Richard Donner, who became the grandfather of contemporary superhero cinema with 1978’s Superman, lamented in a recent interview, “There are so many people that make superheroes so cynical, it’s depressing. When they’re dark and bleak and angry with themselves and the world, I don’t find it entertaining. I think there’s enough reality going on for that.”
Donner doesn’t entirely disapprove of the surge in superheroes films his work spawned. In fact, “When you see it done right, by my standards, it’s so fulfilling. I’m very happy and proud when I see them.” If there’s one film that made him especially happy and proud, it was Patty Jenkins’ take on Superman’s crimefighting colleague, Wonder Woman. This is not surprising, because Jenkins deliberately patterned her 2017 Wonder Woman after Donner’s Superman. (Look no further than the sequence where Diana Prince struggles with a revolving door, then stops a bullet to save Steve Trevor from thugs in an alley.) Her 2020 sequel, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84 for short), continues in the Donner tradition of effusive earnestness, calculated campiness, euphoric flight sequences, and above all, hope for humanity.
However, there is one crucial difference between the ethos of Donner’s Superman and the ethos of Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. WW18 and WW84 — for clarity’s sake, I’ll be referring to the first film also by its year setting — are not at all “cynical” or “angry with themselves and the world,” yet they are significantly more “dark and bleak” than Superman. Their hope for humanity is juxtaposed with a more sober assessment of the human condition.
Superman features a humanistic parody of John 3:16. The Kryptonian Jor-El sends his son to Earth with this commission: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”
In the moral anthropology of Donner’s Superman, humans are depraved to some degree, but not so much that they are unable to reform themselves with a little inspiration. Politically, we could call this progressivism: Provide some education, some economic security, some political agency, some moral exemplars, and address injustices and inequalities — free people from the Sisyphean cycle of fighting for bare survival and lift their heads to see new possibilities — and people will rationally understand and willingly choose hard virtues like self-control and sacrifice as obviously in their best interest and conducive to the flourishing of their families, their communities, and even the foreign Other across town or across the world. Theologically, we could call this Pelagianism. Jor-El sends his only begotten son to Earth because Earthlings have a capacity for good, and all his son will need to do is give them some light. Superman doesn’t need to pull us out of a pit so much as give us a push in the right direction.
This is fundamentally different from John 3:16. God sends Christ because He so loved the world, not because it could do some good on its own already. Moreover, Christ is the light of the world, but the world is not simply lacking light; it is lacking a right disposition toward the light. “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Light will not do any good for a person who does not want it. The miracle of the Christian gospel is that God gives spiritual eyes to see the light as desirable and the darkness as despicable. He gives a new heart that loves what is good and hates what is evil. Superman cannot do that; Christ can.
Wonder Woman 1918
Placed thus between Superman and Scripture, Jenkins’ two Wonder Woman films are strikingly biblical and theologically astute. The prologue of WW18 is a rendition of Genesis 1 through 3 tossed into a blender with Greek mythology. Young Diana learns that Zeus created man “in his image, fair and good, strong and passionate. . . . And mankind was good.” But Ares, the god of war, “sought to corrupt his father’s creation,” filling “men’s hearts with jealousy and suspicion.” When she is grown up, Diana will learn that she was miraculously conceived by Zeus for the purpose of one day destroying Ares. There is a good creation, a fall instigated by a deceiver, and a promised redemption.
But how deep was this fall, and what is the extent of the redemption required? When Diana finds out about the First World War raging outside her Edenic island, she is convinced it is all Ares’s doing; killing him will release men from a warmongering spell and they will be restored to their original goodness. She thinks the corruption of the fall has not seeped into man’s innermost nature. Remove the external impediment, and man will walk the straight and narrow.
As Diana embarks on her quest, her obsession with finding and killing Ares is frowned upon by believers and agnostics alike. Her naïveté is so plain the audience knows she is about to be proven wrong. But if she is wrong, who is right? When I first saw the film, I had the queasy expectation that the filmmakers were setting up a materialistic explanation of the origin of evil: there is no Ares, no Satan, no personal embodiment of evil. The devil is just the stuff of bedtime stories to scare children and superstitious adults into good behavior. I was worried WW18 would go the way of Scooby-Doo, with Diana nabbing her monster only to find there was none.
