For the 99th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, Podcastle in the Sky looks at two fantastical versions of that war from this year – the feature film Wonder Woman and the anime series The Saga of Tanya the Evil. Women with supernatural abilities, godlike beings engineering conflict, pop culture memory of a war from a century ago – we have all!
William: Welcome to this episode of PodCastle in the Sky. In this episode we’ll be looking at two pieces of pop culture from 2017 that deal with World War I in a fantasy way. The anime is The Saga of Tanya the Evil, also known as Youjo Senki, and the other piece is the film Wonder Woman. I’m William.
Amber: I’m Amber.
Tom: I’m Tom.
Jesse: I’m Jesse.
A: All right. So I would like to kick things off by actually commenting on both, because one thing I really appreciated about both of these was they both – and maybe because it was both of them are about war – but they both really bring in the idea of humanity being kind of incredibly sucky and reliant on vengeance and things like that. It seems like it’s two characters coming to terms in different ways with the worst aspects of humanity.
And Wonder Woman, she comes to the conclusion that even if humanity has a serious downside, it doesn’t matter, she’ll still fight for what is right because that is what is right. She believes that if she keeps fighting she can help humanity reach a better state, if you will.
Meanwhile, Tanya, her whole deal is essentially using humanity’s worst attributes against her enemies. Anybody who is too vengeful, anybody who is too angry, she flips it and uses it specifically to get ahead for herself only. Everything she does, even the heroic things she does for her team, are for her own benefit. I really like that both shows showed the darker side of humanity and showed what different personalities do with the discovery of that darker side.
J: Well, the thing is that Wonder Woman is a hero – a superhero – and Tanya is basically the villain. We’re watching the bad guy winning, basically, in The Saga of Tanya the Evil. Which, I can’t actually remember the last time an anime had the villain as the protagonist.
T: Yeah, I can only think of – he’s not quite a villain – Overlord, he kind of gradually becomes more villainous over the course of the story, whereas Tanya is evil from the outset. And it is fun, like Amber said, in the sense that Wonder Woman is obviously this strong character who’s always, no matter what the odds or the structural forces against her, she’s a larger than life character who’s going to do the right thing, whereas Tanya is a more relatable character in a dark way in the sense that you are placed into this environment, into this world, and there are all these big structural forces at play that are much larger than you and so you sort of adapt yourself to them in ways that are not necessarily conducive to being a good person. And Tanya’s interesting, in the second episode.
For those who haven’t watched the show, the conceit here is that Tanya is a Japanese businessman who is sort of the ultimate capitalist – emotionless, running purely on logic to promote purely their own interests. And they fire someone, who in an act of rage pushes them in front of a train and they’re about to die but then God intervenes, basically, or this mysterious godlike being called Being X intervenes and basically says “You’re faithless, you believe in nothing but yourself and reason, and so I’m going to reincarnate you into a pseudo-WWI environment where you will learn faith by being put to endless trials and warfare”. Which sounds ridiculous, but it works somehow. But in her character introduction she’s – or he, he/she – is referencing the Chicago School of Economics and all these classical ultra-rationalist views of the world and it’s fun to have those, it’s what’s most compelling, I think.
It’s just a fun show. Tanya’s a villain but she’s also sort of clever but then the world turns against her in a way that’s fun to see her get her comeuppance as well. And it’s fun to see her ultra-rationalist view of society butting up with these deeper emotional aspects or ideological aspects like nationalism that drive people in ways that are much different than the way she understands.
J: Well, Tanya the Evil, it’s basically the story of Job, except in this story Job is a bad guy. It’s about God trying to make a bad guy into a good person. Or not even a good person, just someone who actually worships God. I think the God in here would still be fine with Tanya being evil as long as she actually worships him.
A: Do you think so? I don’t know, I’m kind of on the fence about whether or not God is wanting just pure worship because during the businessman’s death scene, Being X straight up says that people nowadays not only have no faith, they have no morality; they have no empathy for the people around them and laments this while also lamenting the very idea of allowing whoever this guy is – and will-be future-Tanya – to be reborn at all. Because why have anybody with such an immoral outlook on life live again? It seemed to me that it was not just about belief in Being X, it was also the very idea of being empathetic towards your fellow man. Because he also has a whole speech about morality being for weaker men. It’s not just the belief aspect, it’s also being moral, it’s for people who are weak as well belief being for people who are desperate. So I don’t know, I kind of think of that.
T: I think you’re right. Because with Being X, obviously the show doesn’t really – the series is in progress as a light novel series, so who knows where it is right now or where it’s going. But this mysterious godlike being, Being X, I think their initial intent does sort of map on to what you’re saying.
But there’s an interesting element where Being X and Tanya have this almost-rivalry that develops. And I think you start to see these sort of human elements start to manifest themselves in the way Being X behaves towards Tanya in the sense that Being X themselves is supposed to be a figure that’s above everything, that sees this greater moral picture. But as the story gets deeper and Tanya continues to rebuff the belief in Being X as something that they want to worship because they’re so self-interested in worshipping themselves, Being X starts to do things a lot like Ares does in the Wonder Woman movie where they make sure that the report on how to commit war crimes within the laws of war gets onto the right person’s desk. They make sure to give the missile engineer an epiphany. And so they’re taking these actions that perpetuate war just to get the conversion of this one individual who just will not submit to them, basically.
There’s a fun rivalry element there. It’s a little more interesting than what they do in the Wonder Woman movie with Ares who plays the same role of behind the scenes perpetuator of war but mostly wants Wonder Woman’s power. Whereas what Being X wants from Tanya is more like a theological submission.
J: Well, Tanya the Evil, for me, there was always this tension between the themes it was handling – you know, sacrifice, war, anti-war message and that kind of thing – and the inherent . . . dumbness of the premise.
Because it’s a Japanese businessman reincarnated as a little girl with supernatural powers to fight in WWI.
