Diana is not saying, “I rejected humanity and condemn them for their division.”
She’s saying, “I spared them my divinity because it doesn’t work with their division.”
Defining The Controversy
I continue to see confusion about the sequence of events and statements, so to make it explicitly clear: Diana defeats Ares, then [by her own timeline] she walks away from mankind, she fights Doomsday, and she tells Bruce she walked away, Bruce sends her the original photo, and it is then that Wonder Woman says, “So I stay, I fight, and I give for the world I know can be. This is my mission now. Forever.” Before leaping into the light in our time.
We have no explicit indication that she has been doing this between defeating Ares and defeating Doomsday other than her statement that she’s killed “things”- plural- from other “worlds”- again plural- before. So Diana’s last lines in Wonder Woman come after Dawn of Justice and are not in contradiction with BvS. Anything based on the last lines is a comprehension error and not a contradiction.
However, contradiction can still be alleged based on the explicit statement that Diana believes in love… and the general idea or attitude that she is an irrepressible activist.
Concisely, “If you love, you can’t walk away.” and/or “Heroes can’t walk away.”
Ill Defined Ideas
Diana’s statements are indefinite. We don’t know what she means by her belief in love or what walking away means explicitly.
If you give the films the benefit of the doubt and do not leap immediately to an interpretation of contradiction, it ought to be obvious that her statements are more nuanced than a literal understanding. Diana is literally standing next to a man… and unless her profession and possessions were acquired overnight… she’s been in and among mankind for some time now.
It is plausible, and even likely, that Diana is responding as her Wonder Woman persona because Bruce is asking her to fight. Bruce isn’t asking a curator or antiquities dealer for help… he’s speaking to the warrior… the sword-wielding woman who stood with him on the battlefield.
So, it would be Wonder Woman, the last remnant of the Olympians, who replies to his request and says she walked away… and not the Diana Prince persona who is standing right beside him.
Now belief in love, taken literally doesn’t dictate behavior. Simply acknowledging the existence of an idea or concept does not mean adoption or adherence. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, let’s just simply interpret this as “I love mankind.” Even so, this is still quite vague. You can have a conception of love that is simplistic or more nuanced.
These Ideas Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
The criticism raised is as follows: “If you love, you can’t walk away.” therefore “If Diana loves mankind, she couldn’t or wouldn’t walk away from mankind”, thus her saying that she did is a contradiction. The underlying precept is a simplistic concept of love and easily discredited with just an iota of imagination, experience, or understanding. The precept often isn’t true in life or even in these films.
We never know the pain, struggles, or battles others are going through, so isn’t fair to judge on such a simplistic standard.
Someone could love a work with all their heart; putting their passion, time, and energy into it. However, with the loss of a loved one, come to have to walk away… for others, for themselves, and for the work. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love the work, that they stopped loving the work, or never loved the work… it simply shows that love doesn’t dictate behavior in always obvious ways.
Again and again we see people walk away from loved ones for a greater good in these films.
The soldiers in World War I leaving their families to face the frontlines and the risk of not returning. Jor-El and Lara letting go of little baby Kal, Clark leaving Martha to surrender, Superman leaving Lois to protect and reflect, Bruce leaving Alfred to go hunting, and so on and so forth.
The alleged contradiction flies in the face of Diana leaving Themyscira, the only home she’s ever known, Hippolyta, her beloved mother, and the Amazons, her sisters. If love means you can’t leave… can’t walk away… how did Diana go to Man’s World? How could Hippolyta say, “You’ve been my greatest love” and “I know I cannot stop you [from going]?”
It is absolutely possible to both love and leave without contradiction.
Supernatural Prime Directive
Of course, this implies that Wonder Woman leaving humanity to its own devices is loving.
This is the essence of the Prime Directive.
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” — Jean-Luc Picard
Ares wanted Diana to be a god. To violate the Prime Directive in the worst way. To judge humanity in that capacity, as gods will do. To deem mankind unworthy and deserving only destruction.
Diana refuses… and after defeating Ares, comes to the same conclusion that Jonathan Kent would arrive at seventy years later: that it isn’t her place to play god; to confront humanity with her supernatural powers, to upend their reality with her revelation, to force them to acknowledge and believe in her, or impose her divinity upon them. At least not yet. As heir to the Olympians that was her privilege to do so, but not a loving thing to do. Instead, Diana denies her divinity out of love for mankind.
