Wonder Woman: classic heroism returns to the movies

By Subby Szterszky | June 23, 2017

Power. Grace. Wisdom. Wonder.

It sounds like a list of divine virtues from the book of Psalms or Proverbs. But it is, in fact, the tagline for Wonder Woman, one of the summer movie season’s biggest critical and commercial successes.

The tagline, as it turns out, was more than warranted. In a field dotted with dark, morally ambiguous anti-heroes, Wonder Woman is a bright flash of cinematic joy, featuring a hero who is actually heroic in the true, classic sense.

Audiences have responded with abundant enthusiasm, taking to social media not only to praise the film, but to discuss how many times they’ve seen it, or are planning to. It’s a bit like kids at an amusement park, pleading to go on the newest ride again and again – except in this case, it’s adult women and men doing the pleading.

Big budgets and special effects don’t inspire that kind of loyalty. Clearly Wonder Woman has sparked something far more positive – and far more virtuous – in the hearts of its viewers.

[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from Wonder Woman. If you’re planning to see the film (for the first time), you might wish to do so before reading further.]

A hero driven by hope and love

Set during the First World War, Wonder Woman tells the story of Diana of Themyscira, an amazon princess whose idyllic life changes when she rescues Steve Trevor, an American pilot who crashes off the shores of her island paradise. The amazons are a race of warrior women, created by the gods to protect the world and steer mankind toward love and peace. As the daughter of the queen, Diana takes this sacred duty most seriously. With youthful idealism, she leaves Themyscira and accompanies Trevor back to London, in order to help end the war and restore hope to humanity.

Unlike many popular heroes, Diana isn’t driven by brokenness or grief or a desire for revenge. Although a fierce fighter, at her core she’s kind, optimistic and compassionate, deeply moved by the suffering of those around her. And she’ll go to any length to alleviate that suffering. In one of the film’s signature scenes, she climbs from the trenches and strides across No Man’s Land in her iconic armour, drawing all of the enemy’s fire as she leads the charge to liberate an occupied Belgian village.

But it’s in the movie’s gentler moments that Diana’s noble and loving character truly shines. Among her ragtag group of associates is a Scottish soldier named Charlie, who has a gift for song but also suffers from severe PTSD. Charlie’s condition makes him somewhat of a liability in battle, and at one point he wonders aloud whether the team might be better off without him. With the kindest and most affirming of smiles, Diana says to him, “No, Charlie, but who will sing for us?”

The moment isn’t played for sentimentality, nor does it overstay its welcome. It lingers just long enough to make its point and melt the heart. Love welcomes and honours everyone, even those – indeed especially those – who have the least to offer.

A journey of faith

As a child Diana was taught by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, that Zeus had created humanity to be perfect and good, and that Ares, the god of war, was the cause of all evil and suffering in the world. It’s with this seemingly naïve faith that Diana leaves Themyscira for the outside world. She believes that if she fulfills the amazons’ mission and kills Ares, then humanity will be freed from his influence and the war will stop, truly becoming the war to end all wars.

However, harsh realities begin to take their toll, not least the death of Steve Trevor, whom Diana had come to love. In due course, she’s forced to face a difficult truth: The woes of the world can’t simply be laid at the feet of one evil being. Humankind is far from perfect; it has a capacity for wickedness and cruelty all its own.

Disillusioned and heartbroken, Diana is at her weakest when Ares finally confronts her. He taunts her for her naïveté and tempts her to unleash her grief and wrath on humanity. “They do not deserve your sympathy in any way!” he shouts, tossing Doctor Isabel Maru, one of the film’s other villains, at Diana’s feet. Maru is a pitiful figure as she cowers before the powerful amazon, her scarred face masking the soul of a war criminal responsible for thousands of deaths, including Trevor’s.

And then Diana pauses, thinks about her final moments with Trevor, and spares Maru’s life before turning on Ares. “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe,” she tells the god of war, “And I believe in love.”

In the end, Diana’s faith and love don’t crumble. She doesn’t retreat into idealism or descend into cynicism. Rather her outlook matures and expands, gaining perspective without losing compassion. She doesn’t deny Ares’ accusations against humanity. “They’re everything you say, but so much more,” she insists.