T: It’s absurd on its surface, yeah.
J: I mean, it’s really entertaining, don’t get me wrong. I really liked the movie, or not the movie, the TV show. But these debates about morality are wrapped up in this very schlocky story.
W: I think that’s also something that’s true of Wonder Woman in a way that it acknowledges. Like the Scottish character says, “This is rubbish.” I mean, it casts itself as a very highfalutin Greek epic, but it also has its roots in the pulpier elements of comic books. Like, Wonder Woman has this Lasso of Truth and she lives in this island which has been sequestered from the world for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years until she suddenly decides to re-enter society.
T: And I think in terms of tackling the types of themes that they’re going for, in some ways I think the more schlocky over the top elements were – and having Tanya be more of a villainous character – I think actually works in its favour. Because for me, I enjoyed Wonder Woman, but thematically – I feel this way about a lot of superhero movies that try to have themes in them which I appreciate, obviously I’d rather they tried than just be mindless. But like Winter Soldier was the same thing where there is this tension between the traditional heroic action movie aspect and the more critical aspects of what it’s trying to say.
Particularly with Wonder Woman, it’s set in like the final month or two weeks or something of WWI. The war is about to end. And on the one hand, obviously, her mission and the mission of her allies is very noble. It’s to try and stop a very, very fictionalized Erich Ludendorff from using this weapon that’ll allow Germany to turn the tides and keep the war going.
But there’s sort of this weird tension between the humanistic aspects of it, but then Ares, the god of war who’s trying to perpetuate it behind the scenes, he’s this character, and his plan never made full sense to me. I get what he’s trying to do in the movie but it didn’t really work because he’s pretending to be a peace advocate who’s trying to get the armistice signed. But then he’s trying to interfere with their heroics. And having him be the advocate for armistice didn’t really make sense to me. It wasn’t like at the end of WWI or all throughout WWI, despite the horrible losses there weren’t politicians and generals who weren’t absolute hawks like the real Ludendorff was. To have him, I guess that it makes for a better twist, but it didn’t really work.
And similarly, when you’re trying to tell a humanistic storyline it creates problems when you want to have a traditional action scene where it’s like, Wonder Woman is blowing the shit out of those German soldiers, and it’s not like this is WWII and they’re SS or something. That’s just Fritz from Bavaria and he got conscripted and now he’s getting blown the fuck up. [Laugh] Especially the fact that they kept emphasizing that the armistice is on the way, I was like, “Poor Fritz, he died three days before the war ended, that sucks”.
And so there was that tension there. What I appreciate, in terms of what Tanya is doing is that, it is an action show and it does have well-done action scenes that are exciting, and you can’t make an anti-war movie, I can’t remember what film maker said that but –
W: I think it was Truffaut.
T: Yeah, I think you’re right. But by acknowledging the inherently psychopathic aspects of its main character and also the delusional abstraction that her fellow high command generals – except for the one guy – view war, I think it does it a better job of articulating the madness of it on that macro level where the human cost just sort of gets absolutely wiped away. And likewise Tanya does a nice job of setting up characters on the other side who are good people and they die for no reason. It does I think a better job of drawing out that humanistic aspect that, particularly with a war like WWI. Really the TV show doesn’t really touch on why WWI is happening. On some level it’s almost unimportant.
But I think Tanya makes a good choice in establishing the evil of its character because then it can portray those sorts of things and not feel the need to make the actions of its character heroic. Because in a lot of these circumstances, heroism is just not an option for anyone in these situations.
A: Well, yeah, I think that I totally agree with you. The one real problem that I had with Wonder Woman, aside from the fact that it sort of wore its “aren’t humans kind of shitty on their own” aspect on its sleeve a few times. Like, oh look at this guy, he has horrible PTSD. Oh look at this guy, he’s the wrong colour in this era to become an actor. You know what I mean?
A: Oh look, you have to put on a dress to function in this society and you can’t go into a room full of arguing MPs, you know. That was very blatant. And every time I’d be like, “That could be a little more subtle, show”. [Laugh]
T: Yeah, it was kind of, “I’m not an old 19th century peasant, how about that?”
A: Yeah, exactly. But other than that the true thing that I really had a problem with was, it’s WWI, a war that historians pretty much say was just a clusterfuck and had no real bad guys, if you will. And what does Chris Pine say? Practically one of the first things he says to Wonder Woman is, “Those are the bad guys, I’m trying to save people from the bad guys” and pointing at the Germans.
And you’ve got these German soldiers, for instance, in the town that’s under siege. It’s like these German soldiers in town, who are presented as baddies because they were told to take this town.
T: Right, yeah, there’s a tension. There’s the one shot where she punches the guy out the window with her shield all in slow motion. I was like, it’s just really hard to take that real world, people died horribly, and match it with like, “Yeah, punch the shit out of him out that window!” And you know, at the same time, I’m like, “Well, the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans do owe a disproportionate amount of blame for the war.” But that’s not Joe German Soldier’s fault. So yeah, it’s tough to do the action movie thing and the war is horrible thing at the same time.
A: Yeah, and you’re right, Tanya did it so much better. Man, that one episode where they have to go into the town where the occupied people are rebelling and destroy it. And the soldiers who are told that they have to do this – I love the breakdown of the soldiers, I love how to get them past their guilt Tanya said that it was her fault. All of this basically blatant murder to keep terrorists from rising up in the future. I just love that at this point the Germans were the quote-unquote “bad guys” but you see the why behind it.
T: And I will say that I think they were smart in Wonder Woman to make Ludendorff the villain. Not that real Ludendorff and fictional Ludendorff are particularly similar. They both inflicted the war and all that. But he was a real asshole.
W: He was. But I wonder if they were smart. When I heard that Ludendorff was the villain, I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s a really good idea.” Because we can equivocate about morality all day but Ludendorff was one of the main architects for the stab-in-the-back myth – the idea that the Jews and the Bolsheviks were responsible for Germany losing the war. He partnered with Adolf Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch.
