Wonder Woman and Redemptive Violence – The Eggplant
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*
In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.
As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.
At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.
When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.
After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.
In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”
So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.
The Rev. John Adams