Fast forward to the present, as Diana the immortal amazon reflects on the events of a century past: “So now I stay, I fight and I give – for the world I know can be.”

As a story rooted in Greek myth, Wonder Woman naturally falls short of the Scriptural narrative of redemption. Nevertheless, the Gospel echoes are unmistakeable here, and they are strong. Humankind may be fallen, but it still bears the image of God. There’s still darkness and evil to be resisted, goodness and truth to be defended, beauty to be valued and cherished. And even though humanity deserves only righteous wrath, mercy still triumphs over judgment.

A grand epic story with no hint of irony

Such grand stories of unabashed heroism have become rare in contemporary culture. There’s a perceived need to treat them with ironic condescension, as outmoded relics of a simpler time. It’s the problem that has plagued recent efforts to bring Superman to the big screen, for example. In place of the noble champion committed to truth and justice, he’s been reduced to a gloomy, self-doubting millennial who questions his very purpose as a hero.

Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, is having none of that. She elaborated in an interview with the New York Times on the eve of her film’s release:

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

True to her word, Jenkins has created a real story of genuine beauty and heroism. And judging from the response to her work, it would appear that the movie-going public, long starved on irony and self-referential cynicism, is more than ready for such stories once again.

A role model for women – and men – of all ages

Much has been made – and justifiably so – of Wonder Woman’s empowering effect on its female viewers. More than a few women have reported that they wept repeatedly during the movie, and not necessarily at the sad parts. The character of Diana, played with star-making charisma by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, embodies an irresistible blend of strength and vulnerability, courage and kindness. Clearly she has resonated with a wide female audience, thrilled to have such a positive role model for their daughters after them.

As Bethany Jennings wrote for Speculative Faith, “Tough women abound in film, but tough women who are also good, hopeful, true, compassionate, and deeply confident? I’m not sure I have ever seen one – not until Diana.”

None of this is to suggest that men are unwelcome to this celebration of heroic womanhood. In fact, Wonder Woman wisely avoids any heavy-handed messages of gender politics in order to offer its positive vision to everyone. Gina Dalfonzo explained at The Gospel Coalition:

Too much modern discourse about the roles of men and women – including discourse in Christian circles – frames the battle of the sexes as just that: a battle in which one sex must lose. Either empowering women denigrates men, or empowering men denigrates women.

As Christians, we recognize this is a false dilemma. Refreshingly, Wonder Woman does, too. Jenkins’s film appreciates and elevates both men and women.

And writing for Crosswalk.com, Shawn McEvoy summed up on behalf of male viewers:

[Y]es, this movie does promote the strengths and virtues of women and the frailties of men (the species), but in no way trashes men (the gender), who play a vital and important role here, and rise to the best of their capabilities when inspired by a truly confident, wonderful woman.

Power. Grace. Wisdom. Wonder.

They are indeed divine virtues, infused by God into His human image-bearers, both male and female. When our art reflects this reality, however imperfectly, both women and men can’t help but feel empowered, seeing perhaps just a bit more of their human dignity and worth. They’re inspired to pursue truth, justice and kindness in their own lives. And knowingly or not, they bring glory to their Creator by aspiring to be more of what He created them to be.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Wonder Woman, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Wonder Woman is appropriate for you or your family.]

Sources and further reading

Cara Buckley, “The woman behind ‘Wonder Woman’,” (an interview with Patty Jenkins, the film’s director), New York Times, June 1, 2017.

Gina Dalfonzo, “‘Wonder Woman’: A peculiar and unexpected heroine,” The Gospel Coalition, June 6, 2017.

K.B. Hoyle, “‘It’s not about deserve’: Truth, pity, and a deeper magic in Wonder Woman,” Christ and Pop Culture, June 22, 2017.

Tyler Huckabee, “Eden, evil and the surprising message of ‘Wonder Woman’,” Relevant Magazine, June 5, 2017.

Bethany A. Jennings, “Wonder Woman: The heroine we need,” Speculative Faith, June 13, 2017.

Shawn McEvoy, “If you (and your daughter) see one superhero movie this decade, see Wonder Woman,” Crosswalk.com, June 1, 2017.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus Insights.


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