The new ‘Wonder Woman’ movie provides a goldmine of opportunities to discuss the influence of Classical mythology on modern media. Diana of Themyscira is an Amazon, part of the mysterious tribe of women warriors described in Greek mythology, and the backdrop of the Amazon origin story in the film is a clash of divine proportions between the Greek gods.
It is this battle between divine forces that I would like to explore, especially the portrayal of Zeus, the king of the gods, and his son Ares, the war god. Although the film relies heavily on many elements of ancient Greek mythology, it does not align very well with the themes of those myths, and instead relies on a more Christian perspective to inform its narrative.
The following contains spoilers from ‘Wonder Woman.’
In the film, the main Greek deities of significance are Zeus and Ares. As Diana’s mother explains to her, Zeus creates the race of man and rules the universe justly, until Ares, determined to corrupt the hearts of men, turns against his father and slays him in battle. The other gods are mentioned briefly, when it is noted that Ares destroys all of them as well. Their lack of identification skips over some of the complexities of the Olympian family drama famous from Greek mythology, but this is done simply to streamline the story for a movie audience (or for Diana, who is a young child when she hears this story).
The battle between Zeus and Ares, though an invented tale created for this movie, aligns with the generational clashes between the gods in Greek mythology. As told in Hesiod’s Theogony, Uranus, the Sky Father, hates the children he produces with Gaia, the Earth, and hides them away within the Earth as soon as they are born. Gaia asks her youngest son, Cronus, for aid, and Cronus responds by ambushing his father and castrating him with a sickle, before taking control of the universe himself (lines 154-82).
Violence and conflict continue in the next generation, as Cronus, after hearing a prophecy that his son will overthrow him, consumes whole all of his children when they are born. His wife Rhea, with help from her parents, Gaia and Uranus, hides away her youngest son, Zeus, and gives her husband a rock to eat instead. Gaia tricks Cronus into throwing up his other children, and with his siblings by his side, Zeus eventually wages war against his father and secures for himself power over the universe (lines 453-91, 617-721, 881-5).
Symbolically, these myths explain universal cycles of violence, creation, and death. Culturally, they are divine reflections of human society. The Greeks did not view their gods as morally superior to humans. Instead, they modeled their deities on human morality and behavior. The Olympians are what a human family would be, if elevated to the heights of divine power. Thus, these tales reflect human desires and anxieties: the willingness to turn to bloodshed to secure power and establish order, the fear of losing relevance to the younger generation, and the love of a mother for her children.
When Ares jealously turns against his father in a bid for a power, we see inter-generational conflict and familial drama that would not be out of place in a Greek myth. We are observing a human-like struggle for power playing out on a divine level that seems like an extension of the myths told by the ancients. However, beyond that, the portrayal of Zeus and Ares in ‘Wonder Woman’ do not align so well with Greek mythology.
Zeus is described in the movie as a benevolent, just god, who loves his human creations and tries to defend them from Ares’ corruption by creating the race of Amazons. In Classical mythology, though, Zeus is a capricious deity who cares little for humanity. As told in the Theogony (lines 506-616) and Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound (lines 228-43, 447-506), he keeps mankind in obscurity and suffering by depriving them of fire and civilization, until Prometheus steals fire for them. Zeus punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock, with his regenerating liver re-eaten by an eagle each day, and in Aeschylus’ play, he is portrayed as a ruthless tyrant who uses torture, threats, and violence to maintain his power, not a just ruler.
In addition, the Zeus of Classical mythology has a terrible reputation as a serial philanderer and sexual predator, as he cheats on his wife Hera at every possible occasion and uses his divine power to pursue unconsenting women, like Io, Europa, and Callisto. It’s true that the Greeks had to deal with the same contradiction, since Zeus was, despite his misbehavior, a god of law and justice who presided over hospitality and protected the rights of guests, strangers, and suppliants.
