Wonder Woman and World War I

Of all the ways that the First World War has attracted renewed attention in these years of its ongoing centenary, I don’t think any is less likely than its becoming the setting for the superhero movie debuting tomorrow:

Yes, that’s Wonder Woman (played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot) leading a frontal assault across No Man’s Land, apparently as part of an attempt to stop German general Erich Ludendorff from developing a new chemical weapon.


Lepore, Secret History of Wonder Woman
There’s a lot more to the origins of Wonder Woman than the war, as historian Jill Lepore has explained

I know almost nothing about Wonder Woman. But she did pop up a couple years ago in a student’s excellent capstone research project, on comic strips and the Second World War. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman debuted not long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and initially was as likely to fight the Axis as any fictional supervillain. She helped save the life of an American officer who crash-landed on her home island and then assumed the identity of an Army nurse when she accompanied him back to the war.

So why switch that origin story from one world war to the other? The creators of the newest Wonder Woman movie explained the change to Entertainment Weekly. “We are in a very WWI world today with nationalism and how it would take very little to start a global conflict,” said screenwriter Allan Heinberg (credited with proposing the change). “It’s the first time we had an automated war,” he said. “The machine gun was a new invention. Gas was used for the first time. New horrors were unleashed every day.” Director Patty Jenkins was eventually persuaded:

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.

Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot
Jenkins and Gadot last year at Comic Con – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

In an earlier interview, producer Charles Roven contrasted the superhero’s island upbringing with what she experiences on the Western Front:

…even though they haven’t had any war on Themyscira, they’re used to fighting being an honorable thing. They’re used to one on one combat, or even if it’s armies fighting each other, ultimately that great legacy of fighting hand to hand. The best warrior wins. There’s a lot of contact, and World War I was the first war where that changed, where it became more remote. You were killing people — whether it was through guns, through rifles, through mortars, through bombs, through gas attacks — that you didn’t even know, that you never looked into their eyes. And it ceased to be what I would call an “honorable war.” And so we wanted that culture shock. And those images of no man’s land and the trenches and fighting for years against an enemy that you really don’t see, who’s a hundred, two hundred yards next to you, but you never see their face, we just wanted those images in the movie because we thought that it would be very, very symbolic to her.

The film has already earned a 92% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, but the critics I’ve read have been more impressed by first half of the film than the WWI scenes. For example, NPR’s Scott Tobias gave a positive review, but thinks that “while the shift back to World War I is a sensible choice, given the overwhelming nature of Nazi iconography, it occasionally flattens the film into rote action-adventure.”

So I’m not sure that Wonder Woman will ever win a spot among the Great War’s greatest movies, but I’m sure I’ll find a way to mention it the next time we take students to Europe to study that conflict.