Wonder Woman and faith

August 28th, 2017

Summer of “the superheroine”

This summer belonged to Wonder Woman.

As of August 9, Wonder Woman was the summer’s box office champion, earning over $400 million in the United States and another $394 million overseas. A sequel is already slated for December 2019.

Wonder Woman tells the origin story of the world’s most famous female superhero. Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the Amazons, leaves her home in a mythic, all-female utopia to defeat Ares, god of war, in “the world of men.” The movie has not only lassoed millions of dollars but heaps of critical praise as well. Writing in The Seattle Times, Moira McDonald called the film “smart, swift, sometimes funny, occasionally dazzling and surprisingly soulful.” Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, shows the movie with 92 percent positive reviews.

The movie’s success is inseparable from the popularity of Wonder Woman herself. For 76 years, she’s been a beloved cultural icon, and not only for superhero fans. “She isn’t just a super heroine,” writes comic book author Gail Simone. “She’s the super heroine. People who have never read a comic in their lives know her and love her.”

Why has Wonder Woman been winning fans for 76 years? And what makes this movie more than just another superhero summer blockbuster?

Women superheroes and women directors

Despite her long history in other media, Wonder Woman has never before headlined a live-action feature film (though she appeared briefly in last year’s Batman v Superman). Hollywood makes many movies about superheroes, but few about superheroines. Since 2008, 19 movies about DC and Marvel superheroes have premiered; none have been headlined by a woman.

Meanwhile, behind the camera, few women sit in the director’s chairs in any genre. Only four percent of Hollywood directors are women, and according to Forbes, they “overwhelmingly work on drama or comedy films, which by and large fare worse at the box office.”

Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman has defied Hollywood’s conventional wisdom about movies directed by women. Previously, no woman had directed a feature film budgeted at more than $100 million. The Hollywood Reporter declared Warner Bros.’ hiring of Jenkins “obviously a big gamble” — despite critical acclaim and multiple awards for her independent debut feature, Monster (2003). On Twitter, pop culture journalist Jill Pantozzi called out what she saw as a double standard: “Hollywood throws millions at indie men ALL. THE. TIME. You don’t call those gambles, do you?”

Wonder Woman has now earned more than any other live-action film directed by a woman. Its success has many people hoping female directors will get more high-profile opportunities to tell all kinds of stories, not just superhero tales.

Wonder Woman and representation

Wonder Woman portrays its hero in a way many moviegoers, especially women, find refreshing and empowering. Reflecting on the film for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes, “Yes, we’ve seen female action stars before — but not like this. Not in a way where the camera lingering on a woman’s body feels strong instead of lascivious. Not in a movie where a woman’s strength is depicted as inevitable and natural. . . . It’s one thing to intellectually recognize the power of representation, quite another to feel it in your bones when you finally see it.”

But not all women see themselves represented by Diana as she charges onto the silver screen. Writing in Harper’s Bazaar, tech and culture journalist Cameron Glover argues that the movie, while “an entertaining, gorgeously directed film and a significant marker for women-led media,” fails to fully include women of color. The film’s few black characters have little screen time and, in Glover’s judgment, perpetuate uncomfortable and harmful stereotypes (for instance, she calls young Diana’s black caregiver a “Mammy” role). “When it comes to mainstream feminism,” states Glover, “race and other identities often take a backseat to gender equality — and that simply isn’t good enough.”

Others question the assumption that Wonder Woman is a positive icon for women at all. In a blog for Ms. — the magazine that enshrined Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol on the cover of its first issue 45 years ago — Stephanie Abraham points out that all the movie’s Amazon warriors “have tall, thin body types and . . . could be models on a runway. . . . Their physical strength plays second fiddle to their beauty, upholding the notion that in order to access power women must be beautiful in a traditional way.” The fact that the movie’s female villain is physically disfigured further reinforces the stereotype that physical beauty equals moral goodness.

As an immortal demigoddess, Wonder Woman is, at some level, an unapproachable ideal. “It’s her flawlessness that disconnects her from viewers,” writes Bustle.com movie editor Rachel Simon. “Wonder Woman is fierce and powerful . . . kind and generous, always wanting to help . . . brilliant and clever, impressing everyone she meets. . . . And, of course, she’s beautiful. . . . As many characters note throughout the movie, she’s perfect, in every way possible.”

Superheroic love

When psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, he created the character as an idealized woman, but he did so with a specific purpose in mind. Wonder Woman was his rebuke of what he considered the “bloodcurdling masculinity” in many comic books. He worried that the brute force used by male heroes, even in pursuit of good, might harm impressionable young readers.

“Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak,” Marston argued. “The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing — love . . . . The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Marston held unconventional and controversial ideas about the sexes, and Wonder Woman certainly reflects Marston’s ideology. As comics historian Tim Hanley writes, “Wonder Woman comics were essentially Marston’s psychological theories masquerading as superhero adventures.”

Modern readers can question Marston’s assumptions about love and gender, but those assumptions have never prevented Diana from winning fans. Within a year of Wonder Woman’s debut in October 1941, she had her own monthly comic book. “Wonder Woman outsold Superman at times,” notes Hanley, “with upward of five million kids reading each issue. The character was an instant success.”

Wonder Woman is unique in the pantheon of superheroes because she embodies that “most important ingredient” of love. She leaves Paradise Island because she selflessly desires a better present and future for the conflicted world beyond her home’s horizon. In the new movie, Diana leaves no doubt about what drives her: “I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world . . . .  I fight, and I give . . . for the world I know can be. This is my mission.”

Wonder Woman’s mission and ours

Christians who strive to think about all that’s praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8) can find much to think about in both the film Wonder Woman and the character.

For instance, Wonder Woman is driven by a desire to rid the world of war. Diana’s quest to defeat Ares dramatizes the scriptural truth that human beings aren’t truly each other’s enemies; rather, we all face “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV). However, not even Wonder Woman can defeat the world’s evils. Despite this, she never abandons her mission. Christians, likewise, must decide how to respond to the ongoing presence of evil. Should we despair or press on with determination?

We may also reflect on the love embodied by Wonder Woman. As Christians, we see love most clearly in Jesus Christ. His resurrection proves that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39). Like Wonder Woman, we believe in the power of love. We believe only love can truly save the world — and, in Christ, already has. Now we must decide how to reflect that love, how we will love others as Christ loved us (1 John 4:19) until God makes the world’s salvation manifest.

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