T: Yeah, and that’s why I don’t know why they killed him. Because the real guy lives. He continued to cause war. It would have been perfect.
W: What I have a problem with is that he does all these notorious things after the war. He develops this myth, he was involved in another attempt at a coup, he was also at the Kapp Putsch, he was just a real piece of shit. In fact, the main thing he was remembered for being good at was the victory at Tannenberg, a battle which he won against the Russians. But it was actually a different general, Max Hoffman, who did most of that work but Ludendorff took the credit. And then he blamed Hindenburg for taking the credit. So in multiple levels he was an asshole.
But I thought it was clever, this is as close as you can get to a Nazi in WWI is Ludendorff. But they kill him before he does everything he does that gives him that reputation. And, what I’m getting to, is that he was the leader of the German army at the time near the end of the war. And I got to thinking, is that the only reason they made him the bad guy, because he was the real leader of the German army?
There’s nothing in the film connecting him to his real life villainy. His villainy is all about this poison gas stuff which is not something he’s actually famous for. He’s famous for a lot of bad stuff but he’s not famous for deploying poison gas.
T: They went for the twist of having the peaceful guy turn out to be Ares.
W: One very small point I want to make: the guy had a mustache! He had a real asshole mustache, okay?
A: [Laughs] I do love that that so infuriates you.
W: Well, there’s just no details of Ludendorff in the character other than the name. He’s such a great guy to do a villain and I feel like they probably just had it as like Fritz McEvil at some point in the script and fill in the name later.
J: Well also, if we’re talking about poison gas, they also used poison gas on the other side. So they were both using this hideous weapon so why is it just the one side that’s being blamed for it?
T: That’s why it confused me, because throughout the whole movie they’re like, “We’re going to blow up this plant and it’ll end the war.” But then evil guy, who is Ares, is like, “We’re going to sign an armistice and end the war” and I’m like, “Armistice sounds nice, that’s how the war actually ended. Why don’t we stop killing people?”
I guess the idea is that this gas is so powerful it’ll turn the tides but yeah, it’s like, a lot of gas was going around.
This was actually a case for maybe higher stakes. Like, I don’t usually say this with the superhero movies ’cause the high stakes thing gets annoying. I got what they were trying to do but the connection between “this gas will continue the perpetuation” –
What they should have done is Peace Guy is actually Peace Guy and then Ares is, like, Ludendorff and a general on the British side or something. And they’re both conspiring to keep the war going with this new gas technology. That would have been better.
W: It should have been the guy who was Chris Pine’s boss. You know, the one who Wonder Woman blows up against because he’s willing to go send people to die, that being great thematically. She’s really angry at the generals, and one of the big pop culture themes that people take from WWI are these impotent generals drinking tea and sending the working class to go die in their wars.
J: Okay, you know, the original Wonder Woman, her origin story is WWII. She fought Nazis in the comics. And of course here they put her in WWI, which – why do you think they did that? I assume it’s because they were afraid of offending people by suggesting Nazis were just following the orders of a god or something. And there’s also less historical baggage for Americans with WWI because I think the US just entered the last year of the war and weren’t really involved in the giant meat grinders from the earlier parts of the war. But other than that the movie was basically treating the bad guys as Nazis.
W: I really think they just did it because Captain America had already done WWII. And they didn’t want to seem that they were following in Captain America‘s footsteps. Apparently the other German bad guy in the film, Doctor Poison, she was a Wonder Woman villain but she was a Nazi villain because of course Wonder Woman was a WWII character. So they just transported her here and made her a German WWI villain.
I think of the two we’re discussing, the one that chose WWI to avoid the connotations of WWII was probably Tanya the Evil. Because there’s an element of WWII in it, but if it was about WWII, its somewhat more sympathetic depictions of Germans would be way more controversial than it is.
I think the whole invasion of the country that’s clearly Romania on the map but isn’t Romania, for example, parallels how Germany invaded Poland in WWII in some oddly specific ways. Like the whole border attack that looks like the Germans set it up, that’s literally what the Germans did to invade Poland.
A: If we’re talking stuff we just had problems with on either side, my problem with Tanya the Evil was they set it in an era that would have been WWI but it was clearly – particularly by the end of the show – WWII.
T: You know, when the Panzer-IIIs appeared at the end of Tanya –
A: Yeah, I was like, “Now we’re going to pull out V-1s?” and are you kidding?
T: V-1s I at least accepted since, like, magic! But for some reason the tanks irritated me more.
A: And you know, of course, now Tanya’s in Africa, right, by the end of the show. And also the part that I did not like, the only part that I truly did not like was at the end: Tanya has a whole speech about a country that invaded other nations because they needed a place to live, right? And what was the whole entire thing with Germany was living space in WWII. That was their argument for occupying these nations – living space. They wanted living space for the new Aryan race.
And the way it was presented in Tanya the Evil, it was very sympathetic to this idea that all these guys wanted in this empire was just a place to live and these people kept fighting against them. And now they have a place to live and they don’t want to commit war anymore but now everybody’s just so afraid of their knife, of their sword, that they’re going to try beat them back. And I was like, “Come on, show.” I don’t give a shit if you put it in WWI era, you’re clearly drawing this really problematic idea about WWII German occupation just being something that was necessary for the nation to survive. You know what I mean?
T: Yeah. I mean, I think what they were trying to do there is the classic balance-of-power Thucydides kind of thing where the not-Germany of Tanya is a rising power and it makes all the powers freak out ’cause it’s rising and then everybody goes to war to try to claim and/or retain their level of power in the system. And then in the show, not-Germany kind of wins.
