Lessons of Joy, Hope, and Love: The Gift of Wonder Woman 1984

This month marks the 80th Anniversary of Wonder Woman!!!  I didn’t read her comics as a kid but Diana of Themyscria is a character who’s come to mean very much to me.  As Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) was my gateway to Diana and her world, it felt apropos to mark this occasion by (finally) posting the piece I wrote after seeing Wonder Woman 1984.  I LOVE the movies.  Since I got my driver’s license, rarely more than a week went by in between trips to the theatre.  However, after a 10:05 pm showing of Brahms: The Boy 2 on 7 March 2020, lockdown hit.  So when I saw Wonder Woman 1984, it’d been over TEN MONTHS since I’d went to the movies.  I wanted my return to be special and WW84 was the logical choice.  I wasn’t disappointed!  Wonder Woman 1984 was a worthy successor to the masterpiece that was Wonder Woman.  Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot did it again!  They captured lightning in a bottle twice…at least as far as I was concerned.  I was stunned when I began talking to friends – close friends who often share my opinion of films – and learned not everyone felt the same.  Some did, but some didn’t.  Granting all art is subjective, I still became curious, wondering what they saw in this film.  Many conversations followed and this piece was born of my side of those conversations.  This is an exploration of all I see in WW84.

I learned Wonder Woman 1984 was being released on Christmas Day 2020 via Twitter.  On 18 November, Patty Jenkins posted:       

Originally tweeted by Patty Jenkins (@PattyJenks) on November 18, 2020.

Jenkins wrote, in part, “THE TIME HAS COME.  At some point you have to choose to share any love and joy you have to give, over everything else.  We love our movie as we love our fans, so we truly hope our film brings a little bit of joy and reprieve to all of you this holiday season.”

About half an hour later, Gal Gadot tweeted:

Originally tweeted by Gal Gadot (@GalGadot) on November 19, 2020.

Gadot added, again in part, “It wasn’t an easy decision and we never thought we’d have to hold on to the release for such a long time but Covid rocked all of our worlds.  We feel this movie has never been so relevant and we hope that it’ll bring some joy, hope, and love to your hearts.  Wonder Woman 1984 is a special one for me and I can only hope it’ll be as special to you too.”

They were ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.  (Clearly I agree; I nicked part of Gal Gadot’s tweet for the title of this piece.)  I first saw Wonder Woman 1984 at a 12:30 screening on Saturday, 16 January (we rented the theatre for a private show to be safest).  I then watched it three more times before it left HBO Max.  And I’ve seen it many times since buying the Blu-ray, too.  My appreciation of the film only deepened with each viewing.  After the last year – the shared global trauma of Covid and living in daily pandemic anxiety, teaching within the pandemic, the election, the end of the Trump presidency, the storming of the Capitol just days before I saw the film, and some heavy personal losses scattered throughout – this film filled me with joy, hope, and love.  It felt prescient.  While they could have no idea what lay ahead when they made it, WW84 was exactly what the world needed.  It was exactly what I needed.

I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Barbara and Diana investigate the gem they will eventually learn is the Dreamstone while working at the Smithsonian. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

The film picks up sixty-six years after the end of Wonder Woman.  Diana (Gal Gadot) is now living in Washington D.C., working at the Smithsonian under the alias of “Diana Prince” and specializing in cultural anthropology and archeology.  While avoiding the spotlight, she protects the people as Wonder Woman.  At work, Diana meets the new hire Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who specializes in geology, gemology, lithology, as well as being a part-time crypto-zoologist. While Barbara is helping the FBI identify some stones stolen from a black market dealer (a robbery foiled by Wonder Woman, naturally), she catches the eye of would-be oil mogul Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal).  Max Lord knows what they have – the Dreamstone.  He covets the stone because, as the inscription states, whoever holds it may, “Place upon the object held, but one great wish.”  Upon reading the inscription, Diana casually wishes for the return of her great love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who died in 1918.  Barbara longingly wishes to be like Diana.  And once Max Lord gets his hands on the stone, he wishes to become the Dreamstone itself, with the ability to grant wishes…and take whatever he wants as his price.  As he greedily begins granting wishes left and right to gain what he needs to make his struggling company thrive, Diana and Steve – mysteriously resurrected by the Dreamstone – set out to learn what’s going on, with Barbara stuck between her friendship with Diana and her desire to keep her newfound persona and powers.

One More Time…with Meaning

Wonder Woman 1984 deftly avoids the classic pitfall of most superhero sequels – the idea that a BIGGER threat is the most important part of the story.  It’s not.  It never is.  The size/scope of the threat should always be secondary.  This is true in comic books, too.  Some months the heroes face a tiny, localized villain.  Some months it’s a huge crossover defending the cosmos.  Regardless of the threat, the good stories are the ones that matter.  Is there an emotional core to it?  Is it saying something important?  Wonder Woman 1984 is certainly a story that matters.

The original Wonder Woman ends with Diana’s profound closing narration, “I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind.  But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light and learned that inside every one of them there will always be both.  A choice each must make for themselves, something no hero will ever defeat.  And now I know that only love can truly save the world.  So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.  This is my mission now.  Forever.”  THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT Wonder Woman 1984 EXPLORES!  It picks up the thematic thread and continues moving it forward without ever being derivative.

