WARNING: this review contains major spoilers.
In a previous op-ed, I bemoaned how, regardless of the intent behind their invention, superheroes no longer provide moral guidance or elevate the human spirit. They exist as thinly-veiled corporate propaganda—a stunted concept of heroism manifest in mass-produced content. Curative fandom’s mantra, “Don’t overthink things, just turn off your brain and enjoy the ride,” asserts carte blanche rejection of critical thinking skills and pledges allegiance to a franchise brand.
A grab-bag of eighties nostalgia dumped onto the floor like Halloween candy, Wonder Woman 1984 leaves you with a post-binge stomach ache of resentment and regret. Maxwell Lord, a clumsy mashup of metaphors—a Trumpian (read: failed) businessman minus the inheritance and white privilege—despite Pedro Pascal’s impassioned performance, demands a more coherent narrative. Instead, the performance is set adrift, existing without structural framework, see-sawing between baffling and irritating.
A waste of Kristen Wiig’s talents, Barbara Minerva supplies window dressing to the plot—ironic meta-commentary considering her character’s superficial motivation. Poor Gal Godot (Diana Prince) fares even worse, emotionally withdrawn but denied any circumstance that would allow her to explore her character’s unacknowledged mental scars.
Yet, the film still manages a minor miracle. It avoids the trap of protagonist-centered morality, instead focusing the narrative on a simple lesson: nothing good is born from lies and everything has a price.
Set apart from their comic book contemporaries, Clark Kent, Steve Rogers, and Diana Prince possess lofty ideals, an unwavering sense of what’s right, and, above all, a wellspring of love for humanity. That devotion guides their every decision, forming the bedrock of their heroism. Just as with D.C.’s darker, detached Superman, Wonder Woman 1984 deviates from these principles, suggesting that Diana has lived in a depressive haze since her paramour Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) died in World War I, disconnected from the world around her.
The implication that a demi-god feels isolated because of a man she knew for a small fraction of her long life, and not separation from the Amazons who raised her, is part of a larger, heteronormative trend in Hollywood. Built around the regressive notion that (straight) romantic love supersedes all other personal connections, it often functions as a cure-all for whatever mental or emotional strain the hero endures—e.g. Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame.
After the intergalactic tyrant Thanos kills his friends , unaffected by their five-year absence, Rogers—another Steve out of time—abandons an entire world reeling from the after-effects of an apocalypse, retiring to 1950s suburbia. We’re told to believe that he never adapted to modern life, that he felt depressed and out-of-place; that he never loved humanity and saw his shield as a burden. In place of a tireless fighter against fascism and oppression (as intended by his original creators), we’re given a broken man who can only be made whole by the love of a woman. He abuses time travel technology to claim the domesticity he’s allegedly been denied, using the foreknowledge of Peggy Carter’s entire life to insert himself at the opportune moment. Whether overwriting the past or creating a branching timeline, he played god.
Diana Prince uses an ancient artifact, called the Dreamstone, to—drum roll—wish Trevor back from the dead. His soul hijacks a random man’s body without his awareness or consent; only Diana sees him as Trevor, thus raising an ethical quandary: how long can she maintain the illusion of happiness and fail to acknowledge that another man’s life was overridden to enable it?
“Why can’t I just have this one thing?” she pleads with Trevor.
Our heroes can be flawed, even reasonably selfish, but how can we believe that Diana is so cynical that this is the one wish for which she’d abandon her morals? Surely Antiope (Robin Wright)—just as dead as Trevor—played a more formative and profound role in her life? To Patty Jenkins’ credit, Trevor blatantly questions Diana’s priorities when she tells him he was the only bit of happiness she’s ever had: “I’m sorry Diana, but that’s crazy. There’s an entire world out there for you.”
Of course, he’s right. Diana suffered trauma—which her super powers don’t immunize against—but never processed its after-effects in a healthy way. In reality, her romance with Trevor was relatively fleeting, and experienced during the adrenaline-rush of battle. Understandably, she clung to the memory like a lifeline and became mired in the past, allowing it to overshadow the experience of living her life in the present.
Unlike Diana, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Steve, Trevor leaps into the future like a boisterous renaissance man, soaking up every moment of his renewed lease on life. As contrived a parallel as it may be, observing his fish out-of-water routine (whether gleefully embracing garish 80s fashions or beaming over human achievements of the past century at the National Air & Space Museum) was by far the film’s most enjoyabele element. When he and Diana finally realize her wish was a Faustian bargain, he meets his destiny with equal aplomb: “I’ve had a great life, let me go. There’s a wonderful, big world out there. I’m so happy I got to see it.”
Diana finally learns that letting go is an act of love because it grants freedom—a vital lesson that Avengers: Endgame not only ignored, but undermined at every turn.
Contrary to the vast majority of other entries in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, the film grasps the inherent moral responsibility of its genre. Yet Wonder Woman 1984 still falls into familiar trappings. Story beats land on-the-nose or ham-fistedly: the violent chaos of a Middle Eastern land dispute, American news reports an anticipated gas shortage. The final, CGI-heavy fight sequence is both incomprehensible and anti-climactic. Shot at flat angles yet cacophonous with sound and fury, it’s still rendered lifeless. Where are the intimately choreographed fights with personal stakes and genuine emotional resonance?
Mired in superhero franchise fever, Hollywood churns out empty spectacles without deeper meaning. As I watched Maxwell Lord feast himself on millions of monkey’s paw promises, absorbing the reaped price of wishes like some demented reverse-genie, all I could think of was the inevitable consequence of studio greed. Ensuring instant and perpetual gratification without risk, epitomized in investors calls plotting out years of nonstop action tentpoles, the genre’s parallel to Lord isn’t lost on us. Again, every wish has its price.
Wonder Woman 1984 is out in select theaters and on HBO Max December 25.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros