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Who Wonder Woman’s Movie Villains (Probably) Are

by  in CBR Exclusives, Movie News Comment
Who Wonder Woman’s Movie Villains (Probably) Are

The anticipated second trailer for next summer’s “Wonder Woman” movie has arrived, bringing with it a wealth of new footage and a new opportunity to speculate about its mysterious antagonists. We think they’re most likely Baroness Paula von Gunther (the scarred woman seen in both trailers, played by Elena Anaya) and Ares, the god of war (dressed as a German officer and played by Danny Huston).

Each of these characters goes back to the Golden Age of Comics, and indeed to the earliest Wonder Woman stories. (Thus, each was created by Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter.) However, while Wonder Woman’s other Golden Age villains often joined forces, the Baroness and Ares — whose couples-name would either be “Bares” or “Pares,” of course — haven’t really worked together that much. The movies’ World War I setting is also a new venue for Wonder Woman generally.

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Therefore, today we’re exploring the backgrounds of A-Dog and the Notorious P.V.G. (#sorrynotsorry), to see how their big-screen counterparts might complement each other.

PAULA VON GUNTHER

Baroness Paula von Gunther being sinister, from April 1942's "Sensation Comics" #4

Introducing Paula von Gunther, from 1942’s “Sensation Comics” #4 by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter

Baroness Paula von Gunther first appeared in April 1942’s “Sensation Comics” #4. She was an Austrian noblewoman who fled the country when the Nazis took over and settled in the United States. Although the U.S. military used her as an informant, in reality she was a brutal Gestapo agent who ran a “school for spies.” She and Wonder Woman clashed several times between April 1942 and February/March 1943’s “Wonder Woman” #3, when Wonder Woman discovered the truth behind her escape from Austria.

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In that issue, a tearful Baroness (bound with the magic lasso) confessed that she had been coerced into working for the Third Reich because the Nazis had killed her husband — “they brought me his ashes in a cigar box” — and had imprisoned her daughter Gerta. “I hate the Nazis with all my soul,” she explained, “[y]et I must serve them for my child’s sake!” Naturally, by the end of the issue Wonder Woman and Etta Candy had found and rescued Gerta (and several other children).

Turns out that Paula was also a gifted scientist; so after her reformation she became one of Wonder Woman’s most trusted allies, and went to work on Paradise Island. When Greta was old enough, that’s what she did as well. Paula appeared regularly in Wonder Woman’s three Golden Age homes (the main title, “Sensation,” and “Comic Cavalcade”) from April-May 1943’s “Wonder Woman” #4 through June-July 1948’s “Comic Cavalcade” #27.

Paula von Gunther's rehabilitation, from 1943's "Wonder Woman" #3

The rehabilitation of Paula von Gunther, from 1943’s “Wonder Woman” #3 by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter

The Baroness’ Silver Age/Earth-One counterpart wasn’t nearly as visible, showing up mostly in a supporting role; and after the 1986 reboot, she was almost an afterthought. For example, she popped up in Grant Morrison and Oscar Jiminez’s “JLA” #8 (1997) as part of an Elseworlds-style dream sequence; and when John Byrne made Hippolyta the Wonder Woman of the Justice Society — don’t ask — Paula was one of his World War II-era villains (“Wonder Woman” vol. 2, issues #132-33, April-May 1998). Most recently, Paula has been in the alternate-timeline, digital-first “Bombshells” series; and a nice encapsulation of her history appears in the excellent “Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary” special, now on sale.

If Elena Anaya is really playing Paula von Gunther, it’ll be the third time the character has been adapted for a non-comics medium. Paula was one of the few comics villains to make it to Lynda Carter’s “Wonder Woman” TV series; and the Baroness fought Wonder Woman, Batman and Steve Trevor in a “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” pre-credits sequence.

