When we think of superheroes, we think of bright tights and grand fights, gadgets, superpowers and capes. What we don't think about is war, the very real human conflicts that have cratered our history. And yet superheroes have always been rooted in wartime. The Golden Age of comics, when the most iconic superheroes were created, just happened to coincide with World War II. With the USA feeling hopeless, superheroes rose up as a symbol of endurance and resistance, reminding people that there was still goodness in a world worth fighting for.
Wonder Woman was no exception to this rule, and in fact her origin story saw her leave her Paradise Island to plunge headfirst into WWII. So why did the movie change this to WWI? This unusual decision was actually the best thing for the film — as Diana is confronted with a world in the midst of its very first global conflict, this challenges everything she holds dear.
The War That Didn't End All Wars
World War I is often eclipsed by its successor in pop culture, and it's easy to see why. WWII has a clear villain, varied battles, and the iconography has forever shaped modern culture. It has countless movies, books, and TV shows to its name, while WWI's nationalist complexity and the drudging, brutal nature of trench warfare makes it a difficult setting to commit to film.
However, it was the perfect setting for Wonder Woman. World War I — or the Great War, as it was called then — shocked the world. It was the first true global conflict, and saw the advent of terrifying new weapons like machine guns and mustard gas. This gas is one of the main things WWI is remembered for, with soldiers slain in the trenches as their throats blistered and their eyes burned. Wonder Woman develops this, as the villainous Dr Poison invents an even more vicious form of the gas — and crucially, this is a weapon that Diana can't punch into submission once it's deployed. She does, however, smash plenty of machine guns.
When speaking to Entertainment Weekly, screenwriter Allan Heinberg explains that the war's shocking nature was one reason why he shifted Wonder Woman's origin story from World War II to I. He also points out the relevance to our own time:
"We are in a very WWI world today with nationalism and how it would take very little to start a global conflict."
The events leading up to World War I were tangled in a mire of imperial pride and raising tensions, as Germany grew in power and started vying for war with other European nations. It's very easy to see the parallels with the age we live in, and we should take WWI — and Wonder Woman — as a cautionary tale of what can happen when we live in a political powder keg.
Wonder Woman also takes care to point out how this war does not have a clear villain. Although, granted, Ludendorff is a monster, there is no great distinction drawn between the German soldiers and the Allied forces. If anything, we're invited to sympathize with the German soldiers who work under Ludendorff — teenaged and malnourished, they live in perpetual terror that their general might just shoot them at any time just to prove a point. When the film ends, we see the members of Diana's team walking arm in arm with their former adversaries — and the young German soldiers are just as relieved that the god of war has been defeated.
Diana Becomes An Inspirational Hero
In many ways, the battles of WWI were fought simply for the sake of fighting, with trench warfare making gaining ground an unbearably slow process. This senseless nature makes it perfect for Wonder Woman's main villain — Ares, god of war and master of human manipulation. It's easy to believe that Ares was lurking behind the scenes, whispering in generals' ears, escalating the conflict until it reached fever pitch, aiming to make this a war that would never end.
But above all, the reason WWI works so well as a setting for Wonder Woman is what it means for the hero herself.
Diana of Themiscyra is an idealistic, staunchly principled person who stubbornly believes in the good of humanity. She refuses to accept that sometimes humans just kill each other, insisting that the entire war must be the fault of Ares. But although Ares is egging the combat on, the movie never reveals whether the god of war caused WWI — leaving Diana to learn some harsh lessons about the nature of humanity.
And yet, the hopelessness of WWI doesn't just challenge Diana, it also leads her to fully realize her destiny, as she becomes a much-needed ray of hope in a desperate time. The world Diana travels to is bleak and wounded, soldiers left dying in No Man's Land and children orphaned by years of war. The people who populate "man's world" are hardy but disillusioned — and Diana shines in the shadows of this conflict. Her belief that she can stop this war inspires others to fight with her, and even in her darkest moment humans' love for each other inspires Diana in return.
The WWI setting really allows the filmmakers to bring out the best and worst in Diana, challenging her narrow beliefs even as she flourishes and becomes the hero we know and love. It's a setting that elevates the film above the humdrum superhero flicks that crowd our cinemas, transporting us to another time and inviting us to learn something from this journey. Even though she's known for fighting baddies in World War II, there's something even more groundbreaking about Diana leaping over trenches in World War I — and hey, maybe she'll get her chance to punch Hitler in the face in the sequel.
Tell us in the comments: Would you like to see Wonder Woman take on WWII in the sequel?