Why Wonder Woman 1984’s Villains Are Better Than Its Heroes


[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984.]

In many ways, for better and for worse, Wonder Woman 1984 plays like a throwback film. Not just to the Amblin-esque 1980s family-friendly adventure flicks hinted by the title (and the aesthetics, and the goofier-toned set pieces, and the simplistic plot device of the monkey’s paw wishing stone, and etc.), but to previous eras of DC filmmaking. From the Tim Burton Batmans to, um, the Christopher Nolan Batmans, the most prestigious DC films were marked by an emphasis on villains. Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Jim Carrey, Uma Thurman, Heath Ledger, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway — these performers inhabited their DC villains with verve, gusto, charisma, and an obvious interest from their respective filmmakers. The Batman of it all, while compelling and inspiring and full of its own iconic contributions to culture, plays more muted, more lurking in the margins, more symbolic rather than predicated on individual intrigue (a point about Batman The Dark Knight Trilogy keeps explicitly making at the conclusions of its films). Conversely, the beginnings of the MCU flipped the script, focusing on the endearing, contagious camaraderie of its heroic characters, making them highly individualized to the detriment of their oft-anonymous, symbolic villains.

Wonder Woman the first, released in 2017, seemed to be the first DCEU film to reverse this trend willingly and successfully (leaving aside the attempts of Joss Whedon’s Frankensteined Justice League). Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Gal Gadot, is the shining star of that picture. It works when she’s on the screen being Wonder Woman; it falters when David Thewlis becomes our requisite anonymous CGI villain. But in 2020’s Wonder Woman 1984, for whatever reason, we seem to have fallen back on old DC film habits. The villains are the star of this sequel, and our hero, as hammered home explicitly by the film’s screenplay and decisions made by Diana, fades into the background as a passive symbol.

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Image via Warner Bros.

It is without exaggeration that I believe Pedro Pascal deserves an Oscar nomination for his work in this film. He is delivering a broad, arch, fun, Schumacher-level performance, instantly lighting up the screen whenever he appears — and instantly drawing our attention away from the subdued, saddened, and solitary Gadot. But it ain’t all melodrama and cheekiness from Pascal. His Max Lord, a charismatic but empty businessman, is given a beginning-to-end arc from the screenplay, with dynamics, emotional shifts, and a lesson learned by the end. Pascal jumps on these shades with verve, with excitement, and with triumph. The scene where he tearfully tells his son Lucian Perez that he’ll never be a loser stung me with the depths of his emptiness; the scenes where he begs people to touch him to grant their wishes, as silly as it sounds on paper, felt like the most emotionally important decision one could grapple with at this moment; and his final scenes of resolution and realization sell and sing with a refreshing sense of sentimentality. The character plays on paper, and Pascal makes it soar even more.

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Image via Warner Bros.

My esteemed colleague Allie Gemmill has written on how the film fails Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of Cheetah, aka Barbara Minerva, and their points are very understandable, especially as they relate to the character’s superior depictions in the original DC comics. Indeed, the Cheetah we see is undeniably reduced and reactive, her arc motivated by the mere existence of Diana Prince (who, it must be noted, does nothing active or special to motivate Barbara’s jealousy of her; Diana is a blank symbol even for the other characters of the film). But her arc is still prevalent, made even more obvious by this bald faced motivation, and played with surprising A-to-Z range by Wiig. In fact, I found her arc to be the most obviously endearing, even if the film doesn’t want us to think so. I want to see the story of a broken-down, put-upon, shyer-than-shy scientist who breaks free from the oppressive, casual shackles of the patriarchy to become a confident, fearsome, vigilante superhero; frankly, a self-contained Cheetah movie with this plot sounds better than that self-contained Joker movie we had a bit ago! So while the film treats Wiig’s well-performed transformation from doddering weirdo to snarling beast warrior as an example of a descent into villainy, selfishness, and immorality, I’m still compelled by it, even if I fight against the text’s intentions. Wiig is so game to go there, and the film is so game to show it, and my only gripe is that I want it shown more!

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Image via Warner Bros.

So… what does Wonder Woman get to do? Like the first film, when she gets to “be Wonder Woman,” it soars with a giddy energy, and I for one love how silly her action set pieces are this time around (neon-glowing lassos? Cartoonish robbers? Telling a young girl “Shh”? More please!). But when she’s not being Wonder Woman — and she is not being Wonder Woman often — she is not doing much of anything at all. Well, she gets to pine over Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, consummating her long standing feelings without any regard for the body Steve Trevor has inhabited to make this nightmarish ignoring of consent happen. And she gets to, um, give up Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, tearfully renouncing her wish to get him back so she can get her powers back (a scene that, it must be noted, is remarkably performed by Gadot, making me eager for a better screenplay that gives her more room for moments like this). And then, at the moment of most despair, when Max Lord is about to ruin the entire world with all these monkey’s paw wishes, she gets to… tell him calmly to stop. The final, active decision to stop the big bad is made by the big bad himself. Yes, semantically, the action of “telling him to do so” can be interpreted as an active decision, and yes this does serve that old school DC filmmaking strategy of “Wonder Woman is a symbol for others to act heroically,” but when you compare it to a moment full of activation, personality, and symbolic power like Iron Man snapping in Endgame, it just doesn’t soar as high as a final Wonder Woman decision should.

Gadot getting to do not much of anything but pine and cry and wish over a man irks me as a primary source of emotional fodder, though I suppose this is often a primary source of emotional fodder in superhero cinema (Batman with Rachel, Spider-Man with Mary Jane, Wanda with Vision, etc.). But beyond this regressive-feeling insistence on a fierce, powerful Amazonian woman who is so powerful just being herself that she creates a damn Cheetah supervillain out of nothing being so hung up on a damn man, it doesn’t track for me from a nuts-and-bolts screenwriting standpoint. The introductory sequence is a fun action set piece in which a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) blasts her way through a series of Olympic-style games on the island of Themyscira, creating her own shortcuts to get to the end quicker before being stopped and told that shortcuts are not the way to heroism. “No true hero is born from lies,” says Antiope (Robin Wright), cleanly setting up a film in which Diana must learn the value of truth-telling, of sticking through something that hurts to the bitter end, of following the correct path.

And you know what? I’m just not seeing that in what she does (or more accurately, doesn’t do). Maybe, generously, wishing for Steve Trevor to come back is a “shortcut,” and she must learn to “tell the truth” by renouncing this wish and “sticking through something that hurts to the bitter end,” which in this case is, uh, living without Steve Trevor and telling Max Lord to be nice? The math is not working for me, and it’s because the mathematicians left their most thrilling variable undefined. A Wonder Woman film that does its Wonder Woman so dirty, that sets her up for something and does nothing with it, that manages to give ample space to its supporting characters to thrive, is a mistake of a central order, a backslide into old DC habits just when this particular franchise was figuring out the right balance. Here’s hoping Wonder Woman 3 gives Diana more of a fighting chance.

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