart, that if she can just kill the god of war, that humanity will be cured of its disease of hatred. It must seem so simple, so naive (reduction fallacy, anyone?) to many viewers and the movie’s characters: kill one man, and the war ends. Not just any war, but the War to End All Wars. Unlike WWII, which was fairly clear-cut—Nazis are bad, their allies are bad, let’s kill ‘em dead, hoo-rah—WWI was a tangled mess of politics and motivations that baffles even historians. It made no sense, it left scars which festered for decades, and satisfied no one. It was humanity at one of its lowest points. Setting the film in this period of history was an excellent decision.
For an outsider like Diana, especially considering her background, blaming the whole morass on one supernatural being makes complete sense. It’s what the Amazons have spoken of for generations; it’s what she’s trained to do for most of her life. And when Sir Patrick Morgan reveals himself as Ares, he even refers to her as the Godkiller. This is her destiny, her rasion d’etre. Or is it?
Because Hippolyta never asked the Olympians for a weapon—she asked for a child.
That’s, in a way, Diana’s greatest strength: her child-like innocence. She questions everything, and is single-minded in her pursuit. It cuts through everyone. When she grieves, when she’s confused by the world she finds herself in—it’s all child-like. We adults, so weighed-down by earthly concerns, find her odd and kind of disturbing. But that’s supposed to be the case. The hardest part of growing up is retaining and remembering your childhood wonder. After all, as the good book says, “’Unless you enter the Kingdom like a child...’”
But Diana isn’t Wonder Girl; she’s Wonder Woman. By movie’s end, she’s learned and grown. But she hasn’t forgotten her drive to help humankind. Only now she knows she can’t do it by defeating one bad guy—as a child would think—but by helping us realize our better selves. That’s an adult realization.
Our faults aren’t to be our scourge. Those who suffer from mental health issues do just that: suffer. Their “sins of thought” aren’t meant to be judged as a means to punish them—we’re supposed to help them. That is love, and that’s what Diana intends to personify. She accepts the presence of humanity’s faults, but not the faults themselves. She fights to help us overcome our selves.
My church attendance has been spotty of late. Every time I go, I’m reminded of my flaws, and despair at ever rising above them. But I keep going back, because in my worst moments, when my intrusive thoughts almost have me convinced I’m worth nothing more than being an angry idiot who can only find redemption in sacrifice, when the tears born of mental agony sting my eyes, I realize the voice of spiteful rage, while it sounds like me, isn’t me.
Our demons speak to us in our own voice. That’s why they’re so convincing. It’s what makes the reveal of Sir Patrick as the main antagonist so satisfying. I never really believed General Ludendorff to be Ares; too obvious. But Sir Patrick? Wasn’t he the one who was fighting for an armistice, even though everyone wanted to keep fighting until there was a clear winner?
Oh. Oh. What was that about festering wounds and WWII?
What my demons spring from is my voice of pain. The voice of a child, hurt by all that’s bad and evil and wrong in the world. One small voice, infuriated that he doesn’t have super powers. Ashamed at his own lack of ability to make a change.
Diana empowers and comforts that voice. She knows the voice, speaks to it. Having that kind of anguish is alright; it’s part of who we are. She can help us fight the demons who twist and sibilate to that hurting child, that turn passion to hatred, corrupt anger into poisonous wrath.
In an interview with Screen Rant, actor Danny Huston (who plays the German general) remarked that the film felt very much in line with Greek mythology, and that “’sometimes we need demigods to look at us to understand what our weaknesses are.’” He also discussed how, although his character General Ludendorff does see Diana as tragically naive, he personally finds the “love conquers all” powerfully inspiring.
Atticus would agree, on both counts. His gods weren’t perfect, but they inspired him to be better than he was.
That is why Wonder Woman is so incredible. Diana teaches us to love. She teaches us how we can end our Ares.