I think what Tanya’s speech is going for there is, you know, all of the sides are completely battered and just decimated by the end of this struggle and on some level it makes sense for everyone to stop fighting. But it’s like, pull out the old hoary Peloponnesian War, where there are like a dozen times in the Peloponnesian War where everybody’s like, “You know what? I think it’s a good time to end it. We should just end it.” And then one of the sides is like, “No, fuck you! We’ve got the upper hand now.” So it keeps on going and going.
And I think that’s sort of what they were going for, like the country and the exiles in North Africa or whatever. It’s like, maybe peace would be a good thing but nationalism and ideology is driving them. Basically what I’m saying, everybody, is Tanya the Evil is a critique of political realism. You heard it here first.
And at the end of the day, the name of the show is obviously Tanya the Evil. But the not-French general is portrayed as a psycho and I was like, “Well, he’s not a psycho, his country got blown the fuck up.” So he’s just a patriot.
W: There’s a certain benefit to the series in having this kind of remove where, because the character is being portrayed as evil, and because there are very few characters who have a recognizable moral centre – and those that do, like her second, are completely overpowered by her – that it can have kind of have its cake and eat it. It can give Tanya a big speech, but does it agree with the speech or not? It can distance itself.
So, the difference with Wonder Woman is, whatever Wonder Woman learns at the end of the movie is the theme of the movie. Because the movie is behind Wonder Woman, it’s behind her story, it’s presenting her as this inspiring figure. The sincerity of the film flattens that distance.
So if Wonder Woman does something problematic we’re all very bothered by it and we’re disgusted, but Tanya in her very first episode finds people that annoy her so she makes sure that they die. And she’s always doing these very unpleasant things. But because they’re being portrayed as unpleasant, because the series is acknowledging this moral messiness, we feel better about it, or anyway I do.
T: Yeah, I think that’s what makes it work on the whole. But when I first started watching Tanya, the second episode really hooked me and that’s when I began enjoying it a lot. But like the first episode I was still unsure if I was gonna like it or not. Because the have its cake aspect seemed to be a little stronger, where, is the distance a shield? – In the sense that you can always say, “Well, I don’t really think the things in my story, they’re bad,” or is it actually part of the thematic texture of the story and they’re saying something at that level of remove? Which I think they are in this case. But there are other properties where they’re not.
I guess even for anime it’s sort of refreshing just to acknowledge these questionable elements at all. Because you said, you get so many overpowered protagonists – what’s that, the magic high school Mahouka or whatever [ed: The Irregular at Magic High School] where like, what’s the Ayn Randy ideology? Mind blanking.
A, J (simultaneously): Objectivism.
T: Objectivism! Objectivist god just blows up evil Chinese people for the entire show and it’s presented as the best thing of all time. So like, oh, this is fucking weird.
You know, it’s not that. So that’s good. But yeah, I mean, there’s space for criticism, of course.
A: Okay, so one thing I did appreciate about the show: I think that my big problem was I did feel that Tanya‘s moral relativism, her complete rational outlook on war and stuff like that, really was used as kind of a shield particularly near the end of the show when the war starts to parallel WWII pretty closely.
And again, it’s the expansionist stuff, occupations and stuff –
T: And even in the light novel artwork the uniforms and stuff look more like WWII than they should. So that’s definitely a conscious decision on the show’s part.
A: Right, yeah. I just feel like they kind of hid behind this. And especially with even the war crimes stuff where their side is doing this stuff but it’s always presented in a “but we had to” kind of thing.
T: Right, it gives it just enough cover.
A: Yeah, just enough cover where it’s like –
T: It’s like, “Well, there were rebels.”
A: And also the Empire never reaches the level of war crimes that the Germany of WWII did commit. I have very little belief that in the second season of Tanya we’re going to have them stumble upon concentration camps and stuff like that.
So it’s kind of whitewashing a bit this aspect of WWII to make it make the German side seem more morally acceptable.
A: Yeah! I’d say more like acceptable. Because, “oh they’re trying to win this war so they can stop the war.” In the show, you know what I mean?
W: And all the things that Tanya does that are evil, even though they’re presented as evil and even though they’re presented as morally messy, they’re usually consistent with “oh this is a clever thing to do to aid the war effort.”
Like, the people she sends to their death, she doesn’t literally shoot them. She just puts them in a position where she thinks they’ll die. And they’ve also been a problem for her. And when she kills people, it’s in terms of suppressing dissent. So it’s all very logical from a perspective of “I have to win the war so I have to kill people, I have to intimidate people.”
She’s never just going into a place and saying, “Oh, these people are the wrong race. I’m just going to kill them all. This isn’t helpful, I’m just doing this because I’m sick.”
All of her evil comes from this kind of rational logical place. Or it’s presented as such.
J: Well, she specifically said she thought war was a waste or useless or something. But basically she kept being put into that position by Being X, essentially.
A: Yeah. However, I would have to say, despite that one criticism, ultimately I do think that the show – for as bonkers a premise as it is – was really, really good about showing just the weird rationalizations that people have during wartime. And just how fucked up war makes normal life and normal people.
Beyond even just Tanya, I really enjoyed, for instance that one guy who went after her who almost died and then went after her and then, like, really died. And would not stop fighting even though it was his doom. I really loved that they had this guy, he was just a guy fighting for the other side and this one person – this one soldier on the other side – so represented all of the death that he witnessed. Even though she was a nine year old, ten year old girl, he had determined that he was going to get her.
And I love that his daughter, who is truly a child – it’s not just an aspect of some soul who remembers its past life as a thirtysomething dude in Japan figuring out shit in a little girl body. It’s a little girl who lost her father and now war has driven her to vengeance as well. And she’s saying she’s doing it so that no other little girls have to experience what she experienced.
I really enjoyed that the show shows that war perpetuates war. Death perpetuates death.
T: I definitely don’t have any expectation that the story will end well for most of these characters.
A: No. Do any of you have any predictions to where Tanya‘s going to end up?
