SPOILER ALERT: This article will contain some spoilers.
I went to see Wonder Woman last night ... for the second time. It’s not what I would call a “great movie,” but it is great fun. There are plenty of good reviews elsewhere. Here I’m going to address one aspect of the film that is generally overlooked in those reviews, and that is how the film perpetuates a dualistic Christian worldview.
The Christianizing of Pagan Myth
The first indication of this comes near the beginning of the movie, when we learn about the backstory of the film’s villain, the god of war, Ares. We are told that Zeus created mankind to be righteous and good. But Ares, the God of War, grew envious of his father’s creation and “poisoned their hearts with jealousy and suspicion,” encouraging them to war. That’s when Zeus created the Amazons, a race of women who influenced men’s hearts with “love” (lust?) in the hope of restoring peace on earth. In the movie, Wonder Women is a daughter of Zeus, raised by the Amazons.
Now, if you know anything about Greek mythology, you know that this is not anything like the original pagan myths. What it is is a Christianization of Greek mythology. In the movie, Zeus assumes the role of the Christian God, and Ares taking the role of Satan (making Wonder Woman a kind of female Jesus). There were similar Christianizations of Greek myth in Clash of the Titans (2010) and the animated movie Hercules (1997). In those movies, it is Hades, god of the underworld, who takes on the Satanic role.
But in Greek myth, Zeus is not at all like the Christian God, and Ares and Hades are not at all like the Christian Satan. The pagan gods were not all good or all evil, but a mixture, just like mortals. And the Amazons of Greek mythology were actually daughters of Ares, god of war, and Harmonia, the goddess of harmony). This is more than just an issue of historical accuracy. It’s reflective of how pervasive the dualistic Christian worldview is. Now, I realize that the movie is just following the mythology of the original D.C. comic book, which dates to the 1940s. But nevertheless, the movie makers had a choice in how to portray these characters and they chose to replicate the Christianized version.
The Dualistic Christian Worldview
The dualism in the movie is not limited to how Zeus and Ares are described. The whole movie is based on the opposition of “love”, represented by Wonder Woman, and “war”, represented by Ares. So in the movie, we have these dualisms:
Zeus / Satan
Love / War
Good / Evil
which reflect a Christian paradigm which also divides the world up dualistically:
God / Satan
Heaven / Earth
Spirit / Matter
Reason / Emotion
Human / Animal
Light / Dark
Good / Evil
Each of these dualisms is hierarchical; the first element is valued, while the second is devalued. They are also interrelated; the elements on the left are all related to each other while the elements on the right are all related to each other. Men and women are also fitted into this paradigm, but how they fit depends on whether women are being characterized by the “Madonna” or the “Whore” (see the Madonna-Whore Complex).
If it’s not obvious, the problem with this dualistic paradigm is that the world just isn’t that simple. It’s not black and white. It’s not even shades of grey. If we have to use a color scheme, it’s more like a rainbow than anything else. And when we see the world through a dualistic lens, we end up glorifying everything on one side of the spectrum and demonizing everything on the other side. The whole world gets split up this way, including other people, and even parts of our selves.
The Non-Dualistic Pagan Worldview
In contrast, the Pagan worldview is not dualistic. Contemporary Pagans may turn these dualisms on their head, by reclaiming and valorizing the disfavored element in each dualism. An example of this is the Neo-Pagan Goddess who is associated with the earth, nature, matter, the body, femininity, darkness, and fecundity, among other things. Pagans also work to dismantle the dualistic worldview by replacing dualisms entirely with new metaphors of diversity, connectedness, interdependence, and wholeness.
In a Pagan worldview, there is a positive side and negative side to everything. For example, there is a positive side to darkness and a negative side to light. Pagan gods of darkness can be creative (like the darkness of the fertile soil) and gods of light can be destructive (think of how people in drought stricken lands view the sun). Even creation and destruction are not characterized as absolute good and evil—there is a time and place for both.
Now, of course, not all Christians ascribe to a dualistric worldview. Not even all Christian creeds are so dualistic. The problem is not Christianity per se, but the way that a certain kind of Christian dualism has worked into so deep into out collective psyche that we can’t even tell a story about pagan gods without replicating that dualism.
Dualism in Wonder Woman
Getting back to Wonder Woman, the message of the film is that “love” can triumph over “war”. In the film, which is set during World War I, “love” is embodied by Wonder Woman (and her romantic partner and comrade in arms played by Chris Pine) and “war” is embodied by Ares and the German army. The German soldiers are vilified in the movie, but the reality was not so simple. Many of those German soldiers were fighting for love too: love of their homeland, love of their families, love for the man in the trenches next to them. And on the flip side, war crimes were committed by the Allies as well as the Central powers during World War I.
Even in the movie, things are not so simple as the dualistic love-war narrative says. Though Wonder Woman is supposed to represent “love”, she engages in warfare. She even kills German soldiers, though the actual dying is demphasized. The director depersonalizes the Germans (and their deaths) by failing to focus on their faces and their injuries in the same way that she focuses on the faces and injuries of the Allied soldiers. In addition, although Wonder Woman says the Germans are possessed by Ares, and are not responsible for their actions, she seems to have little reservation about killing them.
Living in a Non-Dualistic World
Rather than having Wonder Woman represent “love” in a dualistic struggle between love (good) and war (bad), a better story might have been to have Wonder Woman struggling to balance the two extremes, with Ares representing war and perhaps some representative of appeasement, like the goddess Harmonia. With the exception of her lack of concern for the German soldiers, I think Wonder Woman actually did a good job of representing this balance, in her deeds, if not through her words. She showed love, but demonstrated a determination to resist abuses of power. She was a fighter and was even willing to kill if necessary, but she was driven by care for those who could not defend themselves.
Real life is rarely, if ever, as simplistic as superhero movies depict. That’s likely part of their appeal. In the real world—a non-dualistic world—often the challenge isn’t resisting evil, so much as figuring out what needs to be resisted and how best to resist it. As an activist, I often find myself struggling to find the right balance between peace and conflict, love and anger, harmony and justice. It is not helpful to condemn either half of these pairs. There is a time and place for both, and most of life happens in the space in between.
This is what a Pagan worldview perspective can add to our culture which is so deeply influenced by Christian dualism. And this is the opportunity that the creators of Wonder Woman missed when they decided to represent the pagan myth through a Christian lens.