I was shocked and breathless but also with great excitement at the scene where Wonder Woman first appeared in Batman v Superman. As her empowering theme song started to play, almost everyone in the theater applauded. Some even could not hold but let their “Ohhhhh” let loose. People welcomed Wonder Woman. Being one among the few movies featuring superheroines, Wonder Woman/Princess Diana refreshes the big screen where the presentation of male protagonists and the promotion of masculinity usually dominate. The audience, therefore, has the right to demand more from the feminist empowerment. Right after Batman v Superman, her own stand-alone movie, dedicated to the origin and construction of the superheroine, is released in 2017.
It did not fail us. Wonder Woman (2017) receives overwhelmingly positive feedback from movie critics and audience. The movie sets numerous box office records and is placed as #1 on the list of 50 best superhero movies of all time by Rotten Tomatoes. In short, Wonder Woman (2017) is an undeniable commercial hit.
Yet, many details in Wonder Woman (2017) perplex me. Her take on the subjective truth of war is questionable. Her use of (superhuman) power and her intervention in the men’s world (war), including the use of violence and lethal force, also poses a pressing question regarding the moral ambiguity of the First World War. There is no doubt that the original creator of the Wonder Woman character and director of this film do determine to construct Wonder Woman to represent an ideal feminist symbol: compassion, love, peace, gender equality, and most importantly, taking the leadership of the men’s world.
In this article, I want to show that in World War I context, such feminist image of Wonder Woman is incredibly fragile due to the weak moral ground upon which the character is built. Specifically, Wonder Woman, who supposes to become a moral compass for mankind, turns out to be a simple-minded goddess who lacks critical thinking ability and objective judgment. Instead, Diana/Wonder Woman is blinded by her love interest and becomes a “victim” of the subjective truth of the Great War.
The Origin of Wonder Woman: From World War II to World War I
The fictional superheroine was created by the American psychologist William Moulton Marston. Wonder Woman’s first appearance in All-Star Comics #8, published during the World War II. At the time, Wonder Woman represents an early feminist model that is both a symbol of justice and an independent woman taking the leadership of the post-war world. The inspiration comes from Marston’s polyamorous relationship with two highly educated women (ironically), Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Oliver Byrne, both of whom involved in the women’s rights movement. Wonder Woman, hence, fulfilled not only the anti-fascist propaganda role (as she fought against the Nazis and enemy spies illustrated in 1940s comic book) and but also an influential feminist image.
The story of Wonder Woman, as told by Marston, starts when Steve Trevor’s plane crash-lands by the hidden Paradise Island, on which the Amazonian female warriors live. Wonder Woman (named Diana) is chosen to bring Steve Trevor (US Air Force) back to the human’s world on a mission of peace and diplomacy. However, after setting foot in America, Wonder Woman discovers the evil plot of Ares, the God of War who aims to start a global conflict, promote hatred and violence, thus boosting his power. It is then that Wonder Woman realizes her duty to protect the innocent, maintain peace, justice, and equality. Over time, the origin of Wonder Woman is revamped by DC Comics.
In the movie Wonder Woman (2017), it is shown that her origin is again altered. Growing up on the hidden island of Themyscira (formerly Paradise Island), the young Diana is told of Ares’ wicked ambition to fill men’s hearts with greed and hatred, making mankind kill each other. She then meets Steve Trevor, crash-landing by the island and being pursued by a group of German soldiers. Steve points out that he is holding a secret that can help end the Great War, a.k.a World War I. It turns out, the Amazonians have been unaware of the outside world and now, realizing humanity is once again purging each other (since when humanity stops massacring each other anyway?), they believe it is Ares behind all of this. The young Princess Diana sets off with Steve Trevor on a journey to “stop Ares and end the war.” The shift from Marston’s original WWII era to WWI is undoubtedly interesting but also poses perplexing matters.