Besides, he is somewhat of a cheater in ‘Wonder Woman’ too, for it turns out that Diana is the daughter of Zeus himself, born from an affair between the king of the gods and her mother. We learn that Wonder Woman herself, not the sword, is the great Godkiller, destined to defeat Ares with the power of love and justice. And so, the two aspects of Zeus are actually brought together in the film, but for the most part, he remains a benevolent deity; we see little of the Zeus who has no regard for humans and abuses his power in ‘Wonder Woman.’
Ares, as he appears in the film, also does not resemble his mythological depiction. In Greek mythology, Ares is the god of war, bloodlust, and slaughter. He represents the horror and devastation associated with war, and his sons are Fear (Phobos) and Terror (Deimos). Ares’ goal in the movie is to bring about the devastation of war, and the deadly trench warfare of World War I perfectly represents that; however, he does this by using subtle techniques, such as disguising himself as the politician Sir Patrick Morgan and manipulating Dr. Poison and German officer Ludendorff into creating and using terrifying weapons. These behind-the-scene actions do not align with the Ares of Greek myth, who is typically shown only as a bloodthirsty warrior.
The battle between Zeus and Ares in the film comes down to good and evil in a way that the Greek myths did not. The original myths were about the acquisition of power and authority that reflect on a divine level the everyday struggles of human society. The conflict in ‘Wonder Woman,’ meanwhile, is about determining the nature of humanity itself: are humans inherently good or evil? Zeus creates mankind to be good and righteous, but they are corrupted by Ares and turn toward evil. The fight between father and son takes on greater stakes than just “who is in charge” and becomes about the ultimate fate of humanity, in a way that the Greek myths were not.
Although ‘Wonder Woman’ draws on the basic elements of Greek mythology, the film models itself upon the mythological tradition of Christian theology. Consider the following story: a benevolent creator-god and father, who rules justly over the heavens, creates the race of humans to be good and righteous, but one of his primary lieutenants–let’s call him a “fallen angel”–betrays the creator god and attempts to corrupt mankind with manipulations. The creator god sends his offspring, a divine being who is also very much a human, to defeat this evil entity and redeem mankind by standing up for love and justice.
I could be describing the plot of ‘Wonder Woman,’ but I could just as easily be talking about the story told in the Christian epic Paradise Lost by Milton of the fallen angel Lucifer’s rebellion against God, his manipulation of Adam and Eve into the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, and the eventual redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ–the belief, of course, at the center of Christianity.
Thematically, ‘Wonder Woman’ does not align very well with its mythological source material. The ancient Greek view of the world is more pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, than the perspective offered by the film. Divine forces do not engage in struggles over grand issues of good and evil; instead, the immortals grapple with the same problems of mortal humans and appear to be motivated by human-like concerns. The ancient Mediterranean was a dangerous world, where violence and natural disasters could cause enormous devastation; this was represented in the capriciousness of the gods.
Therefore, ‘Wonder Woman’ turns to a different, Christian-like narrative model that aligns more appropriately with its overall theme and view of the world, which is that with love, compassion, and courage, it is possible to rise to true heroism and overcome the forces of hatred and evil.
The film’s link to Christian thinking comes out especially well towards its climax, when Diana, in a moment of disillusionment, starts to believe that mankind is not worthy of her protection. She engages in battle with Ares, who argues that humans are undeserving of redemption and asks her to join him in ensuring their destruction. He dares her to kill the pathetic Dr. Poison, whose gas has slaughtered so many innocents.
Having witnessed the worst of humanity, she still has the strength to grant mercy to the helpless woman, and inspired by the selflessness of Steve Trevor’s sacrifice, she decides to stand up for humanity and defend them, regardless of how deserving they may–or may not–be. The final message of ‘Wonder Woman’ is one of self-sacrifice, mercy, compassion, and redemption in the face of evil and injustice, and these are precisely the ideals represented by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for humanity’s sins, even if, perhaps, we do not always deserve it.
If this is the universe presented by the film, then it is no wonder (pun intended) that ‘Wonder Woman’ has to depart so drastically from its source material: using a Christian-like narrative model is much more effective than the themes of Greek mythology, and provides a hopeful, optimistic message that we all could benefit from these days.