2017’s Wonder Woman was hailed and criticised in equal measure, mostly because it featured a female superhero protagonist. But what lies beneath is a clever rewriting of the history of World War One, in keeping with the PR objectives of the British Ministry of Defence, who supported the film. In this episode I break down the film itself, its bastardisation of the ‘Great War’, and some bizarre efforts by both Hillary Clinton and the United Nations to cash in on the film’s PR value.
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Diversity and The Hollywood Machine
I will admit, I am no expert in the history of the Wonder Woman character, but I did recently write a case study of the film version for my forthcoming book on Superhero Movies and the State. So I thought now would be a good time to discuss the film in-depth here on the podcast. I know I’ve mentioned it before but there’s quite a lot to it, once you get past all the shallow nonsense.
We’ll start with a bit of backstory – the comic book version of the character was created in the 1940s, and there was a (fairly lame) 1970s TV adaptation, some episodes of which were supported and rewritten by the Pentagon. Then the character somewhat slipped off the radar, until a film project began development in the mid 90s. It got passed around for the following 15 years or more, with various directors and actors attached at different points, as well as several different scripts being written. This included one by Joss Whedon, which we’ll get into later in this episode. For anyone who doesn’t know, Whedon co-wrote Toy Story, created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, wrote and directed the first two Avengers movies, all sorts of stuff.
Around 2010, as Warner Brothers committed to creating their own cinematic universe to try to rival the MCU they announced their firm intentions to make a Wonder Woman film. The character was first introduced in Batfleck vs Superman: Dawn of Narcolepsy – the first time the character had been depicted in a major film – and then got her own origin story the following year. This is representative of three things: (1) How the DC universe was poorly planned, and lacked the structure of the Marvel universe, where several characters got origin stories before we saw them team up and become the Avengers. (2) How female and other superheroes outside of the white American males in their 30s or 40s stereotype, have been sidelined and largely ignored by major studios. (3) How this changed in the 2010s, and both universes started to incorporate a wider range of protagonists, mostly because the studios realised this was a way to tap into more diverse markets.
To illustrate this I want to play you a clip from a 2014 panel discussion featuring 7 very senior executives from major studios, where an audience member asked about female-led blockbusters.
What I find funny about this is how they all used this as an opportunity not to discuss the sexism and other biases in the industry, but to promote their own products and talk about women solely as a market to be exploited, rather than half of the world’s population. Again, the notion that the diversifying of movie protagonists is part of a social or political agenda, those damn liberal commie gay cultural Marxists, is nonsense. These people are pure capitalists. If there wasn’t an enormous amount of money to be made from movie franchises with more diverse leads, they wouldn’t give a damn.
We can see this in Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batfleck vs Superboring, where she is very much a third wheel in a story about two white guys squabbling over… something. She does take part in the final battle against Doomsday, and in my opinion she’s the most interesting character in a pretty dull story, but she’s still in that secondary, supporting role like she was in the comics. Indeed, in some of the comics she gives up her superpowers, acts as the Justice League’s secretary, and is a love interest for more important and powerful male characters.
The flipside of this is that all those movie critics, twitter feminists and the rest who heralded the Wonder Woman film saying ‘finally we have a character that women and girls can look up to’ seem to have overlooked quite a few prior movies. Ripley, from the Alien movies, isn’t a superhero but she is a hero, she’s smart and tough and a survivor. Indeed, the female survivor character has become a staple of the modern horror genre. Even if we limit our scope to superhero films, there have been female-led movies since the 80s, like Supergirl, Tank Girl, Catwoman, Elektra and so on. Admittedly, most of these films had lower budgets, worse production values, weaker scripts and second-rate marketing campaigns when compared to male-led superhero movies, and none of them were particularly successful. Nonetheless, it is rather stupid of people to act like they’d never seen a woman play the lead in a movie before, just to generate some talking points and social media-friendly soundbites.
For what it’s worth, I think Wonder Woman is a good film, purely from a craft and entertainment value point of view. Patty Jenkins is a very good director, Gal Gadot is surprisingly good as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, especially given that she isn’t a particularly talented actor. I liked the chemistry between her and Chris Pine, who plays the love interest sidekick, I felt the movie didn’t over-rely on action set-pieces to carry the story forward and keep it interesting. Aside from the inevitable, tedious, overly-long CGI battle at the end of the film, it’s a pretty good watch. Certainly the best of the DC movies, though that really isn’t saying much.
