Over the last several years, it’s become a tradition over the Christmas holidays to take the kids—by which I mean my daughters and all of our nieces and nephews on my wife’s side—to see a superhero movie. Many of us adults love these movies as much as the children.
This year, we didn’t venture out to the theater. Instead, we crowded into my in-laws’ den and streamed Wonder Woman 1984. And as we watched this latest installment from Warner Bros. and DC, I began to think about how this film does something that’s a bit unusual. It uses the fantasy genre as a way of critiquing our culture’s desire to escape reality.
WW84’s critique of living in delusion isn’t totally unique. In many ways, the movie’s plot mirrors that of the new television series, WandaVision, from DC’s competitor, Marvel Studios (Warning: From this point forward, this post contains some spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision, episodes 1–6):
- WW84 centers around a wish-granting Dreamstone, a “monkey’s paw” created by a powerful trickster god that grants a person’s deepest desires while taking what’s most important—their dignity and identity.
- In WandaVision, the leading character, Wanda Maximoff, attempts to escape her past by creating an alternate TV-land reality, but dark memories haunt her sitcom dream world.
I love this new theme for both comic book franchises. In a culture that says you can define your own reality, stories that blow holes in that assumption are beautiful.
Our love affair with illusion
Fantasy is a good thing. The story world of knights and dragons, wizards, and superheroes teach children deep truths about how righteousness triumphs over great evil. As we grow, more complicated stories, like Maleficent for example, can show us the complexity of our own villainy. What’s imparted to us through the best fantasies is moral imagination, a sense of empathy, and—when we identify with those who persevere in the crusade for justice and beauty—perhaps even faith and courage.
Illusion, however, is different. It’s comforting to curl up with a good book or movie on a cold and depressing winter’s day. But the truth is that we’re all tempted not only to escape from life’s harsh realities for a moment’s solace but to attempt to create alternate realities of our own design.
Our culture is in love with illusions. Influencers carefully manicure their online personas for public adoration while inside they are secretly starving for friendship. Suburbanites amass debt, possessions, and retirement accounts as safety nets that moth and rust will one day destroy. Men spend billions of dollars each year on pornography, building mind palaces for sexual experience while destroying their real relationships. Growing numbers devote their hearts to the conspiracy theories of QAnon, believing secret knowledge is a pathway to political power. Many young people (and some old) are seeking to redefine their gender, believing that rewriting their biological sex will numb social discomfort and pain.
Each of these world-building exercises is a house of cards—like Wanda’s enchanted town of Westview, they may be elaborate but they are ultimately fragile and impossible to live in. Such illusions simultaneously seek to hide from and are driven by fear, shame, guilt, greed, and grief. But even though our alternate realities are built with strong chaos magic, their foundations ultimately crumble, because they’re constructed on lies.
Facing down the devil
WW84 alludes to a trickster god behind the Dreamstone without revealing his identity. Marvel fans, meanwhile, have speculated that there’s darker magic from the comic universe at work behind Wanda’s delusions—perhaps the witch Agatha Harkness, the demon Mephisto, or Lethal Legion leader Grim Reaper. But even if the evil in the TV series is only found within Wanda herself, there’s a real devil in the details, hiding in the shadows behind the lies we want to believe.
The Bible’s testimony prevents us from reducing evil down to impersonal forces and ideologies that stand in opposition to Christian teaching. It’s not even sufficient to name sins like greed, lust, and fleshly hunger for power. These are all real, but behind both sinful systems and individual temptations is a personal devil, our accuser, the archenemy, the evil prince of this present darkness (1 Chron. 21:1; Job 1:6–13; 2:1–7; Zech. 3:1–2; Eph. 2:2).
After Jesus’s baptism, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1–11). There Satan tested Jesus with three particular lies—untruths that still lay at the heart of the illusions within which we’re tempted to live.
The first was the illusion of independence (vv. 2–4). Will we trust in our own desires and abilities or in the Father’s loving care?
After fasting for 40 days, Jesus was hungry. So the devil prompted Jesus to take care of himself—to break his fast by turning some stones into bread. When we’re living in the illusion of independence, we can delude ourselves like Wanda Maximoff and say, “I have this under control.” But when Satan tempted the Savior to act on his own apart from the Father, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man doesn’t live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Moses spoke those words to remind Israel how God had tested them during their 40 years in the desert. God allowed them to be hungry and gave them manna so they might learn that people don’t merely need bread but God’s sustaining care.
