Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Wonder Woman, DC’s latest contribution to the plethora of big-screen comic book offerings, is being hailed as one of the best superhero movies ever made. The acclaim is not without justification. It tells the origin story of Diana of Themiscyra — daughter of Zeus (the mythological god) and of Hippolyta (the queen of the Amazons). The Amazons live in a hidden paradise, unaware of the outside world, at least until the plane of American spy Steve Trevor permeates the veil and crash-lands off the coast.
When we learn to love our neighbors as Jesus commands us, we cannot possibly deal out to them what they deserve; rather, we extend to them the unmerited mercy and grace that was extended to us through the cross.That’s when Diana and her people hear news of World War I and Diana becomes convinced it is the work of Ares, god of war. She feels it is her sacred duty to leave the island and kill Ares to end the conflict. The remainder of the story unfolds as Diana and Steve go to the front lines and fight for everything that’s true and good and right.
With a female director and lead, Wonder Woman is undoubtedly a feminist triumph, providing a platform for a strong female presence and perspective in Hollywood. The movie, however, succeeds not by being a feminist story, but by digging deep into what makes us — all of us, male or female — human, and thereby steps into the tradition of other great stories in history. It resonates with us simply because it tells a story that is true.
At its most basic, truth is that which coincides with reality. And the reality Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s alias) has to face in this film is that, although it would be nice to blame Ares for the war and all the ugliness she experiences in the outside world, darkness resides in the hearts of all mankind. Because of that darkness, humans do not deserve saving.
As I watched the film the second time through, I was struck by a correlation between the moment Diana realizes this and a scene from my favorite book, The Lord of the Rings. In conversation with the wizard Gandalf, Frodo Baggins the hobbit, reminisces about Gollum:
“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.”
“. . . I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”
“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.
“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you . . . have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? . . . He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
Throughout Wonder Woman, Diana Prince wrestles — literally and figuratively — with this question of what humans deserve, beginning when her mother tells her mankind doesn’t deserve her when she leaves the island of Themiscyra.
Does the world deserve Diana’s character, resolve, passion, and strength, spent on its behalf? Diana believes so. And she acts on that belief in a scene that viewers have been lauding as the most powerful in the film. It’s at the edge of the war front, when Diana reveals herself in full battle armor for the first time and charges across No Man’s Land to liberate a small village from the Germans.
It is indeed a powerful moment. But I would argue that it is not the film’s most powerful scene, because it’s not what the movie is all about. Instead, the most powerful scene comes near the end when Diana’s wrestling is put to the ultimate test.
Although always driven by compassion, Diana doesn’t have a mature understanding of love until the end of the story when Steve Trevor gives his life to save the day so she can save the world. His self-sacrifice would not have been necessary, however, without the evil machinations of Doctor Maru — a woman who is in every way Diana’s foil. Diana loves and champions life; Maru loves and champions death. Diana is beautiful and hale; Maru is scarred and physically weak — hiding her facial scars behind a mask.
Diana’s ultimate test is not her showdown with Ares, the god of war; her ultimate test is, in fact, not a showdown at all. After Diana realizes Steve has died, and she’s consumed with grief and rage, Dr. Maru cowers before her, completely at her mercy, and Ares goads Diana to kill her. Diana stands poised to do so, and as someone who has committed crimes against humanity, Maru arguably deserves death. But then Ares removes Maru’s mask and shows Diana her scarred face, and I — sitting in the theater — couldn’t help but think of Gandalf’s words to Frodo: “You have not seen him.” Diana finally sees Maru. Her villain becomes a person.
And then Diana hears Steve’s voice in her head, an echo from before he died — telling her he loved her. And her heart is stirred to pity.
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.
Frodo Baggins has his own path to walk with Gollum, but for Diana Prince, this is her moment. She passes the test. She has pity on Dr. Maru and calms her rage, directing her attention back to Ares, the source and supporter of death and destruction in the story.
At this point, Diana’s love has fully matured: once she has learned that love is active, sacrificial, and merciful, death can no longer touch her.
As Diana’s actions show, love properly directs our priorities. When we learn to love our neighbors as Jesus commands us, we cannot possibly deal out to them what they deserve; rather, we extend to them the unmerited mercy and grace that was extended to us through the cross. For we all deserved death because of sin, but we are all offered life instead, if we will but accept it. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Would that all of us love life and hate death with the voracity Diana of Themiscyra does in this film. It is right and proper to hate death, because God hates it. He hated death enough to send his son to defeat it, to turn it on its end.
According to the Deep Magic of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, all traitors deserve death at the hands of the White Witch. But the White Witch — like Ares — is myopic; she does not see the Deeper Magic that supersedes her claim to death. As Aslan explains to Lucy and Susan in the story,
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned . . . she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead . . . Death itself would start working backward.
We will always crave stories that echo this message. Stories of heroes who break the power of sin and death, who reverse the effects of the curse. We crave heroes who give undeserved mercy to those who deserve destruction. We connect with the Christ-like superhero because there is a truth greater than the one that says we don’t deserve to be saved.
In the final battle sequence of Wonder Woman, Ares goads Diana, encouraging her to kill Maru and then to subsequently release her wrath on mankind. He is eager for Diana to deal out death in judgment. Ares then says, “They do not deserve your sympathy in any way!”
Diana, having passed her test, and able now to choose love, replies, “It’s not about deserve.”
This is a greater truth. This is an undeserved pity. This is the Deeper Magic. Love breaks the power of death when, before, and even though we don’t deserve it. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
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