T: I feel in some way she’ll kill Being X but she’ll also destroy herself in the process. Or be destroyed. There could be like in a – whatsit, the guy with the glasses – Ryugen? The administrative guy who seems to have a conscience or her second-in-command. I think there’ll be some sort of betrayal there. But it’ll be justified.
A: I just call him standard dark-haired glasses man of Tanya the Evil.
W: I don’t know if they’ll do anything with him because one of his main purposes as a character seems mostly to inform us that Tanya’s evil, to provide a kind of moral barometer for how out there she is more than he is a person.
One thing I do think we will definitely get at some point and this will inevitably feed into the WWII comparison is that they’re going to go to war with the Russy Federation as they call it. They’re going to go to war with Russia. Of course they explicitly said that this is probably going to happen, in season one. But I think in season two we might get to that. I don’t think it’ll be in Africa that long because it’s Africa.
But on the other hand they did spend a lot of time in Scandinavia which was not what I was expecting, so who knows.
T: In the light novels they do go to war with Russia. And there’s a handful of shots of some not-Russian generals at the very end of the last episode.
J: Well, about how much fidelity they have to the WWI history, I’m kind of hoping with the Russian one, that they do stick to the real world history. Because one of the Germans’ secret weapons against Russia was Lenin. They specifically shipped Lenin off back to Russia just so he could start a revolution. So I’m just hoping to see how completely dumb their version of Lenin is gonna be.
T: I think, from what I understand the revolution already happened in the show’s world.
A: Really? Because I thought they were still, uh –
T: No, I feel like I remember. I could be wrong.
W: Well, confusing the matter is that the name of the country is “The Russy Federation,” which aside from sounding silly, it sounds a lot like the name Russia has right now.
I mean, is this Putin’s Russia but in WWI? What is that?
T: I think it’s either like revolutionary or pre-revolutionary. But who knows? Aside from the novels, obviously. Hopefully we’ll get a season two. I think it sold really well.
W: One thing we’ll probably see, which will probably be historically accurate and something that people don’t talk about that much, is that the Germans won in the Eastern Front.
Germans were victorious partly because of the revolution. But before the revolution the Russians were doing very badly in the war. The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians pushed on and had multiple victories. And of course one of the key victories was Tannenberg, the one Ludendorff was present for and took credit for, and of course was never mentioned in Wonder Woman.
In Wonder Woman, although, WWI is almost entirely the Western Front. You get a single reference to the Turks because Doctor Poison is working in Turkey to make her poisons and then never again. The only reason that seems to come up is to give Chris Pine’s character, Steve Trevor, a reason to be in the Mediterranean. So he had to be taking something from the Germans in the Mediterranean so he took it from the Ottoman Empire.
T: Yup. I appreciated seeing a handful of Ottoman uniforms on screen. I was like, “All right, here we go.”
W: I really thought this film would just have Germany and never mention a single other part of WWI. Which is a problem I had with Tanya. In Tanya it’s just Germany. And it’s just Germany to a point that Austria-Hungary, Germany’s principal ally, is also Germany. If you look at the map they just portray it as one big country.
Yeah, they can fudge it, but it also means that it kind of emphasizes this myth of Germany against the world. Because they don’t have any allies at all.
J: They did mention a couple of times allies. Apparently the submarine they had at the end was from their allies. But we know nothing about these allies. Who the hell are they? Where are they?
W: The allies have been so erased from the story that we’re not sure where they are. According to Wikipedia I think Turkey is in the light novels but I don’t think it’s part of their alliance exactly.
J: Right, and even though the whole alliance system is what started WWI in the first place.
T: Yeah, in the show it’s a purely “rising power scares everybody into war” thing. It’s like the fourth or fifth episode Tanya has a little speech and she’s like, “Rising power, everyone’s going to declare war on us ’cause they’re freaking out.” And it’s pretty much a purely macro-political explanation for what happens. Which maybe gets back into why they chose this aspect. It strips the ideology out of at least the starting reasons for the war. So you don’t have the maybe-questionable overtones that people might take issue with.
J: Well, bringing it back to WWII, Hitler was I believe a corporal in the German army at the time. And I’m going to assume there’s no Hitler-equivalent in Tanya. But Wonder Woman, her world is basically our world with superheroes, right? So if she was fighting for peace, obviously she failed because there was WWII in twenty years.
T: Well, you know, humans are just a bunch of jokers.
W: The story apparently, as I understand it, is that Wonder Woman starts out believing that humans are basically good and that they only have war because of Ares. And by the end of the film she learns that humans are more complicated than that, so maybe they could have a war without Ares. It’s a little ambiguous in framing because the film also attributes a lot of WWI to Ares’ behind the scenes machinations for some reason. It’s a little unclear how much he’s to blame. I guess the idea is that ultimately you could take him out of the equation and war will still happen.
A: Well, his whole entire thing was that wars happen regardless of him. He didn’t start the wars, he just, say, gave somebody an epiphany about a certain formula or a certain place to attack, or you know what I mean. So I assume that Ares was correct in his reasoning. He was just kind of behind the scenes helping people destroy themselves but he didn’t directly go like, “Hey guys, wouldn’t it be great if you went to war?”
T: Ares just killed poor old Franz Ferdinand himself.
W: Ares is basically negging people. “Give peace a chance! Give peace a chance! Give peace a chance!”
A: “Yeah, give peace a chance, but oh man, your country’s looking a little weak with all that peace over there. But good for you on the peace.”
W: “Look at how insufferable I am with peace. Wouldn’t you prefer war?”
I guess I have a certain amount of unearned hostility towards David Thewlis because he was in the last season of Fargo and I just want to mention, somewhat gratuitously, that was a terrible character he played. It wasn’t really Charlie’s fault, a lot of it was the writing, but it was just a really annoying character on a series I think is pretty bad.
A: I just feel that David Thewlis signed up because he was like, “Do you realize I’m never the badass? Like, I will be the badass. I want to wear a giant ridiculous piece of armour!”
