Thursday, 22 June 2017


Wonder Woman is a film with much to recommend it, both as a film and as a political statement. I have therefore written four thousand words on why it really annoyed me.

(Wonder Woman spoilers throughout)

I. Open-Topped Praise Sandwich

First, the disclaimers. These seem more important than usual, because I'm not just about to find fault with a film that has a lot going for it - though it does - but one which almost immediately became a litmus test for whether or not you're a legitimately terrible human being. Do you want to share in the elation of literally millions of women that they too can have smart and gorgeously shot superhero movies? Or do you want to complain that this is about pushing the SJW agenda and woman can't actually fight men and women-only screenings are basically bringing back apartheid?

Given that choice, I embrace the former option completely. The degree to which the film has struck a chord with so many women is absolutely, well, wonderful. I doubt I'd have gone to see the film at all had it not been so roundly praised as being exactly what the testosterone-charged world of superhero cinema so desperately needed. I absolutely don't want to seem like I'm standing in opposition to that. I'm fully aware that there's absolutely nothing wrong in revelling in this film's existence and importance, and dismissing criticism of its structure as being beside the point.

That said, there are definite issues with Wonder Woman that I think need to be considered if we're going to keep making progress generally. Greater representation for women is critical, but there's other work that needs doing besides. I see no contradiction in arguing both that this is an amazingly important film that has materially improved matters, and noting that it contains some rather problematic ideas that need to be pushed back against.

So, with arse hopefully sufficiently covered, let's crack this film open and feast upon the politically questionable goo inside.

II. "Arrow Fodder"

Perhaps rather appropriately, things start to go wrong with the film almost the second that the men arrive. The sequence as the Amazons defend the beach is Wonder Woman's first set-piece, the chance for the movie to show what the team making it can add to the increasingly crowded realm of superhero action scenes.

And in fairness, it's exceptionally well put together. Everyone involved can feel justifiably proud of the execution. The problem is in the concept, which is that the Amazons see a bunch of guys in rowboats off their coast and immediately begin murdering them.

Sure, said people are in uniform, and armed - presumably Amazons have never seen guns before, but I can believe they know a weapon when they see one - but the whole deal about Themyscira is that it's hidden from the outside world (why Zeus thought putting its daylight cycle out of sync with the rest of the Aegean would help is a question for another day). It's entirely possible that these soldiers have stumbled on the island by accident whilst up to something else - you know, the exact thing that has happened. And Hippolyta decides they all need to be arrowed to death immediately.

This is not a glorious defence against wicked invaders. This is the paranoid ruler of a separatist state murdering anyone who approaches her borders for fear they will force her to reengage with a world she's given up for dead.

It wouldn't have been remotely difficult to rewrite the lead-in to the battle so that it works. All you need is for the Amazons to muster as a defensive measure without actually attacking until the Germans demonstrated hostile intent. And in truth, they'd probably oblige once they saw Diana trying to get Steve off the beach. You could even throw in some cocky German lieutenant demanding the American spy be released to him, only to be astonished when Hippolyta first tells him to fuck off in perfect German and then demolishes his unit.

Maybe that would be too much. I dunno. I'm not a screenwriter, though from my uneducated position it certainly seems like the sort of thing one might want to put in a Wonder Woman film. In any case, what we get instead is a bunch of soldiers who are trying to catch a spy in what they think are international waters - something you'd think almost no-one would argue with as a legitimate use of military force - and are massacred for accidentally stumbling into the territory of a power they had no idea even existed. The only way the result can be interpreted as anything but an inappropriate glorifying of tragedy (or at least an ugly lingering upon it) is if you assume German soldiers are by default villainous and worthy of killing.

III. Gas Panic!

I have absolutely no intention of defending the German Army. The invasion of Belgium and much of France was not a mass hallucination. The thousands of Herero and Nama forced into concentration camps in what is now Namibia were done so at the point of German guns (so many were worked to death that pre-printed death certificates marked "death by exhaustion following privation" were issued to the camps so as to save time [1]). Any number of individual German soldiers have committed or participated in atrocities over the country's history.

As my reference to Germany's imperial past should make clear, though, there is an obvious issue in considering its army as being uniquely bad. Yes, Germany in 1914 was a country with shitty leaders who went to war for shitty reasons, but that was the height of fashion at the time. The crimes German soldiers committed are not exculpated by demanding that those who wilfully created the circumstances which made such crimes inevitable be held to account.

