“I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine

I’m almost 8 months pregnant and running out of time and energy, but I knew I had to see Wonder Woman. I dragged myself off the tube one stop early, visions of the icy-cool movie theatres and unlimited buttery popcorn of my youth dancing through my head, only to discover that my local cinema’s version of air-con was “we’ve turned off all the heating.” £7 bought me a box of popcorn that was empty before the ads stopped and a Fanta that made me have to pee in the middle of the film. Never mind. (I went halfway through the boat scene. Other than double-speak about sexual norms of the early twentieth century, what did I miss?)

What a delightful film! How refreshing to see such a kick-ass female character on screen! I was there as a historian but I wasn’t there for historical accuracy and I suspect anyone who was isn’t in the target audience. With a film so blatantly fantastical, who needs historical accuracy? I thought it was wonderful to see the FWW setting used in such a creative way — something I hope we’ll see more of, hopefully if Wonder Women inspires.

We get WWII films all the time. WWII is easy. Nazis are evil — everyone can agree to that. It makes the story straightforward. But WWI is more complicated. No wonder the futility narrative has taken hold of the public imagination so unflinchingly. What’s a story without, as Captain Steve Trevor calls them, “the bad guys”? But are the Germans the bad guys — doesn’t that play into an overly simplistic nationalistic viewpoint which downplays or outright rejects the other nations’ complicity in warmongering? Are the warmongers the bad guys, with the average citizen a helpless pawn as evil  or incompetent generals lead them to their deaths? One is what most people believed at the time (I’m generalising here, I know) and the other is what most believe now. The problem with the futility narrative is that is robs the war of its meaning, and it was full of so much meaning, everyday, for the people who fought and lived it. This was something I thought the film showed well — a moment of levity, smiles and laughter amongst friends on the docks, which quickly turned to shocked silence as the wounded appeared and Diana realised the horrible results of the war. All the more powerful because of the context. But meaningless? I don’t think so.

I watched the “bad guy” idea ping back and forth throughout the film, wondering how it would be resolved. There was a moment where I thought it might land on “it’s complicated” which is where I end up most of the time, but narratively unsatisfying. And there’s the rub. How do you have a blockbuster film without a climatic battle where good triumphs over evil? You don’t. After the decidedly good Diana defeated the decided evil (SPOILER ALERT who, in a stereotype busting twist, at least wasn’t German) Ares, the conclusion of the film settled on “it’s complicated” again. Some people are good, some people are evil, but most people are somewhere in between and capable of both. It felt a bit incongruous, but there are worse (and less accurate) conclusions.

Diana wanted to free people of their obsession with war, a noble if naive ambition. She rejected the “Germans are the bad guys” narrative but clung tightly to the “Ares is to blame for all of this” idea, which allowed her to maintain her faith in humanity. She is fearless, full of empathy, willing to risk her life to save others and unwilling to let a man (handsome, flirtatious and forward-thinking though he may be) tell her to stay behind when there’s work to be done. She reminds me of someone — a FWW heroine. She is not dissimilar from the thousands of dedicated, brave, unconventional and naive women who left their homes for the frontline to serve, work, and yes — to fight. How wonderful to see her portrayed on the big screen.

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