This was reflected both in audience and reviewer responses, which were overwhelmingly positive, and at the box office, where Wonder Woman took over $800 million. These ticket revenues were only a few percent behind what Batfleck vs Superdick managed, on maybe half of the budget if you factor in marketing as well as production. In short, lots of people liked Wonder Woman, so it dispels the notion that you have to have a conventional lead character to sell a big, tentpole movie, and the notion that men won’t go and see a film with a female lead. They can, they did, and they still do. I bring this up because of all that crap about the Little Women movie last year, which didn’t do that well at the Box Office, and lots of female journalists basically blamed men, saying they were refusing to watch it. Well, they went to see Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and plenty of guys like the Alien movies or the early Terminator films, so that’s another cheap, sexist talking point that simply don’t square with the facts.
Again, this represents a curious phenomenon – that culture journalists don’t tend to criticise the studios for sidelining women, or for only producing major female-led projects because they think there’s money in it. They don’t blame the capitalist machine or the industrial sexism of Hollywood, they blame the random guy in the street for not buying a product he isn’t obliged to buy. This is the most fundamental problem of identity politics – not that there aren’t grievances and problems that affect specific segments of society more than other segments, of course there is, but that blame for this is placed onto the shoulders of ordinary people, rather than the much more influential centres of power and wealth. This dynamic encourages division, not unity. It encourages fighting with other demographics for a few scraps from the tables of the truly powerful, rather than solidarity and joining forces to push back against the truly powerful and against the system they maintain. Again, this is something we’ll return to later.
Wonder Woman: Review
For now I want us to get into the film itself, which combines some original and subversive elements with some very conventional ones. Let’s start with the question of femininity and feminism, since it’s unavoidable when talking about Wonder Woman.
Our story begins on Paradise Island a.k.a. Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. It is explained that Zeus, the leader of the Greek Gods, created the Amazons thousands of years ago because his son, Ares (the male God of war) was corrupting humanity and getting them to fight each other. The Amazons were supposed to be a counter-influence, a force for peace and love in the world, but they ultimately failed, so they hid away on Themyscira.
It should be noted that the island is solely populated by women, much like the isle of Lesbos was in Greek mythology. While it is never mentioned in the film, there is an undercurrent of lesbianism to Paradise Island, and throughout the history of the Wonder Woman character she has become more explicitly gay, or at least bisexual. For a while her catchphrase was ‘Sufferin Sappho’, obviously a reference to the lesbian Greek poet.
This mythological and mysterious origin story is in pretty stark contrast to the majority of superhero narratives, which are somewhat more rational. Superheroes are generally part of a super-soldier program, like Hulk or Captain America, or are technically gifted billionaires like Iron Man or Batman, or are extra-terrestrials like Superman or Thor. By building in these mythical elements the film-makers played into long-standing tropes about masculinity and femininity. The masculine, and thus men, are typically associated with the rational, while the feminine, and thus women, are associated with the irrational. Whether that’s at all fair or accurate isn’t a debate I want to weigh in on, I want to draw your attention to how male superheroes have rational origins while Wonder Woman has irrational origins. However, this doesn’t hold her back in a sexist way, if anything it makes her all the more captivating to the various men she meets throughout her journey in the film, so in some ways you could consider this a declaration of pride in women’s irrationality, or at least in the association between the feminine and the irrational.
A few minutes into the film and Diana sees a plane crashing into the ocean off the coast of Paradise Island, so she dives in and rescues the pilot. He turns out to be an American with the laughable name of Steve Trevor, an elite soldier turned spy who is now working for the British government to spy on Ze Germans. This is where the film gets a bit unrealistic, because an island solely populated by women who suddenly get their hands on the first man most of them have seen in centuries would fuck him senseless, but instead they interrogate him using the lasso of truth. The only way this makes sense is if they’re all lesbians, but no one mentions lesbianism in the whole movie. Make of that what you will.
Steve reveals that there is a huge war going, the war to end all wars, and Diana decides this must be the result of the influence of Ares, the sworn enemy of the Amazons. She decides that she must find Ares and defeat him, and thus bring an end to World War One. Again, this is quite feministic because her mission isn’t given to her by anyone else, it is her own agency, her own self-actualisation that sets up the rest of the story. There is no wise old man or ghostly apparition or hologram that tells her what to do. So she spends the rest of the movie travelling around trying to find Ares, eventually finding him and then fighting him to the death. Spoiler: Wonder Woman wins. Sort of.
