Your perspective all depends on which comic book stories you’ve been reading.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Wonder Woman]
If nothing else, you can’t say that Wonder Woman aimed low in terms of opposition, with Gal Gadot’s eponymous hero fighting the very personification of war itself.
But in a last-minute twist, it was revealed that Ludendorff (Danny Huston) was in fact, not Ares, as Diana (Gal Gadot) and had believed. He was just a psychotic German military officer who enjoyed breathing performance-enhancing gas. The true Ares was Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who asked Diana to join him to start the world anew by ridding it of man.
It might have left some viewers scratching their heads — but there’s plenty of precedent for Ares not being who we thought he was. Yes, it’s time for a deep dive into comic book mythology.
The conflict between Wonder Woman and Ares has been one of the most important parts of the Wonder Woman comic mythology for decades.
Ares’ use as a Wonder Woman villain is relatively recent, if somewhat complicated; he technically didn’t appear until 1987’s Wonder Woman Vol. 2 No. 1, although an alternate version of the character was a prime mover in the hero’s previous three decades-plus history in the guise of Mars. Both, of course, are mythical gods of war, but belong to different pantheons: Mars comes from ancient Roman religion, whereas is the Greek god of war. Given the differences in their visual appearances, as well as their differing personalities, histories and ambitions, it’s safe enough to treat them as different characters with a common characteristic — one that seems like a gimme when you consider that Wonder Woman was intended to be a figure spreading peace and love to the world; who else would be her greatest enemy, if not a literal god of war?
When Ares finally appeared, he was immediately integral to the rebooted mythos of the character. Under writer Greg Potter and writer/artist George Perez, Ares was inescapably the opposite number of Wonder Woman. Not only is he seen arguing against the creation of the Amazon race in the first place — “My half-sister Artemis has proposed to create a new race of mortals on Earth — a race which, she claims, shall make men worship us as never before!” he exclaims at one point in the first issue, adding, “Force is all men understand! Force is all they worship! And I am force incarnate!” — but, in this version of the hero’s origin, it’s specifically to stop Ares that the Amazons require a champion to leave Themiscyria; Steve Trevor isn’t the inciting incident, but instead, Ares.
If that version of Ares was clearly Wonder Woman’s opposite number, the next incarnation of both characters changed their relationship considerably. Following DC’s line-wide New 52 reboot in 2011, Wonder Woman was reworked to be part-deity (and Zeus’s daughter), with Ares as her former mentor. Having taken her under his wing after seeing her potential for violence, he rejected her when she showed mercy to the Minotaur of myth — only to find himself protecting her during a battle with the First Born, another offspring of Zeus who seeks to kill his father.
During a fight with the First Born, Wonder Woman ends up killing Ares — a move that she believed would also result in the First Born’s death, mistakenly — which leads to his forgiving his former student and, eventually, to her taking his place as the god of war.
Or, perhaps, not; the current status quo of the Wonder Woman mythos is in flux, with writer Greg Rucka and artists Liam Sharp, Nicola Scott and Bilquis Evely recreating almost everything about the hero from her origin forward. Part of this involves another revision to her relationship to Ares; now no longer dead — the death was one of a number of lies placed into her mind to distract her from attempting to return to Themiscyria — Ares stands revealed as an entirely different figure than previously portrayed: one hidden from the world for the sake of peace, with his hiding place defended by the Amazons.
The being Wonder Woman had faced before claiming to be Ares, as the rewritten mythology has it, was actually his sons Phobos and Deimos, hoping to draw him out of hiding so that they can kill him and claim his power as their own. This third Ares is neither nemesis nor mentor; instead, he’s a sympathetic being aware of the danger of his own power and willing to stay prisoner forever for the good of the world.
Given the ever-shifting definition of war as a concept — something Wonder Woman touches on as a movie — it only makes sense that the god of war is an ever-changing force in his portrayal, in comic books, at least. As for future movie appearances, if there’s one thing that can be assumed from the source material, it’s this: wherever Ares shows up again, chances are he won’t be what anyone expects.