In the course of my career as a high school principal, I had many faculty meetings. I would present a list of agenda items and the staff would give me their thinking on them. On occasion, a teacher would say to me that the problem under discussion was simple. All we had to do was one thing and then things would be fine. This kind of simplistic thinking in most cases did not work. The failure to see complexity doomed the suggested solution.
In Wonder Woman, an exciting and thoughtful rendition of the famous comic book heroine’s origin, Diana as a young Amazon warrior first sees the world’s evil in a simplistic way, but through her life experiences realizes that evil is complicated and cannot be reduced to the evil of one bad man.
The movie opens when Diana is a child growing up on a remote island with Amazons, mighty female warriors. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta shares with the daughter the story of Ares, the god of war, who desires to corrupt men and encourage them to battle one another. Queen Hippolyta allows Diana to train for battle, knowing that there will be an eventual showdown between Diana and Ares at some future time.
Normal life changes for Diana when she grows up and rescues an American pilot, Steve Trevor, who has crashed into the sea. Interrogated by the Amazons, he reveals that he is an American spy gathering intelligence to fight Germany, a country at war with the United States. He has valuable information that will save lives, and this information resonates in Diana, who sees her life’s mission as saving lives and ending world conflict.
Allying herself with Steve and his noble cause, she gradually discovers that evil is not one-dimensional, residing only in one person. She understands that evil affects many people whose motivations are complex. Eradicating evil will take a lifetime, not victory in one battle.
Judaism believes in the reality of evil, and maintains that man is largely responsible for bringing it into the world. Man possesses an evil inclination, which, if left unharnessed, can lead man to do terrible things. It must be counterbalanced by a good inclination, which keeps man on the correct moral path. Man has a choice to make many times during each day to determine which inclination he will follow.
Rabbi Raymond Apple makes an interesting observation: There is a “paradoxical fact that when a person chooses to do evil, he does so not because it is evil but because he perceives it as good. We might question his judgment, regard him as having a warped view of what is good, and reject his probably subjective criteria of goodness – but he believes, nonetheless, that what he is doing is good in some sense.”
When General Erich Ludendorff, the personification of evil, shares his thinking with Diana, it reflects this notion that his destructiveness is good for the world: “You know your ancient Greeks? They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice. And in exchange, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self. And be courageous. Noble. Better.”
Diana disagrees and expresses an optimistic, nuanced view of the world: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves.”
Wonder Woman ‘s early belief that evil is one-dimensional morphs into a mature understanding of the nature of evil, an evil that manifests itself in the world in many ways and requires more than one strategy to defeat it. Her complex vision of evil is a reminder for us not to seek simplistic solutions in the face of evil.