ARES

Ares and Aphrodite, from 1942's "Wonder Woman" #1

Ares and Aphrodite, from 1942’s “Wonder Woman” #1 by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter

As you might expect, this villain is tied expressly into Wonder Woman’s origins. His first comics appearance was published after Paula von Gunther’s, in Summer 1942’s “Wonder Woman” #1. Called mostly by his Roman name of Mars until the 1986 reboot, Ares’ rivalry with Aphrodite turned into a proxy conflict on Earth. Under Ares/Mars’ guidance, the men of Earth had enslaved women and treated them worse than livestock, so Aphrodite created the Amazons to be more powerful than any man. An enraged Ares/Mars then told Hercules to conquer the Amazons,and when the Amazons escaped, they left Man’s World behind for the safe haven of Paradise Island. When World War II caused Ares boasted that he was “winning” his fight with Aphrodite, she countered by vowing to send an Amazon to Man’s World; and thanks to Steve Trevor’s plane crash, the Amazons had a reason to send someone.

However, once Ares/Mars got directly involved in Wonder Woman’s adventures, he turned out to be more like a conventional supervillain, plotting against Wonder Woman and trying to keep peace from breaking out on Earth. Fall 1942’s “Wonder Woman” #2 even established him as the ruler of the planet Mars. In the Golden Age this meant working through other villains, like his hench-deities the Duke of Deception, Earl of Greed and Lord Conquest; or even mortal super-foes like Doctor Psycho and (in the Silver Age) the Crimson Centipede. It’s not surprising he didn’t work with any women, given his utter contempt for them.

Since the 1986 reboot put the focus back on Wonder Woman’s mythological roots, Ares became a bigger threat and assumed a more central role in the series. Under writer/artist George Pérez (working with writers Greg Potter and Len Wein), Ares was “Wonder Woman” volume 2’s first villain, playing Soviet and American generals against each other in an attempt to start a nuclear war. Wonder Woman defeated him when the Lasso of Truth revealed the futility of trying to rule a dead planet — which seems rather obvious in hindsight, but when you’re the God of War maybe your perspective is skewed. To his credit, Ares then charged Diana with making sure humanity never gave into its warlike tendencies.

Ares, by George Perez

Ares, by George Perez

Later writers like Greg Rucka made Ares more manipulative and less destructive. Eventually his children took over the discord-sowing business, and Ares proclaimed himself the god of “conflict.” He led Cassie “Wonder Girl” Sandsmark to believe that he was her father (they were actually half-siblings), and gave her a special magic lasso. In the New 52 reboot, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang even turned Ares into something of a mentor for Diana, who herself would become Goddess of War. Nevertheless, like the horrors he represents, Ares’ potential for creating utter havoc is always out there lurking, just waiting to be unleashed.

SO WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIE?

The “Wonder Woman” movie takes place about a hundred years ago, during the time of the First World War. (The United States entered the conflict towards the end, in April 1917.) As noted above, this is a break from tradition, which had Wonder Woman leaving Paradise Island no earlier than World War II. Maybe this movie wanted to distinguish itself clearly from “Captain America”; maybe it’s more of a thematic choice.

Either way, having Ares as the main villain is (sadly) pretty appropriate. As Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) notes, it was “the war to end all wars,” bloated with sacrifice and death. “Batman v. Superman” hinted strongly that Wonder Woman retired in 1918 because she thought her mission of peace was futile, and from all we know about World War I we can see her point. If Ares had wanted to plunge the Earth into a state of perpetual war, World War I was a very good start.

Even so, Ares may be putting his immortal thumb on the scale. The second trailer shows Germany developing a super-potent poison gas, and possibly other super-weapons, probably under Ares’ guidance. Again, this is reminiscent of the Red Skull’s plans in “Captain America: The First Avenger”; although the Skull wanted the Cosm– er, Tesseract to power the weapons he’d already created.

This is not to suggest that “Wonder Woman” will use Ares similarly. I’d be surprised if some bit of Greek-god magic went into making the second trailer’s voracious gas. Instead, I expect Ares to be in full manipulator mode, working behind the scenes to encourage Germany and the other Central Powers to create more vicious weapons — and probably whispering in the Allies’ ears as well. Wonder Woman fights a lot of soldiers in these trailers, and the one with the sword may be Ares (I can’t get a good look at the guy); but that might be something of a last resort for the God of War.

