On “Wonder Woman”

Most of what I’ve read about Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman, and most of what my friends have said about the movie, has been strongly positive, and the aspect of the film commented on most positively is its sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit feminism.  I have no quarrel with these pieces and comments;  I saw the film twice and thought it not only intelligently, brashly feminist but also stylish–the classiest and least patriarchal superhero film I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of them.

Watching it as a pacifist, though, I was aware of another pattern of meaning, one having to do with the film’s naturalization of war and marginalization of peacemaking,  of what William James called “the war on war.”  This I found troubling, because the film’s excellence and appeal mean that its ideas about war and peace will be influential; these ideas, these images, these sequences of action, will shape popular attitudes, regardless of whether people viewing the film are aware that they’re being shaped as they watch it.  So it seems worthwhile to tease out those ideas and critique them.  (Doing so intelligibly means revealing some twists and turns in the plot; people who hate spoilers should stop reading and go see the movie!)

The movie begins in 2017, but by flashback moves quickly to the time of World War I.  The first scenes take place on Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons.  We see Wonder Woman (Diana) as a girl, eager to be trained in the arts of war, as all the other Amazons are;  her mother Hippolyta tries to keep that from happening, but eventually yields;  suddenly Diana is a woman in armor.  (A mother’s attempt to keep her child from war is one of the earliest and most long-lasting of antiwar themes.  Thetis attempts as much with Achilles, Herzeloyde with Parzifal, Mother Courage with her children.  The attempt always fails.)   Hippolyta tells Diana early in the film that the Amazons were created as a defense against the war god Ares, who revolted against Zeus and was defeated but perhaps not destroyed.

An American pilot and spy, Steve Trevor, crashes in the waters near the island.  Diana saves him from drowning, Germans pursue him, the Amazons defeat them. Trevor tells her of the Great War;  Diana feels that the war must be the work of Ares, and resolves to follow Trevor back to Europe, find Ares, and kill him. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in World War I Europe, first in England and then in Belgium.

Wonder Woman has several theories about war and peace.  The first, the perspective that Hippolyta sets out for Diana, and of which Diana becomes the fervent advocate, is that human beings are naturally peaceful but have been corrupted by Aresinto being bellicose.  Kill Ares, as Zeus attempted to do long ago, as Diana seeks to do in the film, and the empire of war will be over.

A second theory, Ares’s theory, is articulated later in the film and is the first theory’s opposite:  human beings are naturally warlike and wicked, Zeus made an error in creating them, they should be exterminated, it is Ares’s mission to reveal their warlike nature to whoever’s interested, including Diana.  (Ares’s job in the meantime is to assist human beings in their already strong warlike impulses, suggesting new recipes for poison gas and such.  But he notes that he doesn’t coerce them into going to war, only offers them more lethal means for conducting it.)

A third theory, which at the beginning is Trevor’s theory but later becomes Diana’s and the film’s dominant theory:  people are sometimes pacific and sometimes warlike, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and it’s the job of spies, soldiers, statespersons, and superheroines to make selective interventions on behalf of the good and the powerless rather than to change the rules of the game.  Local solutions, not global ones.

Diana abandons the first theory after she kills the German she presumes to be Ares.  He is not Ares in fact, just a souped-up bloodthirsty German general, but she believes he is, and she is devastated to see that when she kills him, the German soldiers working on the poison gas plot just keep working on it, not being magically liberated from their impulses to do so.  She turns then to the second theory, and Ares, soon revealed to be not the German general but the British diplomat Sir Patrick, does some propagandizing on its behalf, showing her as his prime exhibit the facially maimed German chemist Doctor Poison, whose goal in life is to create poisons against which no gas mask can defend.  Is this the sort of human being you want to defend, he asks?

But Diana also rejects the second theory, on the grounds of her belief in love, which she feels for, has talked about with, and has experienced with Trevor.  She seems at this moment surprisingly like W. H. Auden in “September 1, 1939,” in the lines that he hated so much after he wrote them, but which remain meaningful to so many people nonetheless: “we must love one another or die.”  The second theory is also refuted (and the third theory supported) by Trevor’s noble self-sacrifice.  He hijacks the plane that has the poison gas, flies it high up, then with a pistol shot blows the canisters up;  the gas, being flammable, is destroyed, but so is he, and his self-sacrifice is a powerful argument for his position.

