Note: “Reel Theology” is a special section devoted to editorial interpretations of various movies. The readings you may find here might very well be unintended on behalf of the filmmaker, and in many cases are subjective to the individual writer’s point of view. You may find yourself not agreeing, but we hope you will find yourself engaged.
A word of caution to those who have not seen Wonder Woman (2017): This Reel Theology article contains heavy spoilers for the film, and is better read after having seen the movie.
Often times, superhero films lend themselves to a thorough examination of theological principles. I’ve covered this before regarding Superman and Batman. With the latest DCEU film, Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, we have a great opportunity to discuss some theological principles through a new lens.
Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, has an origin story steeped in a mythology that encompasses the gods of the Greek pantheon. As a daughter/creation of Zeus, she is of course a “god”, much like Thor is in the Marvel canon, being a son of Odin in the Norse traditions. While her half-brother Ares, the God of War, who serves as the antagonist of the Wonder Woman film, is about the destruction and the corruption of Zeus’ creation of mankind, Diana embodies the opposite ideals, of truth, justice, mercy, and love. Every bit the warrior, Diana doesn’t seek war, but only confronts it in the service of the ideals she holds to.
Like Jesus did, and Diana is seen as doing in Wonder Woman, we all must face our own temptations. We alone must choose to either follow the whispers towards the easier and destructive path, or hold firm to the greater truths we believe.
While much of Wonder Woman involves the Greek gods, it also dips its toes into ideas, teachings, and stories from the main 3 Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The notion of serving others, and offering mercy are at the center of all 3 of these religion’s teachings. Standing up for what is right, and pursuing justice are seen as actions that demonstrate a heart that is seeking God’s character, by doing what He desires, in service to others. This is also a tenant of the Jewish scriptures. Diana shows this throughout the film as she holds to ideals that make little sense to humans, but is the pursuit of the gods of her world. This is powerfully seen as Chris Pine’s character of Steve Trevor tells her, as they cut through “no man’s land” that they have to keep moving and that they can’t save everyone in this war. Wonder Woman, unfazed by this rational thinking, chooses to stop and help those she meets along the way declaring, “no, but its what I’m going to do”. Justice doesn’t ignore the “least of these” for the greater good. Justice is justice at both the macro and micro level.
Elements of Christianity are front and center as we see Steve Trevor choose to willingly to lay down his life on behalf of humanity, much like Christ did. Diana’s basic belief in humanity is that they are a beautiful creation of her father, Zeus. Steve’s actions at this point are perfectly in line with Diana’s heart to love humans, no matter the darkness that may be in them. It isn’t about giving people what they deserve, as much as seeing something greater in them, and choosing to believe that something greater is possible as one sacrifices themselves for the redemption of others.
Ares directly confronts Diana about this misplaced notion that humanity is basically “good”. As we see this story set against the backdrop of World War I, the war to end all wars, it is not Ares who is corrupting people to go to war contrary to their god-created nature. They are already corrupt. Diana must accept that people have a darkness in them that Ares need only appeal to, and then humans do the rest of the darkest deeds possible. Rather than choose cynicism, Diana accepts this reality, but never backs down off of her ideals that humanity is worth it. This is powerfully demonstrated as Ares encourages Diana to destroy Dr. Maru (Dr. Poison) for the horrible creation she has engineered.
This is where we see the most direct example of a Christian worldview. Diana grew up in what could easily be seen as Eden, in her island home of Themyscira, where evil has been held at bay, and her innocence is fully intact. But as she encounters the real world, and ultimately meets her nemesis, Ares, she encounters her own temptation in the proverbial wilderness of the front line of World War I. It is here that Ares echoes much of the same temptations offered to Jesus by the Satan in the gospel accounts of the Bible. She is offered the chance to join her half-brother in ruling over the creation, the same creation that they were made to serve. Ares has rebelled against that to pursue his own power much like the tale of Lucifer’s rebellion against God and his appearance in Eden to corrupt God’s creation. Diana is offered a kingdom of sorts, and an easier path of accomplishing her purposes than the difficult path of loving those who do evil, and still seeking to try to provide them a sort of redemption. She knows that whether humans accept this offer of redemption is not up to her, they must choose their own path and actions. She will offer it anyway.
In this way, Diana Prince is experiencing the “Last Temptation of Wonder Woman” where she must decide the type of hero she will be, or if she will abandon that path and seek the very same things humanity has been corrupted with: power, wealth, fame, and everything that builds up “self” at the expense of others. This is the spiritual battle that is seen throughout the Christian scriptures, as the Apostle Paul talks about not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the spirit of darkness in unseen places. Ares is the embodiment of this dark spirit, quietly whispering in the ears of individuals, much like the serpent who confronted Eve in Eden did with questions that cast doubt in what the best path was. Ultimately, it lead her and Adam to throwing off the truth that they knew and embracing a lie that only feeds ego to the destruction of others. Eden, and thus creation, is corrupted by their choice, as seen in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures. Likewise, Ares’ words and nudges have led to humanity embracing this ego-feeding lie that is leading to destruction on a scale the earth had never seen.
The fact that Wonder Woman vanquishes Ares in the end, doesn’t mean that “evil” and “war” are no more. Men’s hearts are corrupted, and the “Spirit of Ares” will live on, witnessed by an even greater destruction and holocaust in World War II. Much like Christ’s death and resurrection in the scriptures don’t end the reign of evil and death in this world, but do make possible a new path towards a future redemption. Diana likewise doesn’t ignore the problem of evil as she moves forward into the present time, in the dawning of The Justice League. Instead, she confronts the reality that evil still exists and holds on to those ideals and truths she believes in order to confront the darkness and be a part of the greater redemption of every soul she comes across.
Like Jesus did, and Diana is seen as doing in Wonder Woman, we all must face our own temptations. We alone must choose to either follow the whispers towards the easier and destructive path, or hold firm to the greater truths we believe. What inspires us is the example we see in people, both real or fictional, that spurs us on towards the greater reality that we can choose the path of grace, mercy, and love, not paying people back with what they deserve, but believing that even the darkest heart has the potential to be brought back into the light. These are theological truths that are echoed in many teachings of faith, and it is why they resonate so deeply in our hearts when we see them powerfully depicted on the silver screen. This is why Wonder Woman is the hero we need, even though we don’t deserve her. She faced her temptation, and held firm. May we be inspired to do the same.