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Diana, alongside Steve Trevor, on her first journey into Man’s World. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman

Diana realized she can’t save us.  Only love can.  Yet it is our darker, selfish desires which stand in the way of realizing this world which can be.  They hinder the giving of ourselves to and in love.  As the Dreamstone’s influence spreads, all who encounter it must war with the darkness that lives within their light.  Each alone must choose.

If you could honestly have anything – any great wish your heart holds guaranteed to come true – what would you wish for?  And if there were ramifications…would you give up your wish to set things right?  If we had access to a wish like that, I’m sure many of us would succumb to the darkness that lives within our light.  The Dreamstone then illustrates the interdependent web in which we live and underscores the truth that all of our actions ripple out from us, affecting everything else.  How then, the film asks, do we live within such an interdependent world?

Regardless of magic Dreamstones, if we truly wish to live within our light, to be saved by love and to build the world that could be, we must honor the deep responsibility interdependence breeds.

A Love Leader, a Savior, a Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman’s place beside humanity in this way, as guardian and guide, echoes her original purpose.  Her creator, William Moulton Marston, felt women’s “‘natural’ capacity for love, nurture, and self-sacrifice would make them better leaders then men.”[1]  As a result, he was very open with the fact that Wonder Woman was his prototype for the “female love leader” and he supported overturning the traditional gender hierarchy to “establish a new code of conduct based on love supremacy.”[2]  In WW84, Diana leads by example; nurturing, loving, and – most importantly – believing in humanity.  She stands as a radiant hierophany, always manifesting the love she knows we can be.

They address this directly in the film, too.  After Diana foils the robbery at the mall, the news reporter outside tells the camera, “It was a mysterious, female savior,” intentionally invoking salvific language.  They are intentional with the love leader model Diana offers, too.  In the service of love, the service of this world which can be, she’s not just any ol’ superhero.  She’s a love leader.

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Diana stops the robbery at the mall using only her lasso. Did she treat herself to a pretzel in the food court afterwards? We don’t see it…but I like to believe she did ;D. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

When the first trailer for WW84 dropped, the absence of Diana’s sword and shield was noted.  Gadot addressed this in an interview saying, “Wonder Woman does not carry a weapon.  We had an intention to let go of the sword, because there’s something very aggressive with a sword.  If you have a sword, it means you need to use it.  So we wanted to give that up.  And we didn’t feel that the shield was necessary either.  She’s a goddess, she can fight, she’s super strong, and she has the skills.  So no, she has the gauntlets.  She has the lasso.  She has her tiara and that’s about it.”[3]  Look at that language!  They understood the sword to be “very aggressive” so they “wanted to give that up.”  Instead, Diana literally arms herself with Truth, in her lasso, and her defense-oriented gauntlets.

Love, the film is saying, never backs down to oppression or corruption.  But it isn’t aggressive in its response.  It doesn’t seek to destroy.  Love protects.  Love defends.  Love fights, yes, and it does so courageously!  But love always fights with truth and compassion.  And they make it look so cool!  Diana’s lasso has never seemed cooler than it does in Wonder Woman 1984Diana even lassos and rides a friggin’ lightning bolt!!!!  I love how they embrace this comic scene so directly but I love the message more.  There is nothing Truth can’t harness.  Even the natural world will bend and serve Truth wielded in Love.

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See?!? See how cool this is?!? This is way better than her sword. In this film, Diana and her lasso look even cooler than Spider-Man and his webs…THERE I SAID IT. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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The aforementioned FRIGGIN’ LIGHTNING BOLT! ‘Nuff said. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

In all of this, Diana is an intentional model.  She is the sort of love leader Marston envisioned.  She teaches by word as well as by deed.  For example, Diana’s open about her disdain for guns, telling the men robbing the mall, “I hate guns” as she easily destroys their weapons.  This model Diana offers is given, in a particular way, for children.  Patty Jenkins was open about her desire to use Wonder Woman to inspire children to make our world better, “How do you use a superhero to inspire and reach the people of tomorrow, the kids of tomorrow, and the younger people of the world to save our world?  I mean, if we’re not doing that with our superhero films, what are we doing?”[4]  Yes!  Yes, this is it exactly! 

We see this very much ties with Marston’s original goal for Wonder Woman, too:

Marston sought to change Americans’ understanding of ideal womanhood by instilling in children an appreciation for strong and independent women…Marston used Wonder Woman to teach American children that it was not only possible for girls to be strong and independent, but that this was, in fact, desirable….Although it is difficult to know exactly what role Marston and his comic book creation played in fostering the feminist activism of the 1960s and 1970s, they were arguably successful in promoting a standard of femininity that was stronger, more independent, and more assertive than the traditional model.[5]

We see WW84 intentionally illustrate Wonder Woman’s connection to/model for children as well.  We see it in the adorable exchanges that take place between Diana and the young girl in the mall during the film’s opening action piece as well as an emotionally charged rescue of the children in the road as Diana chases Max Lord’s convoy through Egypt.  Diana is a hero with and for the children in a very specific way.  This is important too, as Patty Jenkins says, if we really want to change the world.  If we change what and how we teach children, we can change the world in a generation!  Imagine what our world would be if the core curriculum of all schools was empathy, compassion, interdependence, love, and the courage to live it all.  Diana teaches what we often fail to.