Gender, Feminism and Wonder Woman
This opening act of the film, on Paradise Island, is by far my favourite part. I love ancient Greek mythology and I much prefer rural settings to urban ones, and it is quite pleasant watching a bunch of athletic women doing combat training and the like. I wanted to spend a lot more time on the Island, learning about their history and culture, than the film delivered. Indeed, the whole story could have been set on the Island and not only would I have not minded that, I think it would have made for a better movie. I really enjoyed the role-reversal in the romantic plot between Diana and Steve, where she rather openly pursues him while he is somewhat shy and uncertain, the role usually reserved for women in typical romantic comedies. I usually don’t give a damn about romantic sideplots in movies because they so often follow the exact same formula and it’s boring, when in reality one of the things that makes romance interesting is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Movies so rarely capture that, but Wonder Woman did better than most. There’s a particularly funny scene when Diana walks in on Steve while he is showering in a waterfall on Paradise Island.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain any of the double entendres and romantic irony in this scene, I just wanted an excuse to play that clip and to highlight for you how all they’ve really done is switch the genders around, nothing especially clever, but it creates an amusing and charming dynamic between the two.
That said, all the things I find problematic about the film begin in this first act, as Ze Germans arrive shortly after Steve crash lands, and there is a battle on the beach between the German forces and the Amazons.
There are several reasons why this irked me – first, the battle itself is very Zach Snyder, it felt like a rehash of the fight scenes in his film 300, but with Amazons replacing the Spartans. The action itself is shot in a very Snyder way, with lots of slow-motion because apparently highly choreographed action looks more dramatic in slow-motion. For me, it doesn’t. Slow-motion is something that looks great in sports, when a race car crashes for example, because in real time you don’t get to take it all in. You notice more because of the slow-motion replay. But when it’s something heavily choreographed and planned and rehearsed, slow-mo doesn’t have the same effect. It seems Snyder spent a lot of time watching Blade and the Matrix films, which make excessive use of slow-motion, and insists on its use in every movie he has anything to do with, regardless of whether it is effective or warranted.
The bigger problem for me is that the enemies are totally characterless and generic, they are labelled as ‘bad guys’ from their first moment in the film. Of course, your superhero movie needs antagonists, but watching Wonder Woman was a lot like watching a Western-produced World War One propaganda film, where Ze Germans are just the evil hun who deserve to die for being German, and that’s all there is to it. Now, I hate Germans as much as the next Englishman but I felt this was boring, simplistic and a bit racist.
The reason it is especially problematic in this film is that Diana keeps reiterating her belief that Ze Germans are not bad people, they’ve just been fooled by Ares and once Ares is defeated the armies will stop killing each other. At least early on, this is quite an anti-war or even pacifist philosophy that she espouses, but by the end of the story that all falls apart. One aspect of this is the extremely simplistic portrait of Ze Germans, most of whom say nothing, have no character or humanity at all. The only two that have significant dialogue are Ludendorff, the commander of the German military, who Diana wrongly believes is Ares in human form, and Dr Poison, who is making chemical weapons for the German military. They are both evil to the point of being sub-human. That’s the entire range in how Germans are portrayed – either psychopathically evil, or so characterless that their lives and deaths don’t matter. Set against this, Diana expressing a more humanistic and pacifistic philosophy doesn’t ring true, especially given how her actions contradict this and she frequently killed German soldiers without a moment’s hesitation.
Given that World War One is now widely accepted to have been an utterly pointless and destructive war, and not the ‘good war’ that my grandparents were told it was when they were young, this imagery in Wonder Woman pissed me off. The message seems to be ‘yes, the war was stupid and pointless and killed millions of people, but you’d still rather be on the winning side with the Brits and the Yanks, and not on the side of those evil German losers’. Quite honestly, I couldn’t give a shit about being on the winning side of a pointless war, that’s no accomplishment or source of pride whatsoever.
Aside from the depiction of Ze Germans, there are three other aspects to this film that I found deeply troubling, in terms of historical revisionism. They are Diana’s sidekicks, the crossing of No Man’s Land and the use of chemical gases. We’ll take them in that order.
At the start of the second act of the film, when Diana embarks on her mission to track down Ludendorff, believing he is Ares in disguise, Steve says they need some backup to navigate through Belgium and track down Ze German high command. So he takes her to meet his band of brothers – a Scottish sniper, a Native American smuggler and a Scottish spy. This is similar to the multi-racial, multi-ethnic support gang in the first Captain America, indeed the two films have lots of points of comparison, right down to the climax where a white American sacrifices himself to take down a giant aircraft flown by Ze Germans. They are basically the same movie.
