Warning: spoiler alert.
As I watched the young Princess Diana, Daughter of Hippolyta, grow up on the island of Themyscira, I thought of the Latin proverb: Dulce bellum inexpertis (War is sweet only to the untried.)
Although Wonder Woman appears to be another cinematic foray into the realm of comic book violence, the strength of the movie really lies in its illustration of this saying, which is also ancient Greek in origin, like the birthplace of Diana.
The legendary home of the historic Amazon female warriors has a slightly different spelling in the Greek place name: Themiscyra. Although the ancient Greek town was real, presumably the transposition of vowels indicates the story’s deliberate transposition of its events into a mythical realm.
The proverb only takes three words in Latin, but needs more in English, such as: War is a treat for one who has not tried it. The saying seems most fitting for a youthful mind excited by the violent conflicts of superhero films.
“This is one of the finest of proverbs and is widely used in literature,” wrote Erasmus in his Adages (which surveyed 4,151 proverbs in the edition published in 1536). Surprisingly, the new Wonder Woman movie makes it into a theme, beginning its story with the young Diana’s zeal for combat training on Themyscira.
When Diana grows up and enters the conflicts of World War I, she still maintains a youthful innocence and idealism. Through her eyes, the audience is invited to view the world in a childlike way.
Diana’s innocence is finally crushed when, in a pivotal scene, after performing an act of vengeance, which she had expected to bring an end to all violent conflict, the madness of war still rages on. She realizes violence only begets violence, as she is unable to provide the magical heroic solution.
What elevates the film beyond standard superhero fare is how it enfolds ancient Greek mythology into its story. In truth, the film is more of a Greek mythology film than just a comic book tale.
But the Greek mythology is transmuted through a Christian lens, most notably in its critique of heroic violence, as when Wonder Woman is compelled to abandon her naïve view that violence is a solution to anything.
The polytheistic universe of the Greek gods is also pruned, to describe a monotheistic Christian universe with Greek mythical language. In effect, Zeus becomes the name for the one true God who rules providentially, whereas Ares, the god of war, becomes the primary satanic power seeking to undermine God’s plan.
Although the movie’s mythology forms no exact allegorical correspondence with Christian realities, there are nevertheless interesting resonances between the film’s mythical figures and some elements of the Catholic faith.
Viewers will be able to recognize qualities of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Diana herself.
Viewers will be able to recognize qualities of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Diana herself. The Israeli actress Gal Gadot plays Diana very well, conveying the beauty of such rare qualities of character. And all the Amazons of Themyscira seem to speak with an Israeli accent, as if Themyscira were the Holy Land.
Wonder Woman’s origin is mysterious, but described in mythological language emphasizing Zeus’s role in bringing about a kind of Immaculate Conception for her. By this divine privilege, Diana is able to wander through the world with an unusual purity of heart.
Even in sexual matters, she is untouched by concupiscence. She is thus able to comport herself with a refreshing innocence, which elevates and sanctifies her interactions with men.
Catholics will also be able to discern qualities of St. Joseph in Steve Trevor, with whom Diana forms a virtuous alliance. Together they overcome the violence of war, not with more violence, but rather with the power of self-sacrificial love.
When Diana has her final battle with Ares, she does not deliver a heroic deathblow so much as let evil defeat itself. It’s not the usual denouement of comic book violence, although it might be mistaken for such, given all the accompanying noise and spectacle.
But violent victory had already been deconstructed in the earlier scene in which Diana learned to abandon the myth of violent heroism. Instead, the Christian approach is depicted by the way in which Wonder Woman crosses her wrists in her iconic defensive posture of love, which deflects evil back upon itself.
Wonder Woman thus illustrates what Erasmus wrote in his Adages against war, and on behalf of Christ: “just as the whole of his doctrine teaches tolerance and love, so his whole life is a lesson in gentleness. This was how he reigned, how he fought, how he conquered, how he triumphed.”