Who is Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) - IMDb

This review will contain spoilers for both Wonder Woman films.

Contrary to popular belief, superhero movies have just as much a challenge as other movies.

The hero in a movie must seek to identify him or herself as a contrast to other players in the film by action or thought. In a superhero movie, a character must do so while explaining the history of their progression, occasionally, from a normal person to someone with extraordinary powers. From that point, what makes them the hero must contrast significantly from any threat to their core beliefs, and these core beliefs must satisfy a viewer to the point where we want them to succeed. These beliefs in Western culture are accentuated by an individual hero because we believe in the power of individualism, in the power of one person to change the course of society through labor, work, or action. To top it all off, a superhero movie comes with the baggage of the work that it is adapting, which may include several decades of art, story, and lore.

For most of my life, I would describe my relation to superhero movies as “chaotically neutral”, meaning that for the most part the things I enjoy out of these movies has little to do with the prospect that the characters have powers. For example, Spiderman: Far From Home is simply a well-accomplished teen movie, where a young person has been around adults long enough to know that he’s different from them, but has not quite explicitly constructed an identity yet. Couple this with a summer vacation, and the chance to spend more time with MJ, Peter Parker finds himself in a breezy Eurotrip film. I enjoyed this film because the super powers are placed in a context where it serves the story as well.

Based on this perspective, you will no doubt be surprised to find that most of these superhero movies are actually works that I do not find enjoyable. If a movie can advocate for why it needs to have superpowers to tell a particular story, then it has my attention. Watchmen, for example, is a graphic novel and film that actively explores how powers that go above and beyond the natural laws of physics would change our American timeline, and how that would not necessarily be a better one. For the most part, powers are an externalization of conflict and psychology in the worst way possible.

Why I watched Wonder Woman 1984 after writing all that I did I do not know. In 2017, my wife and I were pleasantly surprised by the first Wonder Woman movie, though after seeing this sequel, I feel as though it is colored a bit. After two films I still am not sure I really understand who Wonder Woman is, and I feel that is the most damning critique about the two films, the second one in particular. It is, and I do not think I can overstate this, a trainwreck.

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is lingering on Earth as an anthropologist in Washington D.C. for the past half-century. Ever since the conclusion of her fight with Aries and the death of her lover Steve (Chris Pine), she has been stopping petty crime, and this has carried her through the second World War, through Vietnam, and now the American mall. The 1980s is here with all the unabashed consumerism and high-powered corporate culture along with it. And the fanny packs…

While on the job, Diana meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a gemologist brought in by the FBI to discover the background of some antiques stolen in an underground business at previously mentioned mall, most notably a stone that goes back long enough to catch Diana’s attention. Barbara’s “homely” look and stunted confidence shudders next to Diana’s elegance, and she finds herself asking her out to lunch and praising Diana’s heels.

Cut to Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), an oil baron drilling wells that have suddenly run dry…literally. Desperate to look good in front of his adorable son, he takes a visit to the anthropology lab in an effort to reclaim the stone, and for what purpose we are unsure.

What we did not realize is the wish that Diana had inside her when she held onto the stone, at least until she arrives at a party hosted by Maxwell Lord himself, to do some digging. In a stunning white dress, nonchalantly rebuffing every aggressive 1980s male windbag, she finds one who wont be ignored. Farther than that, he seems to be privy to intimate exchanges of words that only one man from Diana’s life would know about. That’s right, Steve Trevor is back! Inside the body of a doppleganger, he appears as Chris Pine to Diana (a nice feature I’m sure we’d all like to have), but he retains the appearance of the stranger, so it seems, to everyone else.

We learn that the stone grants the wishes of those who hold it, but at some cost. What cost that entails is unclear, as it is only described as “their most valuable possession”. Barbara Minerva, in an awkward confession with the stone, wants to be just as beautiful, confident, and sexy as Diana. In a strange case akin to Princess Diaries, apparently all Minerva needs to do to obtain this sexiness is to get a blowout and take off those frumpy glasses. Before the night is done, Minerva comes to understand that she is also like Diana in the way that she has superhuman strength. And as she spends time in her newfound body, her power overrides her once kind nature: in the span of a single act, she longs to be “an apex predator”.

Max Lord, so desperate to acquire wealth and power, dissolves the stone in his hands by requesting to be the stone itself. And it’s up to Diana not just to stop him, but to discover what it means for her lover to return after making a bold sacrifice.

It all sounds presumably wonderful (pun intended) on paper, but the execution is bizarre and awful.

I think it’s best to critique this movie by asking the question of who, exactly, is Wonder Woman? In hindsight, while I was entertained by the first movie, I do not quite have a sense of what her core values are, what her personality is like, and how this might conflict in the problems she is tasked to solve. She has no qualms, it seems, killing young men drafted into a war, and seems well-trained in martial arts and combat, to the point where she seems like an uber woman. By the last act of the first film, the spectacle and the lights make it hardly different from other action movie schlock. This is problematic for a viewer like me. While I somehow managed to gleam insights on who superheroes like Batman and Spiderman are, I do not know how this contrasts with someone like Wonder Woman. I know through video games and cartoons about Batman well enough. I do not have that vantage point for Diana. As such, I am lost on the whole idea of what she represents as a hero and a woman. Keep in mind that I enjoy very much the lives of girls and women, and I feel as though I have read enough of Erica Jong, Betty Friedan, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Munro, to know that the title of “woman” is a big one indeed, and it blankets many adaptations of performing as a woman. So what ideal of womanhood is being presented in Wonder Woman 1984?