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I ADORE this scene! Just putting this picture in the post makes me want to go rewatch the movie right now. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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This is one of many moments in the film which never fails to move me to tears. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

I grant there are some who find these sort of “message moments” within superhero narratives “preachy” or “annoying” or “out of place.”  But those reactions lose the root – the very basic, primal, ancient root – of what a hero is supposed to be.  Speaking of the hero, the 20th Century’s leading expert on comparative mythology Joseph Campbell tells us, “That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”[6]  It is the hero’s job to descend into the abyss, to climb the mountain, to face the trials and return with the sacred knowledge, “the elixir,” that can save humanity – the knowledge that can transform us all if we have the courage to follow their example.  All of WW84 is a commentary on the nature of this sacred knowledge, the path to let love grow and to honor our light over our darkness.

Yet, even if this is the hero’s job, it’s not always received.  This is acknowledged in the movie itself!  It opens with li’l Diana (li’l Diana! yay! (Lilly Aspell)) competing against her Amazon sisters.  Frustrated in her loss, Hippolyta assures her, “This world is not yet ready for all that you will do.”  Campbell agrees saying, “It isn’t always so much that the world doesn’t want the gift, but that it doesn’t know how to receive it and how to institutionalize it…how to help keep it going.”[7]  This is true.  It was true in the ‘80s.  It’s true now.  Diana is a model of love, truth, and compassion – teaching in every moment of her life as Wonder Woman – who invites us to follow her lead.  Now, as all through our history, whether or not we have the courage to do so is up to us.

Barbara Minerva – Do Cheetahs Ever Prosper?

In the film, Barbara Minerva is a perfect example of the difficulty we may face in following Wonder Woman’s lead.  She literally gains all Diana’s powers and grace but she struggles to model her nobility or sacrifice.  I get that.  I do.  She…ok.  Ok.  I’m…sorry.  I’m sorry!  I tried to avoid the pun for this section title!  But it’s there and it’s terrible and I apologize.  You deserve more but I guess I’m not better than this.  ANYWAY. 

I’ll be honest, I was skeptical at Kristen Wiig’s casting as the villain.  I had similar feelings to when I head Paul Rudd was going to be Ant-Man.  But I am happy to admit I was wrong.  Kristen Wiig is perfect!  Her chemistry with Gal Gadot is fantastic and you can tell how much they enjoyed working together.  From this flows a beautiful, budding friendship between Barbara and Diana.  To see Diana, whose last friends were Etta and Steve’s team, and Barbara, who’s always been the outsider, come together made my heart all warm and fuzzy.  (The Blu-ray is worth buying for the “Gal & Kristen: Friends Forever” and gag reel featurettes alone!)  However, as you watch, if you’re familiar with Wonder Woman, you know Cheetah is coming and this blossoming friend is soon to become one of Diana’s greatest enemies.  And that made my heart sad.  Kristen Wiig nailed the ferocity and menace of Cheetah, too.

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Barbara and Diana meet. I love them so much! Talk about real friendship goals…well, until their tragic turn of course :/. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

This was a very different Barbara Minerva than the one we find in the comics, first appearing in 1987 during George Pérez’s iconic run.  While it fit with the Indiana Jones-esque spirit of the ‘80s, read now that Barbara Minerva – a wealthy British archeologist who seeks a secluded African tribe to become the immortal Cheetah with the aid of their tribal priest Chuma and their ancient gods – feels uncomfortable with its racist stereotypes and appropriative nature (note, Pérez gives us one of the truly iconic and truly feminist Wonder Woman portrayals after Marston’s so I don’t want to disparage all of his run…but his Barbara Minerva’s origin is rightly uncomfortable now).  So this was a nice improvement on that! 

There is so much to Barbara.  Diana envies how personable and free she is, seeing in Barbara what she can’t be herself.  Diana values Barbara, and validates her as others often don’t, telling her, “No one’s made me laugh like that in such a long time.”  After their dinner, Barbara drops leftovers off to Leon, a homeless man sleeping in the park.  It’s clear she knows him and it’s obvious she sees and treats him as a human being.  (It’s worth noting Leon’s reading Waiting for Godot, another intentional moment with theological implications.  It’s a play about two men waiting for God who never arrives…just as Diana can’t save humanity, only guide those who will follow.)  When Barbara wishes to be like Diana with the Dreamstone, it’s nothing nefarious.  It’s natural.  Many of us would do the same in her place.

Marvel does the sympathetic villain thing all the time – Killmonger, Vulture, Thanos, etc. – but Kristen Wiig plays Barbara Minerva/Cheetah in the way where she’s sympathetic but also feels universal.  She becomes “a villain” because her desires, her insecurities, her frustrations and loneliness and isolation take her down a dark path.  That can happen to any of us!  And she’s scared of losing what she’s gained!  That’s natural, too.  In a film that’s intentionally teaching, her character is an important lesson.

