Defending Wonder Woman 1984’s Ambition
While the film left much to be desired, it still delivered Diana's classic message of truth, love, and courage.
It’s hard to imagine how an almost 3-hour film could leave us questioning so many plot holes. But if it’s a superhero movie, it’s almost like it’s part of the packaged deal now. Just think Avengers: Endgame. I am a huge Wonder Woman fan and I spent well over a year in anticipation of WW84. And while I am satisfied and still as in love with Diana as I ever was, this one was a stretch. But it made it--with some great moments. (Riding the lightning with the lasso was one of my top favorite things.)
One of the main things I kept thinking though, as I watched the film in theaters was, “This feels like an episode out of the series...more like 5 episodes crammed in 1.” And there’s a reason for that. I’m not the only one to recognize the theme, as Vogue noted. It’s classic Wonder Woman and Captain Trevor working together to ensure justice. They’re in sync. He’s flying them in the jet (Chris Pine has that knack for awestruck admiration--Trevor looks at planes the same way Kirk looks at the Enterprise), she’s doing her thing while he just tries to keep up and do whatever behind-the-scenes work he can while she takes the fire. That was something we only really saw in the first film when she took No-Man’s Land in that beautiful scene. The similar scene here was with that epic theme music of Diana chasing down the tanks. When they work together, there’s a great chemistry that resonates with the older adventures. It’s not as if Diana needs him—to be clear—but that there’s someone who knows her and how she works and whom she can trust to help her and be there. It reminds me of Kristoff and Anna in Frozen 2 where he simply asks, "What do you need?" and follows her lead.
It's through her relationship with others that know her, like Steve, that she feels able to trust and experiment with her powers. Some of my favorite moments are of her making their jet invisible (a hint at more to come hopefully?), and later learning to ride the wind and fly. And that's not because of Steve. It simply makes it more special for her because of this personal connection 84 made with it. Like in the first film, she didn't come into her full power at the end because Steve's plane exploded and it was "lover's revenge." I believe it's part of a larger message that we need other people in our lives to help us realize our potential. Just because we are capable of doing things by ourselves doesn't mean that we're meant to go through life alone. Just as Diana helps others see the best in themselves, others help remind her of her own greatness. And that does not diminish her abilities in any way.
But also to be clear. The plot didn’t need to take them to the Middle East. In the 80s. With missiles. And this is part of where things tried to do too much.
Lord of what exactly?
Maxwell Lord was not the villain he should have been. Yes, the message is almost painfully simple: in the era of excess and more, the disease of envy and greed is contagious and as deadly as any WMD. Many who know Lord, though, know of him from Infinite Crisis, where he brainwashes Superman to attack both Batman and Wonder Woman. With the lasso, Diana learns from Lord that the only way to free Clark from his control is to kill him. And she does just that. She snaps his neck like a toothpick. This is not the warrior we saw in 84.
It also reminds me of the picture Zack Snyder had in mind for Bruce to discover about Diana in Batman v Superman. In this picture, it is during the Crimean War, not the Great War, and Diana dons her cape, a giant spear, and a fistful of about four severed heads. Obviously, this is not the Diana that Patty Jenkins had in mind, as the picture was changed to the one we all know. And I can accept that. Look what happened to Clark’s reception from audiences when he snapped Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. (I personally was okay with that because of the internal battle of him not desiring to and fully aware that this was one of the last of his kind he was killing, etc. but hey, that’s neither here nor there.) What does matter is that 84 added to the growing theme that Diana is not the warrior she once was, the warrior who in the comics tells Clark and Bruce that if Lex and Joker were her problems, they’d already be dead. It's as if she's kept on a leash. The attempt to rectify this was the flashback scenes to her childhood participation in the Amazon’s version of the Olympics. And as glad as I was to see Hippolyta and Antiope again, I’m not sure that backstory was necessary (though I could listen to Gal Gadot’s velvet voice forever). It was just another example of too much going on.
So instead of Diana taking out Lord, she convinces the rest of the world to renounce their wishes. It is an attempt to highlight the altruistic nature of humanity when reminded that they can be good and do the right thing. This film was all about truth, truth, truth, with her line that “nothing good is born from lies.” That’s all well and fine. But the very concept of these wishes not only a) made Lord a confusing and weak villain, but also b) caused a whole lot of plot and character confusion on practically all sides. First of all, it’s unclear really why Lord needs people to keep making wishes. Yes, it’s to take rejuvenation from them in return, but what is the point of having his successful business--the respect from which was all he wanted--when the rest of the world is in flames? Was it solely to have omnipotence? Who cares about being a businessman when you can be a god--that type of thing? Boring. It’s what you do with that power that makes you the villain—like controlling the Man of Steel and other, more sadistic things he did in the comics. But just wanting more and more until you explode? That’s immature and low-grade villainy right there. Pretty disappointing.
But it also just opens so many questions. One of those questions is Steve.
Trials, Trevors, and Tribulations
There have been a number of discussions already about the nature of Steve’s return and the incredibly problematic issue of autonomy represented in Steve’s inhabiting another individual. They are both aware that he is in someone else’s body—he even sees the man in his reflection, while only Diana is able to see the Chris Pine Steve she and we know. They’re literally in this man’s apartment. Who is this person? How do they not have questions or concerns about the logistics of this? Why on earth would Steve not have just appeared there at the gala? He “disappears” anyway and the mystery man gets his life back to show up at the end in the same outfit choice Steve had almost worn…and Diana smiles but says nothing.
