SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read this until you’ve seen the film!
I never wrote anything on Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
Well, that isn’t entirely true, as I’d admit if Diana of Themyscira’s Lasso is called into the equation. I have written about Wonder Woman before. I’ve referred to the film in a re-imagining of her character if she had come to Patriarch’s World after World War I, before it came out and we were all writing special articles for the Sequart Organization’s aptly named Wonder Woman Week. Back then, all we had to go by were the various previews and fears and hopes for how the Amazon Princess’ cinematic debut would turn out. And I did write an article about my expectations and considerations with regards to the then-upcoming Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Angela Robinson’s biopic about the polyamorous creator and inspirations behind Diana and the Amazons themselves.
But I never wrote about Wonder Woman directly, never mind even considered doing anything with the sequel: Wonder Woman 1984.
A lot of time has passed from when the film sequel had been announced, and its own trailers released. We’ve seen our world descend into senselessness and fear. The structures of power and corruption are even harder to ignore. Movie theatres have shut down for the most part, and the film’s release had been postponed until HBO Max carried it through. And all I could hear, as I waited for this movie — as many other DC and Wonder Woman fans awaited its coming — is the remix of New Order’s “Blue Monday” all but epically asking: “How does it feel?”
How does this feel, to finally see Wonder Woman 1984? As of this writing, I’d only seen it hours ago, and I’ve only had that amount of time to process the entire experience. I’ve always felt that, in lieu of Zack Snyder’s initial interpretation of Superman, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman has been that superhero representing inspiration, compassion, kindness, and empathy, tempering superhuman power amid worlds of darkness, and perhaps that’s why I’m writing about the film so soon; because if there is any time that needs those qualities to shine through again — as they had after the first film’s glorious scene in No Man’s Land — it would be right now… for now.
I know I came into this film with so many questions, some slowly answered with more queries by the previews, and others pretty much left alone. For instance, we know that Maxwell Lord is an antagonist in the film, and that Cheetah — a traditional Wonder Woman arch-nemesis — is also introduced. We also know that somehow, after his death in WWI, Steve Trevor returns to Diana in 1984. Now, we are also aware that Wonder Woman has been in Patriarch’s World since WWI herself, all the way until the contemporary period of Justice League. That is a lot of time, even for an immortal Amazon. What has she been doing this entire time? What kind of resources does she have? How has she been coping with the passage of time, unaging, while everyone around her grows old and dies?
It always goes back to the beginning, in Themyscira. In it, Diana is a young child competing in an athletic event surrounded by the grandeur and pomp of an Achaian world populated solely by immortal women. She is doing well in the competition, but she’s knocked off her horse, only to find another path — a short-cut — and nearly win until stopped by her aunt Antiope. We see here that not even Diana is exempt from the rules that govern all Amazons, that this is a formative moment for her when her mother the Queen Hippolyta tells her that “no hero is born from lies.”
The entire film, I feel, is a commentary on Patriarch’s World; on our own. I felt that Diana simply used ingenuity and her cunning to make up for a mistake, but perhaps Jenkins is trying to point out that if she’d succeeded in taking this short-cut, it might have set a precedent; that as long as she wins, anything is permissible, especially if it leads to some kind of “greater good.” How many nations and empires, even religions, are founded on such a premise and use it to excuse terrible, selfish acts? How many people have this same ideology when taking what they think is their due from other people? Diana is a small child in Themyscira, possibly the only one, and maybe despite her title as heir to her mother, she thinks at that point that it’s her due to use any means necessary to win.
Truth and lies. We come to a 1984 that is different from how it’s usually depicted. North America in the 1980s is often seen as gritty, dark, dirty, perhaps even sleazy and dangerous. But many people don’t remember just how… colourful it was. How bright. The ‘70s were not that long ago, and there is hustling and bustling: beautiful bicycles, jackets, and experimental art as well as music. Maxwell Lord advertising his business and ideology isn’t out of place in a capitalist world like America’s where you don’t even have to work for what you want, you “just have to wish for it.”