T: It’s certainly not what you would typecast him as.
J: Yeah, you would not typecast him as a Greek god.
A: No, not at all.
W: Mentally, it was kind of hard to buy that this is how he looks. When they reveal that, oh he’s really Ares, I thought the thing was going to be that this was like an avatar of Ares. He just assumed this form to be an English minister. No, no, he always looked like that! We go back to a flashback, we go back to Olympus and he looks like that but younger? He’s always been –
A: Although they gave him like just all the abs in that scene. I was like, “Damn, Thewlis, you are ripped!”
T: You know, the Greek gods had some great mustaches. You heard it here first.
W: Thewlis should have been Ludendorff.
T: He really should have been Ludendorff. Oh well.
W: And not just Ares should be Ludendorff. Thewlis should have played Ludendorff. I mean, he’s not German but [Ares’ actor Danny] Huston wasn’t German either and almost nobody in this film was German. And the German accents were, ehh, you know. Well they were trying, anyway.
A: It’s always kind of great when everybody who is probably actually speaking German to each other actually only speaks in outrageous accents. I think that’s one of my favourite aspects of historical movies.
W: And it’s not like there’s a shortage of German popular in Hollywood who could have appeared in this movie. Or they could have just found someone else. Daniel Bruhl came up to my mind a lot because he was in one of the last big movies about WWI [from] like last decade, Joyeux Noël.
Which is an antiwar film because it’s about soldiers at Christmastime observing an armistice. So it frames it as the soldiers are reaching over, they’re both people, and their officers are kind of assholes and the war system is bad.
And it’s also a good example of metatextually distancing WWI from WWII. Because the character Daniel Bruhl plays in that film is a German. He’s a German officer but – record scratch – he’s a Jew. He’s a Jew who’s a German officer and a German patriot.
And they don’t put a literal record scratch in the movie but you have the movie kind of feel that disconnect. Like, “Oh, you weren’t expecting that, audience, were you? We’re surprising you with this.”
A: It’s almost as if before WWII, guys, maybe like German Jewish patriots were a thing? I don’t know.
W: And it’s a direct repudiation of our good friend Erich Ludendorff with his image of Jews living at home not fighting on the front. This whole idea of Jews as a disassociated people from German politics which was popularized by Ludendorff and the Nazis.
And honestly, not that Wonder Woman should have ripped off Joyeux Noël, but it would have been interesting if it had ripped off Joyeux Noël. It’s what I would have done. I mean, it had a sympathetic German character.
T: Write them a strongly worded letter.
A: I was gonna say, Will, you’re basically like, “Hey, movie producers, keep on ripping off other movies that are better.”
T: Hey, I mean, you know, it’s a winning strategy.
I mean, the DCU definitely needs it from the sounds of it, so . . .
W: I mean, to be fair to them, the people over at Warner Brothers, they’ve had a pretty rough go of superhero films in the past couple of years. I hadn’t seen the last ones they’d done before Wonder Woman, the 2016 films, the Batman/Superman one and Suicide Squad.
So I just watched those this weekend to prepare myself for this podcast and I watched the full extended cut versions. Just in case anyone asks.
T: My condolences.
W: Well, one person on Twitter said that the extended version of Batman/Superman was the better one. And maybe it is the better one but it’s a bad movie. These are really bad films.
And this one comes along, and it’s competently made. It has a plot that flows together, it has character motivations that basically make sense. Like, we’re picking apart how it’s treating WWI, but what happens with Diana – her motivations, what she tries to do, and what she learns – in terms of the logic of the film, this film –
T: It’s structured coherently.
W: That’s great! That’s really not something the last two films did at all. They just kind of rambled around. What the hell were they gong on with?
J: The thing is, these are like the minimum that you’re supposed to be doing with movies anyway.
W: Yeah! It’s a really low bar that the film cleared, but even though that’s a low bar, it’s also a good film. I sat down, I watched it. And with the first two films I mentioned I was on my phone a lot because I was bored.
And with this I was not bored, I didn’t check my phone during watching the film on TV. I wanted to see what happened next. I was engaged. I cared about the characters. And there were stakes. There were even things that happened.
‘Cause one problem I have with superhero films – not just the DC films but also Marvel films – is that often not a lot happens. Like Civil War, the movie where Iron Man fights Captain America – Daniel Bruhl shows up, by the way! See, he was available for these kind of movies – nothing really changes. The most that happens is that one character gets his legs broken but he’s going to be fine in a couple movies because he’s getting help with technology.
But in this film – spoiler alert – Steve Trevor dies. He does the big sacrifice.
A: Poor Chris Pine. I literally wept, I was so sad. Because it was Chris Pine.
T: I’ll give Wonder Woman credit, it’s not like an amazing character study or something but all the characters have little beats, they have full personalities, the romance is kind of cute, that stuff works.
W: Oh yeah. I just want to go back to the actor thing for a moment. ‘Cause that’s a very self-congratulatory moment when the guy says “I want to be an actor but I can’t because I’m the wrong skin colour.”
Obviously, racism existed and racism was endemic in cinema of the 1920s. But it’s not as if there weren’t actors of colour. They just weren’t getting starring roles and they weren’t getting many roles. But what they would sometimes get is a minor supporting role. If you see where I’m going with this.
In fact, I can think of films, even British films, with bigger roles for minority actors from around this period. Or at least a couple of years afterwards. I was going to say Piccadilly, which is a film where Anna May Wong is the second-billed female lead, but that’s 1929 so that might be a little too far in the future to count.
But it seems a little too self-congratulatory.
T: It’s the same thing Amber was mentioning where it’s like, “Oh, you wear these silly skirts! We’ve got to get out the vote, am I right? I’m a lady!”
A: [Laugh] Okay, since we’re mentioning modern ladies, I would like to bring up the aspect of a feminist take on both the show and the movie.