The Complexities of War and the Making of Wonder Woman’s Subjective Perception of War
If the Second World War (1939 – 1945) was all about stopping the atrocity committed by the Nazis, then the First World War (1914 – 1918) is much more complicated. When Europe was shaken by the Nazi war machines marching across borders, the Western powers and the Soviet Union united to stop the advance of the force of evil. It was then, that every Allied soldier, whether British/American troops storming the beach of Normandy in 1944 or Soviet conscripts defending the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, firmly believed in their just cause. World War I, on the other hand, did not share such simplicity. Being called the Great War, the First World War witnessed the unprecedented scale of destruction, to the point that everyone called it “the war to end all wars” because there could not be another war that was more destructive than this Great War. The cause of the war, despite being sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, had a complicated nature in the complex tangle of diplomacy and politics. Major European powers formed military alliances, one countering another. Industrialization helped boost the arms race in the region as if everyone foresaw the immediate demand for deadly weapons. And it happened. For the first time in human’s history, humanity saw the fruits of the industrialization, such as new types of rifles, armoured cars, bombers, explosives, in action. It was then that soldiers marched into frontlines, having intense hatred toward enemy soldiers but not knowing why they should kill each other. Perhaps the killing was for king and monarchies? Perhaps it was for the survival of their empires? Therefore, it was not easy to identify the line between the good and the bad since both sides, the Allied and the Axis Powers, fought to ensure they would not become victims of the others’ expanding military and economic forces. In this context, the intervention of a figure with superhuman strength and thus the ability to change the world, like Wonder Woman, should prompt some critical discussions.
The first and foremost question to be addressed is: Whose side is she on anyway? And why?
Before crash-landing on the island of Themyscira, Steve Trevor is an Allied spy in the German army. He has stolen an important notebook of Dr. Poison who works for the Germans, containing information about the deadliest weapon ever known to mankind. Steve believes that this notebook can turn the tide of war in favor of the Germans, who are on the losing side. Under the effect of the Lasso of Truth, Steve is compelled to tell the truth when questioned by the Amazonians: his mission is to infiltrate the Germans, steal the notebook and bring it back to England or else millions of innocent people would die because of this weapon. Diana and her Amazonian sisters, immediately believe it is Ares, the God of War who plant the seeds of hatred and violence in men who came up with these deadly ideas. She subsequently embarks for England with Steve Trevor, trying to find where the war “is” because that must be where Ares is. Throughout the film, Wonder Woman is portrayed as a leading woman with superhuman strength and stamina, siding with the Allied powers and charging toward the German trenches, obliterating German soldiers. Wonder Woman’s intervention gives the Allied tremendous advantages, upon which is based on the truth of Steve Trevor.
The plot of Wonder Woman (2017) as well as the way it handles history start to become problematic as soon as Diana saves Steve from his crashed plane and drags him to the beach. Diana and perhaps all other inhabitants of the island created by the (Greek) gods have yet to experience the concept of nationalism in the 20th century. Upon meeting each other, Diana was astounded by her first ever encounter with a man, a handsome one to be considered. She curiously asked the outsider who he is. To my surprise, Steve firmly states he is “one of the good guys and those (the Germans pursuing him) are the bad guys.” The Germans then proceed to land on the beach of Themyscira, starting to shoot and kill some of Diana’s sisters, including her close mentor. It is from this moment that Diana’s perception toward the Germans begins to be formulated: she views the Germans as aggressors, murderers who represent the image of Ares the God of War. Little does she know the complex nature of the Great War that is going on outside of Themyscira, let alone being aware of modern concepts like nation-state and nationalism. Diana’s subjective perception of reality is additionally reinforced by her reliance on the Lasso of Truth, the mythical weapon that can compel anyone to tell the truth. Steve is, therefore, interrogated and forced to tell his “truth,” or what he believes to be the truth: his intention is good, the Allied (his side, his nation) is inherently good, the Central powers (Germans and their allies) are inherently bad. The notion “us vs. them”, in which “we” are the good ones who protect women, children from “them,” the bad ones whose acts are based on hatred and violence, is established. Obviously, Steve Trevor, an American pilot working for the Allied force, has to have an absolute belief in his own country. And indeed, he has to portray the enemies as bad and inhumanly cruel men who commit war crimes. It is so predictable and obvious that I ask myself if the truth matters after all.
The philosophy of using the Lasso of Truth closely associates with Immanuel Kant’s moral theory (also called Kantian ethics). Kant emphasizes the importance of the truth because the truth represents an unimpeachable moral goal. Kant holds that there is a single account for all moral considerations, one “truth” that objectively dictates the well-being, equality, justice, and so on, of rational humans and human societies. The concept of truth (arguably interchanging with the concept of justice) is, therefore, not only objective but also universal. It is called the deontological approach to ethics. According to this approach, one has the duty to do what is morally right and avoid what is morally wrong while consequence does not matter. As long as the intention is good, one can act in certain ways that he or she believes to preserve or contribute to the objective truth. It is what the Lasso of Truth tries to extract, the most sacred concept carefully concealed in each human being: the truth. However, how much did truth matter in World War I? With the rise of nationalism and fueled by nationalistic propaganda during the 1910s, men’s sense of truth is distorted irrevocably by their hatred. Such is what constructs Steve Trevor’s truth: the product of nationalism and war propaganda. Therefore, the use of the Lasso of Truth at the beginning of the film is questionable because it contributes to Diana’s biased perception of the outside world and the Great War.
