I spent a good hour after I came out of Wonder Woman thinking about how I would begin this review. As a history grad student with focus on the first world war and as a fan of comic book superheroes, this is probably the hardest film to process my thoughts on since Captain America: The First Avenger. I wanted to like this film a lot, partially because I didn’t want to waste more money on a mediocre or bad superhero film, and partially because I didn’t want the first serious effort behind a female superhero film to become another bomb. Much was riding on this film. Did they pull it off?
In many ways my thoughts mirror those about The First Avenger. But where Captain America faltered to merge superheroes and World War 2, Wonder Woman surpassed my expectations. Yet both are terribly distorted views on their respective world wars. And yet this managed to pull it off.
Whereas Captain America painstakingly removed everything that remotely seemed ugly and Nazi about the war, letting the good Captain fight in a theme-park version of the war that was swashbuckling and fun while paying lip service to the evils and horrors of war, Wonder Woman embraces the pain and the suffering in order to create both legitimate drama and a heroine that manages to bring hope into a world that desperately needed it.
And yet it’s a terrible version of World War 1 that makes my inner historian rage with furious anger. Where to begin? Let’s start with the basic conceits of the story and go from there: Wonder Woman teams up with Steve Trevor and his Merry Men to defeat General Erich Luddendorff, leader of the German Army, from winning the war with a secret super poison gas that would overwhelm the Entente. In the end, Wonder Woman manages to kill Luddendorff, thinking him to be Ares, God of War, but ends up killing another dude that was Ares in a bit of misdirection, leading to the end of World War 1.
Okay, for starters: Erich Luddendorff was a German general who died in 1937. He was Chief of Staff and Quartermaster General of the German Armed Forces under Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, basically the equivalent of a hyper-competent sidekick. In the real world, the two of them had won major victories on the Eastern Front, leading to the Peace of Brest-Litovsk when the February and later October Revolutions ended Zarist Russia. He was a ruthless military dictator who wielded the real power over German alongside his boss Hindenburg from then on until the end of the war. He was in fact the man recommending the armistice between the Middle Powers and the Entente. During the Weimar Republic he threw in with one Adolf Hitler in his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. After being acquitted he had a career in politics, distancing himself from Hitler and eventually died from liver cancer. He was not a fucking super villain who murdered German officers with poison gas or shot underlings. Worst of all, he lacks his glorious mustache.
Also, the armistice they are talking about all the time in this? Never mind that Woodrow Wilson, the American President, is never mentioned in this regard, or the fact that in 1918 Germany was already in the middle of a revolution. Emperor Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate, a German Republic ended up signing the armistice, leading to the generals being able to wash their hands of it and leading to the myth of the Dolchstoß, the Stab-in-the-back myth, seriously undermining the next 15 years of German democracy and a distaste for social-democrats.
Back to the reality of the film, they also talk a great deal about the war being everyone’s fault, yet outside of not-General Melchett talking about soldiers being good for dying, all the atrocities in the war are being committed by the Germans. I can see why some reviews are saying that they tried to make a World War 2 film in the garb of a WW1 film. It is the hill that all these American products tend to die on, based on the way Battlefield 1 portrayed the Entente and the Middle Powers. I suppose it’s hard to make an uplifting movie about peace when it was a conflict about two sides of imperialists making sure that the other imperialist had less people to subjugate after the fact. Oh well.
So why do I still think that it’s the best superhero war movie ever made? Besides the terrible competition? Because while it lacks accuracy to the history it’s based on, there is at least a glimpse at the complexity the war represented, and a very chilling portrayal of the horrors of war lacking in many actual war movies. In that sense it can be seen as the superhero version of Inglorious Basterds: clearly playing with history to fit its own story. It is this lack of realism, the amazons with bows and arrows, the magic lassos and bullet-proof armbands, the superpowers, the literal God of War, remind us that we are clearly in the territory of fiction. It’s a superhero movie and therefor a farce. And yet it has raw emotion and the horrific elements of war that ground it in some historical authenticity if not outright reality.
Yet I cannot deny that I can give my outright blessing to the film and its portrayal of history. Napoleon once said that history was a lie agreed upon and as melodramatic as it sounds, the reality of World War 1, while now agreed upon by most historians, as a conflict wanted by everyone, a powder cage everyone gleefully contributed to in the last 19th century conflict fought with 19th century ideals of glory but modern weapons… the reality of the war is one seen from the perspective of the prequel to World War 2, the same participants, the same morality. To see history in these terms does the actual suffering and dying in the war a disservice and obfuscates the real lessons that can be learned from it. History is not a simple narrative and as long as Hollywood and its associates will try to make it so, I will complain with good reason. The fact that this movie at least recognizes the horrors of war and grounds it firmly in a fantasy-based version of godly metaphors saves it from the same pummeling Captain America got from me.
Aside from about two pages of vile thrown towards the treatment of history in this film, I enjoyed it very much so as a superhero film. Gal Gadot is absolutely amazing in the role, Pine and the rest of the supporting cast do a great job bringing the film and the emotions to light and blending into the background when it is time for Wonder Woman to shine. Patty Jenkins’ direction is absolutely stunning and beautiful in the ugliness it is able to capture, as well as the hope and beauty. DC has its first outright win on its hands. I just wished they could have reworked the story as is in a framework more respectful to the actual history. A big smudge on an otherwise flawless film.