Wonder Woman is now out on DVD. Still a great movie. It’s pleasing to see that the DC Extended Universe (“DCEU”), or “Justice League Universe,” can produce a film on a par with the best of the Marvel movies. I’m cautiously looking forward to Justice League, which opens just over a month from now (Nov. 17). Among other things, I’m eager to see whether the group movie will be dominated by its immediate Wonder Woman predecessor, or by its less promising Batman–Superman heritage.
On re-watching, I found myself thinking more about the theology of Wonder Woman, which enmeshes us in some complicated assumptions about the shared world of the DCEU and may give us some clues about JL.
According to the Amazons of Themyscira, the Greek war god Ares took umbrage when Zeus created human beings. When Ares turned humans against each other, the other Olympian gods tried to stop him. Ares killed the other gods, last of all Zeus, whose dying blow put Ares out of action for ages. Diana kills Ares in the conclusion of WW. That appears to eliminate all the Olympian gods.
As moviegoers, we readily accept this Greek-myth theology for purposes of the story. It’s familiar territory, as mythology goes. While we’re watching the movie, we don’t worry about reconciling Zeus’s creation of humanity with, say, Christian or Hindu or Muslim accounts, or even with the scientific account of human evolutionary origins.
One thing that makes the Greek gods (I keep typing “Geek gods,” which is peculiarly appropriate) easier to swallow is the fact that in WW the pantheon seems to have liquidated itself, unless you count the demigoddess Diana. By the end of the movie, they’re gone. We don’t need to worry about whether Athena or Poseidon will turn up in some other superhero story as a deus ex machina, or why DC universe inhabitants can’t call on Zeus to aid the victims of floods or hurricanes.
On the other hand, Justice League takes place in the same universe, which means the premises of WW are built in. How literally are we to take them? Do we have to assume that the Greek gods are (or were) the divinities of the DCEU?
Divinity and Technology
Comics have drawn from all sorts of Western mythologies, but they generally skirt the issue of whether any of these gods are God. None of the deities of Greek/Roman or Norse myths have the classic characteristics attributed to God in the Western tradition: omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. The issue is directly addressed so rarely that the occasional occurrence is rather startling. In Fantastic Four #72 (March 1967, p. 13), for example, Sue Storm refers to “the all-powerful Silver Surfer,” and the Watcher responds: “All-powerful? There is only one who deserves that name! And his only weapon . . . is love!”
Marvel dodged the theological question neatly when it brought Thor into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). He brings with him the Norse gods of Asgard, just as in the comics. But Thor expressly tells us in his first movie that the magic or “divine” powers of the Norse gods are indistinguishable from advanced science (Clarke’s Third Law rides again). This allows us to regard the Asgardians as just highly advanced creatures, using knowledge so far beyond us that it seems like magic, and bypass theological conundrums.
It’s certainly open to DC to take the same approach, if we don’t take the “Zeus created humanity” claim seriously. Since the Olympians are (as far as we know) now absent, we can probably skate around that issue without trouble.
In fact, the absence of the Olympians may actually lead into the Justice League scenario, in an unexpected way. The clue is that the full cast list for JL on IMDB shows “Steppenwolf” as the villain. Surely the heroes are not clashing with the 1960s heavy-metal band by that name. Who’s this mystery supervillain?
The Fourth World
Jack Kirby, famous for inventing many classic Marvel characters during his long partnership with Stan Lee, left Marvel for rival DC in 1970. There he created, wrote and drew a new epic series, sweeping across at least five different lines of comic magazines, known as the “Fourth World.” In this saga, loosely connected to the rest of DC’s continuity, Earth becomes a battleground for two groups of supernal beings: the benevolent “New Gods” of “New Genesis,” and the corrupt denizens of its dark sister world “Apokolips.” New Genesis and Apokolips exist in a parallel universe or “other dimension” reached via temporary portals called “Boom Tubes,” not unlike the Rainbow Bridge in the Thor movies.
Like Marvel’s Asgardians or DC’s version of Greek mythology, these beings are “gods” only in a limited sense. They have powers beyond those of mere humans, but are far short of all-powerful.
What’s interesting for our purposes here is that Kirby conceived of the dualistic Apokolips-New Genesis regimes as arising after a kind of Ragnarok—the cataclysmic end of the world in Norse myth. In fact, as Wikipedia’s discussion points out, Kirby’s New Gods grew out of an idea that he originated for Thor comics. For purposes of this new DC-sponsored saga, it was disconnected from the mythology of Thor. But the same basic trope remained: a final battle in which both good and evil forces are destroyed, succeeded by some kind of post-apocalypse revival. Here’s how Kirby presented it in Orion and the New Gods #2 (April-May 1971, p. 1): “the holocaust which destroyed the old gods split their ancient world asunder — and created in its place two separate and distinct homes for the new forces . . .”
The master-villain of the Fourth World saga is Darkseid, one of the best bad guys of all time. Marvel’s character Thanos, who happens to be the master-villain of the MCU (appearing briefly in Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers movies), was based on Darkseid. Darkseid’s uncle, and lieutenant, is one Steppenwolf, who in the Fourth World comics rekindles the conflict between Apokolips and the New Gods by killing the New Genesis leader’s wife (Orion and the New Gods #7, March 1972). The opponents seen in this Justice League trailer are Apokolips parademons.
DC still owns the New Gods characters and plotlines. It seems likely that Steppenwolf will be the main antagonist in JL with the still greater menace of Darkseid looming behind him, available to up the ante for sequels (as with Darth Vader and the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, or Ronan and Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy).
The New Twilight of the Gods
At this point, the fall of the Olympian gods in Wonder Woman begins to line up rather neatly with the Kirbyesque background that Justice League will draw upon. Kirby thought of the Fourth World as following on a Norse-style Ragnarok. But, as noted above, the Wonder Woman cosmogony provides the DCEU with a Ragnarok of its own. Perhaps in the movie version of the mythology, the New Gods (and their opponents) arise from the twilight of the Olympian gods, not the Norse.
It’ll be intriguing to see how this background influences the JL movie—if at all. DC may decide to duck the whole matter and introduce Steppenwolf as a menace with an entirely different origin. But my money is on a significant Fourth World influence on the upcoming film. If the DCEU makes good use of Darkseid and the Kirby mythos, that ups the chance that we may see some seriously epic developments, after a rocky start, in the DC shared universe.
We’ll see shortly!