The worst part about superhero movies is always the villains. (There is one exception, the greatest and most underrated superhero movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Seriously.)
My problem with superhero villains tends to be their generic and over-exaggerated evilness. The problem is that there’s nothing inherently interesting or even real about pure evil. It needs to augmented by motives, brought down to earth by context, or at the very least, given new life by a particularly good or idiosyncratic performance. The problem of villains exceeds superhero movies narrowly defined; we find the same issues in recent James Bond films, or in crime dramas like Sherlock or Hannibal. (I will confess to have watched very little of the latter.)
A recent trend in superhero movies is to have a shadowy and villainous organization be responsible for all the world’s ills. In the latest Batman trilogy, it was the League of Shadows, and in the Avengers/Captain America films, it was Hydra. In both series, these criminal enterprises are revealed to have caused riots, assassinations, ecological disturbances, natural disasters, and economic recessions. And a metaphysical conception of evil drives them, suggesting that only its opposite, a pure goodness of will, might prevent their schemes from coming to fruition.
Wonder Woman flips the script, but only to a degree. (Spoilers will follow.) Throughout the film, the eponymous superhuman Diana believes that the major crisis of the moment facing humanity—the first world war—is being caused by Ares, a mythical and metaphysical evil figure. She is doubted by her human counterpart, Steve Trevor. As Diana seeks to find Ares, Trevor coopts her skills for his own mission, preventing the sabotage of the Armistice by a German officer and a mad scientist, all while nearly mansplaining the fact that Ares does not exist.
Ares is real, it turns out, and Diana finds him. But there’s a caveat. Ares tells Diana that he didn’t need to start the Great War, humans did it all on their own. Ares only whispered in the ears of men to guide the development of particularly heinous weapons, he admits. Diana’s lesson in the film is that humanity is capable of atrocities all by itself, without the aid of mythic beings.
This suggests a consideration of the nature of evil that is on the surface a bit more complicated than that offered by Captain America or Batman Begins, though it might be said that those films do show how ordinary people can be corrupted. In this way, all of these movies are similar to one of our cultural ur-texts, The Lord of the Rings, which features both a nefarious evil otherworldly figure and his armies of minions, but also a fallible race of creatures, taken to pettiness and selfishness, called humans. I’ve always liked The Lord of the Rings for those moments when it wrestles with “human nature” as an attempt to complicate its otherwise grossly manichean setup.
Yet there’s a critique to be made of the discourse of human nature as such. World War I wasn’t simply fought because of man’s inhumanity to man, or because we are naturally inclined to war. Such vague ascriptions fail a couple of tests. First, they fail the historians’ test; they deny the immediate causes of the Great War. Second, and more specifically, they fail the test of basic Marxism, which is to say they ignore the material causes of the Great War, and of intra-human conflict more generally speaking.
But less academically, they suggest a fatalistic worldview. Considered in such terms, Wonder Woman is exceedingly depressing.
Wonder Woman is uneasy with its own fatalism, and this is apparent in its ambiguous ending. Why does Diana fly off into the Paris night? She tells us viewers that after witnessing World War I, she had given up hope in saving the world. And yet she is still clearly committed to some kind of praxis of justice. Is she a crime fighter, and if so, what is the nature of the crime that she fights? Does she find muggers on the street and beat them up? Or does she some do some kind of work that is invested in challenging real structures of power, those that were at the heart of the cause of the war that she witnessed?
After I saw Wonder Woman I was reminded of an interview that Benjamin Kunkel gave on the radio show On the Media about global warming and the increasing use of the term “anthropocene.” He proposes an alternative: “capitalocene.” And the reason for doing so was prescriptive as much as it was descriptive. “I think that there is a danger that the Anthropocene becomes too fatalistic,” Kunkel explains. To simply describe the ecological problems of the world as caused by the presence of humans, or as the inevitable result of human nature, is to make the same mistake as does Wonder Woman. “The part of humanity that is responsible for the bulk of ecological change is by no means the majority or the totality of humanity,” observes Kunkel, and I think the same could be said about humanity with regard to the causes of violence and war.
Still, I’m glad Wonder Woman took a first step away from those manichean superhero narratives.