Towards the end of Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman (2016), when the two heroes have finished their petulant squabbling and bouts of throwing each other off high buildings, they are joined by Wonder Woman in a battle against a creature from another world. ‘From my world’, as Superman says with a mixture of pride and associative guilt – the creature is a cyber version of King Kong made of kryptonite. The new ally is tidy and resolute, looks like a fashion model who has been in the Israeli army, and not only because Gal Gadot, who plays the part, is a fashion model who was in the Israeli army. ‘I’ve killed creatures from other worlds before,’ she says, and does her best against the monster. To no avail, as it happens, because only a secret weapon, soon to be recovered, will do the trick.
The men meanwhile are baffled by her presence, and at this point the movie makes one of its scarce jokes. Superman says: ‘Is she with you?’ Batman says: ‘I thought she was with you.’ She’s not with anyone, and she doesn’t really belong in the movie at all: she’s a living trailer for her own film, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, which is now breaking all kinds of box office records. Batman does look her up on a database of metahumans, though. Not quite the right category, since she is not human at all, she was moulded by her mother from clay fertilised by the gods, but Batman does find an old photo. It shows her with a bunch of weary-looking men, and must come from the early years of the 20th century. At the start of the new movie he sends it to her in Paris – she is working in the archives at the Louvre – and asks for her story. The rest of the film is the answer he and we get.
If Batman had been less technologically minded (or lived in a different universe), he could have read about Wonder Woman in DC Comics any time after 1941. He would have learned about her birth around 3000 years ago, the death of all the Olympian gods except Zeus, who seems to have retired, and Ares, who secretly rules the world. She is called Diana, she grows up among Amazons, doughty and athletic women whose mission is to help humans to remain human or at least to represent violence in its virtuous aspect. When the time for this help comes, that is, as Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) hopes it never will.
In the new movie, as in countless comic book versions, the time comes with Steve Trevor, who also first appeared in 1941. Here he is, an American soldier played by Chris Pine, working with the British to uncover German secrets, one of which, involving mustard gas, he has just stolen. His biplane accidentally breaks into the timeless world of the Amazons, pursued by a shipful of Germans. Diana rescues him from his crashed and sinking plane, the Amazons repel the Germans, although not before Diana’s loved aunt (Robin Wright), the militarist counterpart to her pacifist mother, has been killed. The date is early 1918, and Trevor’s goal is to end the war that was supposed to end all wars. He means something pragmatic, like saving a certain number of lives. Diana thinks he is at war with war, which is how she sees her mission, and goes with him to England to serve the cause. No one in the movie considers the confusion internal to the idea of fighting against war, the contradiction between the intense martial training of the Amazons – they make every imaginable boot camp look like kindergarten – and their opposition to the rule of Mars, alias Ares. But then this is hero-fiction, things have to be slugged out with lots of bangs and bruises, even in the name of peace.
However, the movie itself, written by Allan Heinberg, does make sense of the confusion, or at least addresses it in some imaginative swerves. In England and Germany there is talk of an armistice, but Trevor thinks the use of mustard gas will prolong the war and increase casualties immensely, and General Ludendorff – well played by Danny Huston as the smiling, evil old Nazi we so love in the movies, even if he can’t quite (yet) be a Nazi – loves the idea of battle anyway. He was after all, although the film doesn’t mention this, the author of a famous book called Total War. Ludendorff has an appropriate mythological companion in the evil Frau Maru, also known as Dr Poison, inventor of diabolical chemicals, who wears a clumsy mask that looks worse than the scar it is supposed to hide. The sense of familiar fun grows when Trevor and Diana head for the battlefields of Flanders with associates who seem to have come from a hoary old joke: a Scotsman, a Native American and a French Moroccan. And the set-piece of the film occurs when this group, and a regiment of British soldiers who have long been stuck on one side of a no man’s land, take off after Diana, wipe out the German opposition and liberate a village. There is beer all round, much terrible music, and snow obligingly, romantically falls. Diana was able to lead the troop across the fields in spite of intense enemy fire because of her magically undamageable bracelets and her ability to see bullets arriving as if in slow motion.
Diana quite plausibly thinks Ludendorff is Ares, and kills him with this identification in mind. She is amazed that the war continues even when the god of war is dead, and the film generally is rather patronising about her sense of things. She is, after all, a Greek, and knows nothing about philosophy. But her only mistake, surely, is to think one can kill a god by sticking a sword into its incarnation, or indeed to think one can kill a god at all. And when the film crosses over to her theological side, and delivers an actual Ares for her to argue with and throw tanks at, this clever move turns crude almost instantly.
Ares is Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who seems to have been both for and against the armistice, expertly and unctuously represented by David Thewlis in his Harry Potter schoolmaster mode, and who appears to Diana as the god himself, levitating, changing forms and throwing thunderbolts. Finally, and this is probably the film’s low point, he abandons all pretence of being anything other than a character in a superhero movie, and puts on the prickly transformer suit that most major characters in this genre currently need for gala occasions. Batman, for example, in Wonder Woman’s predecessor, no longer looks like a person in a Batman outfit. He looks like a clanking piece of armour with a person locked inside it. Ares in this shape does not represent eternal war or a threat to mankind or anything at all except another filmic super-boxer throwing hi-tech punches. Diana is by the same token reduced to just this level, but at least she has her life to go back to, and her ludicrous old-fashioned costume, based on a 1940s idea of a bathing suit, along with her shield and her magic lasso, place us securely in the world of unimproved regression.
A recent (1986) compilation of Wonder Woman stories opens with an epigraph from the French historian Ferdinand Lot: ‘The gods are dead, killed by the one god.’ Lot is thinking of Judaism and Christianity, but we could, with DC Comics, think of Ares. The only god is the god of war and he is part of the life even of peace-lovers. This is what the film says in its quieter moments, and it is why the motley crew of the Belgian excursion includes a Native American, who explains to Diana that Trevor’s people stole the land of his people, but they are still talking – and still alive. The grand claim the movie makes at its beginning and end concerns Diana’s discovery, delivered in voice-over, that the world is imperfect and only love will save it. A subtler suggestion is that no one needs to save the world and that this very fantasy helps to conceal what’s wrong with it. I’m not sure I would connect Wonder Woman with Henry James if DC Comics had not already linked her to Ferdinand Lot, but James did suggest that the outbreak of the First World War taught us to see ‘what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning’. This is what Diana learns about Ares at a particular moment in history. He is not who she thought he was, and he won’t go away.