So, before Justice League comes out we should take a look at what made Wonder Woman so good, but regrettably not the best DCEU film to come out yet. Not to say this isn’t a great film, the DCEU is way above most films that Hollywood churns, out, and Wonder Woman is no different. And while previous films have dealt with philosophers, this, interestingly enough dealt with theology.
But before we get to that we need to deal with Wonder Woman’s naiveté.
So that’s the kind of idiocy we get from critics. Ignoring for the moment the inherent sexism in that statement, the fact that critics are incapable of insulting great movies like Dawn of Justice, or that they completely misunderstand the character.
Let’s review the goodness of Clark for a second. Even as a child he understood the dangers of being discovered but worked to make sure that he saved people—it’s established that the bus was not the first time he saved people. He left a line of good deeds so obvious that you could trace him from the dead wastelands of Nova Scotia back to the front door of the Kent Farm in Smallville, Kansas. I want you to think about that, he left such an obvious trail of stories of him helping people that you could track him over 2,000 miles easily. No real paper trail, just urban legends and they’re still enough of them to sort out the legends of the reality and transverse 2000 miles of territory within only a couple of weeks. How long would it take the best reporter in the world to track you back to your childhood home just by stories? It would probably be impossible—they’d need travel records, birth certificates, credit card statements. Clark is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so damn obvious (even though he’s probably lying about his background at every stop) that it takes Lois all of two weeks. And let’s not forget not only the montage of heroic events in Dawn of Justice but that he has become so synonymous with good deeds that Bruce feels comfortable with joking about him rescuing cats from trees. When he kills the last of his kind because he has to save the lives of innocents, he has an emotional breakdown, screams and seeks comfort. When he saves a girl from a burning building, he is only overcome with the guilt of all the people he can’t save, seeing in a sea of people congratulating him only the faces of the dead he failed to save—a scene mirrored again in feeling of helplessness while the Capital building burns around him. He is stuck with these moments of self-flagellation where he tells himself “I could have done more” even though he has his limits and ignoring all the good he has done to save the world.
Compare that to Diana who has a lot more sheltered life, and while doing some real good in No Man’s Land and liberating a village, hasn’t spent the majority of her life-saving people and seeing that even good actions have consequences. When placed in the similar space of having to kill the last of her kind she states “Goodbye, Brother,” showing she acknowledges they are both the children of Zeus, and she walks away without really even feeling a moment of loss. The only loss is that of losing Steve, not the last of her kind.
She doesn’t blame herself for the death in the village after Luddendorf strikes it with a chemical attack, rightfully so, but Clark or Bruce would have unjustly blamed themselves for making that village a target.
Granted, they have very different backgrounds and both their responses are perfectly ethical from a virtue-based understanding of right and wrong. However, the critics who want to complain about Clark killing Zod by some ignorant Kantian idea that the means justify the ends, then they are should be blamed for the murder, yet I see no such consistency from the critics of Man of Steel.
What Diana has that Clark doesn’t have is not goodness, it’s naiveté. That isn’t goodness we’re seeing, because that goodness of Clark is still there from his first appearance of Man of Steel where he saves all the men on the oil rig to giving his life to stop Doomsday, and it’s the same goodness we have seen from when Diana chose to leave Themyscira to
when we see her working with Bruce to find the League in the trailers. They’re both good.
But it’s not that there is a goodness to Diana (someone who liberated one town through a rather impressive offensive) that is not in Clark (someone who has been saving people for at least two decades). It’s that she has naiveté. She has a childish cluelessness about the nature of humanity.
And it shows.
