I saw Wonder Woman last week. I loved it, despite a rather plebian third act that was, frankly, boring and generic. Patty Jenkins brought plenty of feminist elements to what might otherwise have been a rather weak Zach Snyder script. I thought I would offer just a thought or two about things that particularly connected to this blog’s purpose, namely history.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re one of the few people in the country who hasn’t seen the movie yet, you may want to put off reading this until you do, because I discuss a couple major plot points.
Wonder Woman and WWII
When I heard that the movie would be set during the Great War (World War I) instead of World War II, I was puzzled. Wonder Woman is in origin a World War II character. She debuted in 1941, and was to some extent a nod to the role women had taken in the US Armed Forces during the war. While women did not hold combat positions, they played a range of important roles during the war. WACs, WAVEs, WASPs, SPARs, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve members, and others served in a wide range of roles, including typists, secretaries, nurses, air traffic controllers, weather forecasters, interrogators, intelligence interpretaters, drivers, mechanics, and even pilots. By 1945, there were more than 100,000 American women in uniform, with 6,000 of them being officers. Several dozen US servicewomen died during the war and others became POWs, and many received Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and other medals. So a female superhero was an obvious choice for a time when women were demonstrating their ability to directly contribute to the US war effort.
Wonder Woman’s origin involves an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crashing his plane near Paradise Island (later renamed Themiscyra). Although the comic never definitely stated where Paradise Island was located, it was broadly hinted that it is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (although how Greek Amazons got to the Pacific Ocean was not explained). A location in the Pacific makes sense, since the US probably had a larger Air Force presence in the Pacific theater than the European theater and because Paradise Island was located a long way from civilization; it’s unlikely a solo American pilot in Europe could be a long way from civilization.
Wonder Woman’s original costume strongly emphasized her specifically American identity. Her costume is red, white, and blue; she has an eagle on her bustier; and her skirt is blue with white five-pointed starts.
In the early comics, she frequently fought Nazis and Japanese, as most superheroes did. Her first recurring villain was the German spy and saboteur Baroness Paula von Gunther. The villainous Dr. Poison was revealed to be a Japanese princess. Other Nazi opponents included Mavis and Gundra the Valkyrie. The Duke of Deception turned out to be the driving force behind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. In the 4th issue of Wonder Woman (April-May 1943), she led a group of marines in an attack on the Japanese, and for a while her battle cry was “Keep ’em flying”, a common WWII slogan.
Why the Great War?
So initially I was really puzzled why the decision was made to push Wonder Woman’s origin back two decades and have her involved in the Great War instead. On the surface, it’s a little forced. The film has to contort things a bit in order to make the American Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) be able to crash on Themiscyra, given that the Americans only got into the war comparatively late, in April of 1917. Trevor must be a damn good spy to be able to fake being a German flying ace and sneak into a secret munitions base in modern Turkey. Apparently in this film, Themiscyra is located in the eastern Mediterranean (which makes more sense in terms of the Amazon origin story, but not in terms of comics history).
But very soon after Diana (Gal Gadot) and Trevor get to Britain, I realized that transplanting Wonder Woman to the Great War actually makes good sense. Diana’s mission is to put an end to the whole idea of war by locating the god Ares and killing him. The idea of killing the very concept of war echoes the post-war notion that the Great War was the War to End All War, a war so awful it would teach people not to wage war. That makes Diana essentially the incarnation of this optimistic approach to the horrors of the war, and her essential optimism starts to seem both realistic and impossibly idealistic at the same time. Faced with the horrors of the Great War, how could she not want to end warfare once and for all, but how can she possibly accomplish such a huge goal?
The film positions her in a remarkably complex war that ought to serve as a good foil for her goals and idealism, because it is hard to say who were really the good guys and bad guys in this war, as opposed to just who were the winners and losers. As has been pointed out, however, the film betrays this approach by making it clear that the Germans really are the bad guys, since they’re willing to embrace Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and her murderous super-weapon, and Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is willing to negotiate an armistice in bad faith, while the British are sincere in their desire for peace.
Erich Ludendorff was a smart choice to serve as a major protagonist for a heroine who wants to end all war, because he was one of the most militaristic of German generals during the Great War. He was a brilliant general. He was an advocate for ‘total war’ in which the German military essentially took control of much of the German government and geared Germany’s economy toward the waging of war. Although he never completely accomplished that during the war, his approach still helped drive the collapse of the German economy by the end of the war. He pressured Kaiser Wilhelm II into permitting unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain, ignoring the warnings that sinking US ships might bring the US in to the war against Germany, which in fact happened after the sinking of the Lusitania. When an armistice was proposed in 1918, he advocated for using it to quickly rebuild and then launch a renewed attack on France. This was a man who truly was committed to warfare and so he makes a plausible candidate for the mortal incarnation of the God of War. And he was in Belgium in 1918, which is when the film has to be set.
However, he didn’t slaughter the rest of the German High Command, and he wasn’t killed in the waning months of the war. He survived the war, opposing the German surrender because he refused to accept that the German army could possibly be defeated; he denied reports that German army units were refusing to obey direct orders. He was suffering from severe sleep deprivation, which may account for his growing fanaticism at the end of the war. He was briefly exiled, but returned to Germany in 1919. After the war, as he began to be blamed for the failure of the war and the collapse of the German economy, he resorted to promoting the theory that the real reason for the German defeat was the ‘Stab in the Back’, the notion that the German army and government had been betrayed by unrecognized traitors in their midst. He blamed the Stab in the Back on German Jews, thereby helping promote the anti-Semitism that became such a major element of Hitler’s ideology. And he was an early supporter of Hitler, although he began to become disillusioned with the man during the 30s. He died in 1937 from liver cancer, not a sword through the chest.
Want to Know More?
Wonder Woman is still in the theaters, so it’s not available for home viewing yet. But you should read about Wonder Woman’s history, because it’s really interesting. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, lived a very…non-traditional life, and is credited with helping invent the lie detector (the Lasso of Truth…). He was a bondage fetishist, a female supremacist, and had a polyamorous marriage long before that was a thing. So take a look at Jill Lapore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.