A Mythologist Identifies What’s Wrong with “WonderWoman1984”

If you want to base a movie on mythology, you had better get the myth right. You can’t just cherry-pick bits from various myths and cobble them together (see my post on Snow White and the Huntsman); you have choose one and be true to it. If there happens to be a corresponding myth from another culture, it’s fine to reference that, especially if you’re trying (a la Joseph Campbell) to make the case that this particular theme keeps showing up throughout history and in different cultures. But you can’t make up a new myth out of something from Column A, another thing from Column B, etc.

Unfortunately, that’s just what the writers of “WonderWoman1984” did. As a result the critics, while appreciating the visuals and acting, are calling the actual plot disjointed, muddled, and confusing.

The long opening scene is terrific and takes us back to Themyscira where young Diana is competing in the Amazon version of the pentathlon. She leads at first but is brushed off her horse because she’s too busy looking back at her competitors to see the low branch ahead. Not giving up, she tries to win by cheating, but is caught out by her mentor Antiope and disqualified. When Diana protests that she could have won, Antiope cuts her short. “You cannot be the winner, because you are not ready to win, and there is no shame in that. Only in knowing the truth in your heart and not accepting it. No true hero is born from lies.”

Opening scenes establish the theme of the movie. This speech doesn’t quite do it for me in that regard. If Antiope had said something like “you cheated because you had already lost and could not accept that truth. You will never be a winner until you can admit when you do not deserve to win,” it would have set up the rest of the movie better. Diana cheats again when she wishes that her lost love Steve Trevor would be returned to her, but eventually she has to face up to the fact that even if she wants something with all her heart, that does not justify breaking the rules.

A movie that focuses on just the morality of cheating would have been a smaller, more intimate movie. To raise the stakes, the writers added in the theme of “be careful what you wish for.” Diana’s wish that Steve would come back to her manifests because she made it in the presence of the Dreamstone, a magical stone that grants one wish but takes something in return. Now the message becomes: “if you cheat, you can get what you want . . . but you will lose something else you value.” Instant karma. Cheating becomes not so much an issue of moral character as a practical one: is the trade-off worth it? Is the punishment worse than the crime?

To this end, the writers cobble on another story, that of the Monkey’s paw–a short story published in 1902, in which a withered monkey’s paw has been imbued with a spell by an old Indian fakir. The spell grants three wishes but exacts “hellish consequences” for tampering with fate: when the man who has come into possession of the paw wishes for the money to pay his mortgage, he gets it–when his son is killed the next day in a factory accident and the factory makes a goodwill payment that is the exact sum needed.

The Dreamstone itself is an invention of DC Comics, dating from 1942. It is associated with a villain called the Duke of Deception, who may or may not be a minor god from the Greek pantheon called Dolos or Dolus. Dolos first shows up in Aesop’s Fables as an apprentice to Prometheus; his story may be the source of the saying “feet of clay” because he tried to make an exact copy of Prometheus’s sculpture of Truth, Veritas, but ran out of time and so left off her feet. When Prometheus infused the two statues with life, Truth walked out into the world, but the forgery could not move. It became known as Mendacium, Falsehood. The moral of the story is that truth will always triumph over lies because lies cannot stand on their own.

The only other classical reference to Dolos occurs in Cicero, who lists Dolos (Guile) along with Love, Fear, Toil, Envy, Fate, Old Age, Death, Misery, Complaint, Favor, Fraud, Obstinacy, the Fates, and Dreams as the children of Nyx (goddess of the Night) and Erebus (god of darkness). Dolos thus is a personification of a character trait rather than a god.

As others have charged, the real problem with this movie is “sequelitis”–the need to make the second movie bigger and noisier than the first. But to do that requires a villain even greater in power than Ares, a major god, and Dolos doesn’t have the chops. He is hardly the “very bad god” that Diana says he is. It’s like setting her against someone trying to pull off a Nigerian scam. If the Dreamstone is his work, it’s unlikely that it would have the power that the writers need it to have to cause the amount of trouble it does. No wonder they make Diana so vague about him. He’s really a nobody.

The writers could have made their villain one of the major Trickster gods of myth, like Hermes or Loki or Coyote or Elegua or Lugh. The trouble is, Trickster gods aren’t evil. They cause a lot of mayhem, but mostly because they like to stir the pot and see what happens, and much of the time they do more good than bad. They open doors, give us new possibilities. They drive us crazy but they’re also loveable. And anyway, Loki already tried to destroy the Earth in “The Avengers,” so that’s been done.

If they’d really done their homework, the writers might gone for Eris the Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord, for their villain. Eris is also a daughter of Zeus and so Diana’s half-sister and equal. Like Ares, she delights in war. She was the creator of the Golden Apple of Discord, which set in motion the Trojan war. She triggers envy in humans, which causes them to compete and try to outdo each other, just as Maxwell tries to outdo all the other oil barons and Barbara tries to outdo Diana out of envy. It wouldn’t have been inconsistent with the myth to make the Golden Apple a kind of monkey’s paw; after all, it was the means by which Paris was granted his wish to have the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, but the consequences of his choice were devastating: the total destruction of his homeland, Troy, and the deaths of his entire family.

Diana’s dread at realizing what the “dreamstone” really is would then make more sense, because Eris is a lot scarier than Dolos and also much more capable of setting Global Thermonuclear War in motion. The movie could end with Diana and Eris going head-to-head, but it could also end as the present movie does, with Diana convincing everyone that greed and envy just plays into Eris’s hands and will lead to disaster, thus thwarting Eris but leaving her out there, a never-ending threat.