The first moments of the movie are an overly long prologue, featuring a young Diana in a “ninja warrior” inspired obstacle course. When Diana loses her horse after being flung off, she cleverly slides down a water runoff to get back on again. But before she crosses the finish line, she is yanked off by her trainer and mentor Antiope (Robin Wright), and told off for cheating. Unfortunately for the audience, we are unaware what is allowed and what is not allowed as the code for the games as they are provided, and it is not until she is rebuked are we made to understand what the moral of the story is in this flashback. So it’s a very weak flashback, but in it we have a character who is clever at solving problems, rather than a rule follower. So, despite the awkwardness of the prologue, we have a character trait and a theme.

Diana seeking to maintain her anonymity as Wonder Woman has her throwing her diadem and destroying the security cameras at the mall. Her nonverbal brevity in this moment suggests she has been doing this kind of thing before, that it is routine. She has had a monk-like existence, stoically engaging in art pieces at the museum, while at the same time fighting crime when she gets word. Nowhere is it clear how she is able to discover the danger that arises out of the mall before she arrives, but more alarming is the fact that this woman who does not age (and is absolutely gorgeous) manages to spend plenty of time in a place without anyone realizing her timelessness.

Gone are the days where Diana found women’s clothing lacking utility. In the 1980s, she is both timeless and parochial, sporting the best outfits of the time period and drawing looks of elegance and grace. She is able to say with a straight face that she “does not own a TV” as well as force Chris Pine through a fashion playdate, as he tries to make all the hideousness of the 1980s work. With Diana, time seems to have no effect and every effect on her psychology.

In a rushed action scene, Diana and Steve end up in Egypt and happen to drive by Maxwell Lord, and make a turn with a cab to try and confront him. Diana almost loses her life here, as she begins to realize that her relationship with Steve is causing her to lose her powers. All that cleverness we found in the beginning of the movie has little to do with when to confront Maxwell, but in simply finding better ways to fight. It seems smart at first glance for her to use the golden lasso on a rocket that Steve fires to give her some momentum, until it dawns on the viewer that this is not at all how Diana needed to intervene in the first place. Why not wait until later, at night, when the security detail is not highly-armed and on high-alert? Why not simply tail the cars until they find a stopping spot?

It may shock you to realize, as it did me, that according to the Wikipedia page on Wonder Woman, she “favors the pen”, meaning that she prefers dialogue and language to violence and action. All at once I felt delighted and repulsed. I think we need a superhero like this Diana described here. Everyone comes into a superhero movie expecting guns and explosions, only to find that her real super power is in her ability, like perhaps Sun Tzu, to create situations in which no fighting need occur at all. Instead, what we get in these movies is fighting, and so much of it. Barbara Minerva transforms into an anthropomorphic cheetah, and clashes with Wonder Woman in an awful, dimly-lit, poorly edited action sequence, that leaves us wondering how on Earth these two got into the position to be fighting at all? Wouldn’t it have been amazing for Wonder Woman to encapsulate the “walk softly but carry a big stick” mentality? Imagine that Diana maintains her calm demeanor, and works hard to ensure peaceful resolutions. Imagine that, when these moments are impossible, and she finds herself provoked, the action scenes are resolved in seconds, seconds, and we realize that Diana does not wish to fight because she knows she will win. She does not wish to fight because of what a waste the action ends up being. All the damage and the violence, but more importantly, all the waste of those precious minutes in a feature-length movie, means that Diana gets to be clever on our behalf, and the opportunity cost allows us to get to know even the villains with greater depth.

It would be amazing for Wonder Woman not just to be an advocate for characters in the movies she plays in, but also to be a balm for this testosterone-fueled experiment that I am so exhausted of when it comes to these films. Gal Gadot describes Wonder Woman as a hero “with a lot of emotional intelligence.” Would a hero like that really allow herself to be overcome by Chris Pine while taking advantage of the body of a stranger? At the end of the movie, out of all the things Wonder Woman needs, is it really a suit of armor? Is what makes Wonder Woman sexy her physical strength, as the movie wants us to believe with Miranda’s transformation? Or is it in the confidence in knowing what truth amounts to in daily living?

The second movie is a disaster because there is so little time expressing who Diana is, and too much time spent exploiting her for what she is not. Because of that, when Diana is confronted, like in the case with her obstacle course, we cannot even be sure if this is an infringement, or simply being smart. And we see little reticence by Diana to fight those she has to in order to exact her version of the truth. This is most shocking considering Maxwell’s allusive nature to Donald Trump. Selling, making deals, and having more at any cost, gives the 1980s a bad look for what it did to future generations and wealth inequality. Who better than Diana to make startling critiques on what is good, and what is true? Relationships, altruism, safety, peace. Gal Gadot’s Diana wanders aimlessly through a snowy Christmas market, perhaps realizing that she truly has no one. Perhaps she has so idealized her love for Steve that she refuses to engage in even friendships to get her through the day. Is this the sort of takeaway I’m supposed to have from the film?

I realized at the end of all this that Wonder Woman 1984 suffers for being a superhero movie, and that even B tier dramas like Age of Adeline have more to say on the subject. Until they figure out who Diana is, and explain to me with all the power that celluloid can deliver, I have even less of an interest in watching superhero movies from this point onward.

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