Wonder Woman And The Mythology Of The First World War

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So I have semi-organized thoughts on Wonder Woman. Unsurprisingly, most of them have to do with it’s treatment of World War One.

1. I LOVED IT SO MUCH! I haven’t seen any of the other DCCU movies so I can’t compare it to them but I thought it was really fun, and really well put together. The final battle dragged on a little too long for my taste but that’s the only real criticism I have in terms of movie construction.

2. So, I legit saw this movie so I could judge its historical accuracy. My judgment: better than expected! Besides obvious historical deviations, there were only two things that really bugged me. First, how did a German destroyer arrive to attack Paradise Island (which I presume is located somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean) when all German naval units in the Med had been blockaded in Istanbul since 1914? Second, while the scene where Wonder Woman charges across No-Man’s Land and breaks the stalemate is really cool, it………could not have happened. The movie takes place in November of 1918. The stereotypical conditions of the Western Front had not existed since August, when the Allies broke the German lines and began the Hundred Days Offensive. By November, the German military was in complete collapse and full retreat. I was going to write about how silly it was that you see some British Mark I tanks on that German army base at the end but then I remembered that the German army actually captured a number of them and returned them to service in Imperial colors, so the movie’s got me beat there. Also, props for depicting the Imperial German Naval Ensign correctly! Oh, and I think Field Marshal Sir Douglas ‘Butcher’ Haig makes a cameo? Good for him .

3. LUDENDORF! I’m so happy Ludendorff was the villain. He’s a fascinating historical figure who deserves to be more well known. I like to imagine that if you went back in time and told him that in 100 years he would be murdered onscreen by one of America’s most prominent cultural icons as part of a multimillion dollar film franchise, he would be very confused but also obscurely pleased.

4. Wonder Woman adheres to the conventional view of WWI, which is “The war was big and confusing and no one knows why it happened and no one was really the bad guys but the Germans were still totes evil”. This usually annoys me, as it’s just a way to avoid talking about Complicated History, but this movie makes it work by mythologizing it. We see the war completely from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about history, politics, or current events. To Diana, the war IS totally meaningless, it IS nothing but insanity. I could give you a hundred explanations for why the war developed as it did, and they would all be true. But none of that would change the fact that to most people, the war was nothing but a horror without end. World War I is not presented to us as a historical event so much as a State of Nature, a ravenous beast devouring men senselessly. This is historically incorrect, but probably describes contemporaneous views fairly well. We all know that in 1918 the war was ending but at the time it was widely believed that fighting could easily continue into 1919. (Which of course, it did). Wonder Woman cuts to the truth at the core of the myth. I loved it when Trevor was describing, in a very basic, matter-of-fact way, the facts of the War, and it matched the Amazon’s prophesy of the Apocalypse perfectly. Ironically, I think this could only work as part of a superhero or otherwise-mythological movie. A prestige historical drama that attempted to explain the War the way this does would be annoyingly simplistic.

5. That said, the closer you hew to the theme of “War is a horror that afflicts us all”, the more uncomfortably it sits with the theme of “But the Germans were still totes evil”. The Germans are so unrealistically evil in this movie! I don’t really mind that they were the bad guys, but the idea that Kaiser Wilhelm II would watch the gassing of Belgian civilians for amusement is absolutely ludicrous. (He didn’t even want to bomb London for christsakes!) And while Ludendorff was almost as evil as the movie portrays, he would never have casually murdered a subordinate. That actually specifically annoyed me because the Imperial German Army had by far the lowest execution rate of any in the war. (The Italians had the highest). I don’t really want to write a Central Powers apologia because the main driver of atrocities and war probably was the German Empire, but the whole advantage of setting your movie in WWI is that you can do something besides killing Nazis for two hours. The fact that Wonder Woman kept falling back on to that caused a real tonal problem and undermined the otherwise very good thematic work I talked about above. There were some attempts to mention that evil was universal, like when Chief talks about how the Americans destroyed his people, but I think they needed to be emphasized more. Something as simple as mentioning the famine in Germany because of the British blockade would have gone a long way.

6. On a similar note, I really, really liked that Aries turned out to be an elderly, British Member of Parliament. I assume the movie did this just for a fake out, but it makes perfect sense to me that the God of War would sit in the House of Commons. After all, it was those same elderly gentlemen who oversaw the conquest and subjugation of a quarter of the Earth. Compared to that, Ludendorff is a piker. This is something that I think could also have benefited from some emphasizing. Evil doesn’t just come from warmongering generals who worship death. It comes from politicians voting in favor of “stabilizing the Anglo-Sudanese frontier so as to increase commerce in the region” or “intervening to protect lives and property in China during the recent disturbances”. Of such anodyne decisions are Empires forged.

7. Interestingly, the movie’s decision to focus so completely on the visceral, emotional aspects of the war meant that another highly traditional theme of World War One literature was almost entirely absent: that of the treasonous incompetence of the generals. As I tend to think that this has been highly exaggerated, I did not have a problem with this at all. The immobility and casualties of the front are portrayed not as the results of failed leadership but as merely an independently arisen State of Being. Even when ‘Butcher’ Haig is getting excoriated by Diana, it’s for his cowardice and callousness, not his incompetence.

8. Ok, this is a side note but: does World War II not happen in the DC Cinematic Universe? Because it’s pretty clear that Ludendorff murders Hindenburg before dying, and both of those men would be REALLY important in post-war Germany. Paul von Hindenburg would prove essential in stabilizing the infant Weimar Republic and in demobilizing the army peacefully. He would also serve as President from 1925 to 1934. Ironically, his last act would be to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, dooming the State he had fought to preserve for so long. Meanwhile Ludendorff, would be one of the biggest originators of the infamous ‘Stabbed in the Back’ myth. He later joined the Nazis and was a major player in the Beer Hall Putsch, before splitting with Hitler and becoming a weird neo-pagan. Without Hindenburg, it’s not clear to me that the Weimar Republic lasts long enough for Hitler to take it over. Without Ludendorff, I’m not sure the Nazis emerge at all, or at least not in the same way they did historically. Personally, I think that in the DCCU continuity the chance of a Communist victory in the 1919 Revolution goes way up. With Hindenburg and the rest of OHL murdered, I’m not sure if the army would have been able to react quickly enough to crush the revolutions and stabilize the new Social Democratic government.

9. This is being really unfair to this movie, but I think it kinda maybe actually accidentally endorses the “Stab in the Back” thesis? For those unaware, this was the claim, made by many German generals after the war, that the Imperial Army could easily have won the war if Socialists and traitors at home hadn’t stabbed the military in the back and surrendered. This became the dominant theme of the German Far-Right, including the Nazi Party, who interpreted it to mean that it was the Jews who had held the knife. Historians have pretty conclusively disproved this, showing that the 1918 Revolution that overthrew the Imperial government occurred after the collapse of the German Army and Navy. In fact, it was deserting and mutinying military units that led much of the Revolution! But in Wonder Woman, while we are told that Germany is near collapse, the Army is still shown bravely and efficiently holding the front lines, while Ludendorff is on the verge of deploying new potentially war-winning weapons! As far as we can tell, in the DCCU, the Armistice really was the product of a ‘stab in the back’ by treacherous politicians and generals.

10. If DC wants to just forget about the Justice League movies for a couple of years and make a whole series of films about Diana Prince wandering around post-war Europe in the 1920s trying to help solve the various wars of succession and revolutions and political crises and famines, etc, etc, that would be fine by me.

11. Why was this movie not called “World War Wonder Woman”?

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