Instead, though, Wonder Woman almost entirely embraces the jingoistic idea of the Germans being "the bad guys". This is most obvious in Diana's own repeated insistence that the war will end the instant the German forces are freed from Ares influence, as though the dozens of other countries Steve alluded to were simply defending themselves from Berlin's aggression and would lay down their arms the instant the Teutonic bullets stopped flying towards them. I realise that the obvious response here is that Diana is simply regurgitating the simplistic view of the war she's been sold by Steve. Which, OK, I guess. There's very little textual evidence that he's explained the war in enough detail for her to have reached this conclusion as early as she does, but having participated in the battle on the beach and lost her mentor to the German "attack", you can understand Diana being primed to think the Kaiser's forces are the enemy.

The problem is the degree to which the rest of the film treats her position as broadly accurate. The constant suggestion is that Diana's mistake is in thinking Ares is the reason for German belligerence, not in thinking that German belligerence is the reason for the war. British soldiers are represented here as the tragic, exhausted war-wounded, and as the saviours of Belgian civilians. German soldiers have to be punched in the face with a shield to stop them enslaving entire villages, and so hellbent on using horrifying gas-bombs to restart a war they've already lost that noble square-jawed fighter ace Steve Trevor has to sacrifice his life to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands. The moment of revelation when Diana stabs Ludendorff and learns the war is still going on is supposed to represent her learning that war is more complicated than there being a single all-powerful villain controlling one side. By this time though the film has focused so much on the unconscionable horror of using chemical weapons, and the need to bludgeon kill Germans soldiers whenever you come across them, that the actual message delivered is that the rest of the Germans are just as bad as their sadistic commander.

Again, I won't ignore or excuse the German armed forces' use of gas during the First World War. They weren't the first to do so - that would be the French - but from what I can gather they were indeed the first to use chemical weapons designed to kill (though the argument that the French use of tear gas gave the Germans cover to start developing lethal gas variants isn't an obviously ridiculous one). On the other hand, we were the first to use gigantic armoured war machines to crush people's legs in their trenches, so perhaps the war was about more than the Germans enjoying the invention of weapons that kill slowly and painfully. During the 1899 Hague Convention in which chemical weapons were banned, there were various other forms of warfare that attempts were made to ban, Only two powers present, for instance, refused to ban the dropping of explosives from the air. One of them was the US (who also refused to agree to the banning of chemical weapons). The other was the UK.

Fast forward 118 years, and the conventional wisdom on conventional weapons has it that poison gas is a moral horror. Meanwhile, airstrikes are sold as a precision tools for defeating the enemy with minimal loss of life, no matter how often that turns out to be a total fiction. For millions it seems self-evident that firing mustard gas into the enemy trenches is an outrage against decency, but that the firebombing of Dresden was one of those unfortunate necessities of warfare.

(Perhaps it was that act of unimaginable destruction and the death of tens of thousands of civilians that's makes it hard for war films to damn Germany for inventing the modern flamethrower.)

As always - and I really shouldn't have to point this out, but there's always someone desperate to misinterpret me - I am not suggesting gas be returned to the list of acceptable options. I don't war to be on a list of acceptable options, let alone any particular method of waging it in the service of politicians propping up themselves and the terrible systems they impose. My (stunningly unoriginal) point is simply that it's not only history that is written by the winners, but the rules of war.

So yes, a WWI film set in Belgium that centres on the production and deployment of poison gas allows one to make a narrow point about there being specific ways in which the German commanders were in some sense "worse" than their Allied equivalents (though so far as I've been able to tell from researching this topic online, neither the Germans nor anyone else deployed chemical weapons against civilians on the western front, not even Ludendorff himself).  But you need to choose a rather blinkered framing of history in order to pull this off, and the choice of what you point people's intentionally narrowed vision is a politically loaded one. Furthermore, combine so narrow a focus on the war's structure with so general a portrait of the Allies struggle and sacrifices (the multi-national commando team, the injured Tommies filing from their boat back onto Blighty's soil), and it's not clear what you end up with can be sensibly distinguished from propaganda.

All of which is before we even really get to Ludendorff.

IV. Fascism Before It Was Cool

Like Abigail Nussbaum (who indeed I learned this fact from), I was surprised Ludendorff isn't a fictional character created to give us a truly hissable villain. The guy actually existed, and it seems genuinely was a fucking terrible human being.

As Nussbaum points out, this complicates matters. My original assumption was that Ludendorff is there to frame WWI Germany as a proto-Nazi state, with commanders indistinguishable from the sadistic war-worshipping SS monsters of modern cinema, so as to make Diana et al's repeated duffing up of German troops more palatable. Clearly, this now needs revision, because equally clearly there were fascists among the German ranks, just waiting for their chance.