In both films this use of a multicultural supporting cast is what some have termed woke-washing, or millenialisation. It makes the national armies who fought in the two world wars look much more progressive and inclusive than they really were, and the particular choice of sidedicks in Wonder Woman is downright weird. Arab Muslims did fight in World War One, but mostly from the Ottoman Empire which was on the side of Germany, not Britain and America. The Muslims who fought on the British side were from pre-partition India, what we would now call Bangladesh and Pakistan, not Arabs from North Africa. There were thousands of Native Americans who fought as part of the American forces, but most of them didn’t even have US citizenship and they died at approximately five times the rate of other American troops. Likewise the Scots who fought as part of the British forces died at much higher rates than the English, Welsh and Irish – according to some accounts as many as 26% of the young Scottish men who went off to join the fight ended up dead. So in reality Muslims were used as cannon fodder by both sides, while Native Americans and Scots were used as cannon fodder by the Allies, especially when it came to using them as scouts in dangerous war zones. The notion that they would all be chummy and would team up with an American and an Amazon is utterly ridiculous, and a bastardisation of true history.
Then there’s the sequence when Wonder Woman crosses No Man’s Land, as part of her journey to find Ludendorff. Again, for anyone who doesn’t know the First World War, at least in Western Europe, involved a lot of trench warfare. They literally got a bunch of men to dig trenches and camp out in them, for months if not years at a time, occasionally firing off some artillery at the other army’s trench. From what I gather, more men were sidelined due to trench foot and venereal disease than due to combat injuries, which should give you a sense of what life was like. Every once in a while some inbred, aristocratic Field Marshal would decide to send the men over the top, into a hail of machine gun fire, artillery, and increasingly chemical gas bombs. The survival rate from such offensives was astonishingly low, and the actions were utterly pointless.
For example, the Battle of the Somme lasted from July until November 1916 and resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side and saw gains of just 10 miles of territory for the victorious British and French armies. They killed close to a million people squabbling over 10 miles of countryside. In France. While the battle was still going on the film The Battle of the Somme was released, having been produced with the help of the British War Office as part of the war propaganda effort. It featured some real combat footage and quite a lot of staged sequences put together with the help of the British military. The entire thing was reviewed by the British War Office, including rough cut screenings at British Expeditionary Force General HQ in Calais, and at the Fourth Army HQ. It was then edited and censored to help remove anything that might detract from the purpose – to boost morale and support for the war effort – before being shown to the Secretary of State for War, David Lloyd George. He gave his approval, and the film was released a few days later, helping to minimise the public’s awareness of the scale of the deaths and injuries being suffered, and maximise their support for such destructive offensives.
A century later and Wonder Woman showed our eponymous hero crossing No Man’s Land, battling away shells and machine gun fire with her shield and amulets, closely followed by her multi-cultural band of dipshits who make it all the way across without suffering any injuries whatsoever. Diana then kicks the fuck out of some German soldiers, with a little assistance from the United Colors of Benetton. While this is the best action sequence in the film, everyone says so, it is an absurd revision of history that makes it seem like trench warfare wasn’t so bad after all, when it is quite possibly the stupidest form of warfare ever invented.
The final aspect of the film that is profoundly misleading is its treatment of chemical weapons. Early on we learn that before Steve crash-landed near lesbian goddess island he was spying on a secret German laboratory in Turkey where they were making some horrible chemical gas weapon. Throughout the film Ze Germans repeatedly use the gas, even on civilians and often for no apparent reason. And at the end Ares has a masterplan to use a giant plane to disperse vast quantities of the gas on both British and German troops, for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, the message is clear – it’s those nasty Germans who used gas, it’s always the enemy who resorts to underhanded means of fighting wars, not us noble Brits who always play fair at everything. Fastforward to the early 2000s and it was the same story, only this time it was Saddam in Iraq, supposedly using chemical weapons. That we’d sold him in the first place. Then we got the ricin plot, the polonium death of Alex Litvinenko, Novichok and the Skripals, Assad’s alleged gas attacks in Syria, so on and so forth. It’s always the same story – it’s those evil Arabs, Germans, Russians, terrorists or whoever who use weapons of mass destruction, not us.
In World War One, in reality, the German, French, American, Austrian and British forces all made use of chemical gas attacks during the war despite them being outlawed and their use constituting a war crime. The French army used tear gas from as early as August 1914, while the German military first made use of tear gas that October, firing shells at British positions at Neuve Chapelle. In April 1915 the Germans used nearly 170 metric tons of chlorine at Ypres, killing over 1,100 people and the British responded with a large chlorine attack against the Germans in September at the Battle of Loos. As the war went on the US established the Chemical Warfare Service to help develop mustard gas weapons, and in June 1918 the Allies started using mustard gas against German troops, including a young Adolf Hitler. By the end of the war between 90,000 and 100,000 deaths were caused by the use of chemical weapons by both sides, over 5% of the total casualties.