That implicit privilege and the American Dream as defined by capitalism, and an extension of patriarchy is all too apparent in this setting. And for all the prosperity and beauty depicted in this time, it is still fraught with greed, and the spectre of the Cold War always looming over that gaudy, glittering mirror surface. The monkey’s paw of success is ever-present under the artificial cheer. The apex predator that is ambition, waiting for its due, is always ready to pounce.
Diana continues her role as Wonder Woman throughout the years, and she moves quickly and decisively to protect the innocent — and criminals — alike. It is actually refreshing to see, like Superman would have done, Wonder Woman neutralizing jewel thieves with a controlled amount of force: or at least enough not to kill them after one of them threatens a child. Her blows, in which she could easily end their lives, are disabling and all in ancient Greek moderation.
We see, however, that for all Diana has — with her job at the museum, her resources, her property, and her continuing fight against injustice — she is still dealing with old wounds. Her battle from WWI still weighs on her, and every other conflict that has come since. You see an old photograph of her and an aged Etta Candy, who is probably long gone by the time of this film. And, of course, you see that picture of Steve Trevor and the watch that stopped after his death. In many ways, for all Diana has adapted to the times, she is still frozen in time at that moment of heartbreak; still wishing she will find Steve somewhere in the sky despite the explosion that took his life, and the passage of time. It seems that she doesn’t attempt to interfere with Patriarch’s World, try to change its cultures, or do anything besides using her divine speed and power to intercede and protect as many innocents as she can. Perhaps she’s done more, or attempted to do more, in the past. To be honest, aside from whatever else she does in the background, it seems like she’s accepted that she can only change so much around her.
Of course, that might not be the story that Patty Jenkins is trying to tell. In fact, there is a very clear theme throughout the entire narrative: about wishes, and the truth. For all Diana’s goodness, there is still that human part of her that loves, and wants, and desires. That same love that helps others can become selfish. That need to have perfection that isn’t The Perfect — as the Lasso of Truth has been called in the comics — is still in her even after all this time.
And for all of Diana’s flaws, her very human ones, even the antagonists of the film aren’t simply two-dimensional cardboard cut-out villains. The jewel thieves, for the most part, are furious with their partner who threatens a child, because they know it will just make it worse for themselves in the long-run when they are caught; even they have standards.
Maxwell Lord, played by Pedro Pascal, actually is an idealist, if only a flashy, self-interested one. He does have genuine charm and pizzazz, even silliness which threw me off. I was expecting a snake oil salesman, or a cold-hearted psychic manipulator. There is something almost zany and mad-cap about his journey towards power and self-destruction — bringing everyone down with him — that is attractive in what a beautiful disaster it all is. I thought he was going to be a self-help guru, or some kind of proselytizer, but I also know he was a businessman in the comics, and that seems to remain true here. His scheme is actually fairly clever, and he is far more intelligent than people give him credit for, even Diana who you can see — without words — writes him off as a dangerous, fake man-child.
I think seeing that he has genuine love for his son, and that he isn’t some kind of sociopath — especially when you realize the incredible amount of insecurity that came from a lack of love and a lifetime of ridicule and desperate dreams of being accepted — really makes it hard for me as the viewer to really hate him. He is the man pursuing the American Dream, but he womanizes and makes promises and deals with warmongers… and as these things go sometimes when you gain the world, you also lose your soul.
It would have been so easy to just make him a stereotypical white man of privilege and irredeemable behaviour instead of a Hispanic or Latin character having suffered through an abusive childhood, and trying to pass himself off as the ideal; even going so far as to dye his hair blonde to pass as what America might believe is the norm of Caucasian beauty.
Of course, we also have this iteration of Barbara Ann Minerva, played by Kristen Wiig. She is just so… likeable. She’s shy and mousy, but there is genuine intelligence there and a need to be accepted as well. To be loved. To be seen. Perhaps her introduction in the film is skewed from her perspective and others genuinely don’t disrespect her, especially with her multiple scientific degrees and archaeological background. I liked her. I found that while Lord’s antics were amusing and horrifying in turns, you can understand why Barbara makes the choices that she does. It isn’t an instant transformation from a gentle, awkward, brilliant woman to a stone-cold angry predator. Her changes come in increments before she makes her final wish. What happens, DC has made us think about, when you take a character who has been shat on their entire life, ignored, unappreciated, and then let them get to the point where they think they have what they want? We’ve seen that happen with the Joker back in 2019, and in the Marvel cinematic universe there is Killmonger in Black Panther to consider as well.
