From Greek philosophers to womanist theologians, western thinkers have struggled to make sense of the problem of evil and divine vindication in light of the reality of human-induced suffering. As I sat and watched Wonder Woman just one day after its big debut, I could not help but think that the entire film was a modern-day attempt to work out this deeply philosophic and theological problem. What is evil? Why does God, or the cosmic order, allow it?
I’ll admit that my moviegoing experience is shaped by my work as a seminarian. So what does this latest addition to the DC canon look like when viewed through a biblical-theological lens?
As this review is one big spoiler, I’d like to start midway through the film, when the Great War that Diana (Wonder Woman) has so feared is well underway.
Diana and British spy Steve assemble an unlikely crew: Sameer, a spy who wants to be an actor but “isn’t the right color,” Charlie, a respected marksman who wants to sing, and The Chief, an expert smuggler, who longs for his lost heritage.
In Wonder Woman, as in the biblical text, people with little or no power are agents of divine justice: the biblical God chooses and uses people who are on the fringes of empire.
The team that Diana and Steve assembles is not aligned with either side of empire. They are not British soldiers—they are outlaws, lowly and dishonorable by society’s standards. In the biblical text, there are numerous examples of similar unlikely heroes: Moses is a genealogical hybrid of sorts who ends up fleeing Egypt; and Rahab is a prostitute who helps save Israel. Jesus himself chooses ordinary men to be his disciples, including a tax collector.
When Diana/Wonder Woman finally fights and kills General Ludendorff it seems that victory has been won, but to her surprise, the war does not end. The war’s continuation defies Diana’s central belief: that Ludendorff is none other than Ares, the god of war, and that killing the god of war will end the process of war. In all of the preceding build-up, the audience has been led to believe that Ares is the cause of war and the cause of the darkness of men, implying that his death will bring peace.
In theological terms we’d say that God’s intervention does not necessarily end human war or human-induced suffering.
It is this central belief that is at the core of the Wonder Woman film. Throughout the movie, we the audience are rooting for Diana, whom we assume will defeat Ares, Hollywood style, bringing perfect peace to the world. But what we learn by the end of the film is that evil cannot be located in a single demigod, villain or agent.
The fact that Ludendorff’s death does not result in an armistice indicates the pervasiveness of what I call “human-induced suffering.” Human-induced suffering is an important part of the theodicy problem, because it reveals to us what is almost counter-intuitive: neither God nor the devil is wholly responsible for the destruction that human beings wreak upon one another.
Not to give too much away for stragglers who may not have seen it yet, but another character reveals himself as Ares, explaining that he is not the god of war but the god of “truth,” simply prompting human beings with ideas and inspiration, but allowing them to determine their ultimate course of action.
Now it seems Diana’s entire quest has been nothing other than a ploy to get her to see that humanity is unredeemable and inherently corrupt, and that she should join Ares and help him destroy humankind. At this point in the film, Steve flies an airplane bomber into the sky, carrying lethal chemicals and sacrificing his own life to save others. Diana, inspired by Steve’s act of selflessness, chooses to let humanity live and destroys Ares instead.
A final theological parallel, as I read it: The biblical God can be moved to loving intervention by imperfect human beings. Steve admits his imperfection—he is a thief, a murderer and a smuggler—and yet he commits the ultimate act of love: choosing humanity. Wonder Woman suggests that human beings can serve as compassionate interlocutors and mind-changers because God—or in this film’s case, a demi-god—is immanent and listening.
In addition to revealing things about God, Wonder Woman’s concluding scenes seem to ask us, as liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez put it: “Can human beings have a disinterested faith in God—that is, can they believe in God without looking for rewards and fearing punishments?”
If Gutierrez is right that “to believe ‘for nothing’ and ‘without payment,’ is the contrary of a faith-based on the doctrine of retribution,” then how do we move beyond the idea of war, which is a feature of empire? How can we, as humans, effectively move God to loving intervention while participating in movements for justice? Without the prompting of superheroes and arch-villains, us mere mortals must learn to confront the interpersonal and structural causes of human-induced suffering.