Love often doesn’t look like we expect, as in the story of the daughter who says her love is like salt.
Playing God Hurts Humanity
It’s a little hard to show how inaction or omission is love, but it’s easier to illustrate with its opposite. What happens to those who violate the Supernatural Prime Directive and play god with in this world?
Jor-El said, “He will be a god to them.” If raised that way, Superman would have the god-complex we see in the Knightmare scene. Instead, Jor-El wary of his own cultural impulses, limits his impact on Kal-El’s upbringing. Nonetheless, Jor-El still sent his son smashing into Earth in a way which could have completely upended the planet had Kal not been recovered by the humble and thoughtful Kents.
While Jor-El resisted the view they’d be gods over men, he still contained the impulse, and Zod completely embraced it with bloodlines of Krypton and his entitlement to take the Earth from mankind. So where are they now? Krypton had its chance.
Enchantress and Incubus clearly do not care if humanity is confronted with an existential crisis.
They ravage Midway City without regard for what the impact is. After all, they come from a time when the implicit assumption was that the gods were real, cruel, and capricious. Free to do with mankind as they like. They have no time for the psychological angst of non-believers.
Note that it’s the U.S. Government that tries to hide the nature of the event by calling it terrorism. The Government sooner spread a story of terror than confront its citizens with the supernatural. Think about that. Are their concerns misplaced? Consider the havoc caused by Lex Luthor because of his existential crisis. That is the existential threat of the gods.
Enchantress and Incubus didn’t care… and where are they now?
Ares has been hiding among men for thousands of years. He knows they’re disbelieving, he knows their doubts, just as he knows Diana’s. So he knows what a confrontation with the supernatural would mean. It’s precisely for this reason he confronts Diana, to stoke the flames of her belief in divinity, rather than let her fester in disillusionment and doubt. He wants her to believe. He doesn’t care if the humans do, as he doesn’t hide his nature on the airfield at all. He doesn’t care if the revelation of real Olympians creates a crisis among humans. Ares isn’t chasing down witnesses who could testify to his coming or reality. Ares didn’t care… and where is he now? Mount Olympus had its chance.
Before Diana comes to understand the truth about herself and humanity, she also has no time for any kind of Prime Directive. While Diana acted as an Amazon (or unbeknownst to herself, an heir to the Olympians)… once again, like all these other expired and extinct peoples, she didn’t care about what her confrontation with mankind would cause.
She didn’t hide her abilities, her history, or her assertions of the supernatural. Crusades and holy wars have been fought over less evidence. She could have upended the world if Steve hadn’t helped her be more discrete. The Amazons didn’t care about this effect on mankind… and where are they now? Exiled and sequestered from the rest of the world.
Ignoring one’s larger impact upon the world is an old way of thinking that went the way of its adherents.
After Ares is defeated, Diana could have continued forth as a god. She could have shown the world what she could do, made sure they knew the supernatural was real, insisted upon her divinity, and could have fought out in the light.
The Greater Good Requires Some Suffering
Whether couched in love or general heroism or Diana’s explicit statement that she cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost… the alleged contradiction raised is that restricting, concealing, or confining Wonder Woman from acting isn’t loving, heroic, or in Diana’s character.
Let’s tackle that last one first. First, the statement about innocents was made on the island, long before Diana learned the truth, so having a change in views isn’t a contradiction. Second, despite her statement, it absolutely is in her character to stand by or allow suffering. She already knew that mankind was suffering and dying while she was on the island. There is no indication she made any effort to go into world to bring peace or hunt down Ares until Steve showed up on their shores. She had already “stood by as innocent lives were lost” her whole life.
As far as suffering is concerned, she was willing to fight the Germans to put an end to Ares, even believing them to be innocents within his thrall. That means that not only could she tolerate the suffering of innocents, but she would inflict suffering upon the innocent so long as it was in the name of “the greater good.” The very nature of the term and bargain is that there is a lesser evil accepted for the greater good.
So if Diana comes to see and value the Prime Directive, it is entirely possible inaction becomes the ethical choice in her view.
After all, what is the alternative? Even with the best of intentions, she didn’t see that Ares was hidden among the allies… or that Ludendorff was innocent of her accusations. If she decides to play god, because man does not stand together, her actions are inevitably tribal and not a bridge to a better understanding between all mankind… but instead pitting one against the other. Say she defeats the Germans in World War II, does she then champion Chief’s people against Steve’s?
