American Woman

Wonder Woman unsettles superheroes from within a national tradition that demands their existence

Coming soon to a theater near you: One harmonious community braces for an unstoppable threat. Only one hero is equipped to combat the evil, defeat it, and restore peace to mankind.

This narrative is a familiar one for American audiences. Its origins lie in the 1800s American West, the birthplace of a distinctly U.S.-American myth. In makeshift settlements, vigilantes and sheriffs collaborated to eradicate “outside” threats: bandits, gangs, and indigenous peoples. This mindset was absorbed and popularized through fiction and performance, like Wild Bill Hickock’s famous shows, dime novels of the late 19th century, and, eventually, novels and adaptations of the early 20th and mid-20th century, such as The Virginian, a novel by Owen Wister from 1902 that was adapted as a silent film, color film, and TV series. These stories narrativize the colonial sentiment by which the American West—America, period—was “won.”

Communities founded and maintained by genocide, whose contours were fuzzier than fiction allows, inspired tales where foreign antagonists bent on disturbing the peace face altruistic champions sent to restore order. Each retelling of the American West made the myth of American heroism more solid until the myth no longer needed to anchor itself in the nation’s imagined West—the nation itself was enough. Philosopher John Shelton Lawrence and theologian Robert Jewett call this type of narrative the “American monomyth,” and it is the formative story the U.S tells about itself.

The American monomyth took shape most effectively within the comic-book superheroes who emerged in the late 1930s and early ’40s—Superman, Batman, The Spirit, Flash, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Wonder Woman—and spread to other American tales of heroism, in film and other mediums, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries: Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone movies, plots in the Star Trek universe, hits like Independence Day, The Matrix, and Transformers, and the steady stream of superhero summer blockbusters.

In their 1977 study called The American Monomyth and 2002 reprise, The Myth of the American Superhero, Lawrence and Jewett identify a mythology that unites the most iconic fictional heroes in American culture. Above different origin stories, (super)powers, and publishers, the American monomyth provides a story in which an outsider—the protagonist—must defend a community whose democratic institutions cannot grasp the threat at hand. The outsider may be an alien, a mutant, a god, or simply a high school nerd, facing threats as varied as villainous gods conquering planets (Superman nemeses Darkseid and Mongul) and gentrification in Hell’s Kitchen (Netflix’s Daredevil). The institutions—a cacophonous city hall meeting in Jaws, an ultimately impotent U.S. government in Independence Day, or cops—are incompetent or malignant, and otherwise ill-equipped to deal with the magnitude of the threat. Altogether, the monomyth guides these plots toward resolutions in which one outsider (good) saves the community from another outsider (bad). Joining together stories as tonally distinct as the corny optimism of 1978's Superman and the xenophobic thrills of Fox’s 24, the monomyth is the through line of American heroism.

Coming soon to a timeline near you: disaster somewhere in the world, natural, manmade, or somewhere in between, causes destruction and loss of human lives. It is shocking. Horrific. But all is not lost. Heroes emerge from the rubble. Survivors. Everyday humans venturing into flooded areas, saving strangers, lifting cars. Heartwarming tales born out of tragedy. Eventually, this will be archived. After all, a dollar sign must be put to the destruction, a number to the dead and displaced.

Immense in magnitude and incomprehensible in their destruction, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other tragedies become homogenous in the language of news coverage. Theorist Brian Massumi identifies what he calls the “affective conversion circuit.” The event begins as an inconceivable disaster—reported while it is still happening—remaining so until its costs can be tallied. Reports are peppered with “zoom-in to human detail” segments, tales of selfless heroism, resistance, and valiant survival that reassert human agency. Through such maneuvers the event is converted into an ambient hum of fear. The cycle is a part of everyday life: despair and the moments in between. In the U.S., September 11, 2001, looms large as the catalyst, the ur-“atmosphere of fear” used to justify preemptive measures against disasters as yet not happened.

Superhero stories blossomed in the aftermath of 9/11. Primed for audiences who remember the attack, the blockbusters that immediately followed September 11 encoded America’s fear of attacks on urban centers. Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-Man 2 embraces the threat of disaster in New York City with a runaway packed R train that nearly kills Peter Parker and the citizens on board. Though 2006’s Superman Returns never mentions 9/11 explicitly, it is exactly five years since the hero was last seen on Earth when the movie begins in present day. The following year, Michael Bay’s bombastic Transformers reveled in urban destruction (many remarked, upon watching 9/11 news footage, that it looked like something out of a movie, such as Bay’s 1998 film, Armageddon). “It is almost a relief when the next hit comes," Massumi writes on the response to disasters. "It is only another bout of disaster that will enable the narrative balm to calm again the collective nerves of a humanity permanently on low-level boil.” The superhero, as a defining post-9/11 movie genre, functions as a synthesized "narrative balm," offering opportunities for a spiritual rehearsal of disaster every summer.

