SPOILER WARNING for Wonder Woman (2017) starring Gal Gadot. I am not kidding about the spoilers. I will have all the spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, you should go do that.
But meanwhile, I’ll be here chatting about the use of mythology in the movie. Because this is Myth Monday and I love Wonder Woman and this is what I do.
So, first, I’m going to take a look at the mythology we saw being used in the Wonder Woman film.
One of the first exposition dumps we get is from Diana’s mom, Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. She explains that back in the most ancient of olden days, there were gods; only two of these gods are named: Zeus, and his son Ares. Spoilers – these are Greek gods. The island of Themyscira is vaguely Greek, I guess? So this seems fine so far. Diana’s mom explains that Ares, the god of war, moonlighted as the god of assassinations and killed off his entire family.
Why? Because he disagrees with them, because he is so full of war, I guess? War is horrible, but it is also a fluid concept in culture and history. There are lots of reasons to fight wars but soldiers generally fight with the idea of protecting their own people/land/family, rather than killing them. So Ares’ behavior is psychotic, but I suppose he doesn’t have anyone else to War with besides his family.
Anyway. In the movie’s lore, Zeus manages to land a crippling blow on Ares, so while all the gods are dead, Ares is mostly dead, nursing his wounds somewhere. Hippolyta and the other Amazons are hanging out on their island and staying Ready for the day when Ares returns. Ares is the villain of Hippolyta’s story, and therefore of Diana’s. For much of the movie, we see Diana focus with single-minded intensity on this mythic monster, this Evil Incarnate that must be destroyed, like a Dark Lord in a fantasy novel, before anywhere in the world can be good or peaceful again.
What’s especially great about this is that it forces the audience to be aware of two things at once: 1. how completely naive Diana is to believe that killing one person will make the whole earth a paradise; and 2. that we the audience often have this same belief when watching “superhero” movies: Spiderman just has to defeat the Goblin, Batman has to defeat the Joker, Captain America has to destroy Hydra, and then everything will be fine, everything tied up neatly, the heroes will kiss and fly off into the sunset.
Wonder Woman of course gets a little more complex than that, after setting it up this way.
But I’m going to turn around and talk about Greek mythology for a second.
In Greek mythology, Ares is the son of Zeus. He is the god of war. And he is, in general, an arrogant bloodthirsty dingbat. But he doesn’t just represent humans who are possessive jerks and determined to fight and kill each other. He also represents the glory of defeating an enemy, martial prowess, and fighting for your people/honor/land/fame. For ancient Greeks, these were commendable qualities. Ares, like all of the gods, had his good and bad features, good and bad moments, and had to balance them out. He was also in love with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and wasn’t in the habit of killing off his family members.
In the Wonder Woman comics, Ares is present from the very first issue in 1942.
This article does a good job of giving a quick overview of Ares in Wonder Woman comics, at least from 1987 on – it glosses over the early years, and ignores Ares’ first appearance. He’s always around, though, if only in Diana’s backstory, and often either lurking like a creeper or taking a more active role as Diana’s arch-nemesis.
It’s interesting to keep the origins of Ares, Greek god of war, in mind when watching a movie like Wonder Woman, in which he is a pretty solid evil dudebro. At one point in the movie, he tries to persuade Diana to join him in destroying the world through war, with the ultimate goal of creating a brand new perfect world of peace. That…I mean, that doesn’t even make sense. If your whole purpose of being is war, so much so that you killed off your own family, “peace” is not a goal that you would have. I’m convinced that Ares only uses this argument as a ploy to try to get Diana on his side, rather than his actual plan. But that’s speculation.
The other problem that Diana faces, of course, is that the REAL Ares was the enemies we made along the way! Humans have a real problem with war and conflict, and even defeating War Incarnate isn’t going to stop our determination to hurt each other when we’re angry or scared.
Ares is a good contrast to Wonder Woman, who is all about spreading peace and love, whether through political diplomacy or martial protection. It will be interesting to see if they use the Ares character in future Wonder Woman movies, or if he’s relegated to a place in her past as a sort of boogeyman that she no longer needs, a catalyst used to inspire her.