Wonder Woman, Violence, and the Machinery of War

Wonder Woman takes the most nuanced view of violence that we've seen in a superhero movie in years.

This article contains Wonder Woman spoilers.

Diana’s goal in Wonder Woman is to defeat Ares, the God of War, and she (and the movie) are at their best when taking on the machinery of war itself. When taken literally, this means the film’s spectacular action sequences, set against the backdrop of World War I. But Wonder Woman takes a more nuanced approach to violence within the superhero movie genre, pushing it to a new level of complexity. Rather than focusing on one big bad, the movie is most successful when it takes on the horrors of war and forces us to confront the evil that plagues all of humanity.

An often discussed aspect of Wonder Woman is the decision to root it in World War I rather than the more obvious choice of World War II, the time in which she was created. While these distinctions fell away almost completely in the third act (which had plenty of other problems to keep this one company), the rest of the movie was largely successful at utilizing its WWI time period. The West, and America in particular, love World War II because it portrays them in a favorable light (note that issues like the domestic internment of citizens of Japanese descent are usually omitted from these stories). But for the purposes of this film, the traditional World War II narrative would have been far too close to what Diana was looking for: good vs. evil, with one very bad man at the center who simply needed to be stopped. World War I, on the other hand, was a far more complex and unfortunate conflict. It makes this war far more useful for teaching Diana that great destruction can arise for reasons that seem senseless in retrospect, even if they felt unstoppable at the time.

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Diana’s best action sequences are when she is taking out literal manifestations of war, like when she uses her shield to destroy a machine gun nest, throws a tank like it’s made out of paper, or takes out a sniper with the assistance of her team. At different times in her history, Diana has been at turns a pacifist and a warrior. Using her fighting skills to take down the means of war is a way of honoring both. The most triumphant demonstration of this is also the emotional and dramatic apex of the movie: Diana’s crossing of No Man’s Land. World War I was characterized by trench warfare, where millions died during long, gruesome squabbles over inches. It is fitting, then, that Diana conquers this intractable format of warfare after repeatedly being told she can’t help everyone. 

But in the leadup to this sequence, Wonder Woman puts the agony the machinery of war creates on full display in a way few blockbusters do. Diana grew up idolizing war, but her warrior queen mother wisely tried to shield her from it, because she knew the toll it takes. Over the course of the film, we watch as Diana becomes disillusioned and has her heart broken by all the evil that exists in the world. As soon as Diana heads toward the front, she sees injured soldiers, amputees, and those who are too far gone to help. This isn’t about the glory of battle, but how the front itself is so detrimental to the human condition.

There is more to war than soldiers and the battlefield. Wonder Woman repeatedly spotlights women and children at the front, when much of our media would lead us to believe that only young men are involved in battle. They are starving, internally displaced, and we even hear of enslavement. The only thing missing is sexual violence. Not even Steve’s group of “heroes” are immune from the horrors of war. Charlie suffers from what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder, decades before that term existed. Finally, the Chief talks with Diana about his displacement and how he and his people lost everything, giving a voice to victims of genocide, and bolstering the theme that the heroes aren’t entirely innocent.

The movie continues to reinforce that there is no singular villain to be defeated; rather, we all have blood on our hands when we allow atrocities to take place. The key is to fight for our beliefs and do the right thing anyway. As much as war breaks Diana’s heart, until she killed Ludendorff, she told herself it was all Ares’ doing, so she was able to excuse everyone’s behavior. Once he was dead, she has to confront how deeply flawed humanity is, just as Steve’s sacrifice reminds her of what we’re capable of. This is a complex message for a summer blockbuster, and yet Wonder Woman not only takes it in stride, but it makes for the film’s most powerful moments.

Wonder Woman, is at its best when it questions the value of war itself, which is a bold move to make when building a franchise around a hero who has at times been marketed as one of the world’s most powerful warriors. Superhero movies have largely been structured around violence as a problem solving tool rather than the problem itself. Instead, Wonder Woman contradicts that by refusing to underestimate audience. It remains to be seen how this bold stance on violence will play out in future films, or if the filmmakers will continue to take similar chances with their messaging. Hopefully they will, and they’ll be rewarded for it.

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