Making Something New: Wonder Woman as a WWI Film

Let me make a few things clear. Yes, I know that Wonder Woman (DVD 14777) is completely, 100% fictional. I know that an ancient demi-goddess didn’t end the war. So, why am I including Wonder Woman in this series about World War I movies? First, this is one of maybe two WWI movies which feature a woman as the main character. If Hollywood refuses to give me the feminist and historically accurate war films I deserve, then I will claim whatever movie I can get. Second, Wonder Woman hits trope after trope indicative of WWI movies—and then subverts them all.

A common theme seen in WWI movies—including movies we’ve written about in this blog series—is the loss of innocence. A young man goes off to fight a war for his country, sure of himself and in his convictions. After reaching the front, he loses his convictions, his purpose, his sense of self, and his faith in humanity. In Wonder Woman, Diana embarks on this same journey. The war comes to Themiscyra (just as the war came to England and Germany and Austria and France and Russia), and Diana, full of righteous fervor, defies her mother’s wishes and joins the fight. She manages to hold on to her ideals and her sense of self until the climax of the film, during her battle with Ares. By the standard of every WWI movie, something essential and important within Diana should die. And yes, her love interest dies, but Diana’s faith in humanity remains unshaken. In fact, it even grows stronger.

The second WWI trope Wonder Woman adopts is the belief, adopted by filmmakers and historians alike, that common men fought and died in someone else’s war. Usually, when we see this trope in film and in war memoirs, the young foot soldier feels that he’s sent to die because of a politician’s petty grievance. This sense of a manufactured conflict is evident in Wonder Woman, but instead of ascribing blame to politicians, the filmmakers put the lion’s share of the blame on Ares, the god of war. When Diana slays Ares, generals and privates alike emerge from a war-clouded haze, and they rejoice in their unclouded vision and new sense of free will.

Wonder Woman covers too many tropes to discuss in this short post, but I do want to spend some time on one last one: No Man’s Land. Usually, films linger on No Man’s Land as a blighted symbol of lost hope, and of death and meaningless destruction. In Wonder Woman, Diana just… charges across it. It may be No Man’s Land, but Diana is no man. She’s not the cautious Steve Trevor, nor one of the broken men huddled in the trenches. She’s untainted by the true horror and pain of the war, and buoyed by her faith in humanity and her sense of right and wrong.

In most WWI films, No Man’s Land is usually where those kind of ideals go to die. It’s ultimately impassable, because the soldiers depicted have lost the will to fight, the will to live, and even themselves. Crucially, the events that trigger a similar transformation in Diana do not occur until well after she successfully charges No Man’s Land. I have to wonder, would she have been able perform the same feat after her confrontation with Ludendorff?

So we’ve established that Wonder Woman hits all the right tropes for a World War I movie, but we’ve also established that it subverts them.  You could read this a couple of different ways. You could argue that attributing the war to Ares removes blame from people who did contribute to the war’s beginning and continuation. There’s still a flourishing debate about who actually shoulders blame for the war, and it’s convenient to ascribe blame to something totally beyond human control. A less generous reading of the film could argue that by shifting the blame to a god, and the responsibility of ending to war to a demi-goddess, Wonder Woman dismisses the role ordinary mortals played, and can play, in perpetuating and ending violence.

I dn’t think the movie should be read that way. Ultimately, I see Wonder Woman as a movie about coming of age in the midst of a worldwide calamity. This would make the film similar to movies like All Quiet on the Western Front or Testament of Youth. Yes, this generational loss of innocence is reflected in the journey of a mythical demi-goddess, but that doesn’t make the war, or the people who lived through it or died in it, any less real.

Posted in WWI on Film.