Indeed, the British and American governments continued to test chemical and biological weapons on their own populations for decades after the first World War had ended. One British government report withheld until 2002 revealed how the MOD had released plague bacteria off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland during Operation Cauldron, and used aerial spraying and other methods to dump thousands of kilos of zinc cadmium sulphide (a carcinogen) on rural areas across the whole of England. Similarly, US Army testimony in 1977 revealed that they had conducted open-air tests of biological agents over 200 times between 1949 and 1969, and dispersed zinc cadmium sulphide over Midwestern states to see how far it would travel.
As such, Wonder Woman depicting the use of such weapons as solely a crime of our enemies, when we were still doing this for fifty years after the war, and possibly even more recently than that, is gross and crude revisionism. I know the journalist Jonathan Cook wrote a review of the film alleging it had been crafted by the IDF and the Pentagon (partly because Cook is one of those people who can’t write anything without bringing Israel into it) but honestly, I think he missed the point. It wasn’t a promo for the war in Syria, and Ludendorff wasn’t a stand-in for Bashar al Assad. It was something deeper than that – not just a rewriting of the history of World War One, but a propagation of the idea that we fight clean wars, while our enemies are the dirty, sneaky, underhanded ones. The irony being that the British government helped make the film, and if anyone is the dirty, underhanded ones on the world stage, it’s the Brits.
Historical Revisionism and Pacifism
What makes all this revisionism particularly galling is that Wonder Woman has always been something of a pacifist, who preaches love and togetherness, and against conflict and war. The character has been attacked for this, both for supposedly being too soft and wimpy and for not being radical enough. You can’t please anyone, it seems.
In the film version there are still some elements of this, especially in the first act and the start of the second. Diana hears about the ‘Great War’ and decides it must be the result of Ares’ machinations, even going so far as to say the German troops aren’t bad people, they are just under the influence of an evil God. She believes that defeating Ares will end the war, and that she is the only one who can defeat him. However, she then sets about killing the innocent German troops, fighting solely on the side of the Allies. So, without any idea who Ares is or which side or sides he is influencing, she picks a side and solely targets the evil Germans.
However, this pacifist sheen is gradually eroded through the second act, and by the time Diana tracks down Ares she is told by Steve that, “Maybe people aren’t just good, Diana … I wish I could tell you that there was one ‘bad guy’ to blame. Maybe we’re all to blame.” Shortly afterwards Ares echoes this, denying that he is responsible for the war and blaming humanity in general, telling her, “They have always been, and always will be weak, cruel, selfish, and capable of the greatest horror… They start these wars on their own.” Even the soundtrack for Wonder Woman includes a piece of music titled ‘We Are All to Blame’ which plays during this section of the story.
So the only perspectives that Wonder Woman offers regarding culpability for World War One are either that a metaphysical entity has been whispering in the ears of humans, driving them towards death and destruction, or that humans simply did it all by themselves and they are all equally guilty. Again, this is cynical historical revisionism that overlooks how World War One was started by aristocratic empires squabbling with each other for territory in Central Europe, and many of the working class people who signed up to fight weren’t doing so because of widespread hatred of the designated enemies, or because of deep flaws in their souls, but because they were poor and desperate for employment. Rebranding World War One as a war of all against all, when in truth it was an entirely unnecessary conflict perpetrated on the world by the richest and most powerful class of people, systematically avoids the true responsibility for maybe tens of millions of deaths and the injuries, suffering and displacement suffered by tens of millions more.
It could all have been so different. In 2005 Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures announced that Joss Whedon had been hired to write and direct a Wonder Woman film, though Whedon exited the project two years later, unable to produce a screenplay that he was happy with.
A draft of his script leaked online years later and, while it contains many of the same story elements and character relationships as the finished Wonder Woman film, it is thematically more radical. Whedon’s version begins much the same as the movie, introducing Themyscira before Steve crash-lands on the island, launching Diana’s adventure. This is actually a story trope from the comics so I’m guessing that’s why it appears in this script and in the final movie.
