Through a Mythological Lens: Wonder Woman 1984
The new Wonder Woman movie applies lessons from Hesiod's Third Age of Humankind
Wonder Woman has been inspired by Greek mythology from her earliest comic book incarnation, and through many other versions including her most recent big screen (or HBO Max) incarnation. Because of her longstanding prominence, the DC Comics and DC cinematic universes are firmly placed in a setting that includes the actual gods of Olympus.
So let's look at Wonder Woman 1984 through a mythological lens.*
The 8th Century BCE rhapsode Hesiod divided human history into a series of ages. The stories of larger-than-life mythological heroes took place in the Third, or Heroic Age, while Hesiod considered himself to be living in a later and lesser Fourth Age in which strength and heroism were on the decline. The Wonder Woman franchise is steeped in this ethos, as well as being inspired by the specific myths of Amazon warriors encountered by Heracles, Theseus, Priam, and others.
In the DC universe, Diana grew up in the timeless utopia of Themyscira, a literal island of Third Age heroism hidden in an alcove of our Fourth Age world. Young Diana is shown as the only child in her entire society. While every other resident of Themyscira had already become a fully realized Amazon, Young Diana still had endless lessons to learn with a whole lot of growth ahead of her. In this, she represents how all of us Fourth Age folks need to put in the work to realize our full potential, where the heroic figures of the Third Age received effortless power from divine bloodlines, god-wrought artifacts, and Centaur tutors.
Diana in the World of Men is a mythological figure in a post-mythological world. But where 2017’s Wonder Woman was constructed as your typical WWI-era mythology-inspired superhero origin story, Wonder Woman 1984 is the first true Wonder Woman movie.
Keep that framing in mind as we sidetrack into a bit of critical theory.
In 1987, film critics Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert (right) jointly reviewed two movies that were released during the same week. One was a kid's movie about a dog that gets lost in the woods, to which Ebert gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The other was an Oscar-worthy dark comedy about the Vietnam War, to which Ebert gave a thumbs-down. Yes, Siskel and Ebert rated movies with only their thumbs—it was a simpler time.
Siskel was agog that Ebert could prefer Benji the Hunted to Stanly Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, but no, Ebert explained, that was not what his respective thumb-orientations had meant.
Siskel rated movies on an absolute scale, like Rotten Tomatoes, where Benji the Hunted has a 55% Tomatometer rating today while Full Metal Jacket comes in at 92%. But Ebert judged each movie within its own context. As a movie in the dog-gets-lost-in-the-woods genre, Benji the Hunted met and exceeded all of Ebert's expectations, and so earned a thumbs-up. But for a dark comedy from an acclaimed writer/director about a ground-level view of war, Ebert found Full Metal Jacket to be a thumb-twisting disappointment.
Wonder Woman 1984 has a Tomatometer rating of 60%, putting it closer to Benji the Hunted than to Full Metal Jacket on the objectivist Siskelite scale. But how does it fare within context-dependent Ebertine considerations?
I have a variety of opinions just within my own head:
As a general movie, I found Wonder Woman 1984 to be disappointing.
As a superhero movie, I found Wonder Woman 1984 to be fairly good.
As a Wonder Woman movie, I found Wonder Woman 1984 to be freakin’ awesome.
I can sympathize with one reviewer who couldn’t decide which basket to place this movie into, leading to a torrent of general movie and superhero movie complaints before the awkward confession, “but I loved this movie anyway.”
The problem is that moviegoers aren’t used to watching a movie that falls into the nominal basket of Wonder Woman movies. There have been enough Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman movies that we all have a baseline to judge any new reboot that might come along. But even professional reviewers are finding it a challenge to define what a Wonder Woman movie should be, how its tropes will eventually be formed, and whether this particular movie meets them.
Compounding the problem is the fact that 2017’s Wonder Woman was not a Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman was an Origin Story movie that set the stage on which actual Wonder Woman movies like Wonder Woman 1984 could take place.
As a superhero, Wonder Woman is a champion of love and compassion. She displays empathy for her enemies. She is not from our world, but was sent here on a continuing mission of uplift from a utopian society that is better than ours in every way. Ageless and powerful, Diana could be considered a goddess in the context of mythology, but she still has flaws that need to be overcome before she can reach her own full potential. Diana's ultimate goal is to make the world a better place by inspiring people to become their better selves.
A Wonder Woman movie differs in significant ways from the generic superhero movie template, to the point that plugging any other hero or heroine into a Wonder Woman plot would make absolutely no sense. To use a Greek mythology lens, the best fit I found was Hesiodic, based on the Four Ages of Humankind.
A Wonder Woman movie starts with a flashback to a younger version of our Third Age hero being presented with a lesson. The others in her Third Age society have already incorporated this lesson, but it’s beyond our hero’s grasp. “Greatness is not what you think,” she is told. “Accomplishments built on lies are not accomplishments at all.” But all she cares about in the moment is that she won a race but was denied the honors and recognition she feels she is owed. The hero grows up, leaves the Third Age enclave on a mission to the surrounding Fourth Age world, passes several decades, and has much success even without fully absorbing that one childhood lesson—until a situation arises in which her failure is imminent, directly because of this deficiency in her training. Furthermore, that same lesson is also urgently needed by Fourth Age society itself at a crisis stage of its civilizational development. Upon seeing Fourth Age individuals turn villainous for the lack of learning that one particular lesson, the Third Age hero is spurred to master it for herself and act as a mentor and example for the Fourth Age world. As a result, she unlocks new powers and the world becomes a better place.
The Third Age hero and the Fourth Age world need each other. The Third Age hero needs to witness and understand the imperfections of the Fourth Age world in order to perfect herself in ways she never could have back in the Third Age world of already perfect heroes. Only when she is required to teach that lesson to others is she able to learn it for herself, and in the process she helps the Fourth Age society raise itself closer to its ideal state.
The Wonder Woman movie is not about racking up a high body-count or punishing villains for their unrepentant evil. The Wonder Woman movie is more ambitious than that. The Wonder Woman movie is about transforming civilization by transforming the self, which is what raises it to the level of mythology. Hesiod and other myth-weavers in the ancient world, similarly, brought heroes forward, through stories, to apply their lessons to advance their own civilization.
Wonder Woman 1984 belongs to a genre that posits a virtuous cycle between any self-improving individual and a positively evolving society. Such myths show what’s possible when we are the change we seek in the world, and when the world changes us in return. This is exactly the kind of story we need more of.
The odyssey continues. Keep reading!
*A Note on the Mythological Lens:
A critical lens is a way of looking at a particular work by focusing on how the style choices, plot devices, and character interactions show a certain theme. No lens reveals a complete view of any given work, but multiple lenses taken together may be helpful in achieving a fuller understanding. Typically, a Jungian Lens would be used to break a work into the archtypes of cultural mythology. But since I’m not clever enough to be a Jungian, I’m just making connections with mythology as best as I see them.