Seeing Ourselves in the New Wonder Woman Movie

Wonder Woman is not my thing. She never has been. Not the comic books. Not the old television show. And certainly not the old cartoon. When my high school history teacher teased the girls for apparent daydreaming, he accused us of flying around in our invisible jets and that is about the closest connection I ever had to the Amazon warrior princess. But then the mini-reviews started popping up in my facebook feed. “Finally, DC makes a movie worth watching!” Everyone who saw it loved it, including my rather conservative, Christian friends. So my husband and I went to see it.

Seeing Ourselves in Wonder Woman Movie

Upon exiting, the first thing my husband said was,

“I’m kind of over the anti-God messages of all the superhero movies.”

I wasn’t so sure. Maybe because I loved the movie, myself. I mean, you can’t dismiss something that you loved as inherently anti-God, can you? At least not quite that quickly?

The thing is, the “anti-God messages” didn’t bother me because the world in which Wonder Woman operates is so purely fictional. Not like “those stories” that gain such popularity in Christian circles with enough of a Christian veneer to land in a Christian bookstore and enough of a lie to misrepresent who God is.

Most of the Christian commentary I have read actually takes the opposite view, seeing Christian elements and themes to the story. M. Hudson of The Federalist goes so far as to claim unmistakable Christology and that the movie really is the gospel brought symbollically to life on the silver screen. Ryan Duncan over at Crosswalk sees the movie as a call for Christian love, self sacrificing and pursuing virtue.

But seriously? The movie was good (as in a story well told). . . but not that good (as in pointing to the author of goodness Himself).

Maybe it’s because I’m a little leery of this recent trend to find God in every popular book and movie, whether the author intended for Him to be there or not. Looking for God in Harry Potter? Sorry, He’s not there. Seeking Christ in the character of Wonder Woman? Eh, sorry to disappoint, but He’s not really there, either.

That isn’t to say that you can’t make a case for one or the other (or any of a plethora of story characters) being a Christ figure. But the use of a Christ figure in literature is a specific literary technique intended to draw allusions and bring power to the characters, not to draw the reader or movie-goer into a deeper understanding of the Christ of the Bible. In fact, a Christ figure can serve to make a mockery of the faith.

“The Christ figure is not Jesus the man nor Christ the Christian redeemer; the novelist bears no direct responsibility to the church nor to his Christian heritage to present a figure sympathetic to the Christian dogma; the critic who attempts to interpret the figure in terms of faith and doctrine does so at his own risk.” ~Robert Detweiler, Christ and the Christ Figure in American Literature

Just because the author chooses to use a Christ figure to serve the story does not mean the story serves Christ.

After all, if you go looking for God in Wonder Woman, you will find several: Zeus, Ares and (spoiler alert) Wonder Woman herself. Part of the case for her being a Christ figure, after all, is that she is the daughter of a god and the daughter of a woman who has never been touched by a man.

But it’s the wrong god.

So does that mean Christians shouldn’t watch Wonder Woman because of its “anti-God messages?” I don’t know. I’m not really big on telling people what they should or should not do to be “good” Christians. I don’t really view Zeus as a major contender for our society’s worship. It doesn’t take the gospel story and twist it. It doesn’t mock Christianity. Christianity is merely absent, even if a few thematic elements were lifted to drive the story.

There’s a little bit more to the movie than that, however. I didn’t love the movie for its definition of who God is. I loved it for its portrayal of humanity.

I loved it for one scene and one line. (And another spoiler alert because this really is the climax of the movie). I loved it for Ares’ depiction of man as utterly depraved, bent on his own destruction, easily corrupted and not deserving of her devotion or protection. It’s the third time the fact that humans don’t deserve her was brought up, but finally she has an answer.

“They’re everything you say. But so much more.”

Because in each individual there is light and there is darkness. Each individual must choose his path. In the end, it is the pursuit of love and virtue and justice that brings forth the light. And no hero can do that for us.

In Wonder Woman, I saw a depiction of mankind that resonated with me. One which explains how one man can develop plans to annihilate an entire race while another man sacrifices his life to save strangers. It reminds us that the capacity for both rests in each of us and that neither can ever be completely driven out.

Great literature wrestles with what it means to be human. American movies rarely delve that deeply into their characters and their story lines. But Wonder Woman reached just a little deeper, showing us a little of ourselves as we are and as we could be. And that this “could be” need not refer only to the victory of the “light.” Because the “dark” has its presence in every human heart as well.

It’s why we don’t deserve Wonder Woman. And why we don’t deserve Christ.

