Review of Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984. Directed by Patty Jenkins, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2020.
“Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.” So says Diana of Themyscira, or Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), to villain Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) towards the end of Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84). The nobility of truth is at the heart not just of this film, but of Diana’s entire character across much of her publication history. The physical, cinematic conflict between Diana and Lord in the film is almost secondary to the psychological struggle produced by the seductive nature of lies, and to the objective heroism of truth. One of Diana’s most significant character traits, in her recent films and in her comic career, is her determination to serve truth – her most emblematic symbol is her golden Lasso of Hestia, which in the early days of Wonder Woman was a method of forcing adversaries to her will but which in more recent decades has the overt power to compel the truth from those it binds. The theme of truth and lies is not only a familiar one across the superhero genre, but one that echoes the film’s sf intertext.
In Wonder Woman 1984 the audience finds themselves nearly seven decades on from the first film. Diana works as a scientist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, while secretly fighting crime as Wonder Woman. She and her new colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) encounter a mysterious artifact – a crystalline stone desired by businessman/huckster Lord. The ‘Dreamstone” (created, it is revealed later, by an ancient god of lies and deception) has the power to grant a single wish to anyone; any viewer who has ever read the W.W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw”, knowingly referenced in the film, will anticipate the results, namely that every wish comes with an unseen cost, the loss of what is most precious to the wisher. Lord gains the Dreamstone and transfers its power to himself, becoming the granter of wishes and the taker of people’s money, power, resources, and life force. Diana and Barbara both inadvertently make fateful wishes – Diana to have her dead love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) returned to her, which he does, in the host body of another man. This is the most troublesome aspect of the film, in that this consequence-free violation of bodily autonomy is entirely glossed over by everyone. Within the film’s context, however, the hijacking of another person is presented accurately as an unnatural lie that both Steve and Diana end up rejecting as false. Meanwhile, Barbara is granted the strength and confidence of Diana. Towards the end of the film, Barbara doubles down on this false identity with her transformation into ‘apex predator’ Cheetah.
A commitment to truth as a noble virtue is one of the things that characterizes Diana as a superhero caught between two worlds. In her traditional origin story, Diana is born and raised on the all-female island of Themyscira, a place of peace, calm, and strict codes of honor. Yet she finds herself consigned to the outer world, where she fights evil on an Earth torn by war, crime, social injustice, and little men who grasp at power. Diana carries the tenets and lessons of her home within her and is a living embassy for Themyscirian truths, but at the same time she binds herself to a humanity where both those truths and her honor can seem radically out of place, quaint, even unnatural. In a world of deconstructed superhero media populated by broken, damaged and traumatized heroes marked by bitterness (the motley crews of Umbrella Academy or Doom Patrol), built-up heroes who dramatically fail to rise to the necessary occasion (John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), and false heroes who are secretly corrupt and evil (the Seven from The Boys), watching Diana stand firm in her colorful costume and pronounce the value of love, honor, and truth may appear to jaded and cynical audiences in this post-truth era to be a Captain America-like relic of more innocent days. However, Diana’s ethical fortitude—like that of the MCU’s Steve Rogers or Sam Wilson—is a boldly refreshing counternarrative to the post-Watchmen age of flawed heroes.
It seems to me more than a coincidence that the new film is set in 1984, the same year providing the title for Orwell’s classic set in an oppressive society where truth is not merely relativized but reshaped and obliterated as necessary to ensure the continuation of an unjust, brutal society. In Oceania, truths are lies, and vice versa. Indeed, truth as an objective fact has no real existence or place in an Orwellian world. This perilous situation is even more relevant to readers today in the age of ‘fake news’ and Colbertian ‘truthiness’. The Diana of WW84 stands for something else. The exact opposite, in fact: for her, lies are lies. The one moment in the film where she herself embraces a lie (namely, that Steve’s return to life is acceptable rather than a dubious, magic-caused aberration) is, near the film’s conclusion, reversed not only to regain her powers but because Diana knows that to live a life is to live it in the world that is,not what we pretend it to be. Steve’s death at the end of the first film was the truth; his return violates that truth.
Unlike Diana, Lord is a small man who wants to become bigger. In television ads and in face-to-face encounters, he continually promises that “Life is good! But it can be better!”, almost an affirmation of and a call to utopia. His reputation and his career are built on facades and not reality (tellingly, the office for his company Black Gold Cooperative consists of a beautiful and well-apportioned lobby that fronts a nearly empty, barebones office space). He is composed completely of false promises and baseless hopes. In this, as in everything else, Lord is presented as Diana’s opposite: insecure in himself while Diana is serenely confident; needing to be seen, heard and followed while Diana lives her life of heroism covertly and without fanfare; emotionally connected to his son Alistair while Diana lives an isolated life of solitude and loneliness.
Unlike the climax of the first Wonder Woman, a standard comic book-style fight between Diana and the war god Ares, in WW84 Diana practices moral suasion, in keeping with her traditional character trait of seeing the good in humanity. She pleads to her worldwide audience: “This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth, and the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful.” It is a Keatsian sentiment very true to Diana’s love for her adopted world and her courage in facing the truth—an experience that can be sad or painful, but which contains its own nobility. A superhero that defeats a villain through an appeal to morality and reason is rare indeed, and it makes WW84 a much more significant film in this genre than its mediocre reviews would suggest.
Wonder Woman 1984 is not a great film, certainly compared to its predecessor. The narrative holes are gaping at times, and shaky comic book logic—common to this film subgenre—sometimes takes hold. Overall, however, WW84 is useful to researchers and scholars as an examination of the traditional role of the superhero as expressed in modern times. Superheroes have always embodied certain societal values of their age: what does a figure like Diana represent and mean as a referent to commonly-held ethical principles, especially in our current age of shifting truths? Diana’s light in the postmodern darkness might be dismissed as mere nostalgia, but there is real psychological and cultural power in appeals to traditional societal values like honor and truth. Analyzing that power within the context of Wonder Woman 1984 would be a worthwhile scholarly endeavor.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.