Wonder Woman’s voluntary contribution to the Allied force gives them a superior military advantage. The scene when she charges toward the No Man’s Land, not only does it represent a powerful moment in various aspects but it also shows the symbolic image of a Wonder Woman that everyone in the theater has been waiting for. Diana witnesses the horrors of war: an amputated soldier crying for help, a destitute woman and her children, the poor living condition within the trench. All of these sufferings empower her, a woman, to walk the land where no man can walk. Wonder Woman/Diana represents compassion, love, and protector of the innocent. Sadly, she does so in a distorted view of the nature of war. When she charges toward the German trench and easily break the stalemate, does she share the same compassion toward each German soldier? What if some of them have a family back home waiting for them to come back? What if some are forced to join the army and be in the trench involuntarily? It is utterly important to note that the Germans in WWI are not equivalent to the Nazis in WWII. Nazism and its inhuman policies only emerged in the 1930s, more than a decade after the end of WWI. Therefore, Wonder Woman, on the mission to bring an end to war, makes more than one ethical mistake when helping the Allied gain the upper hand. She sympathizes with the innocent, the Allied soldiers, but fails to find the same compassion for people on the other side, who happen to be perceived enemies of the Allied.
Wonder Woman’s intervention in the Great War (1914-1918) can be compared to the involvement of the United Nations (UN) in the Korean War (1950-1953). Created right after the Second World War in 1945, the UN mission is to prevent another conflict among nations, maintain peace and promote stability throughout the world. At its early age, it can be said that most nations on Earth, and perhaps the UN itself too, tried to grasp the true purpose of this organization. As the Cold War rivalries between the West and the communists emerged nearly immediately after the end of WWII, the UN was once thought as a tool for the United States to mobilize global support against communism. In 1950, North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, quickly overrunning the poorly equipped army of South Korea. As the North was pushing to the final port city of Busan, the United States was able to call for a vote for a military intervention from the UN Security Council and achieved what it wanted: a US-led UN force combining the strength of more than 16 UN nations, against the North Korean aggression. Without defending the communist North, I argue that the US (and the UN itself) violated UN principle of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs. Even until now, the US still maintains what is called “UN Command” as a disguise for a US military command center in South Korea. Just like Wonder Woman, the UN can be considered as an entity that just stumbles upon the modern world. Lost and confused, they (Wonder Woman/the UN) are easily influenced by a biased factor that eventually gives them a distorted and biased perception of the reality. Here, the UN was blinded by the political ideology of anti-communism. Such UN intervention, if occurring today, would prompt outrageous responses from all over the world: whose side is the UN on and on which moral, rational or political ground? Therefore, the three principles of the UN peacekeeping mission today are revamped to fit with the image of an unbiased UN. First, the UN must have consents from all parties in a conflict in order to intervene. Second, the intervention must be for humanitarian purposes, such as providing cares for non-combattant individuals. It is of critical importance that the UN maintains its impartiality – taking neither sides and helping no side gaining a military advantage over others. Third, the UN peacekeeping troops are not allowed to use force unless under self-defense. Back to the Amazonian superheroine, she violates all three principles. Wonder Woman, hence, is far from the image of a peacekeeping figure.
To a greater extent, Wonder Woman’s intervention can be considered a contribution to war crimes. The film never addresses the big concern regarding Steve’s course of action: he steals the notebook, which contains formulas for the deadly gas weapon, from Dr. Poison and attempts to deliver it to his superiors in the Allied headquarter in London. This detail is crucial. If he already understands the catastrophe that this gas weapon can cause, why does he not destroy the notebook but hands the formulas over to the Allied instead? I firmly believe that Steve is never about protecting the innocent or fighting against German monstrosities. His true self, which he actually believes to be the truth, is dedicated to his country and its national interest. Historically, during WWI, both sides committed war crimes by using chemical weapons, which were already prohibited by the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907. Both sides caused massive civilian and military casualties. By handing the notebook to his superiors, Steve inspires the Allied to develop the deadly weapon themselves, thus gaining the upper hand during the war and even allowing the West to maintain a new world order in the post-war period. Wonder Woman, by helping Steve deliver the notebook and further aiding the Allied herself in direct combat against the Germans, could be considered a part of the monstrosity committed during WWI. Should Diana be exposed to the Allied’s use of chemical weapons upon civilians, instead of relying only on Steve to tell her who is good and who is bad, I wonder how she would react under such circumstance? To realize men are all corrupted and filled with hatred and violence. To realize the men’s world is not trustworthy and does not deserve her help. In fact, I imagine that would make a great twist to the film. Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, there is only Steve’s heroic sacrifice (by igniting an explosion that destroys the last shipment of the deadly gas), which seems like a boring cliché of war movies.
