Like her fellow star-spangled superhuman Captain America, Wonder Woman has always been closely and explicitly associated with World War II. In her 1941 debut in All Star Comics #8, Diana is specifically sent by her mother Queen Hippolyta into Man's World to help Steve Trevor fight the Nazis. For much of the decade-long run of Sensation Comics, the anthology series Wonder Woman more or less anchored, she fought alongside Steve Trevor (with the occasional help of Etta Candy and her sorority) against Nazi villainesses like Doctor Poison and Baroness Paula von Gunther.
Throughout the years, there have been some attempts to update Wonder Woman for the modern day. Some are more straightforward, like just introducing the concept of pants. Others have been just bizarre, like that time Diana gave up her powers to run a mod boutique and learn kung fu. (Oh yeah.) But despite her immortality, her origin story is so rooted in World War II that there's always a whiff of that time period about her.
So when it was announced that the first Wonder Woman feature film would be set against the backdrop of World War I, I had to double-check to make sure that there wasn't a numeral missing. At the time, I lacked all faith in the DC Extended Universe, having born witness to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so I, quite uncharitably, assumed it was Warner Brothers trying to unsubtly stand out from the competition by using World War I as decorative wallpaper.
I'm very happy to report that I was wrong. Not only is Wonder Woman superior to Batman v Superman in every respect, it also uses its World War I setting thoughtfully and cohesively as an integral part of the story.
... up until about the third act, unfortunately, but we'll get to that.
Early in the film, Hippolyta reads baby Diana a bedtime story about the history of their people. It is the Amazons' sacred duty, she tells her, to guard against Ares, the god of war, whose return will herald the war to end all wars. Should he ever arise, it will fall to the Amazons to stop him and save the world.
Little Diana grows up believing that story word for word. When Steve Trevor falls into their lives and tells them of the great war, she believes that Ares has returned and, as the only Amazon willing to help Steve, it is her sacred duty to accompany into Man's World. Diana is supremely confident that if she just kills the right bad man, everyone will be freed from his corrupting influence and peace will reign once more.
If that idea sounds a little familiar, that would be because it sounds like the premise that sold Valkyrie. There is a certain subset of World War II-set media that posits that if only Hitler had been taken out of the picture, the war would be as good as won, as if the other Axis powers weren't in the picture. It's a simplistic argument that goes along with a simplistic narrative often assigned to World War II. For Americans, the story of World War II that our mainstream media tells us is often a romanticized, uncomplicated one, especially when it comes to genre fare. While there are many beautiful, harrowing films about World War II, there are also films that turn World War II into a rah-rah nationalistic story of heroic, square-jawed Americans saving the rest of the world from Nazis and the Axis powers to serve their own narrative needs. Case in point: Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor is a thing that exists.
But World War I has largely gone unromanticized in mainstream American culture the same way World War II has. The internecine politics of the first modern war make it less ripe as a narrative to distort, lacking figures and sides easy to slot into the roles of heroes and villains. It simply can't be twisted to serve the narrative need of the aforementioned rah-rah media narrative the way World War II can be. Those who want to explore World War I artistically tend to come to it more purposefully instead of treating it as a disposable vintage backdrop. Let me put it this way: the most recent Hollywood treatment of World War I was Steven Spielberg's critically acclaimed tearjerker War Horse, based on the Michael Morpugo novel that depicts the suffering and tragedy of the war through the eyes of a horse.
Diana is a child of peace who romanticizes war and sees the world in black and white. It's a smart narrative choice to send her into the heart of the War to End All Wars to disenchant her of those childish notions and expose her to both the worst and best of humanity in a conflict with no clear sides to take. It's exquisitely organic storytelling that utilizes its setting in a purposeful, respectful way that other superhero films, especially films in the DC Cinematic Universe, often lack.
At first, though, the film tosses both us and Diana a massive red herring, in the form of Danny Huston, who storms in with a sneer, a great big coat, and a deliciously ripe German accent as General Erich Ludendorff. This is a man who literally cackles with maniacal glee as he huffs superfumes while killing off his political rivals. It's hard not to side with Diana when she concludes that he must be Ares in disguise, corrupting the Germans. She might be wise as Athena (or getting there; it's a origin story, people!), but we've seen war movies before.
But the film consistently introduces doubt to that confident worldview. Hippolyta and Steve both warn Diana that things are not always what they seem, be it interpersonally or politically. Chief complicates her worldview by explaining how Steve is complicit in the American imperialism that's brutally oppressed his people. And through her travels, Diana sees the devastation of war firsthand on both sides.
While all of this shakes the compassionate Diana a little, she nonetheless remains steadfast. After all, her superhuman abilities have allowed her to both best the greatest Amazon general to ever live in battle and liberate a Belgian village the English couldn't even get near for an entire year. Surely, she can turn the tide of war with a single blow. When she finally confronts Ludendorff and bests him in combat, she is triumphant.
And nothing happens.
It's one of the best beats in the film—Diana, confused, refusing to believe that Ludendorff was just a man. Because if she does that, then she has to grapple with the fact that evil is not something introduced to humans—it's inherent to them. When the real Ares appears to her, in the guise of a kindly white colonialist patriarch, he confirms her suspicions: he can't make humans do anything. All he does is encourage their baser instincts.
And it's resulted in this war, a war where there is no singular villain to be dispatched, where there is no easy way to tell "good guy" from "bad guy", and there is no easy solution. The way forward and the right choice couldn't be less clear, but Diana finds it. Love and compassion for mankind above all else, including its darkness and its light, she decides. And in that moment, she becomes Wonder Woman.
It's such an amazing, morally complex choice that I was stunned to find it in a DC Extended Universe film. Which is why it's such a shame that the rest of Wonder Woman's third act feels like it gets possessed by Zach Snyder. It pits Diana against Ares in increasing amounts of flaming fog and CGI to accommodate Gal Gadot's pregnancy during reshoots and I'm going to go with lycanthropy for David Thewlis? Once Diana vanquishes the real Ares, all the German soldiers stop, as if to say, "Just kidding, Ares really was possessing the Germans! It really was a good and evil battle the whole time!" Given the film's otherwise respectful and tasteful treatment of the war, it's a huge disappointment for it to stumble at the last moment.
But for that one, shining, brief moment, the film proposes the idea that her true villain isn't Ares but the darkness that necessarily comes with the light in all of us that she has vowed to protect. The journey Diana that takes from idealistic young warrior to the hero we know and love specifically and respectfully utilizes World War I to help her along. And it does so in a way that the pervasive cinematic narrative often assigned to World War II just couldn't pull off. No house-style third act can take that away from her — or us.