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Barbara confronts her would-be rapist after gaining her new powers. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

After she gains her powers, Barbara runs into the man who tried to rape her.  It’s hard not to root for her.  I know the scene shows her sliding into her villain role, reveling in her newfound powers.  But there’s also a bit of catharsis in it.  The directness in how her harassment and would-be sexual assault were presented was a topic for critique of the film.  Captain Marvel, too, was criticized for its “lack of subtlety” in presenting the issue of patriarchal oppression and male harassment of women.  But…look at the world we live in.  In the #MeToo age, where predators are named but it feels like little meaningful consequences or lasting change is often seen, it’s hard not to feel the time for subtly in addressing these issues is over.  Why shouldn’t we be bold and direct in showing what it’s like?  Why shouldn’t we present predatory men as what they are?  Why not name it and show it?  As Barbara beats that man down, it’s hard not to cheer for her.  It’s satisfying when we live in a world where victims so rarely see this type of justice.

She’s not a traditional villain, either.  Barbara helps Diana and Steve the whole way, standing against them only when she realizes they are set on stopping Max and undoing what he’s given.  She’s scared to lose her wish and go back to a life where no one notices her.  In Barbara and Diana’s differing approaches to their wishes, we see the film’s central discussion of the darkness and the light which live within us play out.  We can all be like Diana, yes.  But it’s hard and it requires a lot of us.  Returning to Campbell for a moment, “Myths tell us how to confront and bear and interpret our suffering, but they do not say that in life there can or should be no suffering….Compassion is the awakening of the heart from the bestial self-interest to humanity.  The word ‘compassion’ means literally, ‘suffering with.’”[8]  In Diana and Barbara, we see two paths in how they chose to endure their suffering.

Diana teaches the compassionate, if honestly reluctant, response.  Barbara models the “bestial self-interest” and, in so doing, becomes Cheetah.  Diana speaks to this directly when she warns Barbara, “If it’s the Monkey’s Paw, it takes as much as it gives.  Yes, you’re strong but where’s your warmth, your humanity?  You’re attacking innocent men.  Barbara, look at you…”  Steve presumes the Dreamstone “grants your wish but takes your most valued possession.”  The film is again being clear, Barbara’s humanity and warmth are her most valued possession.  Stripping that away, Barbara changes physically just as she has emotionally.  She transforms into Cheetah when Max gives her all humanity’s “rage” and “prowess” as he collects their wishes.  The symbolism is clear here, in giving up our warmth and humanity while giving into our rage we become monstrous.

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Diana battles Barbara as she tries to stop her apprehending Max Lord. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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Barbara fully transformed in the Cheetah. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

Heartbreakingly, this story will cost Diana two important relationships – she finds Steve only to lose him again and Barbara will be ripped away from Diana by Barbara’s own desires.  I can’t speak for other viewers but watching this touched something inside me.  It cut deeply.  As someone who puts a lot of time into cultivating loving relationships, to lose a friend like that – losing them because of their poor choices when there’s nothing you can do as all the love and care and acceptance you present is ultimately rejected – hurt to watch.  Diana didn’t just lose a friend!  She lost Barbara before they could even fully celebrate and understand what they shared.  As with any great (or potentially great) relationship, they didn’t just lose their friendship but all the future days they could’ve shared.

Diana and Steve – Love Reborn, Reunited, and Reimagined

So, let’s talk about Diana’s wish, shall we?  Before she has any idea what the Dreamstone is, Diana wishes for Steve Trevor to be returned to her.  When Steve finds her at a swanky party hosted by the Smithsonian, we learn everything is not what it would seem.  Steve arrives in the body of another man, even if Diana is soon able to “see” who he really is.  It’s a beautiful and mysterious moment…but even before we know how the Dreamstone works this is a clear sign that Diana’s wish has a cost.  For Steve to stay with her, this man – this living, breathing man with a house, job, family, friends, hopes, wishes, and dreams – has to die.  Before we know anything else, the joy of this reunion is undercut with the question it begs.  Is this worth it?  Is their happiness worth another’s life?

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Diana sees Steve for the first time in almost seventy years. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

I’ve read several pieces claiming Steve Trevor’s return felt “contrived.”  In “The Making of Wonder Woman 1984: Expanding the Wonder” featurette, Patty Jenkins explains, “Steve coming back, it was not at all a reaction to people loving Steve and Diana.  I already loved, you know, Diana and Steve.  It actually just made perfect sense in the plot we were trying to tell.  Both Gal and Chris sort of had an idea of what was gonna happen in the next film midway through the first one.”  I’d agree, given the nature of the Dreamstone, this is the most natural thing in the world.  For Diana to have wished for anything else wouldn’t’ve been authentic to her character.  I can easily imagine the temptation for similar wishes as well, if I held a would-be Dreamstone in my hands.

And yes, I love having Chris Pine back as Steve Trevor!  I love his chemistry with Gal Gadot and I love how they played with the inversion of the fish-out-of-water trope from the first movie.  It was hilarious and, in seeing Steve be in the place Diana was before, it’s another subtle and brilliant nod to Marston’s Wonder Woman stories where Steve was often placed in the damsel-in-distress role and/or the roles reserved for women in these sorts of stories.  But more than that, I love how they use love.  If Wonder Woman is to be an example for a love leader then we need to see her let love lead in her actions as well as try to follow its lead in her own life, too.