Steve’s sacrifice awakes Wonder Woman’s true power. As she finally enters the rank of gods, Wonder Woman confronts Ares the God of War and easily defeats him. But her new raison d’être? “It’s about what you believe,” she said, pissing off Ares. Really, Diana? You fight and kill German soldiers who also fight for what they believe. And look at the atrocities they have done while believing they do the right and necessary things for their country! I was expecting the founding member of the Justice League to say something more profound regarding the approach to justice or equality, but “I follow what I believe” is quite a disappointing statement. I would wish her luck when dealing with the Nazis a decade later, who believed the Jews deserve to die. The moral ground on which the plot of the whole movie is built is so subjective that one can replace minor details and come up with an alternative plot that is more unpleasant and atrocious.
In my thought experiment, it is not Steve Trevor, an American pilot, who crash-landed on Themyscira but a handsome German pilot named Manfred von Richthofen. He retells the whole war’s perspective, describing the atrocities committed by the West upon the people of German Empire. Under the effect of the Lasso of Truth, Richthofen claims he has to fight in order to protect the innocent. Fallen for love, Diana/Wonder Woman escorted him back to Germany. She then charged toward the Allied trench, beating the crap out of British/American/French soldiers while German soldiers backing her up. See how easy it is for the plot to develop depending on the narrative of the handsome pilot in the beginning? Even one can imagine that a handsome Waffen-SS officer who crash-lands, meets the goddess and tells her how the Jews are terrorizing the world and what needs to be done, the storyline can immediately take a very dark turn. “Die Wunderfrau” is a very unpleasant thought.
Overall, the transformation of Wonder Woman’s origin story from WWII (as initially published by Marston) to WWI setting is risky because of the moral ambiguity of this conflict. Allan Heinberg, the screenwriter of this masterpiece, said in an interview that he chose WWI setting because he sees parallels between WWI and the present-day world: “We are in a very WWI world today with nationalism and how it would take very little to start a global conflict.” Director Patty Jenkins adds: “World War I is the first time that civilization as we know it was finding its roots, but it’s not something that we really know the history of. Even the way that it was unclear who was in the right of WWI is a really interesting parallel to this time. Then you take a god with a moral compass and a moral belief system, and you drop them into this world, there are questions about women’s rights, about a mechanized war where you don’t see who you are killing. It’s such a cool time.”
Both Heinberg and Jenkins betrayed their own words. If WWI is so complex and that no one knows who is right or wrong, then why the plot illustrates such subjectivity in which the Germans are clearly bad, and the Allied is clearly good, all of which are told by Steve Trevor who is clearly loyal toward the Allied. When, in the movie, is Wonder Woman actually a moral compass to guide mankind toward peace? There is none. Wonder Woman, a seemingly feminist icon, is reduced to the image of a dependent woman whose love and emotion are subject to her male partner Steve. In WWII, women were portrayed in US propaganda as vulnerable to spy threats because they were mentally weak, emotional, unreliable and could be fooled by love (of Nazi spies). Could this film indirectly re-assert such mindset, that is, Wonder Woman is as vulnerable as other women who are influenced by her love interest? Constructing a Wonder Woman character who lacks both the objective judgment of reality and critical thinking ability is not empowering women after all.
My question remains open for discussion. However, I take into account some other explanations that do not end up undervaluing the feminist construct of Wonder Woman. Perhaps the film Wonder Woman (2017) is dedicated to simple-minded audiences who are more familiar with WWII setting than with WWI. Instead of taking more screen time explaining the historical context of WWI, Heinberg and Jenkins want to build a linear storyline where 1) the West is good as usual and 2) the Germans are bad as usual, in order to resemble the theme of the Second World War. In other words, they want to use WWI setting (not many movies are about WWI so this theme can be a gold mine) while enabling the audience to enjoy the movie with a pre-existing WWII mindset where the good and the bad guys are clearly defined.
Still, I would love to see a movie with a reinforced moral ground on which the protagonist becomes the moral compass for mankind.