Now also note that while some suffering is certain… it doesn’t mean that all suffering has to be tolerated. Diana can still pick up her sword and shield in situations where she isn’t creating an expectation of divinity.
100 Years of Horror
What does Diana’s 100 year life look like? Essentially, more or less like a mere mortal’s might. Diana is able to stay, fight, and give in her personal capacity as Diana Prince and, on occasions without the risk of exposure or worship, she can even act in costume. In fact, while Diana denies her divinity- a plan only Ares had for her- she does not surrender her identity as God Killer, literally a divine right, purpose, and mandate given to her.
So she can still stand up to slay those who would be gods, those who would violate the Supernatural Prime Directive and upend the entire world carelessly, be they from this world or others… so long as the fight doesn’t inadvertently turn herself into a god in the process. She makes a similar bargain that Clark makes while he searched for his answers.
She can intervene supernaturally, but never in the sight of mankind. Likewise, Clark can leap into action and save, but each time he has to sacrifice his situation and stability, burn another set of friends, his job, his identity, and move on to the next one.
This is her status until Dawn of Justice.
She can still love, but until man can stand together or can handle the supernatural, she can’t come out into the light as Wonder Woman, for mankind’s own sake. She has to endure the horrors mankind inflicts upon itself as she waits for them to unite or grow.
So what changed? Superman’s debut was forced by Zod. She didn’t come out then.
In BvS, Diana already knew Bruce was Batman. She wasn’t moved by Batman because she was already doing that… a vigilante in the shadows and a mere mortal in the daylight.
Similarly, when mankind is introduced to the Superman, Diana isn’t moved because she sees Superman suffering exactly what she was trying to avoid. To paraphrase a certain seagull, “The price of being misunderstood… they call you devil or they call you god.” Alone out there, Superman was worshipped and condemned. His help was hindered by disbelief and warped by those who took his actions to be tribal.
Acting on a Superman scale seemed to divide the onlookers and tear mankind apart thus failing to be a bridge to greater understanding between all men. The Knightmare scene shows us one potential path that Superman-styled godhood leads to: they wear his symbol, bow at this feet, and tremble at this arrival; he doesn’t hesitate to judge and execute because that is his right as a god.
The death of Superman changes the world and changes Diana. By dying, he’s no longer a stand-in for divinity, but instead… a mortal martyr, a hero, a superhero. It’s only after the concept of superhero gets created can the metahumans now all act in the light without being deemed gods and creating an existential crisis. Because, unlike gods, superheroes can die, superheroes can be stopped… but they’re here to help and they’ll die trying.
Superman dying breaks the existential fears that these beings are gods… and his sacrifice creates the assumption of their benevolence.
Just as she was able to grow and gradually accept more difficult truths, mankind is now ready for the metahumans.
There’s more to this [incoherent rambling] in the yet-to-be-aired MOSAIC 53, but the central point is that the statements, these films, and life aren’t so simplistic. Contradiction only arises if you refuse to try and reconcile, seek understanding, or alternative interpretation. Not everything in story, media, or life is spoon fed to us so directly or explicitly. It’s worth considering ways people can be sincere, consistent, and well-intended… even if you don’t understand them at first.
While I think the above framework mostly works, this is not a declaration of anything definitive or an insistence upon adoption or acceptance. Instead, it’s saying that maybe our assumptions and conclusions about things need not be so shallow. Sometimes things that seem like contradictions reveal deeper intentions, character, and struggles.
Like why you can love and walk away or how love can allow some suffering. These aren’t always obvious or easy, but they’re worth trying to find here and in general.
If there is a single takeaway from Wonder Woman that most impressed me: it was to not judge others… no matter how we might feel at first, how entitled the situation, or how strong our arguments might seem initially. Because we should be humble enough to know we lack divine impartiality, we rarely understand the entire story, and even with the best of intentions we can’t predict all the effects and consequences… but even when all those align… isn’t showing grace and love the better answer? Instead of insisting upon what is deserved most times?
You can show love by giving up your right to judge or being right.
As the last Olympian, Diana decided to deny her divinity not out of disillusionment with division but love for mankind… patiently waiting for them to be ready.