Obviously, though, the mere fact of being real isn't a sufficient condition for being in the Wonder Woman film. Charlie Chaplin doesn't have a cameo, for instance. Ludendorff's inclusion still needs to be addressed. Nussbaum herself has some characteristically excellent points on this in the article I linked to above. There is much in that piece that I'm entirely on-board with. In particular, I couldn't agree more that in today's political climate we need to point out that fascists, racists, social Darwinists and full-on genocidal monsters don't all, in Nussbaum's words, "wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes". Wonder Woman reminds us that not even all the anti-Semitic proponents of a racist military dictatorship in 1930s Germany were Nazis. There didn't need to be a swastika on their arm for the dangers they posed to both democracy and their fellow citizens to be entirely clear.

The same is true of today's far right movements. We on the left might label them Nazis because of the frightening overlap they have with the National Socialist philosophy and because of the resulting threat they pose to everyone other than themselves. We're aware of the difference between rhetoric and taxonomy, however, and responding to warnings about these people by sniffing about how they don't look like Nazis or call themselves Nazis is to miss the point to a calamitous extent. People can push the abhorrent attitudes and further the vile goals of the Nazis without cosplaying as them. Any work of fiction that kicks against this ridiculous idea of everyone being separable into two groups labelled "actual Nazis" and "not actual Nazis and therefore presumably OK" is to be applauded.

The problem is, I don't think Wonder Woman makes that point. In fact, I think it actively undermines it. If you want to demonstrate that what Nussbaum calls "Nazi-esque evil" exists in forms other than the Nazis themselves, I'm not sure there's a worse way to do it it than to show it wearing the uniform of a First World War German colonel. That doesn't make a point about the dangers of the far-right existing outside of the Nazis themselves. It cements the idea that fascism was and is a fundamentally central European condition.

Watching this movie reminded me of a series of tweets from the days following last year's EU referendum (I'm afraid I can no longer remember who wrote them). Working from memory, the premise was this: in the UK the young and the old struggle to align to fight fascism because they have totally different ideas of what fascism actually is. Young people (not all or only young people, of course) had to watch in horror as the post-war generation (see previous caveat) decided to follow the lead of a transparent fascist sympathiser, to cosy up with with actual American fascists (notionally led by Trump, who's likely too apolitical to be a true fascist, but around whom a fascist movement has coalesced) and to hand greater powers to a political party with historic ties to fascists and who were increasingly dipping into the far-right play book, all to secure exit from an EU they didn't think was democratic enough. After seventy years of the post-war generation loudly proclaiming they would never tolerate the return of fascism, a sizeable percentage of them embraced it totally or almost totally as an alternative to the larger European community having limited influence over UK law.

So what happened? How did the generation brought up hearing how their parents fought Hitler throw their lot in with Farage and Trump and Johnson? The theory put forward by this Twitter thread is fairly simple. It's specifically about those stories. The second and third post-war generations learned what fascism was from books and history lessons, which told them fighting fascism meant defeating racists and violent thugs and those who would undermine democracy. Those in their sixties and above learned what fascism was from their parents, who told them that fighting fascism meant defeating Germany.

And these days, defeating the Germans means defeating the EU.

If you buy this theory - and I think it's pretty persuasive - then pointing out that a German doesn't need to be a Nazi to be a fascist doesn't help anyone but fascists outside Germany. It doesn't inspire vigilance. It inspires complacency. It feeds the idea  that certain nationalities are simply more susceptible to fascism, and by extension others - such as the British - are not.

There is little more helpful to fascist movements in a given country than that country agreeing en masse that their great nation could never become fascist. Once that lie takes root, the people you want to be resisting the far-right in your country spend all their time explaining to you why the far-right doesn't actually exist there at all. The fascists are given cover instead of fists to the face. They're protected so assiduously it's only ever a matter of time before they win.

It is perhaps unfair to criticise an American-made film for so totally failing to understand the implications of linking 1910s Germans to fascism from a European perspective. Of course, if you're going to use European history, European geography, and European mythology to build your story, suggesting you factor in European reaction to that story is perhaps not entirely out of line. Since my above objections are based entirely on an English problem revealed by an English referendum, though, I can't push that criticism particularly far.

