Sunday, 25 September 2016

Stop Setting Your Power Fantasies in World War One

by Robert Merriam

Two months ago the first trailer for  next year’s ‘Wonder Woman’ film came out and it looks alright. I’m all for a ‘Wonder Woman’ movie because as a character she’s much less of a blank slate than many other superheroes; many may champion the film as a feminist work simply because it contains a female protagonist but feminism is woven deep into Wonder Woman’s DNA. Her creator: William Moulton Marston invented Wonder Woman in 1940  right after was done inventing the lie detector (no really). Marston was vocal about his belief in the potential of comic books and as a result was given the opportunity to create his own superhero by DC comics.

Marston, through intensive study of all female communities (because why not), concluded that women were the superior gender but that due to the time and effort required for child rearing and domestic work they were held back from their true potential. His two wives agreed. He claimed however that, given the advance of technology, women would soon be free of this burden and would rise to their rightful place as rulers of humaity. Just so we’re clear this was in the 1920s, white women had just received the vote in the USA so it’s safe to say Marston and Wonder Woman were both way ahead of their time. Wonder Woman herself is akin to Captain America in the way she so clearly resembles an ideology, just as Captain America is an embodiment of ‘greatest generation’ America, Wonder Woman is basically radical-cultural feminism incarnate. This gives stories containing her almost limitless potential to explore some really interesting themes.

It’s all the more unfortunate then that I currently have absolutely no interest in paying to see the new Wonder Woman film. The fact is I don’t want to see a superhero film set in the First World War. This might seem like an odd stance to take but I think it’s well founded. I believe the filmakers have made a serious (perhaps very American) mistake with regards to the interchangeability of the First and Second World Wars. World War Two has occupied a massive space in pop-culture ever since it began, countless films, TV shows, books, video games and comic books (including Wonder Woman’s first) have been created as propaganda, as Historical accounts and often as entertainment.

The suitibility of any tragedy for adaptation into an entertainment medium is debatable but European Theatre World War Two tends to be deemed more acceptable than others on the basis of who the enemy was at the time. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Nazi regime was anything but evil which is probably why most people don’t have any trouble witholding empathy when Brad Pitt scalps one of it’s members in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ or Indiana Jones melts their faces off. It’s questionable whether or not this kind of demonisation is healthy for our society but that’s a topic for another day.

The problem is this, the Germany which we fought with in the First World War was not the third Reich and therefore pitching them as the villains in a comic book movie is in incredibly bad taste. Superhero fiction occupies a strange position in that it is, in most forms, quite ridiculous and, as a result placing comic book characters in real world scenarios always threatens to make depictions of such scenarios seem insincere. The creators of the first Captain America movie understood this. Even though Captain America was originally created for the purpose of fighting real Nazis in propaganda comics they opted to make the enemy of the film HYDRA a ficticious splinter group that is supposedly even more evil than the Nazis themseleves. The reasons for this descision are twofold, firstly  it avoids making light of real historical events for pure entertainment value and secondly it serves to make the drama of the piece more interesting. The bad guys in Captain America have Laser guns and stealth bombers which makes them a challenging threat for our hero to overcome. Now compare that to the new Wonder Woman trailer...

Here we see a superhero participating in on of the seminal tragedies of the last century, there’s no hint of a larger, more sinister and crucially fictional power at play; it appears that Wonder Woman is simply acting as a soldier on behalf of the allies. Even ignoring the fact that Wonder Woman should probably be playing a non-partisan role due to her being an immortal Amazon with no national affiliation this is still a terrible idea. Firstly by assigning her to one side you are immediately deeming the other to be morally inferior by proxy, which is a reductionist and frankly incorrect assesment of the war. It’s generally accepted (if my GCSE History serves me well) that responsibility for  war does not rest solely on Germany’s shoulders and, even if it did, the suffering of German civilians as a result of the allied Naval blockade means that it’s hard to paint them as the villains. The situation is far too nuanced to allow for a ‘good guys’ ‘bad guys’ divide.

Unlike in the Second World War, the German soldiers are not (inadvertantly or otherwise) aiding industrial genocide and Facsist ideology: the situations are not comparable. So when we see the immaculate Wonder Woman stepping out of a trench to do battle with men who are in all likelyhood exhausted, ill, malnourished who most likely have been pressed into service by societal expectation who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for? In this situation Wonder Woman is a technologically advanced bully, intervening in a War she has no steak in that, if won, will not better the world in any way. She’s not the personification of radical-cultural feminism, she’s the personification of the Bush administration!

This is even more frustrating as Wonder Woman is one of the only comic book characters who could work in a realistic depiction of the Second World War. Among many other things the Nazi regime enforced the position of women to the mothering/housekeeping role which the character stands in direct opposition to.

I also consider the problem this film poses for our collective historical awareness. By mystifing events like these we remove them further from reality, and when we do that we run the risk of forgetting the lessons that they teach. It was a thought that crossed my mind earlier this year when the trailer for the videogame “Battlefield 1” was released and featured glorified, brutal violence from the period set to the sound of ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes.  It seemed to scream LOOK AT THIS! WASN’T THIS AWESOME! Which is not the attitude we should have to trench warfare. There is nothing heroic or emulatable about the loss of thirty-eight million lives in a War whose only legacy was another even more destuctive war. You could say that I’m focusing too much on the context and that these depictions don’t mean anything but you would be wrong. We should only consider violence to be heroic in very specific circumstances, if we ignore these circumstances then our only criteria for heroism becomes the infliction of violence on others. We have to think twice before we decide to use the atrocities of yesteryear as stages for our power fantasies. “Those that fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it”.

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