Critics have therefore interpreted the post-9/11 popularity of superhero films in the U.S. as both exploitative and therapeutic. Charlie Jane Anders called superhero films an “escapist fantasy” that fulfills a desire to feel powerful “after an event that made us feel powerless.” Vulture's Kyle Buchanan cites scenes in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, and Man of Steel that mine the imagery of 9/11 for the now-iconic perspective of people evading a crumbling urban center. In his book The Modern Superhero in Film and Television, anthropologist Jeffrey A. Brown discusses how superheroes became a way for America to replay 9/11, this time resulting in victory, and enacting a remasculinization of the U.S.—an impulse that mimics the state policy that followed the tragedy. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff agrees, arguing that these rewrites turn into “borderline rituals, like a kind of exposure therapy." These interpretations conform to cinema scholar Carl Plantinga's explanation for the popularity of "mass market narratives" that involve emotional pain as "fantas[ies] of mastery and control." Blockbusters do not evade tragedies and destruction but transform them, wrapping them up into a world with order and meaning. Empowered heroes take the responsibility for finding meaning in tragedy and reasserting human agency in the face of disaster.

As more time passes, films are positioned to respond to their artistic and political predecessors in what cinema scholar James N. Gilmore calls the “post-post-9/11 cycle.” Superhero movies of the past five years are compelled by questions beyond the immediacy of threat, warping the American monomyth. Vanderwerff identifies how movies such as the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Captain America: Civil War (2016) mobilize commentary on the security state that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. Nolan’s neoconservative films address the compromises of using violence and abusing freedoms to defend Gotham against foreign and domestic terrorists. Anthony and Joseph Russo tackle the lack of trust in government and those with power that we trust to protect us, metaphorically or otherwise, in their Captain America series.

The American monomyth, already concerned with purging malignant outside threats, is now informed by a post-post-9/11 disillusionment with politics and institutions. In his incisive review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Walter Chaw points to a shift from the noble, heroic landscape of old to an America where “gods are capricious and maybe not on your side, and terrible things happen for no reason.” The purity and moral codes that defined the heroes of the 20th century, that justified their use of violence, have been scarce in DC's new cinematic universe. In BvS, Batman is a devil, Superman a monster, and both treat human life as expendable. The director behind the DCCU, Zach Snyder, has not been shy about his admiration for how Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns tested the bounds and conventions of heroism. Both of Snyder's DC films have pushed his heroes into precarious moral ground, in a way many saw as a cinematic perversion of beloved heroes.

Marvel's films, though known for a lighter tone, have also grappled with the moral mutability of superheroes. Following the backlash to Man of Steel’s disregard for human life, Age of Ultron was praised for deliberately showing the team's concern for human survival. But cataclysmic battles are never without casualties, as Tony Stark learns throughout Age of Ultron as well as Civil War. The blurring lines between hero and threat catalyze both films: Iron Man begets a genocidal artificial intelligence; Captain America is saved by Scarlet Witch when she redirects explosives into a nearby occupied building. In Civil War, world leaders call for the regulation and oversight of the Avengers. The central conflict becomes a political (and then physical) battle within the team as the distrust bred by collateral damage becomes too great to ignore. "There's a price for this," says director Joss Whedon, referring to the destruction in superhero films. Age of Ultron and Civil War ask "whether the Avengers are heroes," which is to really question "whether hero as a concept is still useful for society." After some requisite handwringing, the films respond affirmatively.

Whatever disillusionment the genre may have registered, in its post-post-9/11 iterations, the production of superhero films has yet to slow down. Of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2017, half are superhero related, and at the top is director Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. The film tells the story of a god who doesn’t know she is one. Diana grows up amongst the Amazons on Themyscira, an Edenic island community that is hidden from Ares, the god of war, who had tried to destroy them along with humanity. After American pilot Steve Trevor crash-lands on Themyscira, Diana and the Amazons learn that war has been raging outside their paradise for years. It’s World War I and Trevor is a spy working with the British. He has discovered that the German General Ludendorff is working with his chemist, Dr. Poison, to create a toxic gas more powerful than any protective gear in existence. Diana, believing this can only be the work of godlike evil, leaves Themyscira with Trevor and heads to Europe to defeat Ares.

What Diana wants is an epic showdown, but she is slowed by the bureaucratic details their search-and-destroy mission requires. Diana and Trevor travel to London to report on Ludendorff but are dismissed by government officials who imagine an armistice is close at hand. They need money, and they eventually find a backer in the form of Sir Patrick Morgan, an official advocating peace but sympathetic to their cause. Skirmishes on the western front provide an opportunity for Diana to display her unique talents, not against Ares but rather against the relentless gunfire and mines of no-man’s-land. She succeeds and frees a Belgian village with the help of a band of misfits Trevor has recruited: Charlie, a drunk Scotsman; Sameer, a Moroccan actor; and The Chief, a Native American guide. The team infiltrates a German gala where Diana intends to seize the moment to kill Ludendorff/Ares finally, only to be stayed by Trevor himself. Ludendorff, safe and sound, leaves the gala to test the gas on the nearby village, killing everyone Diana had just liberated. Fueled by righteous rage, she rides off to kill Ares once and for all.

