By Stephanie Pacheco
Wonder Woman is a thematic knock out as Diana encounters the reality of evil and chooses to keep loving and place her gifts in the service of humanity. The Amazonian goddess is genuinely moved and affected by the suffering of war, experienced by both soldiers and civilians. From the paradise-like island of the unfallen women warriors, she arrives in war-torn Europe deeply idealistic and determined to “end all war” by defeating the Greek god of war, Ares. Diana and her flawed but noble comrades spring into a fight that resonates with us in a film containing eternal truths that likewise find expression in the Christian tradition: the fall of man, the call to love anyway, and the demand that we enlist our gifts into the struggle against evil.
Wonder Woman makes landfall in early twentieth century London, where the citizens—even the good ones—have dark and light mixed together; they are thieves, liars, spies who would rather be actors, men waving their white flag and hoping to make a buck off the war. Though these are the heroes, their personal sins are the same inclinations that, when writ-large at the state level, shredded bucolic France and transformed it into No Man’s Land. In short, though the heroes are good, they aren’t perfect; they battle and sometimes lose to their harmful urges or whims. The Christian tradition would call those universal temptations to disordered whims remnants of Original Sin, the shadow that hovers over us in the wake of Adam and Eve’s first rebellion and which afflict us all.
The temptations to pettiness, to assert our will as superior over the legitimate needs of another, is the same inner impetus that sparks both interpersonal feuds and international wars. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.” Our tiny cravings to grab the last slice of pizza or to be recognized as superior to our peers unfairly are the same urges as animate presidents and kings to claim boundaries and resources beyond their own possession or needs. All these are remnants of the Fall.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary document of the Church’s basic teachings, explains the Fall, the story of Adam and Eve, and its ongoing effects: “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command….All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 397). When Adam and Eve were tempted not to serve God, but to rely on themselves and usurp him, they committed Original Sin. Like them, we yearn for things out of right order and so hurt ourselves and others: stealing, apathy, violence, gluttony, indifference, greed. These plague us daily and send the human race to war with ourselves again and again, when without sin we could be living in harmony.
In Wonder Woman, the Greek god Ares fills in the role of the Devil, tempting pulling strings to set up conflict among humans out of jealousy and a desire to prove their intrinsic inferiority to the gods. Like Satan, he would not serve the Father’s creation, humankind. He incites the human race to arms over and over, which in the film has finally resulted in World War I. Wonder Woman comes to “end all war,” but finds the fall so firmly planted in the hearts of men and women that Ares’ provocation turns out to be unnecessary, and the carnage continues even after his demise. Facing the ubiquitous, lingering stains in individual hearts that impel humanity to violence, Diana is deeply disillusioned and questions the goodness of humankind.
Yet there is hope. Humanity is not totally depraved, and good men and women still fight for life and goodness despite their own troubles. Diana’s guide through the modern world, rescued pilot Steve Trevor, is joined by his band of rogue fighters in maintaining the struggle for good. The Church likewise understands that all men and women find the darkness in our very selves and that the struggle of our life’s meaning consists of mastering those inclinations. “No one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures,” she explains (CCC 385). Indeed, “The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day (409).” Evil is not something new, nor is it something to be defeated sometime soon. As in Wonder Woman, our impetus to war on micro or macro scales (within ourselves, our families, or among nations), is simply part and parcel of human life.
Nevertheless, our calling is precisely to join that inner fight. The Catechism continues, even taking up the analogy of battle: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (409). To see the evil outside in the world and the urges to it inside our own hearts, and to seek to counter that, as Diana’s friends do when they elect to continue their mission despite lack of payment and high likelihood of death, is the central focus on our life on this planet. They master their own selfishness, their inner temptations, and in so doing challenge evil in the great war itself.
Love without Price (or Being Deserved)
Importantly, the human race is not on our own in the war against evil. In Wonder Woman, Diana herself is the divine aid, made and sent by Zeus to help humanity in our struggle for the good. Despite her mother telling her that the human race “does not deserve” her, she comes to fulfill her calling to fight on our behalf. Faced with the horrors of war and a nearly undefeatable opponent in Ares, Diana is on the verge of giving up the fight until she witnesses a great, selfless act by Steve Trevor. His love and self-sacrifice demonstrate to her the unquenched potential for good that humans retain. Though our flaws make us undeserving of the perfect warrior, Diana, she ultimately decides that we are still worth caring for and fighting to protect.