However, rather than the World War One setting of the film or the World War Two setting of other drafts in the film’s development, Whedon’s vision of Wonder Woman was set in the modern day. Callas, the CEO of military-industrial megacorporation Spearhead, worships Ares and has a relationship with his niece Strife, the god of chaos. They develop a plan to destroy half of a fictional US city called Gateway, apparently based on New York. In one dialogue between Callas and Strife it becomes clear that while in the past, “There was a time when the God of War made war,” that war has become the de facto result of the military-industrial era, with Callas outlining, “You want war, you need armies. You need an acceptable level of poverty and ignorance. Despair, rage, religious fervour and above all fear.” Rather than blaming war on Ares’ influence, or more generally on flaws in the human soul, Whedon’s script identifies specific emotions and socio-economic conditions that make war more likely and easier to provoke, and by making the primary antagonist the CEO of a war-profiteering company rather than the more abstract metaphysical entities of Ares or Strife, he situated responsibility for war in the real world rather than in the mythical realm.
Much like earlier drafts of Hulk, Iron Man and Ant-Man Whedon’s version of Wonder Woman was written during the zenith of the Bush administration’s war on terror, at a time when the military-industrial complex’s influence on foreign policy was becoming more widely-recognised. Sadly, it suffered the same fate as Hulk and Iron Man in being deradicalised, with many of the more subversive elements being stripped out of the script, though the inverted stereotypes in the romance between Steve and Diana, as well as Diana’s arc of having to overcome her naivety in order to succeed, both made it into the finished film.
However, core aspects of Diana’s character arc differ between Whedon’s vision and the final shooting script. When Steve crashes on Themyscira the initial response of the Amazons is that he must be put to death, as no outsider is allowed to know of the island’s existence. This leads to a tense stand-off between Hippolyta and Diana and to Diana challenging her mother to ritual combat in order to save Steve’s life. Diana then defies her mother’s wishes to leave the island and travel with Steve to Gateway, where she learns about the corruption, vice and suffering in the Western world, and eventually comes to realise that Spearhead, Callas and Strife are responsible. After defeating Strife and a giant robot created by Callas, which is a lot like those giant flying aliens in The Avengers, Ares appears before Diana to declare that the fight has just begun (thus setting up a sequel), and employs similar dialogue to the confrontation between Ares and Diana in the finished film, but with some crucial differences:
You will suffer for this. You will see
this world in ashes.
You cannot defeat a God.
(points to the crowd)
The people? The people of earth, turn their
back on me? On war?
I am in mankind. I am in their darkest hearts
and their greatest schemes and I am never
Neither am I.
This scene then dissolves to Hippolyta’s chamber where she and other Amazons are watching the unfolding drama, with one of them observing, “The fury of Ares is eternal. What Diana has started here will shake the earth.” Hippolyta responds, smiling, “That’s my girl.” In Whedon’s script Diana simply refuses to accept Ares’ claims that the darkness inside the human soul makes war unavoidable, and predicts that humanity may one day turn away from warfare, asserting that humans are good enough to defeat an evil God. This is then validated by her mother, who had initially opposed any idea of Diana interfering in the world beyond Themyscira. In the final version of Wonder Woman, however, the hope and optimism Diana manifests through the first two acts of the story is broken by her fight with Ares in the final act, and she explains in a closing voice-over that, “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But now I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred … only love can truly save the world.” So Whedon’s script does not only situate the responsibility for war in the real world but also the solution, concluding with a message of empowerment and encouragement to the human race to embrace the better angels of their nature. By contrast in the released version of the film Diana abandons her belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings, places the blame for war on abstract entities and concludes that the only solution is another abstraction, firmly divorcing the story from the real world and thus making it less relevant, and less radical.
Now, I am not saying all these changes were made as the result of government influence. The only major government entity that supported the Wonder Woman film was the British Ministry of Defense, along with some other smaller British government departments and agencies. While they have had influence on scripts it is not a formal part of their process like it is in the American liaison offices. Instead they assess projects for their PR value, and assign each one a rating that determines how much support they will be given and how much that will cost. For projects deemed to be very positive PR, the MOD pays for everything themselves. All the access to bases, fuel for planes, all of it.
So while they don’t have much explicit input on scripts or during filming, the film-makers have a massive incentive to produce a script or treatment that will meet with the MOD’s approval. This doesn’t just affect whether or not they get access to what they want, it also affects how much they pay for it, and indeed whether they pay anything. So you could say that, as per usual, the American entertainment propaganda system is comparatively crude, while the British equivalent is more sneaky. But they achieve more or less the same thing. Both countries are pretty good at fucking up the world, and both countries are very good at getting populist culture producers to cover this up.
So how did this break down on Wonder Woman? Well, they claimed not to be able to find any documents from the PR assessment phase, and even said that they don’t always do those assessments. So far they are stonewalling me on requests for any records on which projects got which PR ratings, and acting like these assessments are done verbally and thus create no papertrail. You can choose whether to believe that or not.