Written by Allan Heinberg, the first woman-led superhero blockbuster juggles its monomythic inheritance and skepticism about the efficacies of superheroes. It taps into superheroism as the monomythic ideal while raising questions about the myths U.S. movies continue to tell. Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is Diana, a god who believes in the love and goodness of man. Her character rejects BVS’s sadism and the disillusionment of recent post-post-9/11 films. Yet Jenkins cautions against viewer faith in a “good guy who is going to shut down the bad guy.” Wonder Woman’s worldbuilding advocates a perspective where everyone must take accountability. "There is no bad guy," says Jenkins. "No one is coming to save us." It's a challenge to viewers walking into a movie theater and expecting to see the monomyth fulfilled.

This tension between the monomyth fantasy and its critique plays out in Diana's interactions with war and the people trying to survive it. She was raised on a story of humankind as flawed but pure creations who were corrupted by Ares. When Steve Trevor arrives talking of a “war to end all wars,” Diana knows it must be Ares, finally returned. Steve and Charlie lend doubt to Diana’s certainty, emoting and occasionally vocalizing their skepticism that the cause of war lies with an individual. But Diana remains steadfast in her belief in Ares’s role in the conflict, and it remains an open question until the film’s finale.

Though it dovetails with most elements of the monomyth, Wonder Woman bucks direct visual references to 9/11; it eschews urban wreckage, opting instead for frontline confrontations and a gaseous weapon. By setting the bulk of its story in 1918 Europe, Wonder Woman transports spectators to a world less cynical about superpowers, where heroes are not yet something associated with destruction and casualties. And yet, despite a multiethnic cast and plot that never reaches U.S. shores, Wonder Woman is still undeniably American. Steve Trevor, the main representative from British intelligence, is a white American spy; the bad guys speak in accented English; the team's guide is a Native American in Western garb. Gal Gadot plays Diana with an earnestness that critic Angelica Jade Bastién likens to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a pure and selfless icon.

Wonder Woman’s split is mediated by two endings. In the first, Diana rides to a German outpost where she finds General Ludendorff, the man she believes to be Ares, and they fight. Ludendorff flashes a gun, then a sword, but Diana disarms him easily. The duel moves to the roof of the building where Diana stands above him, sword in hand. With a yell, she brings the blade down and impales him where he lies. Electricity sparks beneath them and the world is quiet. Then the music begins to swell, stirring strings and a soft piano melody.

The camera pans above Diana to capture her moment of glory. But a rumble is heard in the distance. The camera moves closer on Diana’s face as she turns to observe war’s uninterrupted percussion. German soldiers continue to fight while others load planes with the chemical weapon that will decimate half of Europe. “I killed him. Why are they doing this?” she asks Steve Trevor, “Why are they still fighting?” Her disillusionment openly questions the whole superhero ethos. “You don't think I get it, after what I've seen out there?” Trevor cries, echoing Jenkins's own words. “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!”

This penultimate ending questions a tradition of seeing our primary problems as external threats. We are left with a slew of things that are not punchable: human fallibility, greed, selfishness, myopia, complacency, lack of empathy, denial of power dynamics. The first ending gestures to the beginning of work and hard questions, things that do not assuage fear and lead to cheers. The problem left for humanity, it suggests, is humans.

Then Ares reveals himself.

Beneath Ludendorff’s immobile body, Ares materializes in the form of Sir Patrick Morgan, the same politician who funded their mission in the first place. In his monologue, Ares explains how he offered but did not order the evil deeds underwriting the war, indicting humans for their own impulse toward “the greatest horrors.” He entreats Diana to join him in reclaiming the world, restoring the paradise that Zeus’s creations destroyed. “I could never be a part of that,” Diana answers.

As the monomyth demands, Diana and Ares have their final standoff. The battle is long and explosive, and still Ares attempts to recruit Diana to his side. “They do not deserve your protection,” he says. Meanwhile, Trevor hijacks the German plane and destroys it and himself within Diana’s sight. “It’s not about what you deserve,” she responds. “It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.” Diana, propelled by her proclamation, surges at Ares and emerges from the battle victorious. Jubilation follows. The German soldiers, free from Ares’s influence, remove their masks. Survivors cling to each other. The Chief hugs a German soldier. Diana has successfully transitioned from innocence to disillusionment to faith. She has seen humanity in all its resilience and imperfections: villagers creating community in the midst of war, generals that sacrifice young men, men sacrificing themselves to save people they will never meet. These experiences ultimately bolster her commitment to fight for humanity, her frustration meted out to Ares, the real cinematic villain. Once destroyed, peace can be restored.

At Wonder Woman’s official conclusion, the threat against humanity is made external again. With Ares defeated, the film transports us to a London square where British and American flags fly overhead and the crowd cheers. The costs of war are erased, replaced by smiling pictures of our martyrs. Diana's belief in humanity's capacity for goodness, her idealism, is intact and repaid. Trevor’s last words to Diana resonate, “I can save the day, but you can save the world.” The story depends on a recognizable evil to justify extraordinary violence, and despite the moments that complicate the film’s faith, it must return to the monomythic ending: purging evil and promising a world with resolution. There is a bad guy, the film affirms, and someone is coming to save us. That’s a promise that cannot be kept, but it will keep being made. America, the myth, depends on it.