No movie in 2017 was more overrated than Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. It was as if critics and fans were responding to the film they’d hoped to see, rather than whatever ended up on screen. The movie’s one saving grace was the luminous Gal Gadot as the embodiment of everyone’s fantasy Amazon.
The inevitable sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, has just been released after spending a year in the fridge while Warner Bros. grappled with their COVID-19 insecurities. Jenkins is back as director, and Gal is back, looking as glamorous as ever, ready to take on two great menaces: abysmal dialogue and a confused, cringeworthy plotline.
When we left the previous movie in 1918 Wonder Woman had just vanquished the super-villain while her sweetheart, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) had sacrificed himself to save the world. Sixty-six years later we meet our heroine again, or at least her alter-ego Diana Prince, working as a curator of antiquities at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. She seems to have taken a low-key approach for the past half-century.
This follows a brief flash of origin story in which the pubescent Diana competes in a sporting contest with fully grown Amazon warriors on Paradise Island. We can already see the girl’s got talent – which is apparently the only reason for this introduction.
In 1984 Diana lives a dull, lonely life. Although she looks like a beauty queen she has apparently remained celibate for the past 66 years, pining for Steve. This is somewhat harder to believe than all the stuff about flying through the air and hurling a magic lasso.
Starting work as a curator in gemology is one Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a bespectacled, daggy girl who finds it hard to make friends and meet guys. She is instantly smitten with Diana, and wishes she could be like her. Lo and behold, Barbara’s wish will be granted by a magic “wishing stone” which the Smithsonian is investigating as part of the haul from a robbery. To her great surprise Barbara begins to morph into a superathletic bombshell, while Diana, who inadvertently wished she had Steve back, gets him back.
By some mystical process Steve has returned from the dead, inhabiting the body of an anonymous engineer. His assistance will be invaluable, as Diana’s superpowers are being drained by Barbara, who is transforming into the supervillain, Cheetah.
A sucker for a fast-talking guy in a flash suit, Barbara falls for oil tycoon Max Lord (Pablo Pascal), who has effected an entry into the museum by offering to become a major sponsor. His real motivation, however, is to nick the wishing stone so he can rescue his faltering business empire and take over the world. Diana in her Wonder Woman togs, and Steve in newly acquired 80s fashions, will set out to overcome Barbara’s predatory savagery and thwart Max’s megalomaniac ambitions.
It’s axiomatic that all supervillains want to take over (or destroy) the world but the wishing stone must be one of the lamest plot devices ever conceived. As for Barbara’s transformation from nerdy curator into murderous supervillain, well… one never expects much psychological realism from these movies. As usual only the action sequences can be relied on for some genuine entertainment.
Why 1984? Aside from the Orwellian overtones the setting allows Jenkins, to include a lot of joking references to 80s pop culture, including breakdancing, suits with big shoulder pads, and fanny packs – the latter holding an invincible fascination for the born-again Steve Trevor. It also dumps us smack in the middle of the Reagan era when Wall Street discovered that “greed is good”. In those heady days a sympathetic government transformed a surplus into a massive deficit, and CEOs began to pay themselves multimillion dollar salaries.
The 1980s was a time of excess in both fashion and finance. It gave the world a first glimpse of a dynamic young entrepreneur whose face was splashed across newspapers, magazines and TV talk shows. The residential and retail development, Trump Tower, would open in Manhattan in 1983. The following May saw the launch of Trump Plaza, a glitzy casino and hotel in Atlantic City.
In 1984 the 38-year-old Donald Trump was riding high, boasting about his achievements and laying plans for even more grandiose projects. He was also sowing the seeds for a spectacular bankruptcy, as the returns failed to keep pace wth his dreams. By the end of the decade he had accumulated US$3.4 billion in debt.
I mention the outgoing leader of the free world because Pablo Pascal’s Max Lord is transparently based on Trump. Equipped with a Trumpian wig and an egocentric personality he is introduced as a high-flying TV star whose brash diatribes about wealth and success cover for a business on the brink of ruin.
One wonders how many more films will confirm the cast-iron law that every new Hollywood movie is really about Donald Trump? If this phenomenon needed a name I’d call it ‘Trump Obsession Syndrome’ (TOS). Ever since the 2016 elections American cinema has had a critical case of of TOS in both oblique and overt manifestations.
In Wonder Woman 1984 one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss the connection, regardless of the filmmakers’ claims that Max Lord is more of a “Gordon Gecko” type. One wonders if those loyal cultists who think Trump is the Messiah will notice that the movie is a huge send-up of their idol’s authoritarian tendencies, his dishonesty and insecurities. It will be a test for a mass audience, and the box office. What will they make of Max’s son, Alistair, played by 10-year-old Lucian Perez, born to Mexican and Chinese parents – two ethnic groups routinely villified by Trump? Towards the end of proceedings there’s a final dig. Would the real Trump ever confess to a young Don Jr. that he was “really a messed-up, loser type of guy?”
Perhaps the reason the movie was released this early in the year, while the pandemic is still raging, is to take advantage of the Trumpmania that will soon be on the decline.
Jenkins and her co-writers may have engaged with the Trumpian threat to American democracy but they have shown little interest in Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials, which have been an integral part of the character ever since she was invented by psychologist, William Moulton Marston in the early 1940s. Marston was a feminist fellow-traveller who believed women should be put in control of the planet. He saw Wonder Woman as representing the power of love in the face of male aggression. He even claimed that the chains and ropes forever being wrapped around the heroine were literary equivalents of the chains the suffragists used to attach themselves to railings, or more broadly, the chains of feminine subjection to the male, symbolically broken in every adventure.
Marston may have been a promoter of women’s rights, but he was also a fetishist who used Wonder Woman as a vehicle for his bondage fantasies. The whole story is told in Jill Lepore’s marvellous book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014).
Alas, the versions of Diana and Barbara that we meet in Wonder Woman 1984, are a parody of Marston’s more dynamic characters. The idea of Diana spending 60 years at home pining for Steve Trevor, or Barbara throwing herself at Max Lord, doesn’t make them seem like models of strong, independent womanhood. The makers of superhero movies may be forever trying to engage with the big social issues of the day, however pathetically, but it’s ironic that Wonder Woman who began life as a feminist icon has been rendered supine and passive not by a misogynist supervillain but by a female director.
Wonder Woman 1984
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham, based on characters created by William Moulton Marston
Starring Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Lucian Perez, Ravi Patel, Stuart Milligan
USA/UK/Spain, rated M, 151 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 January, 2021