Even so, I am disappointed about the fact that she and Diana have this rapport, and when Steve Trevor is introduced to her and she says almost to herself that she is Diana’s friend, too, that they hadn’t gone further with this.
It’s true, it’s been established that Diana is bisexual, and in the comics Barbara herself has been depicted as having relationship with the contemporary Etta Candy. It would have been fascinating, I think, if Diana hadn’t just been stuck on Steve Trevor the entire time. You can miss someone, you can mourn them, and still live. I feel that Diana and Barbara connect on a different level, their shared interest in archaeology and history, and their empathy. That scene where they are eating together shows what could have been at the very least a good friendship. And that is still there, but perhaps there could have been more emphasis on that aspect.
I do like how Jenkins illustrated just what kind of damage the Dreamstone — this wish-granting artifact created by the Duke of Deception, or the deity of treachery and mischief apparently called Dechalafrea Ero by the ancient Mayans — incurred. It is a destabilizing of inherently fraught events and situations that lead to near-Watchmen kinds of Armageddon. It is a series of unfortunate events based around oil, a traditionalist kingdom being cut off from the world, World Powers weighing in on either side for said oil, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
And all of this is the result of a man who isn’t the cause of the situation, but the symptom of a longer-running issue reaching critical mass. I think the most genius thing about the Dreamstone is that it almost doesn’t need to take something away from the wisher in order to fulfill that wish. Rather, wishes and common sense can be two different parts of human experience, and production and generation without knowledge of the consequences and the balance of the world almost leads to its downfall in a more accelerated path.
The moral is fairly blatant. Even the Dreamstone itself, this doomsday artifact of so many civilizations, is literally consumed by Maxwell Lord: this paragon of 1980s opportunism whose ultimate moment of megalomania is when he is devouring everyone’s wishes calling “You get a wish! You get a wish! Everyone gets a wish!” much in the way Oprah gives out free cars to her own set audience. In the throes of his power, and as the Dreamstone takes its price from him — namely, his health and life force — Maxwell Lord continues to grant people wishes to take their energy to keep himself alive in turn: the patriarchal provider he wants to be magnified as his stolen power eats at him like the toxic masculinity he embodies at this point.
I think the antagonists are the strength of this film, and Barbara Minerva is the other side of the coin that is Diana Prince. She doesn’t start out in a civilization of Amazons trying to find her place, but as a person who has achieved much and has gained no recognition. Her colleagues do not respect her. She’s used by a man to gain power, someone who didn’t initially call her by her proper title of “Doctor.” And for all that, she’s harassed and attacked by another man just for being a woman. I mentioned Joker earlier because there is this sense that she had been doing the right thing before finally realizing how she needed to act to get through this world. And the way she deals with her attacker later is reminiscent of Killmonger, but also how having power equal to Wonder Woman does not Wonder Woman make. Her attraction to Diana seems to be one of wanting to be her, as opposed to being with her, and it’s clear that she has no idea who Diana even is.
Diana tries to help the world through small but superhuman acts, at this point in the cinematic universe, while Barbara just wants to help herself as she is tired of being lesser than, and in doing so she becomes what has been tormenting her: something cold, aloof, and arrogant. It’s like she embraces patriarchy’s ideal of the woman seeking power as some kind of monster, and she revels in it: defiantly taking it for herself and lashing out against all those she deems her enemies. More than that, she ends up like the people and agents that have kept her down and attempted to exploit her while doing so to others: a predator.
There are some subtle Wonder Woman lore nods throughout the cinematic narrative. Not only is it clear that Diana has learned how to use the Lasso to make people see the truth (perhaps something learned from Ares when he attempted to use its power to make her see his vision in the previous film), she also uses a smaller version of the magic that Zeus possessed to hide Themyscira to mask the plane she and Steve fly. Even her job at the Smithsonian Institute reminds me of the fact that there are papers from the Marston family contained there, some of which were apparently consulted by Angela Robinson in her Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film. Also, the inclusion of Asteria, named after the ninth Amazon Herakles killed to get Hippolyta’s girdle, and how she’s envisioned in Jenkins’ history of the Amazons — and who gets to play her — is utterly inspired.