Instead, the film’s finale rejects both the idealism of Diana and Jor-El and the secularism of Scooby-Doo. Ares does exist, masquerading as a man of peace — an angel of light — while whispering wicked suggestions to the bloodthirsty. At the same time, people are not patsies. Ares has so much power over them because his temptations resonate with their deepest inclinations. In the film’s best, most truthful moment, Steve tells Diana, “Maybe people aren’t always good, Ares or no Ares. Maybe it’s just who they are.” This is hard for Diana to swallow, for if true, the German army she swore to save from Ares’s deception just decimated a village of innocents out of the overflow of their own dark desires. Steve continues, “You don’t think I get it, after what I’ve seen out there? You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it was one bad guy to blame? It’s not! We’re all to blame! . . . Maybe I am.”
This affirmation of the existence of both devil and depravity is crucial to Christian theology. If there is a devil but no depravity, then sin is external to man and man could be extricated from sin by Christ defeating Satan and needing to do little else. Conversely, if there is depravity but no devil, then sin is internal to man from the start and man is inextricable from sin. That would mean that God did not, in fact, make man good, but man was bad to begin with, and if man was bad to begin with, he is irredeemable. As the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explains, sin cannot originate solely from Adam if Adam was created good. “Man did not come to the transgression of the law of God by himself exclusively but was moved to it from outside himself.” Man is inherently sinful now, but he wasn’t always so, and that makes redemption possible. Bavinck continues,Sin does not belong to the essence of the world, but is something, rather, which was introduced into the world by man. That is why it can again be removed from the world by the power of Divine grace which is stronger than every creature.
After Steve’s damning indictment of the human condition, Ares does appear and does claim some responsibility for the carnage — “whispering into their ears ideas . . . but I don’t make them use them” — and Diana does destroy him. But even with Ares gone, man’s wickedness persists. In the epilogue of WW18, Diana acknowledges that evil resides in the heart of every person. Unfortunately, that is not the only conclusion she draws:I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves — something no hero will ever defeat. I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love.
This is both a complication of Donner’s thesis in Superman and a return to it, a step backward from the biblical balance that WW18 struck just minutes earlier. Echoing Jor-El, Diana uses the motif of light, but she adds darkness. This is an improvement, but not by much. The idea that “there will always be both” light and darkness in each human heart is not necessarily unbiblical, but only if it is understood in the sense that total depravity is constantly tempered by God’s common grace, which keeps people from always acting as wickedly as they could be. This restraining, universal grace is evidenced by Christ’s rhetorical questions in Matthew 7:9–10: “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” Because of grace, even the most wicked men can still do some good. Nevertheless, because of depravity, even the best among men can never do enough good to atone for their evil.
But this is not what Diana means. She means there is still enough light in people for them to choose light and love over darkness and hate. This is “the choice each much make for themselves”; “no hero” can make it for them. But if the darkness in men is as strong as Diana has found it to be, then that sentiment offers little hope for change. How many will ever make that choice, let alone make it consistently enough to make a difference? Of course, a hero like Wonder Woman cannot make this choice for someone else, but we still need a hero who can — a far greater hero, one who would choose to lay down His life for those who chose to kill Him rather than love Him; a hero who could atone for all their evil; a hero who could turn their hearts back to the Father who made them in His image.
(There is also a dangerous dualism implicit throughout WW18. The way Diana puts it, the forces of light and dark are fairly balanced. Recall that Ares is Zeus’s son and Diana is his daughter, rehashing the old heresy that Satan and Christ are brothers. For one thing, this gives Satan way too much credit. Christ does not barely defeat the devil; He crushes him.)
WW18 finds a great deal of darkness in the heart of man, but it stops far short of agreeing with God’s assessment “that every intention of the thoughts of his heart [is] only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). But WW84 will make up for some of that distance.