I don't think that matters though, because we can assemble a fairly similar argument from American timber. The States very much seems to share with us an ironclad certainty much of its population - and especially its political and media class - that American fascism is an impossibility. They defeated the Nazis, for God's sake, how could they ever resemble them? They haven't been impressed with a European import since smallpox, how is Mussolini going to get traction?

This simple premise explains no small amount of Trump's success - the mere fact of his popularity caused many to insist he couldn't possibly be a fascist (or proto-fascist, as I tend to think of him), because otherwise no true American would like him. Once again, the people who should be taking a stand against fascism spend their time instead explaining how Trumpism can't intersect with fascism because Founding Fathers and Emancipation Proclamation.

And it's hard to see how Wonder Woman can help with any of this. Pointing out that there were nascent Nazi-sympathisers in another German army that the United States also went to war against doesn't suggest to an American audience that they should look beyond the classic Nazi model when looking for fascists. It suggests the American history of fighting against fascism - already a bleakly hilarious lie - is even more expansive than it was previously billed as.

V. The Best Laid Plans Of Mars And Men

One could extend this criticism of American self-aggrandisement to other aspects of the film, were one inclined. Take for instance the fact that aside from Diana it's Trevor alone who has the moral fibre to ignore a room full of British generals and bigwigs who insist the possible death of thousands of their own men is worth risking if the alternative is demolishing an almost fully-built armistice. To be honest, though, that's about the most boring and reductive reading possible of the tension between Diana and Trevor on the one hand and Patrick Morgan and his peers on the other. That scene has far more interesting things going on inside it. Interesting and awful.

Actually, I'll take a step back here, because the problem I'm coming to is one that runs through the entire film, threatening at several points to collapse it completely. Any suggestion, at any point, that the armistice that brought an end to four years of grotesque incomprehensible slaughter wasn't an absolute historical triumph is, simply put, fucking evil.  It's the sort of horrifying shit Michael Gove would mumble through a smirk when taking a break from undermining the Irish peace process.

Wonder Woman doesn't go so far as to actually come out against the armistice, nor do I believe anyone involved in making it secretly wished to. But the film's take on the armistice is so badly confused and contradictory that it gives the impression that at the very least the wisdom of the agreement is debatable.  It's a $150 million exercise in Devil's advocacy, smugly arriving to ask whether hypothetically the armistice might have been a bad idea if the British government (who were never the driving force behind peace in any case, as others have pointed out) had been risking enough of their own soldiers lives to do it. Watching Diana telling Field Marshall Haig that not wanting to blow the chance of ending a conflict that claimed around seventeen million lives including about three quarters of a million British troops is an act of supreme moral cowardice is a deeply uncomfortable experience. I'm not saying Diana is clearly in the wrong. I'm saying writing a story in which she or anyone else had to stake out a position on this in the first place was an utterly indefensible idea.

Once again, it isn't Diana herself who is the problem here. She is after all convinced that peace can be achieved by killing Ares, so her disinterest in keeping the peace talks running is understandable. There's also the fact that the Field Marshall's willingness to let people die far away so he doesn't need to keep fighting is somewhat reminiscent of her mother's own refusal to take a role in the war, so yelling at James Cosmo can be seen as an expression of misplaced anger.

(Interestingly, he's also from another angle the exact opposite of Queen Hippolyta, in that he's willing to sacrifice the lives of his troops in order to end the war. This means Diana gets to be angry at Haig both for failing to live up to the code taught to her by her mother and for reminding her that her mother has failed to follow that code as well.  Which is a rather interesting wrinkle, actually, and terrible as I think the choice of moral dilemma is here, I do idly wonder how Diana would thread this needle had she not been able to point to slaying Ares as an alternative.)

So Diana I can understand. The issue once more is the degree to which the film fails to demonstrate why the "peace-makers are cowards" angle isn't actually the correct one. I mean for God's sake (no pun intended), the armistice to bring to an end four years of murder-as-pandemic turns out to have been a plot dreamed up by the film's villain. Bad enough that the film seems convinced the armistice was arranged from the top down, rather than something forced upon them by revolutionary threat and revolutionary action from their own people (check out the Kiel mutiny, for just one example). It ends up suggesting it was deliberately suggested as part of a wider endless cycle of violence, a way of pausing the war for long enough for both sides to recover and re-arm to get back to it all again in the space of a few years. Between this and giving the "peace at any cost" position to this guy, you can see a thumb on a pair of scales that should never have been taken out of the cupboard in the first place.

