Despite A Promising Beginning, “Wonder Woman 1984” Falls into the Same Old Traps

My problem with WW84 isn’t so much the plot itself—although it’s pretty muddled—but the way the machinations of the plot rest on gendered characterizations we really shouldn’t have to put up with anymore in 2020.

Despite A Promising Beginning, "Wonder Woman 1984" Falls into the Same Old Traps
(Still from Wonder Woman / DC Comics and Warner Bros.)

Spoiler Alert: This review includes significant details from the plot of Wonder Woman 1984.

Throughout her almost 80-year history, Wonder Woman has always been rife with contradictions.

A foreigner from a hidden island who becomes a defender of American democracy. A girl growing up, surrounded only by women, who falls in love with the first man she meets and leaves her family and culture behind with little hesitation. A highly trained Amazon warrior who is the “most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen” (as Etta Candy extols in Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman). An unstoppable fighter but also a champion of love and kindness.

It’s with an understanding of these contradictions that I can say I love Wonder Woman in her many incarnations. Whether campy or serious—as she’s been represented in turn across media, from comics and animated children’s programing to television and film—Wonder Woman functions as a recognizable symbol of women’s empowerment. She was one of the first women in the superhero pantheon and is certainly the most well-known. Many consider her a feminist icon. She has been featured on the cover of Ms. five times—in part because she’s such a potent symbol.

I say this to acknowledge that one film cannot make or break Wonder Woman’s ethos. All too often, media centered around women bears an untenable burden: one misstep, one failed concept, and detractors leap from the shadows to proclaim absurdities like no one watches women-led actions films (easy enough to refute since 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2019’s Captain Marvel both broke box office records). I’m simply not interested in that universalizing nonsense, and you shouldn’t be either.

That said, I was so wildly disappointed by Wonder Woman 1984—released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters on Dec. 25—that we should question what allows a film to go so spectacularly astray from what is, in my estimation, the heart of the character and her appeal.

A few good things first: The opening ten minutes of the film are riveting. The young Diana (Lilly Aspell) is exceptional, and the flashback Olympiad set on her island home Themyscira is beautifully imagined and shot. It’s equally wonderful to see Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright reprise their roles as Queen Hippolyta and Antiope (Diana’s mother and aunt, respectively).

The brightly colored nostalgia of the 1980s that saturates the remainder of the film sets a welcome lighter tone. Wonder Woman (2017), which took place during World War I, was fairly somber and grey—an atmosphere befitting Diana’s origin story but unnecessary for the sequel. The 2017 film was a smart and earnest reimagining of Diana as an Amazon princess coming into her power and learning to fight for love and humanity. I like how WW84 shifts the focus onto Truth as its overarching theme, giving us a Trump-esque villain in Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) who always wants more, more, more (power, money, status) no matter the cost.

Actually, the first half hour of WW84 unfolds auspiciously. Diana (Gal Gadot) works for the Smithsonian as a cultural anthropologist sixty-plus years after the events of the 2017 film. She is well-liked, effortlessly glamorous and smart, but also lonely, performing her hero work in secret isolation.

Enter Diana’s new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a somewhat clichéd mousy gemologist who attempts to ingratiate herself to her coworkers even though no one seems to remember her name. Acting-wise, Gadot and Wiig are beyond reproach, especially considering the material they’re given. They make a terrific pair on screen, even as Barbara shifts from friend and coworker into the villain Cheetah.

Despite A Promising Beginning, "Wonder Woman 1984" Falls into the Same Old Traps
(Still from Wonder Woman / DC Comics and Warner Bros.)

The trouble for the film begins as the central plot kicks into gear, revolving around a magical stone that will grant anyone who touches it one wish but extracts a toll. Both Barbara and Diana inadvertently make their wishes while trying to uncover the stone’s origins, not realizing the stone’s power, before Maxwell Lord steals it for himself.

Barbara wishes to be like Diana, envying her beauty and charisma but also unwittingly acquiring Diana’s demi-goddess strength and speed. Diana wishes for the return of the love-of-her-life, pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), accidentally sacrificing her powers in the process.  