However, I do have a copy of their directive on support to Non-News Media Projects, which makes clear this is the process that is followed in response to all requests, not just some. The directive also outlines their criteria for deciding whether to agree to assist a production, including whether the producers and their script, “portray [the Ministry of] Defence in a positive manner,” “the likely communications effect of participation/non-participation considering the return on investment (including the potential audience reach and the messaging opportunities)” and consider “wider consequential relationships with stakeholders, including Other Government Departments and Allies.”
Wonder Woman, a film that portrays a multi-ethnic but primarily Anglo-American alliance overcoming cardboard cut-out villains, set during the ‘Great War’ and released to a mass audience during the centenary of that war, clearly met these criteria. This was also reflected in the film-makers’ application to the MOD for support in December 2015, when the producers approached the MOD about filming at RAF Halton, a Royal Air Force station in Buckinghamshire, describing the content of the military-supported sequence as, “The scene is set in a WW1 Belgian airfield at the end of 1918. This will be a big action sequence featuring German soldiers attacking the heroes of the film.” They also filmed at RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, a disused air force station that housed US strategic bombers (i.e. nuclear bombers) for long periods during the Cold War. Indeed, most of the final act of the film where Diana kills Ludendorff and then fights Ares, while German soldiers battle with Steve and the sidekicks, was shot at one of these two British bases, and it is by far the most violently destructive and militaristic section of the story.
The United Nations, Hillary Clinton and Wonder Woman
They say that all publicity is good publicity, but in October 2016 (a few months before the film was released) the United Nations set out to test that theory. They appointed Wonder Woman as their Global Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women, as part of a PR push around their sustainable development goal that seeks to empower all women and girls by 2030. Regardless of the problems with the term ‘empowerment’ and how the fuck you measure or delineate that, this was a truly bizarre event. It’s difficult to convey just how strange this all was, but fortunately we have footage. As always, video or it didn’t happen. The announcement and the appointment coincided with Wonder Woman’s 75th anniversary so they invited Lynda Carter, from the 70s TV version, and Gal Gadot to attend the ceremony. They were joined by Patty Jenkins, who directed the film, and the president of DC entertainment Diane Nelson.
I want to play the whole thing, which is 28 minutes long, so if you can’t be bothered listening to all of it just skip forward 28 minutes to get my commentary on some of the weird and wonderful moments. I will forgive you for skipping because I fully concede that this is all very, very dumb.
Let’s break this down a little – the UN is planning to end poverty and empower all women and girls by 2030, along with 15 other similar goals, and their plan to get started on this impossible wishlist is appointing a comic book character as an honorary ambassador? Does this not seem like they’re taking the piss? Imagine you’re a woman or girl, somewhere in the world, and your rights are being disrespected, ignored, or you’re being abused. You know there’s this thing called the UN who keep talking about empowering women, and they have all this authority and all these resources and they had the opportunity to appoint an accomplished, respected woman who could travel the globe giving speeches and applying diplomatic pressure, or even leading on-the-ground action to liberate people like you from abusive circumstances.
And then they appoint Wonder Woman.
It’s pretty insulting. Again, leaving aside questions about why only women and girls, which excludes men and boys and anyone who doesn’t fit into simple binary gender categories, even if we just take at face value that this is a noble aim, this is an offensively stupid way of going about it.
After the Under-Secretary’s somewhat fumbling speech we got the presentations, beginning with Diane Nelson from DC. Because when we’re talking about the oppression of women, we really need to hear from a white, blonde, relatively young millionaire from Southern California. I found her presentation especially grating, because she talks about the importance of stories and symbols and a comic where Lois Lane is president, but nothing about genuine, real world efforts. It’s all about ‘raising awareness’ and ‘the power of stories’ and other hyperreal nonsense whereby changing the imagery of our society is considered an achievement, even in the absence of changing our actual society.
Which makes me ask – was this whole thing a tacit admission by the UN that they are going to fail in this goal? Was this all an ill-judged sop to liberal and internationalist feminists?
Then we get the amazing Lynda Carter, whose presentation was surreal, rambling, incoherent and mildly disturbing. She mentions how Wonder Woman was created – that Marston was asked to create a new superhero character as part of the morale effort during World War 2, i.e. that from the off she was a piece of propaganda. But for some reason no one pointed out that the UN actually outlawed war propaganda in 1947 so they shouldn’t have been appointing a comic book cheerleader for American exceptionalism to any position, even a token one.
