“The world was beautiful just as it was,” Diana, aka Wonder Woman, says toward the end of the highly anticipated Christmas release “Wonder Woman 1984.” It’s an odd sentiment for a film in which the hero flies, turns things invisible and tosses around military assault vehicles like basketballs. Director Patty Jenkins’ script insists on the power and wonder of truth, in contrast to pleasing wish fulfillment. But superhero films, including this one, are all about wish fulfillment. The movie never reconciles that contradiction, nor does it quite recognize that it needs reconciling. The result is an oddity: a big-budget empowerment fantasy whose moral seems to be “don’t trust big-budget empowerment fantasies.”
The result is an oddity: a big-budget empowerment fantasy whose moral seems to be “don’t trust big-budget empowerment fantasies.”
This thematic tangle is mirrored by the film’s unusually convoluted plot. The movie is set, as the title says, in 1984, 60-odd years after the events of 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” The immortal Diana (Gal Gadot) is still grieving the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed himself to save Earth at the end of World War I. She doesn’t date, but she does have a day job as an anthropologist while secretly saving lives and foiling crimes as Wonder Woman on the side.
In her day job, she meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a bumbling, nerdy geologist, who has been asked to investigate a strange stone by the FBI. The stone is magic, granting Barbara strength and confidence and bringing Steve back to life for Diana. Unfortunately, in return for the wish, the stone exacts a price and slowly leeches away Diana’s powers. Things go from bad to worse when the stone is stolen by huckster oilman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who wishes he had its powers for himself. Every time someone touches Lord, they get a wish — but he becomes stronger. And predictably he goes about sowing chaos and setting the stage for a Cold War nuclear apocalypse.
The egotistical, oleaginous and ostentatiously blond-haired Max Lord is an obvious stand-in for Donald Trump. (Director Jenkins says Trump was “one” inspiration for the character.) Like Trump, Max presents himself as a successful businessman, but he is basically a con artist, with a flair for self-promotion and ingratiating falsehoods. As befits a parody of a reality TV star, the film climaxes with Lord broadcasting to everyone on Earth, bellowing “Why not more?!” like a combination self-help guru and supervillain. Diana, dressed in golden armor and wielding her lasso of truth, pierces this veil of bloviation. The message is clear: If you toss aside truth, you toss aside your soul.
The problem is that, despite the message, the movie isn’t especially committed to truth. For example, though it’s parodying Trump, it carefully avoids engaging with his most controversial policies and ends up effectively whitewashing him. Maxwell Lord has a capacity for self-reflection and remorse that Trump mostly seems to lack. But more than that, Lord doesn’t indulge in racist demagoguery. Nor does he compulsively harass or assault women. If the goal of the movie is to stare the truth in the face, why create a fantasy Trump who is so much more reasonable and tolerable, and in many ways less dangerous, than the Trump we have to reckon with in real life?
Even more confusing, the movie treats Barbara’s desire to become more like Wonder Woman as a bad thing. Barbara, who is swept off her feet and dazzled by Diana’s kindness and general awesomeness, asks the stone to be more like her hero. “I do know what I wish,” she says to herself while holding the stone, “to be like Diana: strong, sexy, cool, special.” Her wish is granted, and soon she can walk in heels, wear slinky dresses and beat the tar out of drunks.
Barbara’s wish is a familiar one. The whole point of a Wonder Woman movie is to get you to see how strong, sexy and special Diana is. Movie viewers (especially, but not exclusively, female viewers) are supposed to want Diana and want to be her, just as Barbara does.
Instead of congratulating Barbara, the movie presents her as a warning.
If Barbara is the perfect Wonder Woman fan, then the movie should celebrate her. “Wonder Woman 1984” encourages people to be inspired by Diana; Barbara has the right idea! But instead of congratulating Barbara, the movie presents her as a warning. Gaining power and beauty makes her cruel and violent and selfish — a villain, not a hero. It’s like the film has included its own cranky superhero-film hater to tell fans they’re doing it wrong. No wonder Barbara is so irritated when Diana tells her she has to give up her powers. Wasn’t the point that we’re all supposed to be more like Diana? And if Barbara is in the wrong and wishing to be like Diana is dangerous, why did Patty Jenkins make this film?
Ultimately, I’m happy enough that Jenkins did make the film. Gadot is charismatic and fun to watch, especially when she’s flirting with Chris Pine or Kristen Wiig. Lots of people like Wonder Woman movies, with their stunts and the triumph over evil. And who doesn’t want to see faux-Trump get his comeuppance? This isn’t a great superhero film, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend 150 minutes, for the most part. It seems unlikely that watching it will turn you evil, like Barbara.
But if “Wonder Woman 1984” is good, clean, empowering fun, the message of “Wonder Woman 1984” is garbled. Dreams aren’t synonymous with lies or cruelty, and wishing for a better world or a better life won’t make you complicit with Trumpism. You’d think Wonder Woman, who’s a wish and a dream if she’s anything, would understand that.