Wonder Woman 1984: Reagan-era escapism

26 March, 2021

Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince, under her civilian guise), the protagonist of William Moulton Marston’s comic books, has a backstory that is eccentric and interesting at the very least, starting from a premise that is manifestly feminist (as Marson himself was an outspoken feminist, who had polyamorous outlooks, and so on): a half-goddess, formed out of clay by Zeus himself, born on an amazon island which is exclusively populated by women, where no man has ever set foot. Despite her mother’s efforts to rein in her powers, Diana discovers them by training alongside the amazons for a presumptive war with Ares, the god of war. In contrast to the eroticized and playful comic books, where Wonder Woman travels to all sorts of bizarre realms (for example, one of them is Grown-Down Land, where children are taking care of the adult, making sure that they’re taking pills that keep them small and obedient), her portrayal in the DC movies (where she is performed by Gal Gadot) is much milder and boringly calculated; in Zack Snyder’s features (Justice League and Batman vs Superman), her episodic appearances lacked a narrative arch which wouldn’t umbilically connect her to some male presence or sheer muscle power. This void was to be partially filled in by a trilogy directed by Patty Jenkins (the filmmaker behind Monster, 2003, in which a transmogrified Charlize Theron changes into a female predator to be able to support her girlfriend): Wonder Woman (2017) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2021), with the last title to follow next year. Anyway, the promise to make away with the standard narrative of male superhero movies isn’t fulfilled due to various reasons (despite the rarity of chances one has to see blockbusters that are directed by women since it’s a product that passed through a male-centric bureaucratic process). There are moments both in Wonder Woman (2017) and WW 1984 where Jenkins allows herself to be scathing – for example, despite Diana Prince’s naivete in the human world (which appears as a cloudy universe ruled by men), she claims that males are requisite to procreation, but not for female pleasure. On other occasions, as I will discuss here, all of these intentions end up as simple false-positive, superfluous declarations, which pale in the face of a convoluted narrative, where it is still the male characters which end up as seeming more glorious.

Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

In Wonder Woman, Diana leaves her amazonian home for noble causes, after Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an English pilot, lands on the goddesses’ beaches during the World War; fascinated by him, but also by the idea of saving the world from the imminent threat of the Germans, whose plans for annexation and expansion remind her of Ares, she ends up following him blindly. Arriving in England, Diana acts like an uninitiated savage, and Steve hyperventilates while trying to tame her: he buys her civilian clothes, makes her wear a corset, talks to her about love and loneliness; in other words, it’s a rehash of the plot in born sexy yesterday (where women, who usually fall from the sky, alien and alone, are guided by absolutely bland men, who become exceptional in their eyes especially because they’re the ones introducing them to the world). Anyway, if the war ends up being won all due to the efforts of Diana, Steve sacrifices himself and ends up dying on the battlefield. Wonder Woman 1984 picks up with Diana decades later, alone and still grieving, sometimes intervening to prevent petty thieves at the mall – and, all in all, she’s a civilian that is studying archaeology. The first part of the film is indeed valuable because it approaches feminine experiences; she ends up working with Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a shy and clumsy germiologist, who is radically different from Diana (from small details, like the fact that she can’t walk on high heels at all, all the way to her vulnerability in front of men). In one of the sequences, Barbara is harassed on the streets by a man, and Diana intervenes to save her (a rara avis in superhero films and Jenkins truly gives space to this one) – it’s the reality of lone women in the world and the things that they face in their daily lives, and the tacit communication between the protagonist and the victim is touching, at the very least.

Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

From here on, the plot becomes hyperbolic (and I have the irredeemable feeling of watching a pop compilation that features Raiders of Lost Ark and Back to the Future) after an ancient stone infused with black magic is discovered, which is capable of fulfilling any wish. Diana wishes to meet Steve again, Barbara wishes to be like Diana, a local oil magnate ends up ruling the world, and, for a full-course meal, all of this takes place in a fully consumerist world (and so, the particularly chosen era in the history of the United States is not coincidental, since it’s the era of unabated consumption, of the hegemony of television, and so on). In this world of all possibilities, Steve is reincarnated into a regular man and becomes himself a born sexy yesterday, a vulnerable man who doesn’t know how to dress and is a scaredy-cat. It’s not as much the cavalcade of over-the-top events that bothers the most, but rather, it’s how the plot literally collapses. Everything that is built in the first part is irredeemably toppled in the second: Diana is caught between giving up her desires and saving the world from endless desires (people end up wishing for farms in the middle of the city, for millions of dollars and the deaths of others) – it’s a bombastic dictatorship of hedonism. Barbara, who now is super-empowered, turns into a misandrist villain that takes revenge on the men that have humiliated her, but also on everyone that puts the stone in harm’s way (since that would mean the loss of her powers and a return to normalcy). Prince’s dependency on her relationship with Trevor still comes across as bothering – because it’s proof of the fact that, not even in a feminist narrative convention, a woman cannot be defined by anything else than her romantic side; the same can be said of the fact that Barbara turns into a vengeful villain, which doesn’t solve the question of abuses committed by men in any way, but rather, it only inflames it. There’s much too little in the inner life of the protagonist that is explored, even though Jenkins does enrich the film with a colorful flashback from Diana’s childhood when she participates in a sort of amazon Olympic Games – it’s as if she were reduced to just two things, the education she’s had from the amazon warrior and her unfulfilled love story with Trevor. Some critics see the lack of sexuality in Wonder Woman as a flaw – and it is visible, at least when compared to the eroticism of the comic book series. The reductive explanation would be that Jenkins wanted to portray Wonder Woman as far away as possible from the specter of the male gaze, which could have turned her into an object of male fantasy.

I don’t know the degree to which one can discuss about auteurism in superhero movies, in spite of the fact that, lo and behold, HBO MAX has just released Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Snyder’s director cut of his 2017 feature (a film that stretches for over four hours, a cut that is presented in a 4:3 ratio and tuned to Snyder’s every whim, with slow motion battle scenes, more character development and more narration, things for which the director was oftentimes chastised); it’s clear, however, that such films cannot become a standard, but rather, they’re a mere exception that is correlated with the financial crisis that has been brought on by the pandemic. In extenso, it’s likely that my expectations surrounding Patty Jenkins and the Wonder Woman franchise are also dated – not all Hollywood directors end up re-editing their films and re-releasing them 4 years after their initial premiere, even more so that their creative impulses are more or less controlled. At a somber glance, Wonder Woman 1984 is a simple, escapist soap bubble, which aims at distracting viewers from the uncertainty that is raging outside their homes. It’s funny that I could see a sort of mirror to the film’s consumerist madness in the pandemic’s early stages, when full-grown people were jousting in supermarkets over packages of flour – and we didn’t even need a magical stone to reveal what we all truly wished for.

 



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Georgiana Musat Georgiana Musat
Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.