Because as I’m sure you guys are all aware, Wonder Woman has been touted all summer as a super pro-lady movie, right? Female director, female main character, literally an island full of kick-ass women, you know what I mean?
And also you’ve got Tanya, who, while yes the former life was a dude, at the moment, her current life is as a small girl. A little girl who is incredibly competent. And her second is also a woman. Who is also very competent. Like, both of them are very good at what they do. For different reasons. And it looks like in the second season, a main challenger to Tanya will be yet another little girl.
So I want to throw out here that for any of the downsides of either the show or the movie, it is pretty kick-ass to see a woman on screen kicking ass and never becoming the victim. Because a lot of times if you have a woman on screen, at some point she’s either a sidekick or, say, your Black Widows. Or she’s shown to have some serious vulnerabilities, like, say, your Black Widows. And/or she becomes a victim at some point. And neither Wonder Woman nor Tanya ever become a victim. Or Tanya’s second. They never are the victims. They are always good at what they do.
Even if, say, in Wonder Woman’s case, she’s not right about who to target and she’s not right about humanity. She still has a lesson to learn. But when she is out and fighting, she is on point. And when her people fight the Germans on their island they succeed in just destroying that unit that attacks them. Even with swords and goddamn bows and arrows.
And you’ve got Tanya who is totally doing things out of her own self-interest. But she is very good at what she does.
And I don’t know, it’s just nice to see that. I mean, in Wonder Woman they do mention a few times, “it’s a lady on the field” and stuff like that. But once she shows her competence, that never comes up again. Nobody ever holds her back and says “But you’re still a lady!” It’s like, “Oh no, wait, she’s bulletproof, guys. She’s, like, bulletproof? She can go first.” [Laugh]
So I just want to say, it’s just neat. Because it’s not something that you see very often. And I wish we could see more of women just kicking ass. I mean, there are more movies and TV shows out nowadays where a woman can kick ass and/or lead something without it being a big fucking deal. But the reason why we have so many think pieces about Wonder Woman and everybody like losing their fucking minds is because it’s still not something we see commonly for it to be uncommented on.
So yeah, I just wanted to throw that out there.
J: Well, about the Amazons, I believe the ones in the background are all Crossfit athletes, which is why they’re all so jacked.
And I forgot who mentioned it, but someone who was working on the movie was just saying how unusual it was to shoot something and it’s basically just one army of badass women. They didn’t remember ever doing anything with so many women just doing the fighting.
A: Oh yeah, yes. You’re right. I can’t think of a whole army. Like I’m trying to – now I’m like, legitimately trying to think of a time where I’ve seen a lot of women fighting in a show or a cartoon. I guess Steven Universe because they’re all women fighting, but even that was pretty fucking recent.
W: I have an example that sort of proves your point. A lot of the horseriders of Rohan [in Lord of the Rings] were women. Because they had to get people who rode horses and a lot of women rode horses professionally or as a hobby. And so they just slapped beards on them so people wouldn’t notice.
A: Oh, really?
W: Yeah, yeah. “Forth, Eorlingas!” And then most of them were women. I think, particularly one scene they singled out as being mostly women is the first one when you first see Eomer.
A: Are you kidding?
W: I’m not kidding you. I heard it on the DVD commentary. So keep an eye on those women there.
A: Great. See, now that actually kind of pisses me off a little bit because it would have been kick-ass if they were all portrayed as women!
W: Oh yeah. I think the point is that it’s just kind of funny that women are so involved in these films up to that point of actually being on the horses doing the fight scenes and then being turned into men. It’s utterly absurd in a way.
A: This is totally a sidetrack, but I forgot. In the books was Rohan an egalitarian kind of thing where men and women ride?
W: No, no. Remember Eowyn’s entire arc is about that not being the case.
A: Oh, right, she had to go to war as a man. Okay, yeah.
W: Yeah, she did. Though to be fair, she had a lot of company.
J: Okay, so I think we’ve reached the end of this once we’re on Lord of the Rings. So yeah, the same final question that we always ask: Would you recommend this film and TV show?
For me personally, yes, I did find them entertaining. Wonder Woman is the first DC comic book film in a while that actually you can enjoy without, I don’t know, being a gigantic fan of the comic book character who manages to turn off the critical part of their brain. But yeah, you can like it, you don’t even need to be a fan.
You can watch it, it’s fun, it’s a setting that you don’t really see a lot in Hollywood – WWI. My theory on that is because Hollywood is the US and WWII is the war in the American consciousness.
But anyway, Wonder Woman is fun, it gets you what you want, which is a superhero film.
Saga of Tanya the Evil – it’s very entertaining. I assume the light novels were very popular because it’s very well made. Have you seen detailed the backgrounds were? And the action scenes, like, so many angles going everywhere. That’s actually pretty hard to do.
T: I think it was the studio’s first full anime, too.
J: Really? Well, I’m very impressed.
Okay, but yeah. I recommend both of these things. If you’re not wanting to think too critically, you just want pure entertainment, go for both of these. Watch Wonder Woman, watch Saga of Tanya the Evil.
T: I agree with all those points. Wonder Woman, I had my issues with it but it’s a competently made superhero movie and a fun time period if you are interested in WWI and stuff. It’s just sort of fun to see all the uniforms on screen. And the time period and there are some nice environmental shots of early 20th century London and things like that. And it’s well put together, it’s very watchable.
And Tanya the Evil for sure is one of my favourite shows from that season. I think it does interesting things in a medium that’s awash in these hyper-rational protagonists right now. And it gets very boring and thematically very empty, and this sort of tries to do different things. As with Wonder Woman, in a lot of ways, it’s clearly made by some people who are kind of military nerds. And that shows on the screen in terms of the uniforms and environmental art and all that stuff. It’s really kind of detailed and nice.
So yeah, I recommend them quite strongly both.
