*Warning: contains slight spoilers
The Modern Myth
Super hero stories are our modern epic myths. The heroes are projections of our humanity — our hopes, our fears, and our sense of heroic virtue. They embody the good life, and provide us with some path for navigating the world as we know it.
These stories are often apocalyptic. They tell stories of the potential end of the world as we know it — and this end is usually either staved off, or brought about by the efforts of the hero(es). They’re also apocalyptic in the literal sense of the word — revelatory. They reveal things about us as the tellers and consumers of these stories.
There’s a recent book, How To Survive The Apocalypse, by Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra, which explores our increasingly hope-less ‘apocalyptic’ turn in pop culture texts, and offers a solution for Christians. They’ve noticed that where once our epics were utopian and hopeful (think Frodo and friends defeating evil and its dark destruction of the physical world), they are now dystopian (think the rise of the anti-hero in series like Breaking Bad, or Game Of Thrones). So many of our stories are now hopeless, and so many of the challenges we now face, and the heroes who now face them, are either heroes with feet of clay, or not heroes at all. Our heroes aren’t paragons but pariahs; they’re just as bad as the rest of us, and just as likely to break the world more as they are to fix it.
Wonder Woman is different.
Wonder Woman is a make or break movie release for DC in its bid to establish a cinematic universe to take on Marvel. Man Of Steel — its Superman reboot — was a critical car crash, and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice an epic fail (scoring just 27% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes). It had one job — to get us caring about the Justice League (DC’s answer to the Avengers), and it failed. This task now rests squarely on the shoulders of Wonder Woman — a lot of weight for one hero to bear, especially given she also had to save the world, and legitimise her place as feminist icon.
Bucking the Secular Trend
Philosopher Charles Taylor’s Secular Age thesis has been well rehearsed on this site, so a quick summary will do: our modern western understanding from the world is one where we’ve evacuated ourselves of a sense of something beyond the physical (transcendent) and where we seek meaning from the material (immanent), such that we are haunted by this loss, but we’re also left trying to answer all our existential questions materially (without reference to cosmic, supernatural realities like God, good, or evil). Modern ‘epic’ heroes and their stories (indeed all our western cultural artefacts) are often products of this immanent frame, or expressions of this haunting.
Some superhero stories — especially ‘secular age’ ones — work hard to disguise their epic nature; that they’re actually our generation’s equivalent of Gilgamesh, Hercules, Balder, or Sigurd. They wear the guise — or mask — of ‘pop culture,’ which means we don’t look to them for serious commentary about how to live in this world. Our superheroes are mostly immanent heroes born through scientific misadventure (Hulk, Spider-man), or successful innovation (Iron Man, Batman), or extraterrestrial but largely phenomenal beings (Thor, Superman). It’s rare that we’ll allow ourselves to imagine something truly transcendent — truly ‘other’ — breaking in to this world to help us answer questions about how to live. Even in the Marvel Universe, where one of the Avengers is a god (Thor), he’s from within our universe and is basically a very human god: us with bigger biceps, and a magic hammer (essentially an advanced piece of technology). Wonder Woman bucks this trend, fully embracing the epic, the apocalyptic, and the transcendent, and its better for it.
Wonder Woman is Diana of Themiscyra – daughter of Zeus, the Greek god, and Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons (the nation of perfect women Zeus created to recapture the heart of mankind after his miscreant son Ares, the god of war, turned them upon each other). The Amazons are the guardians of the ‘God Killer’ — Zeus’ gift to save humanity by destroying Ares. The continued existence of the Amazons and – as it turns out – the birth of Diana, is for this purpose; so when their idyllic existence is broken by combat from World War I encroaching on their island, Diana answers the call to adventure. Like Disney’s Moana, she can no longer remain safe and protected on her island, but must venture out to save the world, with ‘non-average man,’ British soldier-spy Steve Trevor by her side.
In Diana’s story, we’re invited to see that salvation from our current world order, including the human heart — the ‘human crisis’ — might need to come from elsewhere, and that hope and the embodied good life might need to come from this same source; even something transcendent.
Joseph Campbell, an academic who studied myths and epics, figured out that all superhero stories (and older epics) are essentially the same in different times and cultures. He called this type of story – where a hero goes on ‘the hero’s journey’ – the ‘monomyth’; the hero is usually a man, so Wonder Woman is a trope buster. The reason this story reoccurs is that just as our apocalyptic stories are a projection of our fears, these epics are a projection of the desires of our hearts.
Wonder Woman enters the world to overturn a status quo — to end an age. She arrives as the one whose mission is to restore peace in the midst of the ‘war to end all wars’ where humankind seems hell-bent on destroying itself. It is revelatory (truly apocalyptic) in that where Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) is naively convinced that war is Ares’ fault, and if she defeats him humankind will return to its utopian default, her experiences of the outside world teach her some fundamentals of human nature — that while there might be dark transcendent forces in the mix, we might actually be tainted by their evil in our immanent existence.
