The Unintended Gospel In Wonder Woman

This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA. Click here for the parental advisory from IMDb.com.

Watching the Wonder Woman trailers before the film’s release, I felt a good deal of ambivalence. There was, after all, so much wonderful potential for a film about a female superhero. The Martial Maiden trope has been with us for centuries, from the Greek Pallas Athene to Edmund Spenser’s Britomart or JRR Tolkien’s Eowyn.

And it existed for a reason. The Martial Maiden was usually superpowered. She had either divine power, or a magic lance that enabled her to cut through enemies with ease, because real women, let’s face it, do not have the upper-body strength to excel at hand-to-hand or bladed combat. And because she was superpowered, she was symbolic. Real women do not usually distinguish themselves on the battlefield, when they are present, unless they do it as symbols or figureheads. So the Martial Maiden was never meant to be an argument for women in the military: she meant feminine strength, of a kind to which any woman could aspire. Edmund Spenser’s character Britomart was a symbol of active virtue, in-but-not-of the world. Athene was the goddess of wisdom. Solomon often described the ideal woman as martial: the Proverbs 31 woman is more literally an “army” wife than an “excellent” or “virtuous” wife (as the word is usually translated), while the bride in the Song of Songs is “terrible as an army with banners”.

This was the kind of martial maiden that I really wished someone, somewhere, would make a film about. But come on. There was no way Wonder Woman could be that film. Not with the hopes and expectations of an entire generation of feminists riding on it. Right?

Wonder Woman Was Great

I’ve rarely been so pleased to be proven wrong. Wonder Woman was great.

Not perfect. Two scenes in the first third of the film were crass and grating. The villains could have been stronger and more memorable. And I still think that if you really want to make a film about respecting women, putting them in exploitatively skimpy costumes is a weird way to do it.

Otherwise, it was a strong film in just about every respect.

It had emotional sincerity and gravitas, allowing long stretches of runtime to elapse between action setpieces so as to build and develop its characters. This paid off particularly well in the romance. If you’re not familiar with the comic book history, Steve Trevor is to Wonder Woman what Lois Lane is to Superman – the mundane human love interest to a godlike superpowered being. The unequal pairing worked in the Superman comics, but not so well for Wonder Woman, whose writers never quite knew what to do with Steve Trevor. When the female side of the equation can lift tanks and kill gods (let alone spiders), how do you make the male side sufficiently masculine to make the romance interesting? Wonder Woman could have ignored romance altogether, or it could have tried for a subversive romance that turned masculinity and femininity on its head. Amazingly, it tried neither.

Not only does it include a love story with some surprisingly traditional iconography, it takes the time to set up two complementary characters who need each other in order to succeed. Diana, our superpowered heroine, is naive and inexperienced, lacking important information about herself and the world. The film’s version of Steve Trevor, by contrast, is cynical and disillusioned; his life in the real world has given him a maturity that Diana lacks. This sets up a romance which is refreshingly unusual, but still satisfying because each character complements each others’ weaknesses.

Evil in the Heart of Man

That said, I thought Wonder Woman’s greatest strength was also its biggest surprise: its theme.

To go into too much detail here would spoil the story, but I’ll try to keep things vague. At the start of the film, the naive Diana believes that mankind is basically good. When she hears about the death and destruction of World War I, she decides that Ares, the god of war, must be causing the trouble, and travels from her island paradise home to find and destroy Ares and end the war.

As the film unfolds, Diana comes face to face with the horrors of war, together with the undeniable evil of the human heart. That is surprising enough, but even more surprising is the film’s overriding message: that the correct way to respond to this human evil is with grace and sacrificial love.

It’s a grace that comes with a price, and it’s a grace that distinguishes between supernatural evil and the natural sinfulness of the individual person. Despite its faults, Wonder Woman basically presents the gospel, and does it as persuasively and graciously as a story can. I never hoped for a female superhero movie that good.

But, here’s the important point: if this film was going to be any good at all, it was going to have to present the gospel.

Gospel and Story

God is the ultimate Storyteller, and the story of the world’s fall and redemption is the ultimate Story, the one True Myth which all of our stories ultimately reflect. If this is so, then the Gospel is actually hard-coded into the very nature of Story itself.

You can try to tell a story that preaches a different worldview—feminism, for example. The problem is that bad philosophy translates into bad storytelling, every time. And the more epistemologically self-conscious the bad philosophy is, the more denatured the story becomes. Taken to an extreme, anti-Christian philosophies result in “stories” like Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, which by the end becomes an awkward, hamfisted tract for atheism.

On the other hand, no matter how unbiblical your worldview is to start with, if you focus on telling a technically good story, it will reflect the Gospel, no matter how unintentionally. Of course, the reflection is not always a strong one. But sometimes, as in Wonder Woman, it is.

I’ve no doubt at all that the producers, director, and stars of Wonder Woman believe that they have made a feminist movie, because their story is about an empowered woman fighting evil and saving the world. Well, Christianity came up with that one: the Church is a woman. But more to the point, Wonder Woman is an artwork with integrity, an artwork that puts storytelling and craftsmanship ahead of its feminist agenda. It depicts an incomplete woman, who needs to grow and learn from the men and women around her. It depicts a humanity that is inherently flawed—men and women alike—but which can and should be redeemed by a love that is gracious and unafraid. Wonder Woman tells a solid story that celebrates true feminine strength. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so.

 

Author

Suzannah Rowntree

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at VintageNovels.com and is the author of fiction and non-fiction, including the young adult fantasy novel Pendragon's Heir.

My Website: http://www.vintagenovels.com/