Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reflections on the Nature of Evil or, Eichmann in Themyscira

By Naomi Graber[1]

The creative team behind Wonder Woman faced no simple task: they had to create a stand-alone film that would still fit neatly into the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), a franchise that includes 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder.[2] For the most part, Wonder Woman adopts Snyder’s visual and musical aesthetics, but morally, Wonder Woman grapples with very different issues. If Snyder’s Batman and Superman represent various incarnations of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Wonder Woman is faced with with a problem most famously described by Hannah Arendt: the banality of evil.[3] And while the basic material of Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score for Wonder Woman resembles Hans Zimmer’s scores for Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman (the latter a collaboration with Junkie XL), there are some key differences in the way Gregson-Williams handles the villains that speak to these different moral universes. While Zimmer constructs his heroes and villains from entirely different sound palettes, Gregson-Williams scores his characters---good and evil alike---with remarkably similar sounds, indicating that ordinary people are capable of evil under the right circumstances, a key component of Arendt’s moral philosophy.

Both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman focus on exceptional individuals who wield their power for either good or evil. The genocidal alien General Zod is defeated by the good alien Superman. The brilliant billionaire Lex Luthor leads others astray in his dastardly plot, only to be foiled by the equally brilliant billionaire Batman (with some help from Superman and Wonder Woman). Heroes may occasionally tiptoe across the line between good and evil (Batman’s branding of criminals for instance), but there is no question as to which people are virtuous and which are not. In all cases, evil is dispatched by exceptional individuals, who are allowed to operate outside the bounds of conventional morality in the name of protecting humanity.

This clear distinction between good and evil comes across on the soundtracks, in which heroes and villains inhabit completely different sound worlds. In Man of Steel, General Zod arrives accompanied by a blend of atonal electronic drones and whines, pulsing hisses, and low brass tremolos. These contrast markedly with the firmly tonal rising figure that accompanies Superman. That rising figure is almost always on a recognizable acoustic instrument, while Zod is primarily scored with electronic or electronically manipulated sounds. The result is that Zod sounds “alien,” while Superman (despite his Kryptonian heritage) sounds “human.” In Batman v. Superman, Luthor is accompanied by galumphing rhythms in the harpsichord, followed by strange pizzicato ticking, and manic baroque violins, betraying a complex, if fractured mind. Meanwhile, Batman is all low strings, brass, and percussion, indicating seriousness of purpose and single-mindedness. (Superman has the same theme as the previous film).

But evil in Wonder Woman is a more complex phenomenon. If in the earlier films, evil is something that happens to humanity, in Wonder Woman, evil comes from within humanity. Diana initially believes man is inherently good, but has been corrupted by Ares, the God of War. But she’s in for a shock when she discovers that Ares is not masquerading as the obviously malevolent General Ludendorff. In a particularly Arendtian twist, Ares turns out to be a mid-level official—just one cog in what Arendt called “the intricate bureaucratic setup of the […] machinery of destruction” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 211). Arendt realized the genocidal madmen of the world cannot succeed without the cooperation of ordinary people meticulously (but unquestioningly) carrying out their orders (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 153). The most dangerous evil manifests not as psychopaths like Zod, Luthor, or Ludendorff, but in the thoughtlessness of everyday routine. Indeed, Ares reveals to Diana that mankind’s pettiness, small-mindedness, and shallowness are at the root of the destruction; all he does is supply the tools. It is Steve Trevor who pronounces the moral of the movie: we are all to blame---not just the Dr. Poisons and Ludendorffs of the world, but everyone who turns a blind eye to suffering in the name of “just doing their job.”

Because everyone is to blame, the music for the villains (Ares and Ludendorff and Dr. Poison) does not come from a wholly different sound palette than the heroes. While Ares and Ludendorff/Dr. Poison are accompanied by predominantly minor, more chromatic themes, the instrumentation, tempo, and basic construction is largely in line with the rest of the score.[4] All themes tend to be constructed of three-to-five note fragments, usually in notes of close to equal value with little syncopation, and played in the strings or horns, usually (outside of fight scenes) in slow to moderate tempos. Textures tend towards murky, with slow or static harmonic rhythm. Compared with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, the heroes and the villains of Wonder Woman sound disturbingly similar.

