Wonder Woman is the story of a demigoddess who wants to save the world coming to terms with why it should be saved. In hero stories, the default is always that these are innocent people and therefore they deserve to live.
But what if they’re not innocent? What if no one is.
That’s the complicating factor that Wonder Woman presents. It’s a beautiful, tragic/hopeful nod to the complex reality of war and peace. This is a long one but bear with me. I promise it goes someplace interesting.
Diana: Once I find and destroy Ares, the German armies will be freed from his influence, and they will be good men again, and the world will be better.
This is Diana’s mission statement. She believes the stories her mother told her about men’s innocent nature whole-heartedly and will do anything to return them to that state.
Diana: Who took this from your people?
Chief: [Guestures to Steve] His people.
Steve introduces himself to Diana as “one of the good guys.” But, as much as she comes to know his goodness and integrity, she also comes to know him as a liar, a killer, and a smuggler. Now he’s implicated in genocide. He’s the one of the bad guys in someone else’s story.
Luddendorf: Peace is just an armistice in an endless war.
The writers took some artistic license with this so-called quote from Thucydides, but it accomplishes two things. One, it shows that Diana has been well-tutored in ancient philosophies of war. Two, it sets up the idea of an armistice as a negative outcome of war. Since we have the benefit of history, as viewers we know the WWI Armistice is a direct cause of WWII.
Diana: They don’t deserve our help, Steve!
Steve: It’s not about deserve! Maybe we don’t! But it’s not about that, it’s about what you believe. You don’t think I get it after what I’ve seen out there? You don’t think I wish I could tell you it was one bad guy to blame? It’s not! We’re all to blame.
Diana: I am not.
Steve: But maybe I am. Please. If you believe that this war should stop, if you want to stop it, help me stop it. Right now.
This is Steve Trevor’s mission statement. He understands that people can be evil, but he still doesn’t want thousands more to die. As a soldier, he has done horrible things in this war and others. He has perpetuated the endless fighting — an inch gained in WWI is two inches that have to be reclaimed. And yet. This war has to stop, and Steve will do anything in his limited power to stop it.
Chief: [Looking at the aircraft] What is it?
Steve: The future.
Steve looks at the plane full of explosive chemicals and describes it as, “The future.” The future holds more horrors than even The War to End all Wars imagined. He knows this. But he still believes in sacrificing his life to save today. To save the very people who will use these kinds of weapons in the future. That is goddamn tragic and beautiful and unsettling.
Ares: They start these wars on their own. All I do is orchestrate an armistice that I know they cannot keep in the hopes that they will destroy themselves. But it has never been enough. Until you.
Ares is not responsible for WWI. I don’t understand the confusion around this because the screenwriters say it blatantly. Diana is right that Ares is involved, but he is “not who [she] thought [he] was.” He isn’t to blame. He isn’t a mind-controller; he’s a whisperer. He hasn’t infiltrated human society to become an emperor, only an advisor. Humans are to blame, and humans will be their own undoing. Ares is trying to prove himself right, so, of course, he wouldn’t directly intervene whether or not he could.
Ares: Yes, Diana! Take them all! Finally, you see. Look at this world. Mankind did this. Not me! They are ugly, filled with hatred. Weak! Just like your Captain Trevor, gone and left you nothing. Pathetic He deserved to burn.
Diana suffers loss, and she strikes out — a vengeful god. Ares is gleeful. He has to undermine what Steve means to her so that she will complete her transformation into Destroyer God, Hater of Humans. That, of course, pisses her off. So he tries another tact. Nevermind Steve, what about the worse possible vision of humanity?
Ares: Look at her [Maru] and tell me I’m wrong! She is the perfect example of these humans and unworthy of your sympathy in every way. You know that she deserves it. They all do. Do it!
A woman who kills in horrific ways for pleasure. Someone who poisoned herself, mind, body, and soul. She does deserve to die. She’s a psychopath with no redeeming qualities (props to the actress, though, for her epic villain laugh). And yet Diana chooses not to destroy her.
Now, Diana does kill. It’s part of her character. But she does not kill when she doesn’t have to. If she were in a dire situation where Maru has to be killed to save others, you betcha she’s going down. But Ares is asking Diana to be judge, jury, and executioner. The thing is, she can be. She is not to blame. But she won’t. Because Steve, her representative of humanity, loves her and believes she can save the world. It’s a promise between them. And a promise is unbreakable.
Diana: You’re wrong about them. They’re everything you say but so much more.
Ares: Lies! They do not deserve your protection!
Diana: It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room here. This screenplay has taken Greek mythology and twisted it into a Christian parable. Turn the other cheek. Love thine enemy. All that jazz. But separate from that, Diana’s choice to love is the right one because of what it represents about our own history.
At the end of WWI, the Allies win. They believe with everything they have that the people of the Central powers deserve to pay for the carnage and destruction. Despite people like Vera Britton advocating for both sides to realize that war itself is the evil and an armistice at such a steep cost cannot possibly lead to lasting peace, the Allies take their pound of flesh. And so the German people let a genocidal maniac take over their country. That’s a bit of simplification, but do some Googling and the gist is there.
Now, what happened after WWII? The Allies rebuilt East/West Germany. The Allies rebuilt Japan. WWII was objectively more horrible and deadly than WWII, but, afterward, there was no armistice. (There wasn’t peace, either. The deconstruction of colonialism in the midst of the Cold War saw to that.) But WWIII hasn’t happened yet. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used again. Chemical weapons use is treated as a horrific act, not an everyday incident. That’s huge.
War is perpetual as long as we perpetuate it. Everyone has a justification. And, yes, no justice, no peace. Sometimes you have to go to war to make things right. But at some point, the passing along of blame has to stop or there will never be peace. The hardest thing in the world is to love your enemy if they have wronged you. The hardest thing on this earth is convincing people to love each other enough to share their wealth, their privilege, their protection, their lives. It seems impossible to teach people who hate to love. But, in the end, that’s only thing that will save us.
Ares represents hate. He hates humans for reasons even Diana acknowledges as valid. But Diana can know and understand that hatred without giving into it. She has a complex view of human nature that allows her to retain her idealism. Hate doesn’t have the power here. Love does. That’s why she can destroy Ares. That’s why the German soldiers can breathe fresh air and hug strangers from the other side. In that moment and for a time after, love wins.
As for the rest of this “century of horrors”? That’s “a different story altogether.”
Diana: I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed a darkness that lives within their light, and learned that within every one of them there will always be both. A choice each much make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world.
The thesis of this film is that war makes everyone complicit. Everyone is to blame. There are no innocents for a divine hero like Diana to save. But she does what she can because she believes in us and our better angels. Yeah, this is just a superhero movie. But that is an important message, and, sadly, an all-too-rare one.