Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Wonder Woman 1984.**
One of the very first films I ever reviewed for Christ and Pop Culture was Wonder Woman back in 2017. I love that movie, which is filled with the titular wonder, and offers a soaring vision of the profound way in which a woman can fill the superhero boots and cape so often only donned by men on the big screen. Like so many other fans, I’ve waited with bated breath for the sequel, uncertain whether it would live up to the standard set by the original—and I’ve been disappointed by a year that stole the experience of seeing it in a theater. That being said, I’m not sure Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is a movie that needs to be seen in theaters, because it does something superhero films rarely do: it focuses on character development over the visual experience.
Following a flashback sequence on the island of Themyscira, WW84 opens in the year 1984 where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as an anthropologist. But on the side, she acts as a “friendly neighborhood” Wonder Woman to, well, protect her neighborhood. Her crime-fighting escapades seem rather small and almost kitschy compared to how we last saw her, throwing tanks around and battling machine guns, in Wonder Woman—especially considering the neon backdrop and yuppie extravagance of the American 1980s. But this bubblegum intro to Wonder Woman in 1984 is intentional. The world has changed; it’s become a consumeristic mecca of delights where the greatest threats Diana has to deal with on a daily basis are petty thefts and muggings.
But Diana hasn’t changed. She’s alone and adrift in the world, as her apartment life filled with relics of her lost love and old life show us, as her conversations with coworker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) reveal, as meals alone at restaurants demonstrate. Everything she fought to save in the first movie was saved, but now she’s outlived all her friends and she’s living in a time of economic splendor in the greatest country on earth. WW84 does not set up a world or a conflict that feels as though it needs an Amazonian demigoddess warrior princess.
Diana cannot win by fighting, and she doesn’t view Lord or Barbara as her enemies. She entreats them, instead, to come back to the truth—to turn away from lies and selfishness and greed.Enter the dreamstone. It just so turns out that a robbery Diana stopped at a local mall was really about stealing an ancient magic stone on which people can make one big wish—and it will come true! But the old adage is also true: magic comes with a price. So whatever the stone gives to you, it will take whatever is most precious to you in return. Diana and her coworker Barbara both—without knowing the cost—make wishes on the stone before it’s stolen by Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who was behind the robbery from the beginning. Once Barbara and Diana start the process of tracing its origin, they discover that wherever this stone has gone throughout history, mighty nations have mysteriously fallen. People’s hearts, it turns out, are deceptive and wicked (who knew, right?), and Lord has to be stopped from granting wishes before the disordered desires of a sinful population destroy the world.
WW84 fails to live up to its predecessor in some small ways. It lacks the gravitas that the backdrop of World War I lent to Diana’s introduction in the first movie, and there are some peculiar editing choices that make the story pacing feel disjointed. For example, the opening scene on the island of Themyscira is jarringly out of place as an introduction to the story, and we don’t need long sequences of Diana flying among the clouds or Ken Doll dress-up time with Steve to go on for quite so long.
But these things are inconsequential overall, and WW84 certainly doesn’t fail as a movie. What the ‘80s may have lacked in gravitas they made up for in style, which feeds the themes of excess and greed that director Patty Jenkins is addressing. The setting of the 1980s also gave her space to not shy away from some of the more “silly” aspects of the character of Wonder Woman. The film contains bold costume pieces, liberal use of the lasso of truth, and even the invisible jet. Most importantly, however, WW84 doesn’t fail because it knows exactly what it is. This is a story that sets out to address where villainy—and where sin—come from, and in doing so it presents a challenge to our heroine that she can’t overcome through any amount of physical strength or fighting.
It’s a good thing, then, that Diana Prince carries a lasso of truth, and that she’s so empathetic it’s practically one of her superpowers.
WW84 is not without some end-sequence fighting, but the ultimate showdown requires no fighting at all. For as much criticism as superhero films receive for their third-act CGI bonanzas, this film takes a different approach. There is a short fight between Barbara (now Cheetah) and Wonder Woman, but that quickly resolves into a confrontation between Diana and Maxwell Lord in which there is no real fighting at all. The emphasis is, instead, on talking—on reasoning together. Diana cannot win by fighting, and she doesn’t view Lord or Barbara as her enemies. She entreats them, instead, to come back to the truth—to turn away from lies and selfishness and greed. She begs them to renounce that which they want most of all, to lay aside their deepest desires, so that the world can be saved. And she can do this because it’s a path she’s already had to walk in the story.
It’s an atypical ending for a superhero film, and if you tune in (or go to the theater) for the thrill of watching Wonder Woman beat her enemies into submission with the power of her righteous warrior-goddess fury, then you will be disappointed. Diana does not throw around any tanks or batter any Greek gods into the earth in this movie. The only thing destroyed about the villains in the end is their disordered ambitions. But if you believe that people can change—that they can come back even from the brink of total self-destruction and be redeemed, then you, like me, will find the ending wildly refreshing.
WW84 asks us to confront the truth that while we have some desires that are good, even good desires can become dangerously disordered, and the potential for villainy lies within us all. It’s only when we look at ourselves with clear eyes, and when we see the truth of who we are—including our dangerous sin nature—that the truth can set us free. This is why it’s not really Cheetah, or even the deranged huckster Maxwell Lord, who are the villains of the story. This is also why both Cheetah and Lord are capable of redemption at the end—because they are us and we are them. The character arcs act as a mirror.
I’m willing to forgive a little bit of disjointed storytelling, some ridiculous editing choices, and a few leaps in logic for what Patty Jenkins is doing in this film. If anything, I think it’s refreshing in the extreme to get to enjoy more stories that argue for the existence and importance of clinging to absolute truth. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.” Oh wait—that’s the tagline for HBO’s Chernobyl. Well, never mind that, because it could be the tagline for this movie as well, and if you’re looking for that message packaged up in a superhero film the whole family can enjoy, then click on over to Wonder Woman 1984. You may find it a little silly in places, and there will definitely be some MacGuffins for you to overlook, but I also guarantee that you’ll find it heartwarming and filled with a hard, good, truth.