Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Wonder Woman
With a $103m opening weekend under its belt and the kind of reviews most non-superhero movies would kill for, Wonder Woman is well on its way to becoming a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Patty Jenkins’s contribution to the DCEU has brought a fresh perspective to the franchise, as well as a unique blend of themes and ideas. Wonder Woman covers a variety of genres throughout its running time: A swords and sandals origin story, a burgeoning romance, historical drama, and a traditional superhero tale to name but a few. Yet the area where it stands out the most in a crowded field is in its depiction of war.
As a period piece, the film takes on a heightened responsibility to carefully balance popcorn thrills with creative sensitivity. After all, the First World War was a devastating event for dozens of countries and millions of casualties. As one of the most hopeful films in the DCEU in terms of tone, Wonder Woman’s task is made all the tougher by its need to balance a generally optimistic tone (and the necessity of a PG-13 rating) with the bleakness of history and a war that claimed over 17 million deaths.
Filmmakers have struggled to capture the costs of war for decades, toeing a fine line between simply depicting the violence, and glorifying it. Film is inherently a medium of entertainment, and making spectacle out of tragedy has been a topic of debate amongst scholars for as long as cinema has existed. It was a challenge that Marvel Studios had to face when developing Captain America: The First Avenger, a World War Two-set story. The Nazis do play a background role in The First Avenger, but the major villain of the piece is Hydra and its leader Red Skull, which helps Marvel to create some creative distance between their narrative and the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Though Hydra bear a noticeable similarity to the Nazi Party in various ways – from their iconography to their salute and objectives – Marvel was able to stand separate from history while using those foundations to develop their own story.
For Wonder Woman, the First World War setting presents similar problems, but it is a time and place that is generally less familiar to the general public than World War Two. Many audiences members may not be aware that Erich Ludendorff, the German general played by Danny Huston, was a real soldier who led the country’s war efforts during the First World War. Following the conflict, he unsuccessfully ran for President of Germany, wrote books about Christian and Jewish conspiracies to destroy society, and shared wavering sympathies with Adolf Hitler. He died in 1937. Things go a little differently for him in Wonder Woman, but the character and the man bear little resemblance to one another. Using such a figure in a comic book movie, where he becomes a magical gas snorting, power hungry monster who opposes the peace treaty, is messy territory for any film, but Wonder Woman has leeway to do so simply because few people know who Erich Ludendorff was. If the film had been set in 1944 and the character changed to Josef Mengele, reactions would be very different.
The methods for war depicted are also true to the real conflict, including Doctor Poison and her experimentation with gas warfare. Gas was seen as a way to win the war, and the first gas attack mounted by the German forces led to thousands of casualties and kick-started what is often referred to as the Chemists’ War. This era led to scientists on both sides of the war pioneering an array of inventions that proved beneficial for decades to come, but also led to increased development and use of poisonous gases in warfare. This element of Wonder Woman is used to tragic effect, as the German forces create a virulently toxic gas that kills everyone in a village that Diana and her men had previously liberated.
For a PG-13 film ostensibly aimed at young people – with a large portion of the expected audience being young girls – Wonder Woman is surprisingly bold in its depiction of the consequences of war. We see suffocated bodies lying on the ground after a gas attack, the sombre faces of the injured returning from the battlefield, and the bleakness of the trenches by No Man’s Land. The ragtag team of soldiers who accompany Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) bear the scars of conflict in their own ways: Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a sharpshooter who struggles with PTSD and self-medicates with alcohol; Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) was forced to sacrifice his dreams of a career in acting to serve; Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) trades with both sides of the conflict, feeling no allegiance to either party after his people’s lands were stripped from them. Even Steve is bruised by his war experiences, and has become desensitized to the suffering around him. These men see no glory in the battle, and prefer to stay as emotionally distant as they can while making a profit on the side, aware that Diana’s noble yet naïve ideas of goodness conquering a singular evil are not the reality they have lived as soldiers.
The film’s key scene comes during Diana’s run across No Man’s Land. Dressed in her Amazon gear, a shield on her arm and bullets bouncing from her wrists, this is the moment where the film embraces Wonder Woman as a symbol. Like many superheroes of the Golden Age, Diana has done her fair share of Nazi punching, and was used as an American icon during conflict. Here, she is placed before her time – the film takes place a good 25 years before her first issue – and out of America, but the potency of her image as a female warrior, one woman against the world, remains as strong as ever.
When Ares is dead, the soldiers remove their gas masks, and most of them are revealed to be young men, barely out of their teens, relieved that the conflict has ended. Diana’s belief that Ares is wrong about humans and their supposedly inherent preference for violence is given further credence in this moment. Of course, the real First World War did not end with such a neatly tied bow, and the events that would follow in the coming decades were far from hopeful. For Wonder Woman, a film for the masses that believes in the power of love, there is an earnestness to its take on war, one that does not flinch from the realities of its pain but reminds viewers of the humans at the centre of it. No mere film can truly evoke the pain of a war, but Wonder Woman maintains a high degree of respect for its time and subject. It’s all the more fitting a tale for Diana herself. As famously noted by comic book writer Gail Simone:
“If you need to stop an asteroid, you call Superman. If you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But if you need to end a war, you call Wonder Woman.”