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There are many things to nitpick in WW84, but I’m comfortable with the fact that superhero movies require a significant suspension of disbelief and am more than willing to embrace some cheesiness and chaos. My problem isn’t so much the plot itself (although it’s pretty muddled), but the way the machinations of the plot rest on gendered characterizations we really shouldn’t have to put up with anymore in 2020.

So I’ll focus my critique on two major issues that are particularly galling, since they’re indicative of the ways films starring female protagonists run astray—often because writers, producers and directors think these elements are either necessary or expected components for narratives centering around powerful women.

The first issue concerns the romance plotline between Diana and Steve, which is shockingly heteropatriarchal and overtakes the film, fixing Diana into a position that makes little sense given her character. Diana allows her reunion with Steve to derail an investigation that, had she pursued it, may have prevented the destruction Maxwell is able to unleash with the stone.

She is also all but willing to accept the loss of her powers if it means she can keep Steve by her side. (Even more troubling, Steve’s soul is inhabiting another man’s body the whole time, which doesn’t seem to concern them).

Despite A Promising Beginning, "Wonder Woman 1984" Falls into the Same Old Traps
(Still from Wonder Woman / DC Comics and Warner Bros.)

Diana and Steve’s reunion in WW84 is predicated on the idea that Diana has been pining for her dead lover for six decades, even though she only knew him for a few weeks at most before his death. Why Diana mourns Steve so intensely—more than her Aunt Antiope, who died around the same time, or her mother, whom she has no reason to believe she’ll ever see again—is a mystery. Even Steve worries about the obsessive nature of her fixation on him, urging Diana to stop isolating herself in her grief.  Ultimately, his logic prevails over her emotions, and it is Steve who rescues Diana by convincing her to let him go in order to reclaim her powers and save the world.

The second issue is how the film undermines its own purported intentions, as seen in the opening flashback, in the way it represents the relationship between women and power. When young Diana, clearly faster and nimbler than the other Amazons, takes a shortcut during a race to make up for a youthful mistake, Antiope stops her from crossing the finish line, telling her, “No true hero is born from lies.”

However, WW84 offers two versions of women’s power, both seemingly divorced from the lessons of Diana’s youth and from her role as a hero. Barbara-qua-Cheetah acquires misbegotten powers from the stone and wields them with vicious impunity. When merely imbued with Diana’s charisma, Barbara embodies the stereotype of a woman who uses her femininity to seduce and beguile; once she gains Diana’s power she becomes even worse, unable to control her rage and savagely protecting her power regardless of the consequences.

Case in point: In an early scene, Barbara is accosted by a man as she walks home in the dark; she’s rescued by Diana, who flings the man aside and then offers to teach Barbara self-defense in order to explain her preternatural strength.

Later, Barbara encounters the same man, but does not show Diana’s restraint, beating him to within an inch of his life without mercy. The film frames this as an example of power’s corruptive force—but it veers uncomfortably close to long-standing arguments that imply women are too emotional to wield power responsibly and will only end up abusing it.

Diana personifies the other edge of the gendered Sword of Damocles always hanging over the heads of powerful women. Initially, her emotional attachment to Steve causes her to give up on finding other sources of joy in her life (she admits to Barbara that she does not date because of her sustained grief, nor does she seem to have any friends,).

Later, her romantic attachment to Steve almost causes her to abandon her heroic purpose to protect humanity. Somehow, WW84 puts Diana in the position of having to sacrifice her love (twice) while also nearly succumbing to it.

Finding motivation and suspense for omnipotent superheroes is one of the consistent challenges of these narratives. Every “Superman” must have their Kryptonite, after all, or where’s the suspense? But let’s ask ourselves what we’re saying about an icon like Wonder Woman when her Kryptonite is a willingness to give up power for love—only to be forced to give up love to reclaim her power.  

Ultimately, Cheetah and Maxwell Lord are red herrings. The real villain of the film is Diana’s own psyche, her ability to sabotage herself as she did when she was a girl, through faults that are commonly feminized. There’s enough evil out in the world for women to fight, without having to prove over and over again that we can win these outdated battles against others’ gendered expectations.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.