Wonder Woman 1984
The plot of WW84 is set into motion by the discovery of an ancient wishing stone. The wishes people make of the stone reveal their deepest desires and thus their true character. These revelations are not pretty. People ask for fame. They ask for power. They ask for weapons. They ask for the deaths of their enemies. Almost all the wishes heard in the film are bids for self-glorification framed in comparative, competitive, adversarial terms: I want x so I can be better than or have victory over y. WW84 becomes a nightmarish confirmation of James 4:1–3:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Granted, there are a few characters in the film whose passions are not so volatile. A child asks for success for his father, not himself. A man makes a seemingly innocuous request for a farm. Diana asks for Steve to be brought back to life. Though this wish has serious, harmful consequences, the film does not put Diana’s wish in the same category as the wishes of the villains who are her foils. She seems to have made her wish on a whim, not really believing the stone could grant it, and at least she is not seeking to distinguish herself or hurt anyone by wishing Steve back. Even so, Diana has to deny herself to admit that it was wrong to resurrect a man who died 66 years ago for reasons that are still essentially selfish — especially when obtaining her desire entailed stealing the body (and presumably displacing the consciousness) of another man, à la Quantum Leap. (This is one of the film’s most bizarre conceits; let’s not dwell on it any longer.)
On the whole, the wishes are vain at best and vile at worst, and the consequences are devastating. Chaos ensues as reality buckles under the weight of thousands of people getting clashing, mutually exclusive wishes granted in a short span of time. Narrative coherence flies out the window, but the message is clear: Given the chance, people will ask for whatever serves their worst instincts and harms others.
WW84 has gotten plenty of flack for its loopy stylistic and dramatic choices, and understandably so. I suspect, however, that much of the critical controversy stems not from the CGI or the camp but the uncomfortable verdict on human nature. The Honest Trailer for the film blurts out what many must be thinking: Wonder Woman “has to stop other people’s dreams from coming true, because we’re all inherently selfish, and uh, evil. . . . Wow, that is grim.” That is precisely the point, and I would count it a blessing if a big dumb blockbuster caused audiences to consider if that is actually true.
Sadly but not surprisingly, many will miss or misconstrue that point. I read one review that excoriated the film for, among other things, shaming those who would seek to improve their circumstances. That is inaccurate. WW84 is a warning, not against wanting things to be better — or wanting in general, as if desire itself were evil — but against wanting the wrong things or wanting to get good things in the wrong way. Speaking of wanting things to be better, I should qualify a statement I made earlier: although our fallen condition will not be reversed by providing education, economic security, political agency, moral exemplars, and greater justice and equality, that does not mean we should not work and advocate for these things. The acknowledgment of human depravity is not a deterministic dead-end; it should not extinguish a zeal for social reforms. Instead, an awareness of our depravity should drive us to find a cure for an ill far deadlier than those we can treat (and should treat) with material remedies. Our fundamental problem, as Augustine put it so well, is that our loves and desires are disordered.
WW84 recognizes we are beings who desire by created nature, and by fallen nature desire wrongly. The film displays how the intentions of the thoughts of our hearts, apart from divine intervention, really are only evil continually. A conclusion the film does not reach, though it is on the right track, is that our disordered desires stem from a disordered relationship with our Maker.
At their core, the destructive wishes heard in the film are rejections of finite and dependent creatureliness under a sovereign and benevolent Creator. In our fallen state, we resent how God has or has not made us and what He has or has not given us. It was this dissatisfaction with what God had planned and provided that led Adam and Eve into sin in the first place. One of the film’s villains, Maxwell Lord, tells his counterpart, Barbara Minerva, “Never accept the limitations of nature.” Nature as God gave it is to be defied, with man claiming God’s place over nature. Appropriate to his name, Lord asks to become the wishing stone itself, turning himself into something more than human: a god, or more precisely a demon, the franchise’s next iteration of a Satan figure. (Just as, echoing Christ’s wilderness temptation, Ares offers Diana a peaceful world if only she would help him destroy humanity, so also Lord demands a price for every wish he grants. It is also worth noting that the stone was created by a trickster god similar to Ares.) In contrast, Barbara, after initially asking to be more like Diana, later asks to be utterly unlike all people, turning herself into something less than human: an animal. As ridiculous as it looks on screen, there is a biblical logic to this metamorphosis. When people do not worship their Creator, they do not stop worshipping but instead worship the creature — “mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23) — and become like what they worship (Psalm 115:8).