(So why does Ares try to undermine his own plan by offering Dr Poison - wow! An embittered disfigured villainous woman! So fresh! So feminist! - a new and extra-deadly gas formula?  One explanation is that "Sir Patrick" recognised Diana the moment he saw her and decided to undermine his own armistice, so he could show her that he doesn't need to control anybody for them to be violent and despicable. One could perhaps criticise a plan that relies on Diana realising Ares isn't manipulating the war immediately before Ares reveals himself as manipulating the war, but never mind.

More troubling is the fact this theory implies that absent Diana's appearance in London the armistice would go ahead exactly as it did in reality, meaning her main contribution to the course of the war was to kick off a change of events that led to an entire village being gassed. I mean, she kills Ares, but the war is about to end anyway, and clearly it's not like being rid of him has made any difference to the frequency of brutality of warfare. The same is true of Ludendorff, really, though I give points to the film for pulling off an Inglourious Basterds, but not being so showy about it.)

One can push back against this reading, I realise. In particular, as I was reminded of last night, Ludendorff's plot is explicitly designed to collapse the armistice negotiations, so we as an audience know that Steve's plan is necessary to save exactly the thing the generals are trying to protect. The problem with this argument though is that it isn't one that Steve himself really bothers to make (possibly because he doesn't actually know Ludendorff's intent). I can't remember the exact flow of the argument, but far more weight is put on the need to stop the gas attack for the sake of its targets than for the geopolitical ramifications. The accusation against Haig's position is that it's morally abhorrent, not that it's self-defeating. The choice we're being asked to consider - with the film's titular demigoddess and the heroic Steve Trevor on one side and Butcher Haig and the literal God of War on the other - is peace talks vs troops lives, not risking the peace talks through inaction vs risking them through impetuousness.

And that framing, whether intended to or not, is one that runs parallel to the ranting of the warmonger. For some among the ruling class it doesn't matter how ruinous a conflict has proved, how long it has lasted, how many of other people's family and friends have died, nor how little has been gained if indeed anything has been gained at all. There will always be someone who insists the fighting must continue until the enemy is finally utterly defeated, because to do otherwise is simply to guarantee the enemy will bide their time until they can come back stronger. Only the complete unconditional surrender of the enemy is an acceptable trigger for peace. In modern times the first example that springs to mind is John McCain, but there's no limit to those like him. You can't throw a copy of Plutarch's Pyrrus on Capitol Hill or in Westminster without it hitting some idiot who'll pick it up and complain the Molossian king just gave up too easily.

By linking the armistice with not just a total disinterest in the well-being of one's soldiers (peace is always described by these people as a betrayal of those who are actually fighting the war) but as allowing an opportunity to ensure the next war will be even more horrifying, Wonder Woman manages to not only strengthen the idea that the greatest threat is always from the fascists outside your borders, but gives support to those whose enemy is peace itself.

VI. Requiem For A Ric

Right. That's entirely enough words for now, I think. Time for a conclusion, and then people can start yelling at me in the comments.

Let's start with the obvious. Wonder Woman isn't the first superhero movie to come attached to some objectionable politics. Nor is it likely to be the worst - the problems with Iron Man run much deeper, for example. Hell, now that I'm thinking along these lines, I do rather wonder if re-watching The First Avenger, which I've not seen since it was first out, might annoy me much more than it did the first time. Which might be appropriate, I suppose, given how many similarities the two films share. The length of this essay isn't an indication of how far Wonder Woman has strayed from the unproblematic territory of earlier cape films, but how much my definition of "problematic" has changed over the years.

Actually, let's linger for a little while on the degree to which those two films resemble each other. Some have argued this is evidence of a breathtaking lack of originality at best and actual plagiarism at worst. Both suggestions are incorrect. Wonder Woman isn't copying The First Avenger due to a lack of imagination, it's demonstrating just how completely stupid it always was to say you couldn't have a film like Captain America's first jaunt with a female lead. It turns out replacing Chris Evans with Gal Gadot and moving the set dressing around a bit works absolutely fine. You don't need to bother restructuring anything to accommodate the male gaze, or male sensitivities in general. That is a fact in which I take unalloyed delight. There is something astonishingly refreshing in being able to write a criticism of a film like this which doesn't have to include phrases like "Plus my god, the sexism".
This is what progress looks like, I suppose, the pushing aside of institutional and systemic problems of one kind so that we can focus on others. Wonder Woman has finally, at very long last, offered up a superhero film that doesn't cater to only men that's able to be objectionable in exactly the same way as the ones that do.

[1] The Colonising Camera: Photographs in the Making of Namibian History. p116.

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