Culture

'Wonder Woman' and the Just War

The film raises questions about when, if ever, it's appropriate to fight.

In the trenches.

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Wrapped inside Patty Jenkins’s delightful “Wonder Woman” is a moral question of considerable relevance in our strife-torn globe. In my seminar on the ethics of war, I force my students to confront the vexing puzzle of when, if ever, the sweeping horror of war can be justified. “Wonder Woman” asks the same thing. True, the film’s answer is a little vague, but by tidying up the history a bit, we can at least point ourselves in the right direction.

Let me say first that the movie is spectacular and well-deserving of the accolades it has received. I would not be a bit surprised were “Wonder Woman” to wind up on many critics’ 10-best lists for 2017 -- not a place one usually looks for superhero films. Because I recommend the film, I won’t give anything away. (Two of the endnotes include teensy-tiny spoilers; there are none in the text.) Let it suffice to say that Wonder Woman -- that is, Princess Diana -- leaves her home on the island of Themyscira in an effort to end World War I. She is not taking sides. She sees the conflict as a horror that has to be stopped at all costs.

That’s why it’s significant that the filmmakers chose not to place Wonder Woman in World War II, where audiences would wonder why the superheroine was treating the two sides as morally equivalent, and was identifying the evil to be ended as the war itself rather than the horrors of Nazism.

The original character had no choice but to confront the issue. Wonder Woman’s debut came in All-Star Comics #8, published in December 1941. Her first cover appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, in January 1942. 1  In other words, she arrived just in time for Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the Second World War.

The first eponymous Wonder Woman comic book, in the summer of 1942, included cover art showing her on horseback, plunging into German lines at the head of Allied troops. (The scene has an echo in the film.) Creator William M. Marston was quite conscious of the swift popularity of their competitor’s new hero, Captain America, who also fought against the Nazis, and was determined to clothe Wonder Woman in a similar red-white-and-blue costume. 2

Wonder Woman, in short, was very much a warrior. She existed to fight. The film does not so much try to conceal these aspects as to repurpose them. In the Hollywood version, Wonder Woman’s skills, and those of her fellow Amazons, are to be used only for self-defense or for the prevention of war. Even though she lands among the British she does not choose sides. When rushing German machine guns, she is actually chasing Ares, the sinister god of war, whom she blames for the conflict. 3

This seemingly minor point matters. To Wonder Woman, the war is not actually about anything. If important issues are at stake they are never mentioned. There would be no war but for the interfering of Ares -- here a stand-in for the demonic forces familiar from Western religious iconography -- who has stirred men’s minds to make them want to fight. Unstir the stirring and there would be no war.

Again we see why the film is set against World War I rather than World War II, where the superheroine actually originated. Had Wonder Woman refused to choose sides against the Nazis, audiences would have stayed away in droves. On the other hand, hardly anyone nowadays remembers what if anything World War I was about. We may be vaguely sure that we were the good guys, but we have a tough time recalling just why. So it’s ironic that the film was released during the month marking the 100th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops in France to fight that war for ... whatever.

Yet there is some truth to the filmmakers’ notion that World War I was fought for unclear purposes -- at least on the German side, where there was considerably less enthusiasm for the war than the leaders wanted to believe. 4  President Woodrow Wilson, in declaring that the U.S. was fighting the war to end all wars, believed that militarism was itself the enemy. 5  What finally brought about the armistice, however, was neither Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations nor the timely intervention of a superheroine. It was the collapse of various belligerent economies, the revolutions in Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the mutinies of French ground forces and the German High Seas fleet.

The reason all of this matters is that the choice of the World War I era supports the film’s underlying trope that there are no just wars, other than in self-defense. Most of us might reasonably agree that there are few. But none? It wasn’t wrong for the U.S. to fight Nazi Germany, and it wasn’t wrong for the Union to fight the Southern slaveocracy. And these are only the most obvious examples.

True, in real life -- that is, in the comics -- Wonder Woman might also have been seen as anti-war. “Superman never kills,” said Marston in an interview in 1944 at the height of the war. “Wonder Woman saves her worst enemies and reforms their characters.” 6  But in actual practice (by which I mean, the actual comic books), she fought the Nazis -- and later the Japanese -- and led troops into battle. That others did the killing would seem to be morally beside the point.

A short column is not the place to argue over the criteria by which we judge the justness of a war. 7  “Wonder Woman” is a wonderful movie, and there is much to delight in, whatever your view of the ethics of war might be. 8  But “Wonder Woman” the movie and Wonder Woman the character both raise the question -- and that’s a very good thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This and other historical information about the character, unless otherwise noted, is drawn from Jill Lepore’s superb volume “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”

  2. True, the costume was absurdly skimpy. According to Lepore, the publisher, Maxwell Charles Gaines, conscious of his market, “wanted his superwoman to be as naked as he could get away with.”

  3. Tiny spoiler: Yes, later she realizes that wars are also the fault of human beings.

  4. At least this is the conclusion of Niall Ferguson’s intriguing if controversial and decidedly revisionist history of the war.

  5. Slightly less tiny spoiler: The film decides to make its principal earthly villain Erich Ludendorff rather than Helmuth von Moltke, the military chief of staff at the time the war began, and the individual who, historians tell us, actually pushed the emperor to mobilize. A focus on Moltke, however, would have required us to understand his reasons: his fear that Germany’s enemies had the empire encircled, and his worry that if his side did not strike fast the one chance to save the nation might be lost. Perhaps this argument would not work well on the screen. On the other hand, its paranoid feel might have been a better fit for the movie’s notion that men fight because of the ideas that Ares whispers into their heads. Yes, in real life, Moltke was replaced early in the war. But Ludendorff didn’t exactly have the career he has in the movie either.

  6. This interview does not appear in Lepore’s book.

  7. I have discussed the proposition at length elsewhere.

  8. For example, the film gets right that the superheroine was always meant as feminist icon. Lepore’s fine book begins with a quotation from Marston, her inventor: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Marston wanted his character to reflect “a great movement now under way -- the growth in the power of women.”

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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