At the party, Diana can “see” Steve – not the face of the body he’s in but the truth of his self – in a beautiful illustration of what real love does.  Looking with the eyes of love we see the truth of the Beloved.  We see who they really are.  We see all they are.  Diana surrenders herself to love.  She isn’t skeptical or cynical.  She believes.  She allows herself to live in the joy love brings while still seeking the answers they need.

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“I should probably go and figure out how a stone brought my boyfriend back in someone else’s body.” / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

We see Diana fight against the cost of her wish in one of the film’s most moving scenes.  Steve tells her it can’t go on like this and Diana replies, “I can’t talk about this.  I can’t.  I give everything I have, every day, and I’m happy to.  But this one thing – you’re all that I’ve wanted, for so long.  You’re the only joy I’ve had or even asked for.”  He replies, “I’m so sorry…but that’s crazy.  There’s a world out there full of so many, better guys, for one.  How about this guy?  Look at him.”  Diana says, “I don’t want him.  I want you!  Why for once can’t I have this one thing, this one thing?!”  He tells her, “I’m not sure we have a choice.”  She says, “Well I do have a choice and I can’t give you up.  I can’t.  I won’t.  So we need to stop him so we can figure that out.  There has to be another way.  There has to…”  WOW.  That resonated with my Caretaker part, my Empath part, and a beautiful wounded part which feels I give, give, give, and give while my own needs often remain neglected.  Diana, as our love leader, shows the way.  She doesn’t just model an unhealthy idea of “noble sacrifice” but how, if we trust in love to guide us, things will always get better.

Steve – “Diana, Diana listen to me.  I had a great life.”
Diana – “Steve…”

Steve – “And you made it better.  But you know what you need to do.  The world needs you.  Alright?  Yeah?”

Diana – “[crying and shaking her head “no”] I’ll never love again.”

Steve – “I pray that isn’t true.  There’s a, there’s a wonderful, big world out there.  This, this crazy, new world.  And I am so happy I got to see it.  But it deserves you.”

Diana – “I can’t say goodbye.  I can’t say goodbye…”

Steve – “You don’t have to.  I’m already gone.”

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Steve reassures Diana it will all be alright. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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Diana struggles to let Steve go. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

They share a beautiful kiss and, as Diana walks away crying, she hears Steve say, “I’ll always love you Diana, no matter where I am.”  She says, “I love you.  I renounce my wish.”  The anger, pain, and despair on her face as she runs away from him is heartbreaking and honest and beautiful.  No matter how hard it was, she listened to Steve.  She listened to love.  She found the hope to believe it could be ok again.

As she runs from Steve, her physical wounds fade as the pain and anguish of her loss flood through her.  The juxtaposition is arresting.  Jumping into the sky, with Steve’s words in her head, Diana flies for the first time.  The fact that Steve “teaches” her how is beautiful.  It is in love that she finally finds the true measure of herself.  The love they share – a love in which she is fully seen, heard, and accepted just as she is – is the path to her unlocking all her abilities.

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Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

Max Lord, a Dynamic Villain for a Trumpian Age

In the comics, Maxwell Lord is a villain with the ability to control the minds of anyone he touches.  He’s at the heart of one of Wonder Woman’s most infamous moments.  In Wonder Woman #219 (Vol. 2), he’s taken control of Superman.  When he refuses to let Superman go despite Diana’s pleading, she kills Maxwell Lord to protect the world from a Superman under his control and to protect Kal-El from what Lord would’ve made him do.

The Maxwell Lord of Wonder Woman 1984 is very different from his comic counterpart.  As the CEO of Black Gold Cooperative, a struggling Oil Company, Max Lord couldn’t be a more direct representation of Donald Trump.  The film opens with a commercial for BGC where he proclaims, “You don’t need a pile of money or some business degree to get started.  You don’t even have to work hard for it.  At Black Gold Cooperative, all you need is to want it.”  From his look to his mannerisms to his rejection of formal training and professional knowledge to his eschewing hard work, this is a character cast from the Trumpian mold.

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Max Lord being chauffeured the the White House…while looking more than a little familiar. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

If this was simply an attempt to illustrate how dangerous and toxic the model of Trump is, it would be largely forgettable.  We have plenty of commentary on that, from Stephen Colbert and John Oliver to books like The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump or I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year to endless news reports and our own memories of those trying years.  However what writer/director Patty Jenkins offers with her vision of Max Lord is so much more.

We see his desperate desire to be “great.”  Driven by a youth of being mocked and excluded, he seeks power, respect, and control – neglecting everything else, including his relationship with his son Alistair (Lucian Perez), in the service of his greatness.  When Alistair laments his lack of time with his father, Max assures him, “It takes time to become a great, great #1 man, like your dad is going to be.”  In time he can be with Alistair because in time he’ll be great.

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Max with his son, Alistair. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

When Simon Stagg (Oliver Cotton), the only remaining Black Gold financier, tells Max he’s leaving, Max begs him to stay.  But he reacts heatedly whenever Simon insults him.  The fragility of Max’s ego is apparent.

Simon – “It didn’t take long to figure out you’re nothing but a lowlife conman.”

Max – “I am NOT a conman!  I am, uh…television personality.  And a respected businessman with a plan.”