Sometimes we quote the words of Deuteronomy 8:3 as if Jesus was talking about having good theology, knowing the right Bible verses for each and every temptation or circumstance. But Jesus (like Moses before him) wasn’t talking about mere head knowledge; what he expressed was a deep trust in the Father’s goodness no matter his circumstances. The first step toward fighting illusion is trusting that whatever pain or griefs may come in life, God’s every word for us—all he ordains—is loving and good.
Second was the illusion of presumption (vv. 5–7). Will we treat God like a vending machine, thinking that he somehow owes us comfort or protection on our timetable?
The devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple: “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.” This was a temptation to presume upon God’s promises. Satan cited Psalm 91:11–12: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up. . . so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” It’s as if he was saying, “Didn’t God promise to protect you? Let’s test that out.”
But putting God to the test and presuming that he’ll give according to our standards doesn’t recognize God as God. It attempts instead to paint God in our own image and bribe him to act according to our expectation of how he should or ought to respond. When we presume, we fail to remember that God is the distant and holy one who came to Job in the whirlwind. Jesus knew better, and he answered, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Last was the illusion of attaining kingdom glory apart from the suffering of the cross (vv. 8–11). Will we worship the lie and the liar or will we embrace our call to suffer for others?
Satan offered Jesus a shortcut to kingdom glory. He could rule and reign as Messiah over the world’s splendors and even avoid the sufferings of Calvary. There was only one small catch. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
The trouble with the devil’s logic was that for Jesus to worship him would have entailed a redefinition of the Savior’s identity. It’s true that Jesus was the Davidic king, but he is also the Lamb of God, the Suffering Servant, who did not come in his first appearance to rule a splendid world (that’s an illusion) but rather to pour himself out for a fallen world, one mired in death and sin.
In the early church, new converts would not only be asked to confess “Jesus is Lord” before baptism but they were also instructed to renounce the devil publicly. If you’re familiar with the old liturgy, you may have heard echoes of it in the “I renounce my wish” refrain at the end of WW84. For me, it was a beautiful reminder that embracing a Christian identity has always involved renouncing the illusions of self and Satan and giving ourselves instead to the Truth—to the Lord who first gave himself for us.
Death and grief expose the lies
For Diana, Wanda, and for us, the truth quite literally hurts. WW84 and WandaVision wrestle with themes of death and grief as both leads attempt to use their reality-shifting power to resurrect lost loves. With Wonder Woman, this begins as an accidental wish to see her lost boyfriend, Steve Trevor. It’s coming to grips with letting Trevor go that teaches Diana how her desire must be limited by the truth.
Wanda Maximoff’s sitcom reality similarly centers around her relationship with the deceased Avenger, Vision. While it appears—six episodes have been released at the time of writing—that she’ll do anything to protect the illusion of her life with him, it’s also clear that grief over the many losses in her past has never left her.
Facing death ultimately reveals how our fantasies are fleeting. Every year around this time, many Christians, like Jesus in the wilderness, fast 40 days to prepare their hearts for Easter. Though keeping a Lenten fast is less common for Baptists—after all, believers aren’t required to celebrate regular religious festivals (Col. 2:16)—I believe the broader Christian tradition carries with it a helpful reminder that can help us fight temptation and delusion.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday—a day that boldly acknowledges that no one gets out of this world alive. On this day, those who gather around the world receive an ashen sign of the cross on their foreheads. This mark is a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance. Memento mori. Remember, you are going to die; “Dust you are, and to dust, you will return” (Genesis 3:19b).
So prepare for Easter by preparing for death
Whether you live in the real world or a fictional one, building your life on conspiracies and lies will send you spinning into chaos. But Christians have a better hope than the devil’s illusions, one that allows us to be honest even about life’s starkest realities.
We can speak the truth when temporary comforts, dreams, expectations, political hopes, and even our bodies are dying. That’s not where our ultimate hope is found. We instead acknowledge even the hard truth of our death knowing we have a Savior who has already faced down the lies, the liar, and even the grave itself. And here’s the good news: Christ did not give in. On the other side of his long road of temptation and torment, there stands an empty tomb. It’s no illusion.
Brothers and sisters, Easter is coming. So put aside the lies and delusions which you renounced when you were baptized in him. Find in Christ the strength to be honest even about your griefs. And know that one day they will be fully conquered in him.