Wonder Woman Comes of Age

Not only is Wonder Woman likely to be the best superhero movie of this summer, it may well take its place within the pantheon of truly great mythological sagas, reimagined for the big screen. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a love story, AND a story of female empowerment that goes beyond cliches. Add to all this, its heroine is a kick-ass beauty of rare panache and vulnerability. So this movie has a LOT going for it even before we get to the deeper levels of meaning which get me excited.

First, a little exposition. Our Wonder Woman, the Princess Diana of the Amazons, comes of age on a secluded island of female warriors, Themiscrya. Although they have been training for thousands of year, the island exists in total seclusion from the world, shrouded in a protective fog that has kept them untroubled by the modern world. Although they have been placed there by Zeus (as a kind of reserve army against the re-emergence of evil in the world) the story borrows heavily from Biblical lore – in which the father of all Gods banishes his son Ares, the god of war, over Ares’ jealousy of man (Zeus’ newest creation). If this sounds like Satan cast out of heaven, it is! Which I guess makes the Amazons either demigods or angels, depending upon your mythology. The point is: Ares is out to create evil in the hearts of men and turn them against one another. And the Amazons are charged with stopping this. But apparently, they’re a little too well secluded. They’ve lived without men, they’ve lived without war or trouble of any kind. And young Diana comes of age, schooled to await a great destiny, yet having no idea what it might be. Like many a young prince or princess before her (Siddhartha, to name one) she longs to reach beyond her mother’s protection. She longs to fulfill her life.

Into this lost Eden crashes the war machines of men. First a biplane, piloted by a British spy. Then the Kaiser’s navy in hot pursuit. The year is 1918, the last months of the war to end all wars. And once this pilot’s tale is told, the die is cast. For Diana, her destiny is clear. Time to go forth and fulfill the promise of her people to Zeus. Time to go destroy Ares and bring war to an end, once and for all.

Of course the charm and brilliance of this movie lies exactly in this naïveté. Paired with the handsome young soldier spy, the two embark for London and thence to the Western Front – she with visions of a mythic battle with Ares that will put an end to man’s wickedness. And he with a world-weary practicality, hoping to do his best against long odds and trying to reign in this dangerously unschooled and unrestrained female.

I will not go into all the delightful scenes in which she proves her worth and astonishes all around her. Let’s just say they are worth every bag of popcorn you could buy. And the love story, however slow to evolve, is the more precious for it. Truly well earned and well acted.

But that’s not why I’m writing about this film. I’m writing because the story goes far beyond what I was expecting. For it isn’t until our eager young heroine’s plan FAILS COMPLETELY that this story reaches its true promise.

Destroying the German high commander does nothing to stop the evil in the world, as she had expected. No arms are laid down, no peace prevails. Evil, it seems, comes with this mortal life. Good and evil are a package deal.

And so it is that this Wonder Woman goes a step further than most superhero movies, telling the full origin story, not just of its young heroine, but of mankind itself. From our Eden-like beginnings in a world without evil; without opposites, without even men to divide our consciousness into its natural halves – the princess Diana’s origin story is also our origin story; the birth of our divided selves. It is the descent of a goddess into the mortal realm, believing naively that she had been born to heal its divisions and eradicate war forever, she finds a far different destiny awaits her. The recognition that mortal life, by definition, contains BOTH good and evil; that the human heart is a constant battleground between these twin forces and it is only within this struggle that love has any significance. It is only within this struggle that courage and bravery have purpose.

And so it is, in the penultimate scene between Diana and Ares, when the god of war offers her a world rid of man and the destruction he has wrought, Diana makes the most fateful and compassionate decision of all. She chooses the struggle. She chooses life in the mortal realm – to be forever plagued by the failings and jealousies of the human condition. And to be its champion, to protect our free will, even with all the trouble it brings.

I love this movie because it doesn’t settle for half a story. It doesn’t allow for the fake triumph of good over evil. It embraces the mess of mortal life. Like the gods and demigods before her, Diana lets go of perfection to walk in our struggle alongside us. Or – to borrow from yet another great religion (Buddhism) – she takes the pledge of the Bodhisattva, choosing to remain within this mortal realm, until the last human battle plays itself out. She just happens to look damn good with a sword.

NOTE: Ric Gibbs teaches ‘Story Analysis’ and ‘Television Series Development’ in the Entertainment Studies Program at UCLA Extension.