Simon – “C’mon…”

Max – “With, with a great plan!”

Simon – “Oh, ‘If you can dream it, you can have it.’  Something like that?  You have forty-eight hours to get my money.”

Max – “You’re going to regret this.”
Simon – “Or the FTC gets an anonymous report.”

Max – “[nervous laughter]”

Simon – “Loser [leaves].”

Max – “Simon, Simon wait! [to his son, Alistair] I am not a loser.  He’s a loser!  And don’t you ever believe a word that man said.  He’s a liar and he’s wrong.  And he will rue the day he walked away from me.  And you, you are going to be so proud to be my son.”

Alistair – “Ok.”

Max – “You’ll see.  Everyone will.”

Max wants his son to be proud of him.  He wants everyone to be proud of him.  He anchors his worth on his being a “television personality” and being “a respected businessman.”  He continually asserts his plan without ever saying what it is.  He vehemently affirms Simon is “a loser.”  The Trumpian connection, the behavior as well as the language, is as obvious as his wounded ego.  As his company and credit rise, people start to ask questions.  Max tells his assistant, Emerson (Jonathan Ajayi), the FCC and others are giving him trouble because, “It’s a conspiracy against my success.  They’re jealous, that’s why.”  Max won’t – Max can’t – accept any responsibility for his actions. 

Max Lord takes more and more as the world burns around him. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

The danger of Max Lord and this Trumpian archetype is clear.  Once he has the power of the Dreamstone, Max uses the wishes and desires of others for his own personal gain and then takes from them as well.  He is using and manipulating the faith of others, the words of others, the understanding of others.  This is how Trump rose to power and Max Lord does the same.  Most heartbreaking of all, he sees his son Alistair as a burden he’d rather not deal with.  Alistair wishes to be with his dad but Max becomes frustrated saying, “No, you don’t use your one wish like that!  You don’t wish for something you already have!  You wish for success.  You wish for greatness.”

We’ve seen plenty of satirical, allegorical, contemplative, cartoonish, and derogatory depictions of Trump over the last five years.  Where Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman 1984 rises above the rest is in offering us a vision grounded in the radical hope that even Maxwell Lord, at times an uncomfortably exacting rendition of Donald Trump, can be redeemed in love.

Amazonian Purpose and the Salvific Nature of Hope

A “good superhero movie” is no longer a remarkable thing.  We’re long past the age when Sam Raimi’s ­Spider-Man films or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were the exception to the rule.  Superhero movies guarantee box office revenue.  We flock to them.  They are pop culture touchstones.  Amongst all those good/fun/exciting/well done ones, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movies matter.  They aren’t just exciting and fun but they touch the heart and soul.  They move you.  They inspire you.  As Diana has done in so many ways for so many years, they give us hope.

WW84 dares to imagine a world ravaged by our selfishly grabbing our heart’s greatest wish where we then willingly let go of our wish for the good of all.  Led by Wonder Woman, playing the role of love leader as Marston always envisioned her, the people of Earth choose to care for each other.  While this message would always feel a bit utopian, perhaps a bit naïve, offered alongside the deep divisions raging at the end of the Trump presidency it feels radically subversive.  The very message of WW84 subverts the idea that these divisions are insurmountable.  Liberation is possible.  Transformation in possible.  In Wonder Woman, Diana learned only love can save the world.  In Wonder Woman 1984, we see the world literally save itself through love.  With all due respect to Barack Obama, is there a more audacious vision of hope than this?

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Diana dons the suit of armor forged from the armor of all the Amazons. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

When Diana prepares to face Max Lord and Cheetah for the final time, she dons the armor once worn by the Amazon warrior Asteria.  Earlier in the film Diana explains it to Steve as follows:

Diana – “From my culture, the armor of an ancient Amazon warrior.  One of our greatest.”

Steve – “It’s huge.  This whole thing?  What is it made out of?”

Diana – “Here, let me show you. [pulling out her lasso] Give me your hand.”

Steve – “Why?  I didn’t tell a lie.”

Diana – “The lasso does more than just make you tell the truth.  It can make you see it, too.  Her name was Asteria.  She was our greatest warrior.  When mankind enslaved the Amazons, my mother freed us.  But someone had to stay behind to hold back the tide of men so the others could escape to Themyscria.  My people gave up all of their armor to make one suit strong enough to take on the whole world.  And Asteria sacrificed herself for a better day for others.”

In the first movie, Hippolyta tells li’l Diana, “Ares poisoned men’s hearts with jealousy and suspicion.  He turned them against one another.  And war ravaged the Earth.  So, the gods created us, the Amazons, to influence men’s hearts with love and restore peace to the Earth.”  It makes poetically perfect sense that, in all their “armor,” they would have the power to protect someone from “the whole world.”  That’s what love does, it can hold back “the tide of men” to protect others.  Note, as with Diana’s gauntlets and her lasso, this armor is a defensive not an offensive tool.  The Amazon way, influencing men’s hearts with love, creates an “armor” that can’t be pierced.

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Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

In the climactic scene, Diana hijacks Max Lord’s global broadcast and uses her lasso to show everyone the truth of what their wishes cost.  Upon seeing this, the people of the world let go of their wishes for the good of all.  WW84 is showing we can rise above our darker impulses and listen to the angels of our better nature.  We all have that light inside ourselves.  No one is irredeemable…not even Max Lord.

