World War I Is the Perfect Setting for ‘Wonder Woman’
The Angel of Mons, chemical weapons and the horror of despair
This article containers spoilers for Wonder Woman.
One of the best things about the new Wonder Woman movie is how well the Amazonian princess fits in World War I. DC’s new film takes liberties with the classic characters setting, but it’s a great change.
Diana is a young, naive goddess who sets out on a personal mission to save the world from the war to end all wars. During her journey, she fights against the horror of chemical weapons, storms trenches outside a Belgian town and learns the horrible truth of humanity. Her journey mirrors that of the soldiers who survived World War I only to come home rattled and full of despair.
Even better, the hero’s presence on the Western Front echoes a popular myth of the era.
The British soldiers who fought at Mons came home with a legend. It was 1914, still the early days of the Great War and the British Expeditionary Force had yet to bloody itself in a major battle. That changed in late August, when the BFE clashed with German for the first time. It was brutal. The Germans pushed the British back and, for the first time, some back home in England began to doubt the Great War would be over quickly.
In London, fantasy author Arthur Machen published “The Bowmen” a month after the battle. The Evening News ran the story, which Machen claimed he fashioned from first-hand accounts of soldiers returning from the front. According to Machen’s soldiers, the British escaped Mons with the help of ghostly archers holding back the Kaiser’s men.
After that, the legend exploded. By the end of the war, soldiers along the British front came home with stories of supernatural help granted by ancient warriors. Angels in battle armor descended from the heavens and crusaded across the Western Front, killing Germans and protecting Allied soldiers.
It’s important to remember that Machen was a fiction writer and that there are almost no first-hand accounts of these warriors, but the myth persists. Like the legends of the cannibal scavengers of no-man’s land, the Angel of Mons is part of the mythic landscape of World War I.
Wonder Woman doesn’t explicitly name-drop the Angel of Mons, but when Diana, princess of Themyscira, leaves the trenches and faces down a German machine gun nest, the movie is paying tribute to that myth. Clad in ancient armor, possessed of the power of the gods and righteous in her hatred of war, Diana deflects bullets and mortars as she rampages between the trenches and descends on the Germans with the fury of a god made flesh.
Yeah, Wonder Woman is amazing. It resonates with the myths of World War I and tackles hard questions of war and morality. It’s one of the best superhero films of all time.
For years, Warner Bros. has struggled to replicate the success of the Marvel film franchise. Writer-director Christopher Nolan understood Batman and created iconic films. Zack Snyder’s take on both Superman and Batman was a mess. Suicide Squad was mediocre and the upcoming Justice League film doesn’t have much going for it.
The reason is fairly simple. Marvel built a successful film franchise on the premise of bringing its characters to the real world. The Avengers is, at its core, a superpowered special operations team. Despite the incredible power of Captain America and Tony Stark, they’re people with all the conflicts and problems normal people have.
This will never work for DC characters such as Batman, Superman, the Flash and Wonder Woman. DC’s characters are gods with powers, concerns and morality far beyond the ken of mortals. Warner seemed to think people liked “darkness” and “grit” so it caked its gods in gore. It didn’t work.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins understands that these characters are gods, and centered the film on themes worthy of the concerns of gods. For Diana, daughter of Amazonian queen Hippolyta, wants to do no less than end war itself.
In the film’s universe, Zeus created the Amazons to help guide the hearts of man. Ares, god of war, despised man and killed many of the gods before Zeus struck him down. As Zeus lay dying, he used the last of his power to create a secret island nation where the Amazons could safely wait until mankind needed them.
Diana is the youngest Amazon on the island, the only child in fact, and the audience watches her grow and learn the mythology of the Amazons during the first act of the film. Everything changes when American spy Steve Trevor crashes on the island. German soldiers pursue him and the centuries-long peace of the Amazons is over.
Trevor brings news of World War I, the war to end all wars. He describes a gristmill with multiple fronts, destroying lives across the world. Worse, he’s fleeing the Germans after he stole plans for a new type of chemical weapon—one so powerful it rots gas masks.
To young Diana’s ears, Trevor is describing the very problem Zeus created the Amazons to stop. Such a huge war is obviously the work of Ares and the Amazons have a duty to stop him. Her plan is simple—go to the front, find Ares, kill him and end the war. Trevor just wants to destroy the German chemical weapons facilities.
What follows is a kick-ass action film that faces the horror of chemical weapons and the brutality of World War I. You’ll see the God of War clothe himself in armor wrought from the spent casings of chemical bombs. Watch as a goddess tears across Belgium, killing Germans and destroying their weapons. Gaze in awe as Warner Bros. manages to tell a good superhero origin story, but also a damn decent story about World War I.
If Wonder Woman just did these things, it would have just been pretty good. But it’s a great movie for its moral lesson—and to explain why that’s so important, I have to spoil the ending. You’ve been warned.
When Diana finally kills off Ares, the war doesn’t stop. It keeps going. Because, here’s the thing, even a goddess can be naive. She bought all the stories about the goodness of man the other Amazons fed her. There is darkness in the heart of everyone. World War I was a brutal, awful, nasty and senseless war. Diana stares down all this and faces a choice, and it’s one that I think most thinking people have to make.
When you grow up and you learn the truth of the world, that life is short and people can be cruel and the world isn’t fair, what do you do? In my experience, most people go one of two ways. Some make a conscious decision to improve the world, to fight against the darkness and do everything they can to change the world for the better. Others retreat inward, decide that the world isn’t worth their time and spend the rest of their life filling their hours with distractions.
It’s a choice a lot of soldiers who lived through World War I had to make. Scholars call the interwar authors “The Lost Generation” for a reason. Because Diana is a god and because this is a movie, she makes the hard choice, the right choice. Wonder Woman decides to keep fighting because, despite all that roiling darkness just below the surface, love and beauty persists in this flawed world.
We don’t deserve her.