A: I would definitely rec both of them. I really enjoyed Wonder Woman. There were parts of it that were, again, meh. But ultimately I really thought it was well done. I thought it was fun to watch. I thought that the character of Diana was fun to watch. To be perfectly honest, it’s a little bit rare to have the protag of one of these superhero movies to be truly interesting.
For instance, I don’t find Thor all that interesting. Or Banner. You know what I mean? It’s the things that are happening around them. But I really like how Diana the character was drawn.
So yeah, it is a pretty typical superhero movie. So you’re not going to see anything really revolutionary aside from the fact that it’s a woman who is kicking ass. But other than that, it’s still fun.
Tanya the Evil I definitely recommend. I think one thing that we didn’t get into at all is it is funny. It’s really darkly hilarious. There are some pretty grim things that happen in this show but ultimately I laughed more than I felt broody while watching this. Especially because Tanya’s plans are so simple. She just wants to rise in the ranks enough to have an easy life. And Being X keeps getting in the way. And her reactions to this, to realizing that she didn’t just excel enough to get promoted somewhere, she excelled to the point that she was promoted into battle – you know what I mean?
T: Yeah, you’re right. There’s a real dark humour to it that keeps it from being grimdark and makes it fun to watch.
W: That reminded me of one thing I wanted to compare about the two things. Diana is charging to war. She’s looking for war at every opportunity. She’s like, “Send me to the front.” Whereas Tanya is trying to get as far away from the front as she can. But these two trajectories get them to the same end. It’s kind of funny to watch.
A: Yeah. And really the premise is so fucking bonkers. I mean, there are like mages using guns in WWI and, like, the flying mechanisms that they have are fantastic! Every army has their own. Like, all of the English people fly fucking broomsticks!
T: Oh yeah, the English fly broomsticks, the Scandinavians have flying skis, and the French have flying horses.
A: It’s so great!
T: Only anime, everybody.
A: Yeah, seriously, there were a few times at the end of the episode, it’s like, “What am I watching? This is amazing.”
So yeah. Even beyond the messages of what war is and blablabla, and its details where war nerds are clearly on board with this, and the character itself being an interesting and fascinating character, it’s just kind of fun to watch.
So yeah, recs for both.
W: I guess a couple of things I would say in terms of whether to watch these films is, something I generally like about superhero films that we haven’t touched on directly is having a lot of costumes and set designs. The more they lean towards fantasy the more I’m a little more inclined to them.
Because when they’re very real world stuff and all real cities being destroyed, that works if it’s a good movie like The Dark Knight. But if it isn’t a good movie I kind of check out a little. Because I like kind of elaborate fantasy settings.
And this film really goes all in, in some nice ways. It has the historical period of WWI to play with. But it does things like a kind of baroque moving painting about the fall of the gods early in the film. And the kind of Thor-like, Lord-of-the-Rings-like fantasy island of Themyscira. So it has all these nice costumes.
As a film, as said it’s an above average superhero film. This one is well made, has an engaging lead. It also has engaging supporting cast members. Chris Pine was very good in this film. Although generally I think he’s been good in these kind of big franchise films. I enjoyed him in the three Star Trek films he’s done.
So I’d recommend it if you like superhero films. I would also add that it does not require knowledge of the previous DC films it’s notionally connected to. I watched those in prep, as I mentioned, and they’re bad. People told me I shouldn’t watch them and I said “Okay, but I’m going to watch them anyway.” And I’m now going to tell you – don’t watch them, and if you do, don’t blame me.
As for Tanya the Evil, it’s a lot of fun, it’s funny, and something that hasn’t been mentioned is that it has a decent amount of map porn. Because I really maps. When we get a couple of maps in the series – and half the time I was watching it, I was just trying to figure out how the maps in the series related to the maps of the real WWI. In fact, if you check the tweets of our account and check #sagaoftanyatheevil, a lot of times I’m just trying to figure out how those things relate to each other. And so if you enjoy that tension between a thinly-veiled version of history and history, it has that.
So I’d recommend both of those.
T: We watched good things this episode, guys.
A: Yeah, no, this was great, I really enjoyed both of these. It was a real good runner-up from the crapfest from last time. [Laugh]
W: Hang on. Uh, give me a minute. Just two points.
A: I was just going to say, whatcha going to bring in this time?
W: Well, he didn’t really do a lot about WWI, unfortunately, or did he? As for our good friend Alfred Hitchcock, uhh –
T: The one with the Statue of Liberty was in a war.
W: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to say – yeah, you’re right. In fact, that particular film is named Saboteur. So I’m just going to say Saboteur.
A: You saved it, Tom. You saved the Hitchcock reference.
T: It’s tradition now. Good listening, everybody, but it’s that time again –
A: Oh wait, wait. If you like what you hear, please leave a review on iTunes. Thank you to the single reviewer who gave us a positive review. Oh you, stranger, I hope you’re still listening because – shoutout. And we’re available also on our blog PodCastle in the Sky at wordpress.com. You can see us on Twitter @flyingpodcastle. And we’re also available on Stitcher. And Youtube now. So check us out!
J: You don’t see our faces, though.
T: I’m waiting to get my emo hair and a flat baseball cap. And to fill my room with pop culture garbage. And then we can film.
A: I feel like it’s okay if I’m just a disembodied voice forever.
T: I think it’s better that way for all of us and our listeners.
A: Yes. We can live in mystery for them.
W: So our next episode is going to be about superheroes – again! Wait! Well, actually, it is, but comedic superheroes – the anime One Punch Man and the Amazon Prime TV series The Tick. That’ll be interesting.
T: Yay. Good episode.
A: Okay, I think we’re good.
A: Yeah, good episode.
W: Yeah, that’s it.
J: Episode Twelve, which only took us a little over two years to reach.
A: Oh my god. That’s so crazy.
W: It’s a wrap on the first season!