Yes, I actually let my kids watch Beauty and the Beast

OK, so not that Beauty and the Beast. Without having seen it, I’m not sure what to make of it or the controversy. It seems odd that Disney’s big coming out would involve the comic relief and the villain, but whatever. I kind of hope it is as bad as all that because I’m kind of tired of Christian groups sounding the alarm over nothing. Sometimes, it seems like they’re part of the marketing. Float a little controversy in front of the right people and you have instant buzz and instant curiousity. Because seriously, it’s like the second highest grossing film EVER. Right behind Harry Potter. The controversy isn’t driving too many people away.

Beauty and the Beast

The 1991 Disney version is bad enough. I mean really, it’s a bizarre mix of bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome held together by a cast of talking tableware.

Or is it?

What is the main message of Beauty and the Beast?

If you are to believe Disney’s marketing, it’s only the greatest love story ever told. It has everything. A father held captive by a beast. A girl who offers herself in his stead. A curse that can only be broken by love . . . a love that has to somehow be able to see past a beastly exterior. And a beastly temperament. And, you know, that whole being held captive thing.

Most people will tell you it’s a fairy tale with an important moral: Beauty is only skin deep.

But Disney is Disney. They’ve built an empire on harvesting fairy tales and cleaning them up for the mass market.

What was the original Beauty and the Beast about?

My 10 year old actually read the original (or one of its many versions) and was quite disappointed in the movie. It strayed too far in too many key points. Rather than Gaston as a counterpoint to the Beast, you have narcissistic, worldly sisters as counterpoints to Beauty’s perfect femininity. And the spell breaking love is demonstrated through a tear rather than a kiss.

But this, too, was a story with a message. It is also controversial, though not quite so much for the plain features of the text. The controversy comes more from not being able to agree on the inspiration for the story to begin with.

So what was the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast?

Camp 1 says this a prepatory tale for young ladies awaiting arranged marriages. Don’t fret about his looks or manners. Learn to be happy in your new prison. The man may be a dolt, or even a genuine beast, but your femininity and social graces will captivate him, change him and turn him into your prince. I think the most compelling case for this is the social milieu of the major characters. They are neither peasants nor royalty. They seem to belong to the closest thing to a middle class that feudal Europe had to offer. I don’t know how many of the original fairy tales you have read, but this isn’t really typical.

Camp 2 says it’s a fairy tale inspired by real life. Petrus Gonsalvus was a very real man with hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome” for the excessive hair growth that occurs all over the body. He first came to the court of Henry II in 1547. He became quite famous due to his condition, moved from court to court and was studied across Europe. While in the Netherlands, he married the very beautiful Catherine. Although he lived as a nobleman, he was never quite accepted as fully human. I think the most compelling case for this view is, well, the “beauty” and the “beast” aspect of the history.

Or maybe it’s a bit of both. I could totally see some well-meaning 16th century parents telling their daughters, “Look, at least you’re not marrying that guy!”

And what does that have to do with the movie?

Disney chose to play up the being-held-captive side to the movie. Themes involving arranged marriages don’t go down so well these days, but Belle is not the only prisoner. The Beast is cursed. His temper is an expression of his own captivity. He continually convinces himself that there is “no point” to pursuing Belle or doing anything to encourage her to like him. And then he lashes out.

He was cursed for not sheltering an old woman. Now he is forced to live his life as the witch saw him. He’s hideous, forced from human contact and held captive in his own castle. With Belle’s arrival, he protects what dignity he has left by pushing away the one thing he needs to make it all go away. He is the one who chooses to open his heart and allow himself to love. He makes the first step and ultimately releases her from her bond to him. The great act of love is him releasing the one thing that could release him.

So what’s the real moral of Beauty and the Beast?

I think it is clearer when you compare the Beast to the beastly Gaston.

On the one hand, you have a cursed man.  His very humanity was taken from him, he’s been driven into a solitary castle with no human contact and his only hope is to somehow find love. On the other, you have the very model of manliness. Strong, good looking and the desire of almost every woman in town. One is a beast because of the prison he was forced into. One is just a beast.

So the Beast takes Belle captive in exchange for her father’s freedom. Maybe more in hopes that the curse can finally be broken. But the climax of the movie is not when Belle returns. It is when he, out of love, releases her from her bondage. He is the one driving the story forward. He is the one with a major conflict. He is the one who changes.

Belle is the same young woman at the end as she was at the beginning. He was the one with a love powerful enough to change, and powerful enough to allow her to see his humanity.

I don’t see “Beauty is only skin deep” so much as “True love changes you for the better.” It’s like that greatest of all love lines in As Good As it Gets, “You make me want to be a better man.”

And that is totally a message I want my children to ponder.