Carter also points out the role that Marston’s wife in creating the character – it was her idea that the new hero be female, and while I don’t know how much input she had after that she was a wife, so I’m sure she expressed her opinions. I will add that it appears that Carter was a little drunk, or high, or possibly on strong medication. If you watch the video she does come across like a drunk person giving a speech at a wedding. The part where she talks about the ‘huge’ progress being made towards the empowerment of women, and then laughs, made me think she realises how ridiculous and pointless this all is.
Then we get to Gal Gadot, which is quite sweet and likeable, though we shouldn’t forget her very public support for the Israeli military’s bombing of Gaza, which I’m pretty sure didn’t liberate or empower any Palestinian women or girls. So her talking up Wonder Woman’s vision of peace and acceptance, which are alien concepts to the Israeli state, is pretty hypocritical.
As Lynda Carter alluded to in her speech, the appointment met with quite a lot of opposition. She told them to stand up and be counted, so they did. There were protestors in the room where the ceremony took place, who stood up and turned their backs, fist raised, when the ceremony concluded. Other protestors waved signs and marched around the lobby of UN headquarters chanting slogans. An online petition was set up which gained nearly 45,000 signatures in just a few weeks and then, barely two months after the appointment, this happened:
That’s right, they shitcanned Wonder Woman. This utterly cretinous PR effort came to an end with an embarrassed whimper.
So what should we take away from all this? Well, the position of Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls is still vacant, and the UN still hasn’t ever had a female Secretary-General. Indeed, around the time of the Wonder Woman appointment the UN were choosing the replacement for Ban Ki-moon. They overlooked several women who had been nominated and picked another guy.
Maybe, if the UN were serious about their stated goals, they should actually do something to empower women within the UN itself, instead of constantly overlooking them for the top job? Wouldn’t that be a more powerful action than colluding with DC to promote their new movie? This whole episode illustrates just how insincere the UN are, a lot of the time, and also of just how stupid and even counter-productive these sorts of tokenistic or symbolic gestures often are?
You’d think that everyone had learned their lesson, but it seems someone didn’t get the memo because the following summer, when the film came out, we got this:
In a video message to the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards in Beverly Hills, Hitlery Clinton compared herself to Wonder Woman. This was seized upon by the Trumpist media including Fox News, Breitbart, FreeBeacon, Infowars, while it was barely reported by any more liberal or Clinton-supporting outlets. While she got a round of applause from the room, the wider media response to these comments was overwhelmingly negative, making this another PR disaster.
A couple of months later Hitlery and her wife Bill went to a private screening of the film, and were evidently quite impressed. Another couple of months later, in October 2017 Hitlery celebrated her 70th birthday by being honoured by the Women’s Media Center with their Wonder Woman Award.
Not that we should read too much into youtube statistics but that clip from the Associated Press has nearly 1900 views, 34 likes and 134 dislikes, so this has to go down as another PR failure. It does seem that they’ve finally got the message because to my knowledge there have been no further instances of the Clintons comparing themselves to Wonder Woman since then.
Nonetheless, this is all quite appropriate given what the film did, in taking a female icon, setting her up as a pacifist-feminist in the opening section of the film, but by the end she’s a violently destructive maniac seeking revenge and the whole story promotes war – as long as you’re on the victorious side. It doesn’t matter why you fight the war, as long as you win. This philosophy is not unlike Clinton’s during her time at the State Department.
Fundamentally this is a story of the big problem I have with identity politics and of political activism in the symbolic realm, that seeks symbolic victories. It almost always involves trading a symbolic victory for an ideological loss, it involves people who are marginalised by the system being allowed to become symbols of the system, but without changing that underlying system. Which actually allows the system to continue and if anything enhances its position of strength by making it appear more inclusive and friendly than it really is.
We see this across a variety of demographics and in a range of areas – politics, culture, wider society, economics – established systems and dynamics of power are embracing symbolic change as a means of deferring or avoiding substantive change. People who are usually shit on from a great height are being used and exploited as tools for established centres of power to brush up their public images and sell the same old crap but packaged in a new toilet.
All that being said, the film itself is curiously polysemic and self-deconstructing so I am not 100% sure what to make of it. I have analysed the aspects that trouble me, but there is a lot in this film that we haven’t looked at today so while I would usually just express my view and move on I do want to add a little caveat about this film in particular having room for a lot of different interpretations. It was a commercial and a critical success, one of very few in the DC Universe, so clearly it chimed with a lot of people, and as a piece of entertainment I think it was better than most superhero movies. I am certainly not telling people not to watch it, if anything I am recommending it precisely because it’s unusual, and possibly a sign of what’s to come as Hollywood continues to diversify, and as identity politics continue to dominate our political landscape.