She thinks of everyone as being pawns for Ares, not creatures of their own volition. And you see in this how she talks to the spy sent to kill Steve Trevor. “You’re clearly under his [Ares] control…let me help you get free. Where will I find Ares?” and how she expects the whole war to stop when she kills Luddendorf. She has this view of people being all good and influenced by an outside force and becoming all evil. It’s a view that is, at best, infantile (when we come back to it under our discussion of Calvinism, I will not be so kind). And it’s that she could only get a real look at evil by seeing the world not stop when she killed Ares. The whole movie is proving to both Hippolyta and Ares are correct: “They don’t deserve you.” Generals willing to callously let soldiers die, petty bar fights, the suffering of women and children fleeing no man’s land, not to mention at least a knowledge of human history up to 400’s B.C. (Mentions being able to talk about quoting Socrates in the Greek which means she must know of history up to that point), and knows what slavery is. Either she ignores all this or believes Ares is to blame for all of it. That’s unspeakably naive. Far too naive for someone who is likely thousands of years old by the time Steve Trevor shows up (it’s a little unclear exactly how old she is, but it just doesn’t strike me that Zeus was alive in 1880 to get Hippolyta pregnant in time for Diana to make WWI). But you know what Diana doesn’t have in this movie that Clark has from
almost moment one, experience.
Clark has lived his whole life with stories about saving farms leading to other farms being destroyed and knowing that if he acts out against bullies then people could get hurt far worse than they deserve, and being told that no matter which path he chooses he’s going to change the world. Even before he’s Superman he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. And it’s a world-weariness we certainly see a hundred years later in Diana when she is in Dawn of Justice. But on her second day on the job she doesn’t have it. It’s somewhat understandable given how sheltered a life she has led, but it is not to be praised.
What is to be praised is her devotion at the end of the movie. That admits that people don’t always deserve mercy, and that justice might be to kill lots of them because people do terrible, terrible things for really pathetic reasons (as this last election was an all too clear example if you forgot). But at the end of the film she realizes what Clark knew from the first moment of Man of Steel, “They’re everything you say, but so much more.” That humanity has its dark side but it also has its good. And it is this point about looking for the good, “It’s not about deserving, it’s about what you believe [in]. And I believe in love.”
Admittedly the Greek agape, or the Latin caritas would have been little more appropriate here as the kind of love she is referring to is not the love of her romantic affair with Steve (which, I’m sorry I don’t buy for a second, also given how naive she is, Steve is really taking advantage of her). What she’s talking about is the love of Paul’s “faith, hope and love.” (Oh, look Diana believes in love, at the end of Dawn of Justice Bruce has faith in humanity again, and Superman is hope. Don’t doubt for a second that isn’t intentional).
That’s the whole point of the film. Her growing up. Because despite being somewhere between a couple hundred and five-thousand years old (it’s a little unclear on the timeline exactly), she has always been treated as the only child of Themyscira. She has no real-world interactions with anyone, has never really faced a moral quandary and clearly has a very immature vision of all human nature until the end of this film. The point of the movie is getting her to the point that Clark was at in Man of Steel, seeing both the evil that is all too present in humanity and still fighting for them. The Diana at the beginning of Wonder Woman would never have turned herself over as Clark did in Man of Steel because she didn’t have any belief in the goodness of humanity like he did, because she didn’t see them as rational actors at first. They were just automatons who could be pushed off course by Ares. It is only through Steve pointing out that as flawed as man is, they are still worth saving and Ares pointing out as flawed as they are, it is their own choice to be that way that she finally sees humanity for what it really is. A deeply flawed race with the potential for virtue. Only at the end could she agree with Bruce that “Men are still good.” (Obviously, something happened between Wonder Woman and Dawn of Justice that gave us such lines as “Man made a world where standing together is impossible” but Bruce’s optimism obviously brings her out of that.)
So, to praise her for the very thing that she needs to lose to become a real hero makes not a damn bit of sense. I love Wonder Woman because she becomes the hero she needs to be by the end of this film, but I refuse to put her greatest flaw in this film up as if it’s something that we should praise.
So, this brings us back to the central philosophic overtones of the film.
They center around Diana’s growing up and realizing that humanity is more than just its sins versus Ares’s assertion that people are just terrible. Now while Ares has those uber-environmentalist overtones of wanting to see the world a large forest that we’ve seen recently in such films as The Last Witchhunter, and while it is fun see Al Gore cast as the villain he is, there are deeper overtones to the rants of Ares.