The Bronze Serpent
Wonder Woman 1918 and Wonder Woman 1984 plumb man’s sinfulness to deeper depths than most mainstream films would dare to go. But they are not thereby without hope. Both films express optimism that, while depravity shouts so loudly it cannot be ignored, it will not have the final word. Of course, the films place this hope and optimism in the wrong source, looking to man to solve man’s problem. And yet, just as their diagnosis of man’s problem is remarkably similar to that made by Christianity, WW18 and WW84 trace a path for man’s redemption that bears a faint but meaningful resemblance to the way of salvation heralded in the gospel.
First, the Wonder Woman films show that redemption can only begin with the conviction and confession of sin. People must recognize that they are sinners and say so. This is what happens in WW18 when Steve says that he is to blame for the evil in the world just as much as the Germans and Ares. This is also what happens in WW84 when, in a reversal of the parable, the prodigal father Maxwell Lord returns empty-handed to the son he abandoned to seek after riches. He confesses to his son, “I’m not a great guy. In fact I’m a pretty messed-up loser guy. And I made terrible mistakes. . . . I’m nothing to be proud of, Alistair.” It’s unusual to encounter such honesty and contrition in popular entertainment.
Second, WW84 shows that conviction and confession must go hand in hand with turning from sin. When Wonder Woman helps the masses realize the destruction wrought by their wishes, they renounce them, meaning they regret and rescind them. This is a beautiful picture of what biblical repentance looks like. We stop wishing for and chasing after those things that go against God, agreeing with Him that they are foolish; and we start praying for His kingdom to come and His will to be done, finding wisdom in the fear of God. As it says in Psalm 34:11–14:Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD; What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Third, WW84 shows we need to see the truth. Actually, this comes first; it is the precondition to conviction and confession and repentance. The way Wonder Woman convinces the world to renounce its wishes is to connect her golden Lasso of Truth to a television broadcast seen across the world. (Don’t ask how, just go with it.) As she speaks to humanity, everyone is gazing at glowing golden screens that peel the covetous blinders from their eyes so they can see reality once more. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that their eyes are beholding glory.
In the film as in Scripture, truth and glory are linked, and they are salvific. But unlike the film, Scripture ties that truth and glory and salvation to a person. Christ promises, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). Paul writes that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). To see the glory of Christ the Truth is to be delivered from our evil and conformed to His goodness.
To draw yet another biblical parallel, if Ares in WW18 recalls one biblical serpent, the golden screens of WW84 are reminiscent of another. In Numbers 21, the wilderness-wandering Israelites complain that God has not granted them all that they had wished. They accuse Him of sadistically leading them into the desert to die of hunger and thirst. Perhaps to remind them of the one who incited the first food-related rebellion against Him, God unleashes poisonous snakes that bite and kill many. When the Israelites confess their sin and ask Moses to intercede with God for them, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and fix it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze serpent and live. They had to stare square at the emblem of their crime and its punishment in order to be healed.
This brings us back to John 3. Immediately preceding John 3:16, Jesus references the bronze serpent incident and reveals it had a prophetic purpose: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14–15). Our salvation is found in looking upon the bloodied, disfigured Messiah hanging from a tree on account of our sin and rebellion. He was pierced by man, but crushed by God, so that the serpent would be crushed and all the works of the devil be destroyed (Isaiah 53; Genesis 3:14–15; 1 John 3:8). This is why the Son of God was given to the world, not to condemn it but to save it — and not to save it by giving it a moral light to follow, but by dying in the stead of sinners, becoming a curse for us so that all who believe, confess, and repent could be blessed and made righteous (John 3:17; Galatians 3: 13–14; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
According to Richard Donner, “there’s enough reality going on for” dark superhero films. I agree that these films can easily cross the line from darkness to nihilism, and that there is a proper place for light-hearted escapism. But what Patty Jenkins has achieved with her two Wonder Woman films is to tell stories that, rather than revel in despair or distract from reality, help us reckon with reality constructively. “You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough.” For those with eyes to see, Diana speaks more truth than she knows.