Max – “You’re too late!”

Diana – “Why are you doing this??  Don’t you have enough??”

Max – “Why not more?  Why not wish for more?”

Diana – “But they don’t know what you’re taking from them!”

Max – “We want what we want!  Just like you did!  It’s too late Diana!  They already heard me!  They already wished!  And those that haven’t yet, oh they will!  More Diana!  Why such a hero?  You could’ve kept your pilot and your powers, if only you joined me.  Will you reconsider?  I’m a forgiving man!  You want him back?  Just say the word!  You can have it all!  You just have to want it!”

Diana – “I’ve never wanted anything more.  But he’s gone.  And that’s the truth.  And everything has a price.  One I’m not willing to pay, not anymore.  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.  So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it.  You must be the hero.  Only you can save the day.  Renounce your wish, if you want to save this world.”

Max – “Why would I when it’s finally MY turn?!  The world belongs to ME.  You can’t stop me!  No one can!”

Diane – “I wasn’t talking to you.  I was talking to everyone else.  Because you’re not the only one who has suffered, who wants more, who wants them back, who doesn’t want to be afraid anymore or alone or frightened or powerless.  ‘Cause you’re not the only one who imagined the world where everything is different.  Better.  Finally.  A world where they were loved and seen and appreciated.  But what is it costing you?  Do you see the truth?”

We see how Max was abused by his father, harassed and taunted and bullied by his classmates.  We see the forces which gave rise to his ego and brashness, the protector parts born to shelter those beautiful and vulnerable wounded child parts within him, are presented with clarity.  While it’s moving to see the root of Max Lord’s character, it can be challenging for us, in a time when we’re so divided, to recognize this is true of EVERYONE with whom we disagree.  But in modelling Max Lord so clearly on Donald Trump, Patty Jenkins is challenging her audience to see she isn’t speaking just in the abstract.  This is an audacious, subversive, radical hope indeed.     

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Max finds Alistair amidst the carnage. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

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Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

As the world goes to hell, Max finally thinks of Alistair.  He panics, fearing for his son.  He can hear Alistair crying out for him.  To save Alistair, Max renounces his wish.  Max – who was so clearly Donald Trump – was redeemed.  Patty Jenkins took her fictional stand-in for the man who played a major role in unleashing the darkness we’ve seen for the last four years and said boldly and directly HE CAN BE REDEEMED IN LOVE.  No one is irredeemable.  In truth and love, with compassion and wisdom, anyone can be reborn.  This hope – radical, wild, and free – is the sort of hope which can change the world.  I wept.  I cry every time I watch this.

The film ends at Christmas.  Given its original release date was 5 June 2020, this ending wasn’t to tie in with the Christmas season.  This was an intentionally poignant way to underscore the film’s message.  Historically, we don’t know when Jesus was born.  We’ve guesses!  And we’ve some good guesses!  But the Christian church set the feast of Christmas, the feast of the birth of Jesus, on December 25th because it’s a few days after December 21st which is the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice is the darkest/shortest day of the year.  So, in the days following the Solstice, light is returning to the darkness.  While the early church had no certain knowledge of Jesus’ literal birth date, they knew this was true.  Jesus and his Kingdom of God vision were a light coming to the darkness.  Light returned to the world in Wonder Woman 1984, as the people followed Diana’s lead.  Light can return to our dark world, too, if we’ve the courage to do the same.

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Light returns to the darkness. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984

Ok so, that was a lot.  This may well be the longest piece I’ve ever written.  But it’s Wonder Woman’s 80th Anniversary!!!!  And when I started writing about all I saw in this film, well…I see a lotWonder Woman 1984 is big and bright and funny but it’s more than that.  Wonder Woman 1984 is inspiring.  It’s hopeful.  It lifts the human spirit while daring us to look directly into the potential of the human heart.  At the end of the day, there are so many movies I love.  As I said above, I adore going to the movies!  But the ones I return to again and again aren’t the ones that are “just entertaining.”  The ones which stay with me forever are the ones that make life better.  And Wonder Woman 1984 makes life better.  I would’ve always appreciated a film like this but the fact that it arrived when it did, after a year like we all had in 2020?  That’s a gift for which I’ll be forever grateful. Nothing could’ve been more relevant.  Wonder Woman 1984 didn’t just teach lessons of joy, hope, and love – it brought joy, hope, and love back into my life at a time when I really needed it.  Not many superhero movies actually save the day but we have Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and Wonder Woman there when we need them to.

Eighty years later, in the hands of the right creators, Wonder Woman is still the love leader William Moulton Marston always intended her to be.  Life is hard and our world can feel like it’s growing darker and angrier every day.  Through it all, we have Wonder Woman to bring light to the darkness.  Diana’s potential to show us another way – a way of love anchored in hope which produces the deepest and sincerest of joys – thankfully remains as salvific as it ever was.