There is so much more too. In Wonder Woman’s origins with Marston, it’s made apparent that the way to strip an Amazon of her power is to have her submit to a man, to let him chain her. Jenkins subverts this, in making it the memory and wish of wanting Steve Trevor back that diminishes her power — the price of wishing on the Dreamstone — and that her unwillingness to recant her wish, or let go of Steve, literally holds her back. It is a hard lesson, and it’s like watching him die all over again. It breaks her heart, and you can see it even as she just can’t look back when she renounces her wish. But this leads to another moment, a truly quintessential scene. We have a lead up to it when Steve — this World War I soldier out of time, much in the way of Captain America — can still fly a relatively contemporary plane and tells Diana how one learns how to fly. Up until that point, Diana simply never understood flight, or how one can do that, or even want it. But after she lets Steve go, after she releases her mourning, her pain, her desire, she rises up into the air, into the clouds where she once flew with him. Like Magneto did when he embraced his anger and sadness and joy in X-Men: First Class, Diana learns how to fly, unlocking another part of herself. The poetry in that is beautiful.
This isn’t a perfect film. For instance, in a Hitchcock Fridge moment — thinking about the premise afterwards — I don’t see Diana being particularly pleased that a man’s freewill and identity is overwritten by Steve’s, however much she loves to see him again. I can see it bothering her even before she discovers the truth about the Dreamstone and the nature of the wishes upon it. A man’s self-awareness has been subsumed and she is interacting with his body without his knowledge, or consent. It is quite problematic, and you’d think it would be a larger ethical concern to someone of her character. I feel like Diana would have also moved on, or had other lovers and adventures during almost a century without Steve. Barbara Ann is something of a missed opportunity there, especially on an LGBTQ+ level. And honestly, everything magically returning to the way things were just seemed too easy. The positive ending, where everyone is helping one another after their wishes nearly destroy each other also seems unrealistic, and I just wonder what consequences the world would deal with after a near-disaster like this; though perhaps this is something the Marvel Universe would explore in more detail. Just think of some one-shot stories set in the setting of Wonder Woman 1984 where everyone’s wishes are coming true.
Even so, I can see why a light-hearted approach, which is integral to Wonder Woman in the cinematic universe, is crucial. I admit, I teared up watching this, especially when Diana had to turn away from her wish and the man that she loved the most, recognizing finally that he is gone forever, no matter how badly she wishes it isn’t true. It’s more personal for me now, and making me realize what kinds of things I would have done with that Dreamstone, without a Lasso or the growing wisdom of how to use it, the Truth. The strength in giving up what you desire to do what you need to do is heroic, and it is also how you need to keep on living. I felt strangely proud of Diana in that moment, in ascending by letting go, and then using the Lasso to channel that radical honesty to reach most of the world with understanding, to even get to the heart of a man mad with power and change him.
When I mentioned poetry earlier, in retrospect it seems as though Steve’s words and Diana’s sacrifice would be like the first few stanzas that would become an attempt at something profound, a revelation and submission to Truth. Perhaps it invokes something not unlike a shadow of what William Moulton Marston was looking for in his conception of Wonder Woman, a surrender beyond a need to control and seek perfectionism to radical empathy: to the heart itself. Perhaps in that moment Diana did change the world, made all the stronger because she didn’t seek to, and thus she became that gentle and determined guiding voice in the darkness — telling everyone the truth, and not only saving them, but allowing them to save themselves through the agency of an informed choice. I think many of us, fittingly, wish for something like this, and it will stick with me for a long time.
Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t its predecessor. It’s not the same story about an idealistic immortal woman realizing who she is. It’s a strange and enjoyable adventure where dreams must be countered with reality, and realizing what you want and what is right aren’t always the same thing … and there is a tremendous power in that which no superhuman feat can ever equal.
So as the song asks, “How does it feel?” It feels like the best time to see this film.