After reading over some of the reviews for Wonder Woman, I began to notice that most of them focused on or made note of at least two things: first, the movie's ramifications on feminism; and second, that Gal Gadot is stunningly gorgeous. On the latter point it is impossible to disagree, and on the former there exists already a surplus of articles debating the relevant points.
Few reviews dwelt on the observations that Diana, our heroine, makes at the end of the film. Having fought in the Great War and (it is implied) lived through many subsequent conflicts, she remarks that humanity, despite its capacity for cruelty and brutality, is nevertheless not to be abandoned. She adds that our ability to love can overcome our violent tendencies. This struck me as somewhat cliché and heavy-handed; the story was narrated well enough that the audience did not need to be told the "moral of the tale," as it were.
But none of that makes her comment any less true.
In the closing scene Diana resolves the question — the challenge, actually — that her mother, queen Hippolyta, issued before Diana embarked on her journey: is mankind worth a savior, a Wonder Woman?
Juxtaposed in that challenge were two views of human nature: Hippolyta’s, a cynical view that sees mankind as selfish, destructive, and wicked, against Diana’s naïve perspective that people commit injustices only because they are forced to by external forces and circumstances. In this case, it was Ares, the god of war, who had manipulated people into fighting the Great War. Diana believes that once she kills Ares all war will end. Thus begins her quest.
Diana’s belief in humanity’s fundamental goodness progressively takes a beating as she is introduced to the things we did to each other from 1914-1918. How could we, Diana asks throughout the film, annihilate villages filled with innocent women and children? Incinerate our bodies with mustard gas? Leave defenseless mothers and their children to fend for themselves in filthy trenches?
In a particularly brilliant scene, Diana’s world of black and white becomes much grayer when “Chief”, a native-American mercenary, tells her that the United States’ people deprived him of his land. She gives Steve, her American (boy)friend, a pained glance. Up until that point she thought she was fighting with the good guys, or at least with the guys who were not so bad. It turns out both sides of the war carried with them a considerable amount of moral baggage.
After many fight scenes and some sneaking around, Diana confronts General Ludendorff, the German leader whom Diana suspected to be Ares. She kills him easily. But her dream of ending the war does not materialize; bombs continue to explode after he dies. Soldiers continue to shoot. Trenches remain in use.
Flummoxed, she tells Steve that Ares is dead, that the war should be over. Steve responds by saying that sometimes, people do wicked things under no coercion from anyone or anything else. Before he returns to the battlefield, he pleads with her to help him.
By now our heroine has given up; go fight your war, she says. My mother was right. You don’t deserve me. In typical Hollywood-esque fashion, Steve says he loves her, then returns to the fray.
It is at this moment that the real Ares appears to Diana (Ludendorff had been a mere human general). Seeing that her fundamental faith in humanity has been extinguished, he invites her to help humanity massacre itself. Their lives, says Ares, are completely worthless; they may as well be dead. Ares here is nihilism personified — or deified.
Wonder Woman struggles with the weight of the situation; after all, she had just reached similar conclusions moments previously. But then she recalls the glimpses of humanity she saw even amid World War One's barbarism: affection between mothers and sons; dancing and music; and, of course, her love with Steve. And so, Diana sides with love against hate, with hope against nihilistic despair. She rejects and defeats Ares, and the war ends not long thereafter.
What to make of all this?
Obviously, despite all our faults, few people propose that we eradicate mankind, like Ares thought, or that we are a species beyond redemption. But neither is there a scarcity of cynicism in the world.
When one looks at the human record it is difficult not to think that perhaps the universe would have been a little bit better off if we had never developed prefrontal cortexes and other means of complex organization. From nuclear weapons and concentrations camps to chattel slavery and the plundering of earth’s ecosystems, Ares' misanthropic message starts to ring uncomfortably true.
If our vast history of folly and atrocity, then, represents the case against humanity, is there anything we can say in its — in our — favor?
I think there is.
First, it must be to our credit that we have managed to hang on for hundreds of thousands of years, in the teeth not just of ceaseless conflict but of environmental catastrophes, devastating maladies, and other fatal forces beyond our control. Our violent dispositions compelled us to accept that some of our differences will never go away, and that for this reason we must set some basic standards in order to live together in relative tranquility.
Even in the depths of savagery and melancholy there has been the glimmer of humanity and hope. Thus heartbreak and longing gave us the most beautiful poetry and music; slavery yielded both Huckleberry Finn and the writings of Frederick Douglass; segregation allowed To Kill a Mockingbird; World War Two necessitated the birth of the United Nations; and so on. I wish we could have arrived at these great cultural and diplomatic achievements without the bloodshed, but if the tendency to act on our flaws is human then so too is our drive to flourish and be free, so too is the hope that in the end we shall overcome.
Diana's initial position — that once humans are liberated from wicked, outside forces they will see reason and behave properly — was shown as hopelessly wrong and misguided. (In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim remarks sarcastically that when he was a student at the Department of Anthropology, “they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody… another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.”)
We still have in this world a fair share of people who believe in the notion that our minds are tabulas rasas, which can be molded into desirable results by using education, reason, and material advancement as sculpting tools.
History shows us this is not the case. Positive developments like education and prosperity can be wielded for good or ill. The same rationalism that allowed science and democracy was corrupted into "scientific socialism" and the horrors the Soviet Union inflicted by wielding that doctrine. The same anti-clericalism that released us from religion's monopoly over education was perverted into the massacre of the clergy in many countries, from France after 1789 to Spain in the 1930s. The leap between medical technology and chemical weaponry is not great. The philosopher Alain de Botton points out that improvements in, and the spread of, education have not abolished idiocy, nor could they ever. Modernity, then, has not been omni-benevolent.
But these things — science, democracy, reason, medicine, not to mention art, literature, and architecture — are especially incredible achievements for a flawed species like ours. We did build aqueducts and pyramids. We did eradicate diseases like polio. We did eliminate slavery. We did conceive human rights. In the mixed bag that is human history, even our flaws contained hints of greatness and the potential for good.
What matters, then, is that we use our creative faculties in positive ways, even though history knows we can do otherwise with them. Our human agency is the crucial factor, and with it we are free to flourish or perish. Choosing correctly requires us to be informed by love for each other and inspired by the faith that in spite it all we can progress.
In the final analysis, Diana recognized that it is up to us to decide what to do with our fate. Her naïve view in our benevolence changed, but it never morphed into hate or, perhaps worse, surrender.
Wonder Woman stuck around and decided to help, not to remove herself from society. She saw us at our worst, but her love for humanity made her side with hope. And in so doing, I believe, she was right.