But like Wonder Woman, Arendt wrestled with humanity’s imperfections and concluded that the world was worth loving. She wrote that an “understanding heart” was “the greatest gift man could receive and desire.” For it is only the human heart that “will take upon itself the burden that the divine gift of action, of being a beginning and therefore being able to make a beginning, has placed upon us.” This capacity for compassion “makes it bearable for us to live with other people, strangers for ever, in the same world, and makes it possible for them to bear with us” (Essays in Understanding, 322). This is the lesson Diana learns by the end of the film. Just as she is ready to wash her hands of humanity, she is reminded of the power of compassion through her feelings for Steve, imperfect as he is. “I believe in love,” she tells Ares as she strikes the final blow.

The thematic development of the cue “Pain, Loss, & Love” shows the power of compassion in a particularly Arendtian way. While the visual track would have us believe that Wonder Woman draws strength from her love for Steve, the score tells us that this “love” is something more akin to Arendt’s “understanding heart.” This theme represents Diana’s experience of loss and tragedy, first occurring at the death of Antiope.[5] Later, the theme accompanies the moment Diana discovers the slaughtered village of Veld, and realizes that Steve and her friends are just as much to blame for the tragedy as the Germans. Their narrow-minded devotion to the mission meant that they were willing to sacrifice Veld in the name of finding Ludendorff’s stockpile of gas, a decision Diana cannot accept. After that, she becomes increasingly disillusioned, eventually declaring her intention to give up on humanity. But just as Diana is on the verge giving in to her anger, the theme reappears in a triumphant form as she comes to another revelation: “They are all that you say,” she admits to Ares, “but so much more.” The fact that this theme (rather than the love theme) accompanies her epiphany indicates that the “love” she feels is not limited to Steve. By bringing back the music that played during Diana’s greatest tragedies (all wrought by a corrupted humanity), the score indicates she accepts humanity’s flaws, and affirms her commitment to “bear with” them anyway. Defeating Ares will not prevent another war, but she decides that humanity has earned a shot at overcoming their darker demons without his interference.

This “love,” or what Arendt would call an “understanding heart” differentiates Wonder Woman from Batman and Superman. Superman protects humanity from outside threats, and Batman roots out the bad apples. Only Wonder Woman grapples with the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving. Having faced that question, she insists on living in (and loving) the world as it is, enabling her to see the good in everyone, even Batman’s bad apples. Her “understanding heart” allows her to forge that new beginning that Arendt so prized.


Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.

[1] I’m grateful to Mark Graber for his help in clarifying the ideas of Hannah Arendt that occur throughout this essay.
[2] The 2016 film Suicide Squad is also part of the DCEU, but it’s themes are not relevant to this paper. In that film, questions of “good” and “evil” are less prominent than are questions of “normal” and “deviant.”
[3] Zack Snyder has stated that Batman v. Superman draws heavily on Frank Miller’s 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman plays a major part. On the Nietzschean aspects of The Dark Knight Returns (and Batman in general), see Tony Spanakos, “Governing Gotham,” 2008. As Marco Pellittier observes, the concept of the Übermensch is often mis-applied to modern superheroes (“Alan Moore, Watchmen and some notes on the ideology of superhero comics,” 2011). The “Nietzschean” issues at play in Snyder’s films are somewhat distorted. Nietzschean philosophy is slightly better represented (and critiqued with more nuance) in The Dark Knight Returns.
[4] The obvious exception is the “Wonder Woman” theme in the electric cello, which Gregson-Williams inherited from Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score to Batman v. Superman, in which Diana/Wonder Woman plays a very different narrative role. Consequently, that theme rarely appears in the film. As Jessica Getman and Caitlan Truelove have observed in this series, Gregson-Williams composed a new theme for Wonder Woman that better captures the character in this context, and that theme is consistent with the rest of the score.
[5] This version of the theme is the one that accompanies Antiope’s death; the commercial release of the soundtrack is out of order.

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