Contains spoilers. Please don’t read if you haven’t seen the film.
For EHG, MW & all the other real world Amazons.
Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara – yet what a blessing we did not know it. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way – but I avert my face from the monstrous scene.
– Henry James, letter to a friend, August 10th, 1914
What makes Patty Jenkin’s new Wonder Woman so intriguing is that, whilst ostensibly a superhero film, it seems far more interested in human nature, despite being explicitly about Gods among men. In an opening scene, we learn that Ares, jealous of the humanity created by Zeus seeks to destroy humankind, corrupting their nature and bringing war, violence, and death to the world. It is the Amazons who are the bulwark against the time when Ares comes to the world again, a fearless race of women who through their military skill can bring peace to the world once more. Diana, Princess of Themyscira and perhaps the greatest warrior among a race of great warriors rescues a drowning man – Steve Trevor. His plane crashes into the water just off the shore of the Amazon’s island, which has been hidden from the world to protect its inhabitants – the women who are sworn to bring an end to war, sworn to finish off the god Ares. Thus sheltered, the Amazons exist in a lush, island paradise seemingly unaware of anything out there in the world until Steve’s plane slams into the ocean. He’s followed onto the island by German soldiers and so the film’s opening battle scene is a violent and balletic mash-up as the pre-modern combat of the Amazons, all horses, female athleticism, and archery meets rifles and grim-faced men in uniform. Just minutes in, the white sand of this island Eden becomes a battlefield. In the aftermath of the first fight, the all-American hero (Chris Pine) tells the islanders, hidden as they are from the world, that outside the edges of their land is ‘war…the war to end all wars.’
We know the story. Millions dying. Evil is on the rise. The God of war moves on the world.
The noble-hearted Diana is compelled to act and declares her willingness to go out and slay the God of war, even as the leaders of the Amazon’s preach caution and prudence as the better part of valor. She gathers the armor befitting a warrior and takes Steve along to the small harbor of the island to find their way back to the world of men. She’s met there by her mother, Queen Hypolita, who, recognizing she cannot stop her daughter leaving, issues a loaded warning: “be careful…they do not deserve you.”
We do not deserve her.
What is so compelling about the film is that with its WWI setting the narrative could have become rather morally straightforward – the evils of one side, contrasted with the virtuous, freedom loving heroes. But we don’t deserve that. Diana, the open-hearted hero who believes in the duty of the hero, who believes in the necessities of protecting, of rescuing, would fit well into the moral simplicities of a standard war film. And, as she accompanies Steve back into the world of war, there comes some nice fish out of water beats, Diana’s polite incomprehension at the world of fashion, her first encounters with men (including the wonderful boat scene) and so forth, all of which are used to show her essential moral goodness, and crucially her belief in moral goodness too. For her, the war is explained through the corruption of men by the God of War, Ares. Without spoiling anything too much, the film has no villain per se (there are a couple of identifiable bad guys, but their defeat, such as it is, is not really the main point) rather, Wonder Woman’s enemy here is the evil that men do. If Aries can be killed, his corruption will be removed, and as humanity is essentially, at core, good, then the war will end.
Steve and Diana build their rag-tag team of soldiers – heroes who are there to save the day. Again, the film subtly diverges from the expected. Whilst Steve and the men are concerned with a mission – one handed out by army leaders involving a very concrete set of goals, Diana never lays aside her mission – to destroy the God of war. To kill War. The tensions here between the metaphysical and the material do not remain latent for long. After making their way to the front, after seeing the horror of war and the joy of peace, after fighting through no man’s land, comes a senseless act of evil. Yet, it is an evil that could have been prevented, if Steve and the soldiers had not been so committed to their mission. Diana throughout the film is no utilitarian – there is no question of the greater good, because to quantify things in that way is a logic that the film rejects. Rather, it explicitly affirms at multiple points that life is good. Being is good – not in terms of numbers, but simply in and of itself. Evil is all that seeks to undo what is good and destroy all that is. War is an exercise in the destruction of being – a paradoxical and frenetic machine of negation.
Even when committed to the task of stopping evil, violence, and death still come because of us. Here the film speaks a profound challenge. Maybe it’s not all the fault of Ares. Maybe it’s your fault. Maybe it’s mine. Maybe, none of us are free of corruption in some sense. And maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the case that we are, underneath it all, good. When it comes to evil, maybe we are all implicated. We are all fallen and it is not so straightforward as blaming it all on the God of War. To complete a mission involves ignoring the injured, the sick, and the dying. By the very act of opposing violence, comes more violence. This is not just the case in wartime but is the very nature of human interdependence, of being in the world. Original Sin ‘not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place’ as Terry Eagleton writes in On Evil. Not for nothing did Adorno dourly claim that
Guilt reproduces itself in each one of us. If we…knew at every moment what has happened and to what concatenations we owe our own existence, and how our existence is interwoven with calamity, even if we have done nothing wrong…if one were fully aware of all things at every moment, one would really be unable to live.
We are all implicated. In the wake of world war one, Freud recognized that there is something within us capable of great and powerful evil – the death drive that is at war with the drive towards love and onwards toward being. A war within us and “it is this battle of the giants that our nursemaids try to appease with their lullaby about heaven.”
For Augustine, evil is both anthropological and ontological. The anthropological evil is the extent to which we are all involved and complicit with the violence and damage of living, simply through the very act of living in the world. Diana is simply wrong to assert that killing the god of war will free the German soldiers – evil is not something external to us, which damages an essentially pure and autonomous human subject. Who can say for sure, in the great skein of human action and reaction who has ownership of a particular deed? Diana kills off one of the film’s villains, believing them to Ares himself, but, unsurprisingly, this does not end things. Evil it seems cannot be so easily cut out of existence, for as one of the film’s antagonists puts it; war provides purpose, excitement, boldness – it has a kind of glamor to it, a seductive appeal that disguises the corruption of being that lies underneath.
If the soldiers (all of them on all sides) represent an anthropological evil, then the film’s climax displays a fight against ontological evil. Diana finally comes face to face with Ares – who is, at least at first, as insubstantial as a reflection in a window, a kind of ghost. He is, to begin with, physically insubstantial, compared to the athletic Diana, capable of doing nothing but whispering in the ear of humanity, presenting ideas and options for their own self-immolation. He is an embodiment of negation eventually appearing as nothing but eyes inside a suit of armour. He is no glamorous villain but rather all form and no substance. The mise-en-scene of the fight between the two becomes a morass of flame and black ash, as in an echo of Christ’s temptation in the desert Diana is promised that the world can be made into a utopia if she joins forced with the god of war. Yet this is hollow, a parodic promise that the ontologically void Ares cannot fulfil, as he is fundamentally deficient in the art of living – a transcendent nothingness that seeks to allow humanity the opportunity to destroy itself. After all, that is what we deserve.
However, it isn’t about what you deserve – it’s about what you believe. Faced with the chance to destroy one of the evil characters – someone who embodies the damaging attraction to evil – Diana hesitates and refuses. What undoes the negative transcendence of ontological evil is the positive force of grace. An act entirely outside of the logic of exchange, of what we deserve. It’s why the film claims, with complete sincerity, that it is love that will save the world. At the core, the film offers an ethics of affirmation that acknowledges the reality of evil whilst seeking to remove injustice and defend being in all its forms. Perhaps Blake provides the best summation of what kind of hero Diana Prince is – one who believes that everything that lives is holy and life delights in life.
On Evil – Terry Eagleton
Evil and the Augustinian Tradition – Charles T. Mathes
Confessions – St Augustine
Wonder Woman: The Circle – Gail Simone, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson