What Do You Believe?: War and Peace in Wonder Woman

WARNING: BIG SPOILERS

There’s a lot to discuss about Wonder Woman and, frankly, I’m not the right person to do it. The first cinematic depiction of this 76-year-old comic book hero (yes, you read that right – one film in 76 years) has been a hot topic on the internet for a little while now, sometimes for good reasons and sadly sometimes for bad reasons. Having already got very, very angry about those bad reasons, I don’t want to touch on them again, so instead I’m going to take a more positive route and point you in the direction of some incredibly talented women writers and their articles on the significance of this film (here, here, here, and here to name but a few). Read them because they’re much more important and interesting than anything I’m going to write here. But, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to put some thoughts down anyway, just with a different angle.

Set during World War I, Wonder Woman is not just a rip-roaring comic book movie and thrilling summer blockbuster, it’s a moving and thought-provoking war film. Actually, scratch that: it’s not really a war film. At least not one like I’ve seen before. Most Hollywood war movies are, to some degree, anti-war, but they can never entirely be anti-war. The simple act of capturing conflict through a medium typically designed for light entertainment makes it difficult for even the most harrowing of war movies to totally remove themselves from the excitement and sensationalism cinema offers. So with Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins has taken a different approach: she’s made a peace movie.

Diana Prince’s battle through the film is one of idealism in the pursuit of peace, but in chasing it she must first navigate war. In early scenes, we see her as a child watching adult Amazons train. While doing this, she mimics their every movement, much to the distress of her mother, who’s desperate to keep her away from conflict. As she gets older, Diana does learn to fight and in her first major battle (a training session with her aunt, Themyscira’s general, Antiope) she discovers the true extent of her power, almost causing Antiope terrible harm. At this moment, Jenkins cuts to Diana’s reaction, which is one of fear, confusion and thrill. She has power, but how should she use it? How can power that can inflict such damage be a force for good and peace? And when, if ever, should it be used?

Moments such as this establish the film’s deep sense of humanism and there are many dotted throughout. Later, when Diana’s left Themyscira to participate in the war, she’s devastated when told of the millions of soldiers who’ve died, and furiously confronts a politician who callously dismisses the tragedy. Soldiers die, he reasons, and as unpleasant as he may be, there’s brutal truth in his words. War costs lives. People are killed. It’s a fact of conflict, and one that Wonder Woman‘s male lead, American spy Steve Trevor, accepts. He’s fought too long and seen too much to disagree. He knows that sometimes to win the wider war, you have to lose the battle. Sometimes to do the right thing in the long term, you have to do the wrong thing in the short term. Those, for him, are just the facts of life.

The conflict this philosophy creates between Diana and Steve is beautifully played thanks to Allan Heinberg’s delicate writing and two of the strongest performances you’ll see in a superhero film (from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine). Theirs is a relationship built on mutual trust and respect, so it’s genuinely satisfying, sweet, charming and romantic (there’s a bedroom scene that’s comfortably the most mature and loving I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster). That said, Heinberg and Jenkins never lose sight of their characters as individuals. Both make bad decisions, both do things wrong, but neither are vilified. Steve is never so pragmatic that he’s cold and Diana is never so idealistic that she’s naive. They love each other, and we love them, for their flaws as well as their strengths.

This compassion extends to all the characters. Etta Candy is comic relief who’s never bumbling or stupid, while the group Steve assembles to help he and Diana complete their task defy her initial negative judgements. Ewan Bremner’s PTSD-suffering sniper Charlie in particular speaks to this point. Upon first meeting him, Diana dismisses him as a cowardly killer who can’t even look those he murders in the eye. In moments of peace, however, he’s revealed to be a talented (if somewhat shambling) musician whose ability Diana appreciates and later encourages. He’s not defined by who he is in war. Only he can define who he is. (There’s an excellent Twitter thread by @vampexplosion on masculinity in Wonder Woman here).

Most impressively, the same is true of one of the film’s villains, the brilliant chemist Isabella Maru (nicknamed Doctor Poison and played with affecting vulnerability by Elena Anaya). Like so many comic book villains before her, Poison is pantomime for portions of the story, but in the final act Jenkins brings out her humanity. She lets her guard down during a conversation with Steve at a gala ball, and this draws genuine sympathy as we know Steve’s only talking to her as part of a wider plan to thwart her bosses. Later, she’s offered up to Diana as a victim in a final test for our hero: can she find the humanity in this villain or will she deliver the vengeance she ‘deserves’? Without ever forgiving her for her sins, Jenkins draws compassion for Poison by having her mask drop away to reveal a scarred, scared woman who’s more manipulated than malicious. Diana, of course, stands down. And so do we. War has forced an identity on her just as it has Charlie.

That’s the power of Wonder Woman. It asks something of its audience. Yes, come to see the film because it’s an entertaining comic book flick, but please prepare to think, have some preconceptions challenged and be genuinely moved in ways you may not be prepared for. I certainly was in the film’s finale, when we see Steve and Diana separated: Diana racing off to thwart the villainous God Ares, Steve needing to take care of a payload of poisonous gas. They’ve recently fallen out, and Hollywood structure has taught us to expect the final act to resolve this before presenting us with a happy ending. Well, Wonder Woman does and does not do that because Steve dies while nullifying the gas threat. Before this happens, however, he has an emotional goodbye scene with Diana, and here Jenkins does something truly remarkable.

The first time we see the scene, we don’t hear the dialogue. Diana’s been deafened by a bomb blast, so all we hear is mumbles from Steve’s mouth. However, as Ares is tempting Diana to exact vengeance on Doctor Poison, we cut back. This time, we do hear the dialogue: Steve’s explaining his plan and telling Diana that he loves her. Diana hears his words too, but whether this is literal reality is unclear. Is Diana, now recovered from the shock of the bomb blast, thinking clearly again and can therefore remember what Steve said? Or is she conjuring an imagined version of what she believes Steve said, what her affection for him tells her he said?

The film never seems to offer a clear answer, and for me that’s very much the point. “It’s not about ‘deserve’,” Diana tells Ares as he insists that humanity has done nothing to earn her help. “It’s about what you believe.” By remembering the best of Steve, by believing that his final words to her were ones of sacrifice and love, she not only asserts her strength independent of him, but proves that idealism, love, compassion and unwavering belief in those things can have a place in a practical world. In fact, they must. If they don’t then the value of peace is lost, even if the war is won.

Peace is not some intangible concept that’s simply the absence of conflict, Wonder Woman tells us. It’s something that exists every second of every day in every interaction we have. By exploding gender roles, by demanding its audience question what they see, by collapsing the comic book binary of good and evil, Wonder Woman brilliantly restructures both the superhero genre and the war film, and asks us all to believe. Believe in each other, believe in love, believe in goodness. Because in a world of war where we’re told loudly and violently that things are one way and always will be, sometimes believing is our only and best weapon.

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