At its heart these rants are Calvinism. It seems a little odd to say that Ares, a Greek god, is parroting a major Christian philosophy…but it’s not too far-fetched. First, you must consider that Man of Steel was an attack on the philosophy of Plato, Dawn of Justice an attack on Nietzche, Suicide Squad on Foucault, so it is only fitting that this latest film takes down another philosopher. Given that Snyder has Aristotelian overtones in all
his work (further reinforced by the fact that he says he wants to remake Rand’s The Fountainhead), and his definitively Christian themes (which if they don’t have a pro-Catholic feel, they are certainly counter to the themes of Evangelical Protestantism) make the ideas of Calvinism, and it’s really disgusting modern versions an ideal target.
So, before we deal with Ares, let’s deal with Calvinism. In his book, Institutes on the Christian Religion, John Calvin makes several points. First, that reason is fallible and thus will always lead away from God and thus man must replace reason with absolute faith in the Bible even it contradicts reason (this in contradiction to the more Aristotelian St. Thomas Aquinas assertion that reason and faith and reason lead to the same conclusion and can be used to reinforce one another, not work in opposition to another).
Hence that immense flood of error with which the whole world is
overflowed. Every individual mind being a kind of labyrinth, it is not
wonderful, not only that each nation has adopted a variety of fictions, but
that almost every man has had his own god. To the darkness of ignorance
have been added presumption and wantonness, and hence there is
scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a
substitute for Deity.
Calvin also believes that man was inherently corrupt from Original Sin and
nothing in him was redeemable.
For what accords better and more aptly with faith than to acknowledge
ourselves divested of all virtue that we may be clothed by God, devoid of all
goodness that we may be filled by him, the slaves of sin that he may give
us freedom, blind that he may enlighten, lame that he may cure, and feeble
that he may sustain us; to strip ourselves of all ground of glorying that he
alone may shine forth glorious, and we be glorified in him?
While there are many such passages in Calvin that make this clear, none probably shine as the sermon of American Calvinist “Sinners in the Handsof an Angry God.”
They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the
way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to
destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite
punishment of their sins.
Yep, in Calvinism you see nothing of the good in humanity. And when it comes to free will, well Calvin feels that you can only choose evil if you use your will.
The virtues which deceive us by an empty show may have their praise in
civil society and the common intercourse of life, but before the judgment-
seat of God they will be of no value to establish a claim of righteousness.
When the will is enchained as the slave of sin, it cannot make a movement
towards goodness, far less steadily pursue it.
For Calvin your only good option is to submit completely to the will of God because there is nothing good in your own will (if it’s beginning to sound like the intellectual foundations of Calvinism and the foundations of Islam—especially Asharaite Sunni Islam—are pretty much the same, well I wouldn’t tell you, you were wrong). The fact is that you can dress it up in glorifying God or being reborn or “Make America Great Again” but the fact of the matter is that Calvinism worships a very psychotic vision of God.
So how does Ares stack up.
“Look at her and tell me I’m wrong. She is the perfect example of these
humans and unworthy of your sympathy in every way. Destroy her, Diana.
You know that she deserves it they all do. Take them all. Finally you see.
Look at this world. Mankind did this, not me. They are ugly, filled with
Well, your first inclination might be to think of Ares as a stand-in for Satan. “You were right, Diana. They don’t deserve our help. They only deserve destruction.” But there are some problems with this. Yes, like Satan in many of the more popular telling of the tale rebelled because he hated mankind and how they were put ahead of the angels. This parallels quite well with Ares hatred of mankind and how flawed they are. Further, his
desire to try and tempt Diana with his falsehood about humanity is very Faustian in its nature. But it also fits well with a Calvinist view of God, whose hatred for humanity is almost indistinguishable from popular conceptions of Satan. But just because of that hardly makes the case that Ares’ beliefs are a stand-in for Calvinism. So, do we see other examples of Calvinism?