It could also be an intermediary step. Remember, Wonder Woman told Batman and Superman she’d “fought monsters before.” I suppose they’re saving the monsters for a subsequent trailer…?

Therefore, if Ares is just facilitating Germany’s super-weapon program, you have to think that Baroness von Gunther is the scientist who’ll make it happen. (Note: there is an outside chance that the movie will include Doctor Poison, another Golden Age villainess who, for some reason, posed as a man. I don’t think the movie will do much with her because a) Doctor Poison is pretty obscure and b) in the comics, she was a Japanese scientist and the Japanese were on the Allies’ side in World War I.)

wonder woman

Is this Baroness Paula von Gunther?

In the comics Paula von Gunther was scarred rescuing a child from a fire, as part of her change of heart; but if I had to guess, I’d say that her scars in this movie came either from a lab accident or perhaps from mistreatment at the hands of her ostensible colleagues. Golden Age Wonder Woman stories weren’t exactly even-handed in their treatment of Axis villains, and Paula’s origin was no different. As a Nazi spy she was utterly sadistic, brainwashing victims and staffing her spy school with chained-up slaves. However, it was because the Nazis had taken her family’s fortune, kidnapped her husband, tortured him mercilessly and sent their daughter to a prison camp. That might have been Marston’s way of rationalizing all of Paula’s bad behavior, but it could have also given readers whiplash.

Anyway, I don’t expect “Wonder Woman’s” villains to be particularly enlightened in their treatment of women, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Paula turns to the good side at an appropriately-dramatic moment. The comics used Amazon medicine to heal her scars and bring out her inner beauty; and the movie could do that too — but if its ending has to be downbeat to justify Wonder Woman’s retirement, Paula’s fate could play into that as well.

Honestly, Paula von Gunther was such a versatile villain that it would be a shame for the “Wonder Woman” movie to leave her in Ares’ shadow. (Of course, it would be a shame generally for a “Wonder Woman” movie to downplay a female villain.) In June 1942’s “Sensation” #6 Paula tried to kidnap an American general from an ocean liner, and Wonder Woman had to save the liner from being torpedoed. The next month (“Sensation” #7), she had faked her own death and set up a plan to deprive America’s children of milk. Even from prison she commanded a network of spies; and by December 1942’s “Sensation” #12 she was trapping Wonder Woman with the old “they’re making a movie about you, that’s not suspicious” routine. Eventually she broke out of prison and led a Japanese force on an invasion of Paradise Island itself, in the series of adventures which resulted in her reformation (“Wonder Woman” #3, February-March 1943). She’s practically an evil Peggy Carter! At the very least you’d think this would be enough to make her Ares’ second-in-command.

Moreover — and I know this is both obvious and a little condescending, but still — in a world full of men who want to kill her, pitting Wonder Woman against a female adversary would give Diana at least some cognitive dissonance. Whether or not it succeeds, her struggle to bring Paula back to the good side would give “Wonder Woman” an additional emotional component. At the end of 1943’s “Wonder Woman” #3, the Amazing Amazon used the magic lasso to compel herself not to use Paula’s reformation for her own selfish ends. “It’s a tremendous responsibility to shape another girl’s life and I must do it right!” she vowed.

In any event, if these two characters are who we think they are, each of them brings a wealth of backstory and potential to the “Wonder Woman” movie. Not to keep analogizing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but imagine a Thor-powered Captain America fighting Loki and a diabolical Peggy Carter. That’s definitely a Wonder Woman story I want to see, and it’s got me even more excited for next June.

Written by Allan Heinberg and Geoff Johns from a story by Heinberg and Zack Snyder, “Wonder Woman” also stars Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Lucy Davis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Lisa Loven Kongsli and David Thewlis. The film opens June 2, 2017.

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