[1] Michelle R. Finn, “William Marston’s Feminist Agenda” In The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times, edited by Joseph J. Darokwski. (North Carolina: McFarland and Co. Inc., 2014), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Corey Chichizola, “Wonder Woman 1984 ‘s Gal Gadot Explains Why Diana Ditches Her Sword and Shield In The Sequel,” Cinema Blend, Published December 11, 2019.  Accessed April 2, 2021.  https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2486563/wonder-woman-1984s-gal-gadot-explains-why-diana-ditches-her-sword-and-shield-in-the-sequel

[4] Neeraj Chand, “Wonder Woman 1984 Director Hoped DC Sequel Would Inspire Kids to Save the World,” Movieweb, Published January 24, 2021.  Accessed February 3, 2021.  https://movieweb.com/wonder-woman-1984-children-save-the-world/

[5] Finn, 19.

[6] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 152.

[7] Ibid., 173.

[8] Ibid., 200-1.

8 thoughts on “Lessons of Joy, Hope, and Love: The Gift of Wonder Woman 1984

  1. While I did not enjoy Wonder Woman 1984 as much as you did, you certainly have brought another perspective for me to consider. I’ve found somewhat recent fascination with Wonder Woman in the last few years (and not just because of the first movie, though that helps a bit). I feel like DC had more compelling and interesting female characters, at least as I was growing up, and so I have a bit of a nostalgic heart for them; obviously Batman was a REALLY big part of my childhood because of my brother so Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn (before the live action movies) come to mind specifically, but Wonder Woman stands out too. I LOVE Diana’s origin story, I love her connection to mythology, it makes her character seem bigger than the typical super hero. Plus, she’s as you so eloquently mentioned throughout this piece, a vessel and defender of love. She certainly is one of the best (in my opinion) super heroes we have, and I really adored this piece about her, even if I didn’t like the movie all that much.

    Thank you for yet another informative and thoughtful piece 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, “vessel of love” – OH MY GOSH, I adore this phrase!!! Wow. I will absolutely be using it (and crediting you, of course, ;D) in all sorts of conversations in the future. What a beautiful phrase! And what a beautiful goal for us to all aspire to be, a vessel of love!

      Second, I completely agree with you. DC has had more compelling and interesting female characters for a long time. Marvel’s been doing a great job catching up in creating and developing their female characters (Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Jane Foster/Thor, Squirrel Girl, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Silk, etc.) but DC’s always had Wonder Woman as their anchor. And, like you said, they were ready and willing to put Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in the spotlight early on. I have a lot of respect for DC in that and I’m glad Marvel’s starting to follow their model.

      I love that these characters have been such a big part of your childhood. They weren’t for me and, while I’m so excited to be meeting them now, part of me envies you for getting to grow up around the awesomeness of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy.

      I’m proud my piece gave you a new perspective to consider! That’s what I was hoping to do, to be able to express what I saw in the film. It makes my heart happy to know I managed to do so :).

      And thank you for another wonderful comment, Samantha!

      Like

  2. I have to admit that I did not enjoy WW84. Narrative-wise, it felt overly complicated and convoluted. However, I did really appreciate your analysis. You bring out everything that makes me love Diana! I got a little teary-eyed reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, yay! Thank you, Krysta :). That was my hope with this piece (well, not *specifically* to make you get teary-eyed but that’s still a win), to offer what I saw in the film out to those who read it. I felt particularly excited to do so as I’ve seen over the last year I am very much in the minority here in regard to WW84. So it makes me happy to know you enjoyed my analysis!

      Like

  3. As much as I adored the first Wonder Woman film, this one fell short for me. No fault to Gal Gadot, she is fabulous, but I didn’t connect with her romance with Trevor and her friendship with pre-Cheetah. But your obvious enthusiasm for the entire movie, had given me some food for thought. You have given me a much different lens to view the narrative!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with my fabulous blogging partner here as well as other commenters above. I’m reminded of a video I recently saw titled, “Batman Forever: Misunderstood Masterpiece?” (there’s a rabbit hole for ya) and the vlogger at one point asks, “Now, does the film say all this as deeply and eloquently as I just did? NO.” I get that vibe from your post; I don’t think the film said what it was trying to say as well as you did, and that was my problem with it after the first film said everything it wanted/needed to nearly flawlessly – with subtlety and by showing, not telling. Perhaps I was too close to everything 2020 hit us with on top of my own personal 2020 stuff that I failed to see it as you did. Thank you for your perspective!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. As the resident Wonder Woman expert in my life, YAY! This is high praise indeed. Thank you :). I so appreciate that you enjoyed my perspective of the film! And, as I told Nancy, that was sort of my hope with this piece. I wasn’t looking to “change anyone’s mind” so much as offer a different way to see the film. I’m happy to know you enjoyed it.

        Also, because of the way my mind works, I am now soooooooo far down into that ‘Batman Forever’ rabbit hole XD. WOW. Because I’d never call it a “misunderstood masterpiece” but here I am arguing the same for ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ so who even knows?? Hopefully I’ve crawled out of this rabbit hole and toned down my thinking/overthinking of this whole issue by Christmas at least…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. YES. That’s what I was hoping for! And it’s one of the reasons, even though the piece had been developed so slowly over the last year, that I wanted to come back to it. I’m not aiming to change anyone’s mind but if I can offer a new lens through which to see the narrative then it’s a win :D. Yay!

      Liked by 1 person

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