Monday, July 10, 2017

Is Wonder Woman a Pro-War Superhero?

The group photo of Wonder Woman and friends that begins the movie

This essay contains spoilers.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman continues to enjoy mainly positive reviews, the first DC Extended Universe movie to enjoy warm reception. But not everyone agrees. Self-described Leninist author Jonathan Cook calls Wonder Womana hero only the military-industrial complex could create.” He backs this with something I thought common knowledge, that America’s security apparatus has leaned on Hollywood films before. But even by Cook’s own criteria, Wonder Woman would make very poor pro-military propaganda.

The term “military-industrial complex” comes from President Eisenhower, who warned Americans that a small cadre who got rich off violence would foment new wars as tickets for personal enrichment. Eisenhower primarily meant manufacturers of war materiel: the Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummons of the world. But Hollywood has occasionally participated in the drum-beating industry. Illustrious directors like Frank Capra and David Lean have participated in creating frequently vile wartime propaganda. So have comic book publishers.

Yet this movie doesn’t support such interpretations. Consider a key sequence: leaving England, Diana, our heroine, watches soldiers returning to London with missing limbs and disfiguring scars. Nearing the front, she wants to rescue a wailing orphan, until she sees the refugee caravan. She feels for the refugees, until she discovers an entire occupied village. She liberates the village, but sees it destroyed by chemical weapons. She destroys the general who ordered the attack, and… noting improves.

This ascending pattern describes this entire movie. Apparently Cook believes that, because Jenkins depicts war in her movie, she perforce endorses it. But Diana, trained in single combat, thinks war morally vacuous and diabolical, hoping to uproot it altogether. Ultimately, Diana’s journey isn’t to defeat war; it’s a journey to discover war’s systematic nature. No one nation, army or general holds ultimate culpability for war. Rather, human power structures keep everyone fighting over diminishing scraps.

The real Erich Ludendorff, left, and Danny Huston as Ludendorff in Wonder Woman
Cook claims Wonder Woman positions the Allied leadership as virtuous and peace-seeking, compared to the murderously war-mongering Germans. Yet General Erich Ludendorff murders most of German high command when he wants the war to continue after they’ve lost hope. Meanwhile, when Steve Trevor warns that ignoring Ludendorff could cause thousands of soldiers to die needlessly, a British general, accustomed to leading from the rear, sneers: “That's what soldiers do.” Hardly the Manichaean dualism Cook purports.

Most important, the British and German leaders aren't negotiating for peace; they’re negotiating an armistice. A cessation of active hostilities, which would prove toxic. In reality, Ludendorff survived the war and proselytized the “Stab-in-the-Back Theory,” a leading intellectual justification for rising Nazism; see Christian Ingrao. The armistice didn't solve the underlying problem, it just punted everything onto the next generation. In the final reveal, the armistice serves supernatural war efforts; peace was never on offer.

Throughout the movie, Diana pursues Ares, the war god, whom she accuses of fomenting this violence. Cook takes this accusation so literally, I wonder if he actually saw the entire film. The climactic confrontation reveals that, while Ares put ideas in human heads, humans ultimately didn’t need supernatural incitement to war. Humans, Diana discovers, are a mixture of violence and kindness, of destructive and constructive capabilities. She could defeat war, but only by obliterating humanity.

In fairness, one of Cook’s criticisms holds water. Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot has, as Cook writes, served in the Israeli Defense Force, and the IDF has a dismal human rights record. Working from known dates, Gadot probably participated in Israel’s illegal occupation of southern Lebanon. But Israel has compulsory military service laws; all Israelis, except ultra-Orthodox groups, must render two years’ service. Gal Gadot served in the IDF; so did Dr. Ruth Westheimer. So what?

This picture doesn't serve my theme; I just really like that it exists (source)

In my youth, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to join the Marine Corps. Later, after my views shifted, I waved placards in anti-war demonstrations. I’ve observed the military-industrial complex from the pro- and anti- camps, and friends, if Wonder Woman glorified war, violence, or nationalism, I’d say something. The events onscreen simply don’t justify any such interpretation. Throughout, we witness Diana’s dawning realization that violence, while sometimes necessary, never fixes humanity’s underlying problems. War is not praiseworthy.

Many movies have glamorized war, often at the expense of reality. From classics like The Longest Day to recents like American Sniper, Hollywood has often bought into myths of wartime glory, and peddled Security State drivel to unsuspecting young audiences. But Jonathan Cook’s accusation that Wonder Woman joins these ranks is so unsupported by onscreen evidence, one almost suspects Cook didn’t watch the movie, and reviewed other people’s rumors. Wonder Woman isn’t a pro-war movie.

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