Wonder Woman: When Superpowers Meet the Real World

Wonder WomanThis post is rife with spoilers for Wonder Woman. Consider yourself warned.

Wonder Woman might be set during World War I, but in its darkness, it feels surprisingly relevant to us today. It asks the same question we’re all asking ourselves right now: how do we defeat evil in the world? What does it actually take?

Superhero movies always have evil villains to defeat — it comes with the territory. Whether those villains are literal gods, demons, or overly ambitious humans, they share a certain solidity. You know that they’re evil. You can take comfort in that fact, and trust that they’re going to get what they deserve. They won’t get away, they won’t repent, and they certainly won’t win. Once they’re defeated, the world will be safe (until the next villain arrives).

War stories don’t do that. There are no conclusive duels or final bosses. War is hell, these movies remind us. It’s the inevitable descent into horror, with bad deeds piling on bad deeds in a feedback loop that only ends when one side concedes. It’s not possible to win a war by decapitating a bad guy, only through self-sacrifice and long struggle. And even when the war is over, the cleanup is ugly.

Wonder Woman melds these genres in a way I found fascinating. There is a constant tension between Diana and Steve, who in a way are each living in their own movie. Diana is a superhero in search of her villain; Steve is slogging through the horrors of war, supporting his side with no expectation of glory, only the prevention of worse horrors. Their paths align only so far as they see a common mission to achieve both their goals. But they can’t agree on how to win. “We need to kill Ares,” Diana keeps saying, “because that will end the war.” Steve rolls his eyes because he, like us, lives in a world where it doesn’t work that way. Her plan makes no sense, and Steve puts up with it mostly because she beats up a whole lot of his enemies along the way.

(Also, because he couldn’t stop her if he tried. I took so much joy in watching Steve shout at Diana to wait, stop, be reasonable, and she never once listens. Diana’s naive determination could have been irritating, but mostly it made me smile as she plunged ahead, doing what she knew was needed and refusing to let anyone get in her way. Please, let’s have more women heroes like her — not to mention a sequel.)

The thing is, they’re both right. Ares is real, he’s the force behind the war, and because we’re in Diana’s superhero story, the war can’t end until she defeats him. But even the God of War acknowledges Steve’s reality. He doesn’t make humans do evil, he claims. He gives us the tools, but we choose to use them for destruction.

This middle-ground resolution annoyed me in the moment, I think because it’s an awkward compromise between the promises of the two genres. Ares is clearly a mythical figure, and having him so grounded in reality broke the illusion for me. But on the other hand, the more I reflect on Wonder Woman, the more I appreciate this level of nuance in a superhero movie. Vanquishing Ares was necessary to save the world, but not sufficient. Diana still has a lot of work to do, and even she, with all her powers, can’t save the world alone.

As we face our own dark times, I think we can take inspiration from both Steve and Diana. Resistance is a long, hard battle with few decisive victories. We need to be realistic and commit to being in this for the long run. But sometimes, you just need to dive in and kick some proverbial bad guy butt. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.

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