Diana learns that humankind isn’t only at war across nations — there are problems to be overcome on the home front too. She discovers a world unwilling to hear her voice — or make room for her at the table; a world where bright women are ‘secretaries’ (“in my world we’d call that a slave” she says when she hears the job description), and where decisions are made in a room full of grey-haired men who turn red-in-the-face when interrupted by a woman.
Wonder Woman is rightly a feminist icon; she is empowering and heroic, and physical, and the movie does a beautiful job of confounding cultural norms surrounding gender and presenting a vision of womanhood that has captured the imagination of my wife, and I hope might inspire my daughters. Her physicality is celebrated without being sexualised. She is strong, brave, and sacrificial. My wife, Robyn, has now watched Wonder Woman twice. She came home the first time saying, “I finally understand why you love superhero movies so much;” the second time she was excited to watch it with me, but apprehensive that I might not find it as significant as she did.
In several scenes the men assume it’s their job to run in to danger, leaving Diana on the sidelines, only for her to achieve results they couldn’t dream of without her. Perhaps the best picture of gender relationships as they might be is a scene where her male companions re-create a manoeuvre Steve Trevor had witnessed on Themiscyra; holding up a platform for Wonder Woman to launch herself into an otherwise unreachable foe. It is a compelling picture of what biblical womanhood (and manhood) might look like.
When God creates Eve for Adam in Genesis 2, he creates her as a partner in humanity’s cosmic commission — our mission to join with God as his image bearers in fruitful multiplication, and, as the story unfolds, probably the eradication of the Serpent. Given what Jesus ultimately achieves as the new Adam, and his mission, it’s not a long bow to draw to suggest that our image-bearing role and mission was something like Diana’s — where she was to be ‘God Killer’, we were to be ‘Serpent Killers’. In Genesis 2, Eve was created as, in Hebrew, Adam’s ‘Ezer-kenegdo’ — words usually translated as ‘suitable helper’ — like the men in the movie, we’ve often assumed this is a backroom, or secretarial, role (in the church, the home, and the world). A better translation, conceptually, of these words is ‘necessary ally’ (from here onwards in the Old Testament, they’re often used by God of himself when he steps in to military conflicts as Israel’s helper). Wonder Woman is a beautiful embodiment of what this role might be. It should put us on the front lines of a particular sort of conflict, in a particular sort of status quo. Surely part of our success in this mission depends on us sorting out the home front — how we operate in partnership as men and women — not just the frontlines. It should shape how we engage in the world where, though his downfall was secured by Jesus’ heroic victory, the Serpent is still thrashing about, and we still operate with sin-corrupted hearts.
The Heart of the Matter
Diana ultimately realises the problems with the world aren’t entirely of Ares’ making — his original handiwork has corrupted the human heart, so that even after he is defeated, the corruption lingers (though she is able to loosen his grip as she inspires people to follow her). Wonder Woman’s understanding of the status quo shares much with Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsin’s line from The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In Wonder Woman’s story, we see a mirror of this biblical truth. The story is apocalyptic, epic and hopeful. It reveals much about our world and the human heart, it understands that humanity can’t save itself; it invites us to look for divine solutions to the world’s problems, and looks to a hero who can both transcend the human condition and take it on. It understands love and heroism as sacrifice.
It’s a good story.
Only, it’s a work of fiction. A story told to build a media empire; making dollars by speaking to so many longings of our divided and conflicted human hearts.
Now. If only there were a timeless epic story out there that does the same thing… Perhaps even an epic myth that is also true. One where evil is defeated and the problem of the human heart dealt with from above. One that doesn’t rely on us saving ourselves. An apocalyptic story that describes the death of the transcendent source of evil – the Serpent (our Ares equivalent) – and the kingdoms of those who side with him; and its replacement with something better. A story that explains the world, and what the heroic life looks like in the light of its end (both destination and purpose). If only we could tell that story in a way that would both answer the desires of our superhero-loving neighbours, and fire our imaginations so that we might live differently on the frontlines in the battle for the world, and its future.
This is the story of the Bible; the story of Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation. Like many of our epics and myths (pre-secular age), Wonder Woman parallels this story.
C.S Lewis recognised this mythic quality in the Jesus story, having spent his life steeped in the stories we humans create as projections of our longings. He suggests Christians should embrace these stories, because we have their archetype; our hero, Jesus, is the hero. Lewis famously called Christianity the myth that became fact; and saw our tendency to tell similar stories as a sign of the Gospel’s truth; something to be embraced.
“We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome.” — C.S Lewis, God In The Dock