I like superhero movies, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re fun to watch with the kids. I have four sons. Trust me, over the years I have seen a lot of superhero movies, although any one of the kids is more conversant with chapter and verse in the DC and Marvel universes than I will ever be. I’m only in it for the special effects and the roller coaster ride. Besides, when I grew up my Mom would not let me read superhero comics. Instead she would purchase, with some reluctance, Classics Illustrated comics. Among the comics she would let me read were The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Huck Finn (I did, after all, live in Hannibal, MO, as a teenager.)
When it came to the honorable hobby of trading comic books, it was nearly impossible to convince a kid to part with his Superman or Spiderman issues. And if they happened to have a copy of Wonder Woman, well let’s just say, echoing Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” No teenage boy would part with that at any price, except perhaps for the “Action Comics No. 1” issue that introduced Superman in 1938. That one sold a few years ago for over 3 million dollars. Naturally, at the time, I thought the comics prohibition was a form of child abuse, but I do know that Mom had nothing but the best of intentions as she knowingly allowed me to think bad things about her—for my own intellectual good—even if she did lack a little investment foresight.
So I recently ventured out with my second youngest—he’s 23— to see if the latest iteration of Wonder Woman for the big screen could live up to the hype. Let me say unequivocally, “It does.” It’s not a perfect movie, but as superhero flicks go, it is very good. If you like special effects, more or less predictable battle choreography, and most importantly, you don’t anticipate seeing something as profound as your average Scorsese film, you’ll probably enjoy it. But set your expectations at a reasonable level. This is, after all, about a character that is only loosely related to the Greek Pantheon and that originated in a comic book, although that is arguably at least one step above the Transformers series—which were based on toy cars.
As I understand it now, the folks at Classics Illustrated also released a comic book edition of The Iliad. If mom had let me read that I might have developed some vague knowledge of the pedigree of Princess Diana of Themiscyra, or Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the name she uses when she walks among us mere mortals. But even then it would not have been any more vague than film’s treatment of her lineage. As the story goes, Princess Diana is the child of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The question of paternity is a little fuzzy but according to some fictional genograms (Okay, so all of them are fictional.) Diana is also somehow related to Zeus, the king of the Gods, and to Ares, the God of War, though she desires to use her various inherited divine superpowers for good rather than evil.
Diana leaves her paradise after rescuing a World War I fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who inadvertently crashes through the invisible barrier that hides the island pf the Amazons. Learning of the Great War, she is convinced that Ares is behind it all (of course he is) and she is equally convinced that she is the only one who can stop it. She further believes that, except for Ares’ manipulation, humanity would be a generally peaceful and loving lot. “They’re everything you say, but so much more,” she claims. More than lust, greed, violence, etc. While this version of the film will likely reboot the franchise, if not the entire DC universe, just as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did for Batman, it won’t be based on some dark inner angst. Diana Prince, at least so far, is an incurable, almost naive, optimist.
Aside from her intelligence, charm and evident beauty, Diana Prince can move really fast, has truck-tossing strength, and can deflect bullets with her bracelets. Her most powerful weapon, however, is called the “Lasso of Truth.” In addition to being able to force the truth out of anyone who is wrapped up in it, the Lasso of Truth even has its own Wikipedia page, wherein you can discover that the Lasso of Truth, indeed, Wonder Woman herself, was originally conceived by the inventor of the lie detector. Honest. (As a good Oklahoman I am compelled to point out the injustice here: not even Will Rogers’ lasso has its own Wikipedia page, even though it may have had a more significant impact in real history than a fictitious device used to extract truth telling through vasoconstriction.)
As one would expect, the movie reaches its peak when two “gods” fight, mano a mano, over the destiny of the human race. The scene is part special effects battle and part philosophical discussion. This is where Diana presents her impassioned defense of mere mortal humans, while fending off lightning bolts from Ares (David Thewlis) which he hurls along with accusations about humanity’s essentially corrupt nature.
Diana’s sympathies for humanity are as hard won as is her defeat of Ares, since she has just witnessed the self-sacrificing, and heart-breaking, behavior of Steve Trevor who blew up the plane he was flying while it was loaded with the lethal gas that the Germans had intended to unleash on their enemies. Ares is dispatched to end the battle, but that may only be temporary given that the need for a sequel is a nearly absolute value in Hollywood—the contemporary version of Mt. Olympus. Unless Steve Trevor manages to escape the explosion via a parachute that we do not see, he won’t be back, and coming back as Captain James Tiberius Kirk doesn’t count.
But I have to ask a serious question at this point. Who really is the hero here? I do not raise this question to diminish any of the beneficial value of having women in strong roles in film. This Wonder Woman is not the woman pictured on the comic book cover above. Yes, Diana did heroically and single-handedly cross the intentionally-named “No Man’s Land” battlefield to effect a rescue that the men could not. Director Patty Jenkins has said that scene was “the most important scene” in the movie. And yes, Diana has (purportedly) sent Ares packing, thereby eliminating his evil and corrupting influence on the world. She is definitely a hero of the movie.
But what is it that Diana really sees in humanity? Perhaps it is exactly the potential for self-sacrifice that Steve Trevor exhibited. Is that a characteristic of human beings or merely a potentiality? For all the superpowers, lusts, sexual misadventures, jealousies, murders, etc., recorded in mythological literature, self-sacrifice was rare among the card-carrying members of the Greek Pantheon.
It is often suggested that the traits and powers of the mythological gods are merely human traits and powers writ large. For all the sturm and drang of those myths, in fact, for all the flash of this wonderful iteration of Wonder Woman, it is possible to miss that the greatest power exhibited in the movie just might be the power of love as demonstrated by Steve Trevor’s sacrifice. Perhaps his act is only possible because he, and not the gods of Mt. Olympus, was created in the image of one who chose a cross as his moment of greatest self-revelation.