Wonder Woman Redux

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD


I got a kick out of this film on many levels. The first is its portrayal of bang-up battles between unambiguous villains and good guys, both human and divine, amped up by super-duper special effects. The movie also involves an old-fashioned sweetheart relationship, nicely seasoned with sprinkles of humor, between its attractive co-stars, Gal Godatas Princess Diana, and Chris Pine, as Steve Trevor, the American pilot she rescues.

Princess Diana is a familiar figure, Wonder Woman, known to millions in her original comic book format, a television show and a series of subsequent films. The Wonder Woman icon has special relevance in our cultural moment: the contemporary struggle by women to realize John Stuart Mill’s nineteenth century hope that they would achieve social equality, albeit the last class of humans to do so.

From this last point of view, Ms. Godat is an especially apt choice as Wonder Woman. Israeli by birth, she won the tiara as Miss Israel at eighteen,going on to serve as a combat instructor in the Israeli army before becoming an actress. Amusingly perhaps, her nationality has caused the film to be banned in Lebanon, removed from a film festival in Algeria and deleted from movie ticket websites in Tunisia.

But there is more. The super hero genre began with the Superman comic books of 1938 and embodies a host of others: Batman, Captain Marvel, The Phantom, The Green Lantern, Mandrake the Magician, Spiderman, et allia.

Heroic status is achieved by human actions that are admirable. Heroes are psychologically valuable because they inspire emulation.

Superheroes differ from heroes in that their achievements are beyond the possibilities of the human condition. Thus, they implicitly draw attention to human frailty, human limitations. That raises the question of how and why the superhero genre exploded in popularity.

The answer may lie in the timing of their 1930’s birth. In the previous decade, the “Roaring Twenties,” the United States became the world’s wealthiest country. That opulent period was followed by the devastating Great Depression, with its breadlines and the Dust Bowl calamity, with its deserted farms and migrating Oakies.

Desperate times encourage a hope for something beyond heroes, for saviors. We can look at superheroes as quasi-religious figures, parental imagos that soothe human anxiety. Wonder Woman is an archaic mother figure whose power promises protection.

The psychologist William Moulton Marston gave birth to Wonder Woman in 1941, inspired by the two women with whom he lived in a menage á trois. In his psychological theories, Marston argued for an ideal state of submission to loving authority. In the film that concept is symbolized by the rescued pilot, Trevor, being compelled by the lasso of truth to confess his mission. Marston’s view of the role of submission in love seems relevant to sadomasochistic sexual bondage games/rituals.

The movie ends with two tragic ironies that give it unexpected depth. Wonder Woman’s superhero victory over her enemy, Ares, brings World War I, the war to end all wars, to an end. The audience knows, though the goddess doesn’t, what is to come: WW II and international terrorism.

Another tragic irony is that, at the end, we see Diana grieving for Steve, who has died.

In loving a human, the goddess opened herself to a tragic wound that scars humanity—the inevitability of losing loved ones.

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