Diana’s choice to love and aid fallen humanity despite our lack of desert strongly recalls God’s choice to send Jesus, his son, for the salvation of all. The Gospel of John’s most famous passage may be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” God loved the world and willed to stamp out suffering, pain, and final death. Interesting however is the next line, John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The implication of the first clause is that we are condemnable—and so we are. Like the people of Wonder Woman, we too are fallen, imperfect, undeserving—in an unfashionable word—sinners. Yet Jesus comes anyway; Wonder Woman, too, comes anyway.
We don’t deserve our redemption, and that is what makes it so precious and so gratuitous. Deserving is a theme that crops up throughout Wonder Woman as well, exemplified in the toast given by Steve Trevor and his buddies: “May we get what we want, what we need, but never what we deserve.” No one truly deserves especially much, but to care even when others are less than perfect, is an act of true love. A great Christian and nun of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa, said “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.” Love is not something earned or merited, but something freely given.
To love without expecting to get anything back, is to love without price. It is how God loves us; it is the love of the Father for the prodigal son. This love is different from romantic feelings and the overwhelming flurry of early relationships. The ancient Greeks had words to distinguish the different types of love: eros–romantic love and desire; filia–the love between friends; and agape–self-giving love of another. Jesus loves with agape; and the conclusion of Wonder Woman is her firm set resolution to keep “loving” and “helping” the human race where she can, understanding that there is no vanquishing of all war or all evil. And the Christian would add, “at least not anytime soon.”
In Diana, we see a heroine, a feminine embodiment of that eternal love, and it draws the viewer in. Agape taps a pipeline that we all thirst for, and it is as compelling in film as in faith. The weight of agape in the movie means our spiritual compass isn’t broken.
Sharing our Gifts – Our Superpowers
It’s no accident that superheroes and their movies appeal to so many of us: we are longing for ideals, for examples to hold up and admire. The idea of special abilities isn’t so far-fetched; in a true and humble way, each of us is uniquely crafted and gifted to bring something particular to the world. None of us is an accident, and each of us has a calling.
The artist who moves the spirit; the athlete who smashes records and inspires; the teacher who ignites the desire for truth; the parent who loves; the child who gives us the chance to love selflessly; the innovator who changes technology; the doctor who heals; the singer who lifts us out of a dark mood—all of us, many of whom inhabit several of these roles simultaneously, have a specific call to create beauty, to love others, to be good and holy objects of God’s love.
At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic bishops gathered together and produced many documents including Lumen Gentium, which detailed the universal call to holiness—that each of us, according to our different states, is called to be holy:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.” (Lumen Gentium 41)
Each person has different abilities which are his or hers alone, and which are we to use for the good of others.
These are true super powers. And we each have them. This is no cheesey line; it’s our highest reality, and one that can be terrifying to embrace. Wonder Woman gives us a glimpse of what it looks like to embrace the call, to go out and strive against all odds, to value others and keep caring even when they are imperfect or let us down. That’s what is so inspiring about superheroes, and it’s actually a call to the audience, too.
Superheroes are our Art
Wonder Woman, and superheroes in general, are the myths of our time, our art. They are the stories we tell ourselves about what matters. The emphasis on preserving life, embracing one’s gifts, encountering and countering evil, and striving against crushing odds is a sign of health in our society. Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Batman, and Captain America reach across the political divide and present characters and messages and almost all Americans venture to the theater to see. That’s good news for us. It means we do still have some shared values, and that our moral compass can still find north.
Stephanie Pacheco has an MA in Theological Studies from Christendom College’s Graduate School of Theology (2012); BA in Religious Studies, minor in Government from the University of Virginia (2008). She has written freelance since 2012, tutored 2017 and I’ll be teaching 5th grade at St. Thomas More School in Arlington in August. I’ve been published by America Magazine, Sojourners, Crisis Magazine, Ethika Politika, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI, Soul Gardening Magazine and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Her articles have been syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. Check out her blog and her resume on LinkedIn here.