***WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Wonder Woman***
Around the middle of the first act of Wonder Woman, we arrive at the iconic moment where Diana rescues Steve Trevor. She dives into the water and pulls him from his damaged plane as it sinks. Back on land, she resuscitates him just in time to look out and see a bunch of German boats making their way across the clear blue waters that surround Themyscira.
“Who are they?” she asks.
Steve, his classic American wit unharmed by nearly drowning a minute ago, responds, “Those are the bad guys.”
Shortly after that, the rest of the Amazons arrive and start to fight the Germans. We cheer as their first volley of arrows cuts down dozens of the bastards, then feel our hearts sink as Amazon warriors fall to German bullets. As the dust clears, the Amazons emerge victorious, but we feel for their losses.
This scene feels natural and clear – obvious, in a way. Of course the Germans are on their way to attack the island. Of course the Amazons should shoot them. Of course we should cheer when those Nazi bastards get what they deserve. We’ve all seen this movie before.
Except they’re not Nazis this time.
Unlike the original comics, Wonder Woman is set in 1918. It takes place two years before the Nazi party existed at all. Fifteen years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II was a constitutional monarchy bound by rule of law, not a fascist autocracy.
Most wars we remember in America involved a clash of ideals. The Revolutionary War was a battle for freedom against tyranny. The Civil War was fought over slavery.
The Second World War was a perfect storm of moral clarity. Hitler’s Germany was clearly evil and Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was deeply dishonorable. Britain, France, and America held off on war as long as they could, and entered into it with a grim determination to win, not a desire to destroy or humiliate a geopolitical rival.
The First World War was, in some ways, the opposite. It was fundamentally a war without a purpose. The ideological stakes were flimsy and transparent. Britain called for the freedom of small nations even as they held on to the largest Empire in the world. Germany attacked France for no real reason other than they thought their best chance was to eliminate France before Russia could fully mobilize. Britain joined the war because they didn’t want German ships to have access to ports near the English Channel. There was no clash of ideals – it was just petty self-interest set against petty self-interest.
In this light, Steve Tyler’s words come across as more ironic than heroic. But we are so used to seeing Germans in helmets with guns as Bad Guys that there is no need for the movie to explain itself further. The Germans don’t even have to shoot first for us to see them as the bad guys – all it takes is a funny accent and some grey uniforms.
The source material from which the film draws is largely about beating up Nazis, and that core concept feels like it is extended throughout the film, particularly in the film’s visual storytelling. We meet a nihilistic German mad scientist hard at work inventing a gas that will kill millions. This gas, of course must be tested inside a chamber. Ludendorff is portrayed as a militaristic, power-hungry maniac perfectly happy to kill his own nation’s leaders in order to avoid peace. One of the iconic moments in the film shows Diana charging across No-Man’s-Land, leading the way for British soldiers to advance and liberate a terrorized village. In these moments, we are clearly intended to see the Germans as the Bad Guys.
At other times, the film steps back for a moment and seems to remember that it’s not actually about fighting Nazis. Diana is forced to confront the moral ambiguity of her companions on several occasions. The most potent of these is when a Native American (given the slightly cringe-inducing name Chief) tells Diana that his people are nearly gone. When Diana asks who would do such a thing, he simply gestures at Steve and says, “His people.”
There’s a remarkable moment when Diana kills Ludendorff, who she assumes is Ares, and is then shocked when the Germans around her don’t drop their weapons and stop fighting. For the entire film up to this point, she earnestly believed that the Germans were under Ares’ corrupt influence. She recalls an earlier moment in the story, when her mother told her that the world of men does not deserve her. Steve responds, “It’s not about deserve.” He goes on to say that humans are corrupt, and everyone is to blame, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting to do what’s right.
Eventually, Diana discovers that their kindly old British friend is actually Ares. Ares tells her that he does not make humans want to fight, he just helps them find better ways to kill each other. He insists that humans are naturally corrupt. Making Ares a British man hints at the idea that perhaps the Allied powers were not entirely blameless in this pointless conflict.
Wonder Woman wants to grapple with the muddy, murky morality of the First World War. However, the film often ends up leaning on convenient Nazification, a tic that undermines the theme. Perhaps this is inevitable – after all, Wonder Woman‘s appeal across all generations is the way she elevates and inspires women, showing how to be feminine and powerful at the same time. Pitting her against Bad Guys is a solid way to push this theme forward without wasting time wallowing in moral uncertainty. The use of Nazi imagery gives the show a rich visual vocabulary that everyone can understand right away. Maybe that appeal – which I certainly can’t fault – was prioritized above exploring the moral complexities of a war that ended nearly one hundred years ago. This was probably a good decision. Wonder Woman is about Diana and the way she kicks ass as a strong, competent woman. As a film that finally gives women a superhero they can relate to, Wonder Woman is a triumph.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel just a little put out that they missed an opportunity to dig into the moral depths of one of the darkest, most pointless conflicts in world history, instead mostly glossing over it with generic patriotism.
After the battle on the beach of Themyscira, the Amazons question why they shouldn’t just kill Steve. Diana insists that Steve is different from those Germans – he fought alongside her, he’s on their side. The Amazons eventually accept this argument, more or less. We as viewers of course accept Steve right away. Why would they kill lovable Steve? He’s charming, handsome and American. Nobody questions why he was fighting those other people. Of course he’s fighting them – they’re Nazis.