Wonder Woman, Doctor Poison And “The Super-Physical Aspects” Of World War I (Possible Spoilers)

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There’s been a lot of discussion about the idea that they’ve transplanted Wonder Woman and her surrounding lore from World War II (where it originally appeared in the comics) to World War I.  Why they’d do it is probably pretty straightforward. It allows them to decouple DC Comics continuity for a few characters and reorganize it in a way that makes sense in light of the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  And as director Patty Jenkins also notes, “My approach was to focus on telling the story of mechanized war and how that would look to a god visiting our world for the first time. I wanted the audience to understand the horrors that a war on this scale makes possible”.

With the release of the final trailer, and the recent revelation of the titles from the film’s soundtrack (I’ll let my colleague and soundtrack nerd Kaitlyn Booth dive into that a bit later), I think we can speculate about where that’s all heading in terms of fitting the character into World War I.

Some minor spoilers below the graphic here. Maybe.

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Wonder Woman is a pretty good fit for a World War I legend called The Angels of Mons.  The legend grew out of a piece of short story fiction called The Bowmen written by Arthur Machen and published in the London Evening News on September 29, 1914. The Bowmen was a fictional story written as a reaction to the first major engagement of the war which took place a month prior in August. During what is now called The Battle of Mons, a greatly-outnumbered British Expeditionary Force drove back German forces, taking heavy casualties in the process.  In his story, Machen imagined the British troops at the breaking point calling on spiritual or perhaps legendary strength in their moment of need.  He wrote:

And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their clouds of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German host.

While that is certainly reminiscent of the scene from the Wonder Woman trailers in which she emerges from the trenches and crossing the line to defend against the German onslaught, it doesn’t exactly sound like Wonder Woman herself.  But here, Machen’s story takes an interesting turn: it instantly became legend.  As Machen recounted the next year in The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen, and Other Legends of the War, he immediately received requests for more information about this event from people who took it as non-fiction. In particular, Machen notes requests from paranormal journals of the day such as Light and The Occult Review.  He concludes that his Bowmen became Angels due to an article by A.P. Sinnett which appeared in the May, 1915 issue of The Occult Review, which reports “Those who could see said they saw ‘a row of shining beings’ between the two armies.”

That’s just a small extension of Machen’s original story, but he believes that it was just enough to turn Bowmen to Angels. A legend is born.

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An examination of A.P. Sinnett’s other work in The Occult Review reveals some further details which may be relevant to the plot of Wonder Woman.  Sinnett seems to have been obsessed with what he calls The Super-Physical Aspects of the War. Reading through them, his thoughts on the nature of the First Great War seem to anticipate the supernatural and super-science dimensions added to the Second Great War via the fiction (even pulps and comics) it inspired then and in the decades since.  In an article about this matter in the December, 1914 issue, he lays out two concepts which sound an awful lot like what we know about Wonder Woman: 1) the war on Earth is connected to and influenced by god-like beings of a higher plane. Hardly a unique notion, but then there’s 2) He thinks these forces will engage in some plan to poison the Allied troops. He says:

I know definitely of stupendous elemental organisms prepared and designed to shed the germs of horrible disease among the Allied troops. Elemental organisms have been prepared which brought to the surface and dispersed so to speak over the allied armies, would have created epidemics of plague, cholera, and other diseases, the effect of which would have been far more disastrous than the accomplished by German guns. The destruction of these fearsome organisms has been one task with which the [super-physical forces helping the Allies] have been recently engaged. And so little does commonplace mankind realize either the dangers to which it is exposed, or the divine protection by which it is shielded.

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Enter Doctor Poison and Co., and that’s sounding like a pretty good fit for what we know about the film.  This is all somewhat obscure I suppose, but the way they’ve been fitting together the tiny details of the DCEU has me imagining someone picked up the trail of the Angels of Mons legends, followed the thread through to the rest of Sinnett’s work, and experienced that light-bulb-going-off moment when they got to the poison/plague part.  It would seem that the Angels of Mons legend was part of a recent Doctor Who comic from 2015, so it certainly isn’t completely lost in the mists of time.  And significantly, Machen’s original The Bowmen and his work in general pre-figures and may have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.

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The track title Angel On The Wing from the soundtrack tips the balance for me.  It may be that they are indeed going to come up with a good reason for Steve to call Wonder Woman “Angel” as he sometimes did in the comics.

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About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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