by Benjamín Harguindey
Wonder Woman has turned out to be the DCEU’s first indisputable success, both critically and commercially. And it’s a pretty good film by our account too, but there’s something a tad bit hypocritical about its premise that I can’t quite shake off. Spoilers.
You know from the review that the story sees Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) leave the confines of the magical Amazon island of Themyscira and join the Allied Powers against the German army near the end of the Great War. She does this because she’s convinced that she will find Ares, the God of War, in the field of battle, and that by slaying him she will put an end to war itself – once and for all.
Already we pity the futile creed of Wonder Woman, who intends to erradicate warmaking from mankind while fighting in what will shortly thereafter be remembered as “World War One”. Her story is fated to be one of disillusionment: war will go on, it is man’s nature, and there’s no simple solution to it like detecting and slaying the one precise source of such evil.
That the story is set during the first and not the second World War seems a curious decision at first, perhaps sparked by the studio’s desire to distance itself as far away from possible from Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which pretty much tells the same story, only set in WW2. It’s curious because of what a handy historical period WW2 has turned out to be for Hollywood-style war movies, supplying endless waves of despicable, irredeemable evildoers that can be slain without fear of moral censorship.
WW2 features a very convenient (for the purpose of storytelling anyway) good and evil dichotomy that WW1 does not. There’s no overarching sense of righteousness or glory to it: from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) to Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory (1956), the world remembers the Great War as a senseless affair and a waste of human life, a sort of nihilistic wake-up call from the 20th century, which had refined the industry of death in ways that the naive, unsuspecting 19th century populace couldn’t even imagine. It was with World War One that humanity learned of things such as “thousand-yard stare” and shell shock: war traumatizes, and trauma stays with you.
Because of this, WW1 seems like the perfect setting for Wonder Woman’s story of disillusionment. Diana arrives at the trenches expecting a series of duels fraught in nobility like the Greek epics of yore, then bears witness to the horrors of attrition warfare. War isn’t fought face to face with sword and shield, but at a distance, crawling through the dirt, fearing sudden death from mortar rounds or grenade shrapnel or gas attacks or even a single random bullet. It is ugly, confusing and pointless.
Because this is a superhero movie of course Diana can waltz across No Man’s Land unscathed (the German soldiers have the courtesy of firing exclusively on her minuscule shield). Nevertheless the more she experiences the war, the more she despairs in finding the fabled Ares and putting a definitive end to it. She comes to believe Ares is disguised as one General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), so she seeks him out and slays him. And this is where the big, emotional climax of the movie comes together: Ludendorff is dead, but she can still see in the distance that his death changes nothing. He’s not Ares. He’s not the devil. He’s just a man.
Isn’t that an intense twist? The superhero has been fighting an unwinnable fight, believing in the wrong beliefs, and succumbs in an existential crisis because her entire raison d’être has been irrevocably challenged. “Good” and “evil” are petty concepts, convenient ways of simplifying and understanding human conflict. And this is all the more powerful because everything in the movie has been leading up to this moment: the warnings of Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen), the parallel archaisms between the sword-and-sandal Amazons and the pitiable, doomed cavalry of early WW1… really everything we know and remember of the Great War confirms this moment of tragic disillusion.
Except here comes our diabolus ex machina: as Diana grieves for herself and mankind, another foe approaches. It’s the venerable Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who heard her out during her brief clash with the ineffectual British Parliament and helped her get over to Belgium. Turns out Sir Patrick was Ares all along! The God powers up Saiyan-style, scrap and debris collecting around him in the form of a Death Metal armor, then bursts into flames and proceeds to fight Wonder Woman.
Of course Wonder Woman defeats him, but that’s beside the point. Have we learned nothing from the movie? Diana certainly hasn’t. Turns out there’s a physical God of War that you can slay to dispel the evil from the hearts of men. As with Dark Age philosophy, evil is external to man, isn’t up to the interpretation of a fickle moral code but an objective thing, has no roots in psychology, and is easily removed via holy incantation (Diana summons the power of love). Not to worry, our heroine just happened to target the wrong dude at first.
What a cop out.
If the movie had stayed its course through the third act, it would be a masterpiece of genre filmmaking, and the beginning of a long, interesting debate on good and evil, right and wrong. Instead it humors its childish protagonist by summoning a bogeyman for her to fight at the last minute, validating her archaic rationale (even though the rest of the movie questions it with considerable more finesse) and reassuring us the audience that we need not comprehend the darkness within us.
At this point I’m supposed to throw up my arms and accept that “It’s only a superhero movie” but if it’s just that then why build it up so differently from every other superhero movie? Why have the hero start off as powerful as she will ever be, already as motivated as she will ever be, and already as sure of her identity as she will ever be, if you’re not going to change any of that by the end? Why sucker the audience with something deep and meaningful and pull out the rug at the last minute like that? Again, Wonder Woman is your trusty fun Summer blockbuster. But understand that it is flat out lying to you. It’s nowhere near as bold or novel as it pretends to be.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).