Do we see an abject hatred of reason preferring to blindly follow a mythical story even when it contradicts with known facts? Not really. His version of the history while distorted is backed up with images of him being attacked by Zeus or him whispering into the ears of Maru. “All I ever wanted was for the gods to see how evil my father’s creation was. But they refused. So, I destroyed them.” Unlike Hippolyta’s storybook visualization to Diana, Ares actions are shown to have actually occurred. So, he has no devotion to a work of faith, he may misinterpret the facts and ignore the good in humanity, but the evil he refers to is there and he’s not making anything up about it.
Then of course in Calvinism you have the belief that reason and free will are not really a thing. That you will always choose the wrong path. Here Ares is the consummate Calvinist. ““I am. I am not the God of War, Diana. I am the God of Truth. Mankind stole this world from us. They ruined it day by day. And I, the only one wise enough to see it, was left too weak to stop them. All these years I have struggled alone, whispering into their ears. Ideas, inspiration for formulas, weapons, but I don’t make them use them. They start these wars on their own. All I do is orchestrate an armistice I know they cannot keep in the hope that they will destroy themselves. But it has never been enough, until now.”
Ares believes left to their own devices humans will always destroy each other. He just believes he’s helping them on the way to the end that they are already seeking.
If you’ve been paying attention, while Ares doesn’t fully show the Calvinist worldview, with the exception of the negative view of humanity, Diana fits it to a T. For much of the film she doesn’t believe in free will, she follows a myth blindly even with evidence around her that not everything is as that myth would suggest, and in those moments between killing Luddendorf and sparing Maru she quite clearly believes that humans don’t deserve mercy. She buys the Ares/Calvinist line and is ready to kill everyone. Bruce spent a whole movie not believing in Superman’s goodness, Diana spent five minutes thinking all of humanity “deserve to be cast into hell.” It’s hard to say which is darker. But for a few moments we have Diana the devout Calvinist believer who thinks that there is no good in free will, that they all deserve punishment, and that the fires of hell are all they should be given (it’s thus probably no shock that while going through and attacking so many German soldiers she is surrounded by fire on every side…and Ares in this moment is not the stand-in for Satan but the stand-in for the Calvinist vision of God. Which sounds a little farfetched…but there is this line of dialogue.
Not “Yes.” Not “I am Ares.” Not “You are correct.” “I am.” If this line was on its own, it wouldn’t be much, but with the impression that the Calvinist vision of God is being implied, this line takes on a really dark interpretation.
Yes, I realize how sacrilegious this argument sounds to anyone who follows Calvinist beliefs…but I don’t think given their background that either Jenkins or Snyder do. In fact, given the over the top Catholic imagery in his works, the fact he was married in an Episcopal church and raised as a Christian Scientist, while his exact beliefs might be very hard to nail down, but I think it’s safe to say that he is opposed to the Calvinist worldview. Jenkins is even harder to nail down, but at the themes come more from the script that Snyder has made sure is consistent in his universe, I think that while an individual film the credit should go more to the director, in a franchise like this where one man has produced and helped write all of it, and directed most of it, I think Snyder’s beliefs do get too weighted here as being relevant to the thematic material. And by putting this false image of God on a mythological god it’s a quite clever attack on the vision of God without attacking the true nature of God.
It is only when Diana gives up these Calvinists ideas about human nature “They’re everything you say, and so much more” gives up the story that had been fed to her and admits the truth, namely that she is the daughter of Zeus when she tells Ares “Goodbye, brother.” She further takes up Trevor’s stance with “It’s not about deserve” Giving up the Calvinist belief that mankind deserves hell. Her line while already recounted, might better be stated as “[My actions are] not about [what people] deserve. [My actions] are
[determined by what I] believe. And I believe in love [the love of human
well- being for its own sake].”
This switches from the Calvinist position we see throughout the entire film with a more Aquinas/Aristotelian view that has been seen in all the DCEU films up to this point.
