Arriving at the end of a year in which cinemas around the globe had spent much of the time with their doors closed, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) was one of only a few American superhero films even released in 2020, alongside Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020), Bloodshot (2020), and The New Mutants (2020). This lack of films from what is irrefutably the most financially successful and culturally influential contemporary film genre resulted in, for the first time ever, five international films occupying the top ten global box office positions at the end of the year, four of which were from China.
Jenkins’s film, the ninth title in what is widely referred to as the DCEU (DC Extended Universe), was screened at a limited number of cinemas around the world in December 2020, before being streamed on HBO Max for subscribers from December 25, arguably the highest-profile film ever to have been released on a streaming service in such a way. Three years before, her Wonder Woman (2017) had been a rare high for the series, which has featured far too many lows (see Suicide Squad ; Justice League ) and ambitious disappointments (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ).
Wonder Woman 1984 proved even more divisive than its predecessor, inspiring almost equal levels of admiration and opprobrium,…
Wonder Woman 1984 proved even more divisive than its predecessor, inspiring almost equal levels of admiration and opprobrium, with audiences and critics seemingly unable to decide whether it should be considered a “vibrant and virtuous adventure packed with all the heart and heroism we’ve come to expect from DC’s shining light” (Travis 2020) or a “disappointing sequel [that] highlights not only the dire state of the live-action superhero genre in film, but the dire state of Hollywood filmmaking as a whole” (Bastién 2020). Those who embraced the film praised how far it departed from the angst-ridden trauma that has come to define many contemporary superhero films, its vibrancy, dynamism, and colorful aesthetic, but also the fact that it was a diversion, albeit a brief one, from the COVID-19 global pandemic, with some suggesting, as Ben Travis did writing at Empire, that “Wonder Woman 1984 really is the hero 2020 needed all along” (2020).
Many reviewers also commented that despite its nostalgic 1980s setting, the film was to be read as a self-conscious reaction to some of the defining discourse of the Trump era, with its thematic motifs concerning truth, lies, sexism, and the manipulation of the televisual image. This is without even mentioning the fact that the film’s primary antagonist, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), bears some intriguing parallels to Donald Trump, the forty-fifth president of the United States, who was just a few weeks away from leaving office when the film was released at the end of December. While Jenkins, who both directed and co-wrote the film, was reluctant to explicitly state that Lord was based on Trump, she conceded that “He’s one of them. … Trump’s definitely one of the people we looked at” (qtd. in Bradley 2020). From his reality TV-style persona to his incessant hyperbole, his relentless superficiality to his Trumpian lines of dialogue—“I am not a con man! I am a television personality and a respected businessman … I am not a loser,” “It’s a conspiracy against success, they’re jealous that’s why!”, “Life is good … but it can be better”—Lord, as Will Mann asserted, “is a Donald Trump-surrogate so transparently, blatantly obvious he might as well have ‘bigly’ tattooed on his forehead” (2021).
As a striking counterpoint, Wonder Woman/ Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) emerges as an illuminating conduit for collective empathy, reason, and more importantly, truth.
As a striking counterpoint, Wonder Woman/ Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) emerges as an illuminating conduit for collective empathy, reason, and more importantly, truth. In the same way that male heroes are imbued with fluctuating representations of masculinity, female superheroes can be interpreted through the shifting lens of feminism in a genre of film that has at best historically marginalized women and at worst erased them from the screen. In recent years several notable examples from the genre have encoded this within their frames, including the disappointing X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019); the inspirational but formulaic Captain Marvel (2019); and the subversive The Boys (Amazon Studios, 2019–), in which the experiences of Starlight (Erin Moriarty) are explicitly anchored to the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. It is fitting that in the climax of Wonder Woman 1984 Jenkins chooses to deviate from one of the central codes and conventions of the superhero genre: its demand for narrative resolution through violence. Wonder Woman does not break Maxwell Lord’s neck (like Superman does Zod’s in Man of Steel) or stab him through the chest (like T’Challa does Killmonger in Black Panther), but defeats him through her example, by sacrificing her own desires and inspiring the world to do the same. Using her lasso of truth and broadcasting live around the globe, she transmits a message that seems astonishingly apposite for its cultural moment: “You cannot have it all, you can only have the truth and the truth is enough.”
There is much more to be said about Wonder Woman 1984 than can be covered in this brief post. It is a far from perfect film, too often veering toward the Superman films directed by Richard Lester rather than those by Richard Donner, but it is very much of its social and political moment and will be studied by scholars of the screen in years to come when they analyze the symbiotic relationship between the Donald Trump era and the American culture industries.
Terence McSweeney is the author of The Contemporary Superhero Film: Projections of Power and Identity, in which he provides a concise and up-to-date overview of the superhero genre.
Rebecca Cohen is a PhD candidate at Solent University who researches into post 9/11 American Cinema.
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