Of the three theories, the film goes for the third, and given that choice, I as a pacifist would do the same. Camus wrote, “it is the job of the thinking person in our time not to be on the side of the executioners,” and the film’s implicit moral maxim is in accord with that.  Trevor’s version of that is distilled in his father’s maxim:  “if you see something wrong, you can do nothing or do something.”  Not an untenable theory, and better than either the utopian or dystopian alternative, both of which are preposterous.

Moreover, Diana sometimes makes acute distinctions between more and less honorable ways of conducting war.  More honorable:  generals fight and die on the battlefield.  Less honorable:  generals sit in offices in London and Berlin and send young men to fight and die.  (Phil Ochs:  “it’s always the old who lead us to the war,” always the young who fall.”)  More honorable:  attacking an enemy who can see your face, and whose face you can see.  Less honorable:  shooting an enemy from a distance.  (Similar to the Darkover Compact, in the Marion Zimmer Bradley novels:  “no weapon may be used which does not bring the user within arm’s reach of death.”)  If acted on, these principles would be limitations on war, if not quite oppositions to it, and limitations can go a long way.  As Michael Walzer writes in Just and Unjust Wars, “the restraint of war is the beginning of the peace.”

Still, whatever traces of pacifism or critiques of war practices the film offers, it is at bottom forcefully anti-pacifist.  For one thing, it is the film’s one diplomat, Sir Patrick, and not its souped-up German general Ludendorff, who turns out to be Ares in disguise.  Sir Patrick is the one calling in staff meetings for “Armistice,” indeed for “peace at any cost,” the one person representing the work that diplomats actually do, and which has jn fact contributed to the decline of war in the years since 1945.  Why should he be the one who turns out to be Ares, and the Armistice only his ploy intended to intensify human violence?

He is not the first pacifist or negotiator or peace-seeker to be revealed in the course of a story as the villain or traitor.  There is also Moxon Ivery in John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast;  Stephen Fisher in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, head of the Universal Peace Party and the film’s chief traitor; Anton Mesterbein, “apostle of the peaceful solution” and collaborator with Palestinian terrorists, in John Le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl.  Put enough of these figures together and one gets a topos, the pacifist as traitor, which has considerable energy and meaning without needing to be supplemented by explicit argument.

But the film also offers explicit argument, notably in a remark Diana makes towards the end, in a kind of epilogue (we’re now back to 2017). She says in a voiceover that at first she wanted to end war and establish peace, but that she no longer has that goal;  rather she seeks justice. (She is, accordingly, a member of the DC Justice League.) She says she believes that “love” is the thing necessary to bring happiness.  This too evokes the Auden lines.  But here the effect of the statement, and of her giving up on her original goal, is to naturalize war, to classify it as one of the things that cannot be changed, to characterize those who seek to end war as naïve.  Seek justice, by all means; but for heaven’s sake do not seek peace.

History since 1945, however, suggests to some scholars that war can be ended, or at any rate that wars can be significantly reduced in number and size.  That is the argument of the Human Security Report, of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and most pertinently of Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War On War – most pertinently in this context because what Goldstein is arguing, with particular reference to the time since 1945, is not only that wars are diminishing but also that a chief factor in that process is the work of diplomats, conflict resolution specialists, UN negotiators – i.e., just the sort of people who in the film are represented by Ares in disguise. In something like agreement with Goldstein, the military historian John Keegan, no pacifist, writes in A History of Warfare that ““despite confusion and uncertainty, it seems just possible to glimpse the emerging outline of a world without war.”

Turning to superheroes as rectifiers of injustice is inevitably an argument against pacifism.  It suggests that things are bad enough that without superheroes we are doomed, which in turn suggests that our non-super ways of resisting evil, negotiation and conflict resolution and peacekeeping among them, are not so much insufficient as irrelevant.  Where is there room for faceless, bureaucratic, indispensable diplomats or once visionary but now not unrealistic hopes?  Nowhere, it seems to me, even in this classiest of superheroine movies.