A lot of people criticized the interaction they had when she saw him for the first time again, as well as their parting moment, but that is something I’ll defend. She’s been thinking about him ever since she lost him. This is before she met Clark and Bruce and had a new social group connection. She’s lonely, which is a far more powerful emotion than people who scoff at it seem to realize. She's weary. She's been doing this alone for 70 years now. She constantly tells people that she's "just not that interesting." She doesn't really have a social life. She's isolated and invisible. There's a part of me (and a lot of people, which is why I think this theme deserves defense) that resonates with that in some way. The scene where she's eating alone and the waiter asks that dreaded question, "Are you waiting for someone?" No. Just bring me my wine, please. I feel you, Diana. As a culture, we have a lot to do to normalize aloneness, for whatever the reason.
But for Diana, there's only one person here on Earth away from her family in Themyscira who understands her. And he was taken away from her. Of course she would wish to see Steve again. So when she does, I would imagine that’s pretty overwhelming. But the realization takes time; it doesn't just happen in that moment. He’s there all of a sudden as if he never left, so there’s almost a deep comfort in it and they walk and talk like normal. (I loved the part of them waking up and he's just there in bed going through boxes of Pop Tarts.)
And the natural ease of this relationship is what makes the parting scene so hard. For the first time in her life, she was losing her powers and unsure of what was happening to her. The truth that it was what the wish had taken away and what she in turn had to release—what she had no choice to release--must have been maddeningly unfair. The only thing she ever wanted was the one thing she couldn’t keep. But, just like in the first film, it’s the middle of a crisis when this parting occurs and this time it’s Diana who has to walk away. That scene of her running harder and harder down the street as she feels her strength returning was the part that almost had me in tears. No looking back. Just running and crying and pushing past everything. It's as if there's a direct correlation between the rise in her physical strength and the matching emotional duress. Then that scream as she throws the lasso and soars into the air... She's once again sacrificed everything.
It also raises the question of if Steve will ever truly return--an issue they put themselves in when he was killed off in the first film. My guess is probably not, but it cuts out a lot of possibilities and storylines of them working together. There really isn't any sidekick for her in the comics quite like Steve Trevor. And when Chris Pine has done such a good job of playing the masculine beta who helps and understands, but who knows he's in over his head and defers to the expert, it bothers me a bit that we might never see that dynamic on screen together again. But there's also plenty of other interactions to pull from in future films.
And that brings us to the heartbreak of Barbara and her wish. And this is a big issue.
Barbara Minerva should have far more screen time than she was allotted; her friendship and growing relationship with Diana was, arguably, the most important part of this film. Many people admitted that they hoped an even more intimate bond would have formed between them. In my opinion, Lord didn't even need to be in this film. In another version of WW84, it could be all Wonder Woman v Cheetah. Because the truth is that Barbara’s role as Cheetah is one of the greatest enemies Wonder Woman ever faces, and it is a huge personal blow to Diana, who, as this movie worked to show, was already in need of friendship and relation. Cheetah is one of Diana’s most dangerous enemies, and deals an emotional blow to her as much as a physical one. Barbara wishes to become like Diana, and so gains her strength and confidence. I was tempted to roll my eyes during the film at this part, wondering how we were still in the stereotype of brilliant-scientist-wants-to-be-attractive, where physical and sexual appearance would still be so worshipped. But then, we have to remember this film is set in 1984 when, yes, it was still hugely commercialized and capitalized. Barbara’s wish was a product of her environment and cultural rhetoric.
When she still wishes for more, though, she becomes Cheetah, and it’s unclear whether or not she ever renounced that wish at the end, or if it was just revoked because Lord decided not to be in the business of grant-wishing anymore. For the record, I will say that I was far more pleased with Barbara’s CGI Cheetah aesthetic than I expected to be. From the short bit we saw in the trailers where it was dark, I was worried. Some people may have still disapproved, but that fight scene between them was again, less than what it should have been, because the film didn't make it quite clear on the how and why of Barbara's final transformation into Cheetah. As William Moulton Marston’s personification of jealousy, Cheetah had the potential here in 84 to be so much more. This Barbara was already more pacified and impressionable, rather than the neurotic, selfish, deceptive and brilliant mastermind who was heiress to her family fortune. Diana both fights her and saves her for years in the comics, so while it makes sense that she didn’t hurt Barbara more in 84 when she couldn’t convince her to renounce her wish, it was still rather anti-climactic.
"Sometimes you can't see what you're learning until you come out the other side"
It’s odd then, that while this film stuffed itself with content that tried to reconstruct the adventure theme of the Carter series (I absolutely love that post-credit scene, by the way—probably more exciting than anything in the entire film), it didn’t focus on enough of what mattered. It was Avengers: Endgame all over again. It wasted time for character development it needed by focusing on confusing plot development it didn’t need. Despite all this, I still felt its weight of the familiar feminine empowerment the first film made so strong. I still feel the legacy and impact of Wonder Woman growing stronger.
I watched the first film again today, and I remembered the larger picture. Within the DCEU, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 are still the strongest independent films of any DC character. (I am still stoked for the Snyder cut that will be released soon. We'll get more of a hardcore, brilliant warrior Diana in that than we got in the theatrical version.) But part of Gadot's Wonder Woman is that she truly believes in humanity. She's a god, and far above us, but she makes us believe in ourselves.
I still admire Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot and cannot wait for their plans for a third installment. It is not ironic or lost on viewers that the film focused so much on the message of truth when the last few years (2020 in particular) have lacked it so much. And the political combination brought a commentary it could not have anticipated would happen on January 6, 2021. There have already been some fan art comic covers of Captain America punching out the white supremacists who stormed the Capitol, the same way he punched out Hitler in the comics. I'd like to see someone do a version of Wonder Woman doing the same.
Diana will always be someone who fights for truth and justice and shows us how to be the best versions of ourselves.
In 1984 and hopefully more than ever in 2021.