Now we will fully admit that unlike Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice which were throwing Plato and Nietzsche quotes and symbols all over the place, seeing Calvinism in this film is a bit more of a stretch (or I am not catching Calvin quotes, beyond the deserve thing mirroring Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) but in the context of the whole DCEU, this does still seem to be a more subtle attack on Calvinism.
Wonder Woman was obviously going to deal with feminism. And while
we were a little surprised that feminism wasn’t a central theme of the story it
was there. Namely in its three female leads being the representation of the three waves of feminism.
In Etta, we see the first wave of feminism in the desire to win the right to vote, but still not being an equal of the men around her. Obviously in Diana we see the second wave of feminism, a woman who is equal to every male superhero, superior to most in fact, and not treated as merely eye candy (as are the female heroes in some other franchises, which shall remain nameless). And in Dr. Maru we see the destructive insanity of the third wave of feminism.
Honestly, the details do not go much deeper than that, but they are there.
Other Social Issues
Further, this movie deals with some heavy social issues and balances them perfectly against the rest of the film. Specifically, it does this in a team that Trevor sets up to help him get behind the enemy lines. The DCEU continues to show a very realistic and heartfelt view of PTSD in the person of Charlie who due to horrors and stress he has already endured can’t bring himself to fire a gun at a person again. More than any of the
characters in this ragtag band, it appears Charlie’s problems are a direct reference to a previous DCEU film, namely Dawn of Justice—the fact that Charlie’s problems get the most screen time of the secondary characters is probably a slap to face of all the people who didn’t get that Bruce has PTSD (although how every critic and Marvel fanboy missed it is beyond me, but then again they seem all too comfortable with characters who don’t act in ways that would actually be considered normal or even human).
In addition to this, we have the issues of imperialism not just in the fact that it’s the Central Powers of WWI which goes without saying, but also by being blunt in the fact that even the good guys in this the most pointless war in history were still pretty scummy people. And this is only reinforced with Sameer who states quite clearly that despite his obvious talents he can’t pursue his chosen career for something as stupid as race.
Granted this is 1918 and it would be absolutely preposterous to expect society to be any better than this with only a few exceptions (Trevor, Etta), but it’s also nice that it strikes the perfect balance of dealing with the issues and not becoming preachy or heavy-handed. It’s a very difficult tightrope to walk and Snyder and Jenkins walked it perfectly. Every writer and director in the future looking to include social commentary should look to this film rather than the ham-fisted attempts by most of Hollywood.
Problems with the film.
So, this film has a few problems. The main one being that there seems to be a major gap between the woman who stands in Trafalgar Square and smiles at Steve’s picture with some hope and the woman who tells Bruce “man made a world where standing together is impossible.” She got a lot more cynical in the intervening years. And this leads to some very important questions, like, “What the hell was she doing during WWII?”
I don’t care how cynical the trenches of WWI make you, a woman like Diana would not just sit the Holocaust out and let that kind of carnage continue. (Especially given that Gal Gadot is Israeli…I have to assume she asked and was told something that explains this. Otherwise, I can’t see how she plays this character. Granted there is some DC canon item that prevented the heroes of the DC universe from getting involved in WWII but I just want a line of exposition to explain this).
And then there is the love story. I’m sorry but this is not a serious relationship in any sense of the word. They have known each other for less than a week. Like Romeo and Juliet, this is her first love and they both are under severe pressure, being surrounded by death, destruction and, at least for Steve, the threat of death. This was never a relationship that was going to last. And I don’t think it was the intention for us to think of this as a relationship that would be the testament to true love. If it really is love Diana would not be so quick to blame Trevor, falsely, of being responsible for the deaths caused by Luddendorf and Maru. But the fact is that it not being love means that her turn toward Steve’s lines about, “It’s… it’s not about deserve. Maybe, maybe we don’t. But it’s not about that, it’s about what you believe. You don’t think I get it, after what I’ve seen out there? You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it was one bad guy to blame? It’s not! We’re all to blame!” If she was in love with him her decision to change would not be on the merits of his statement, but simply because of her Juliet-style infatuation. This way her decision is not tainted by her naiveté.