This movie supposed to come out in December, 2019. Anybody else remember that? With everything that’s happened since, I’d completely forgotten. And in one of those grim ironies of life you can only see in retrospect, they delayed it until June, 2020, because they were afraid of going head-to-head with The Rise of Skywalker. Director Patty Jenkins was optimistic at the time – after all, the film was “done” with five months left on the clock. I was less optimistic, but I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to become what I hate. Just like with Rise of Skywalker.
For six years by that point, I’d watched motherfuckers shit all over DC’s live action superhero movies as soon they heard about them for the twin (apparently capitol) crimes of (a) existing and (b) not being Marvel movies. This led me to suppress what I intuitively understood from the beginning: that Wonder Woman 2 (as it was known back then) was in serious trouble. Because it was being written by the now-former Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, Geoff Johns.
It’s been awhile since I torpedoed my future employment opportunities by criticizing Mr. Johns on camera. The last review where I really aired these grievances keeps getting Worldwide Blocked by YouTube’s copyright robots, so don’t bother looking for it. All you really need to know is, once upon a time, Geoff Johns was a kid from Grosse Point, Michigan, who found a box full of Green Lantern and Flash comics in grandma’s attic. He moved to LA as an adult, got a job interning for Richard Donor on the movie Conspiracy Theory, and leveraged that into several jobs writing actual DC comic books. He spent the 2000s on a meteoric rise through the company (some might say he was “failing upward”), to the point where everyone looked up in 2011 and, suddenly, found themselves face to face with a Green Lantern movie.
That movie was (and still is) stunningly mediocre, verging to outright bad…just like the vast majority of Geoff Johns’ work. Something about sending his ideas through the Hollywood machine seemed to strip them of the high-pro gloss that turning them into movies should added. Not that anyone wanted to hear that at the time. Even after 2011, a stunning majority of my fellow DC fans looked to Johns as some kind of savior. He who’d brought both Hal Jordan and Barry Allen back from the dead, who’d turned the Green Lantern and Flash mythologies into turgid, science-fantasy soap operas – he alone would save us from an age of Marvel movies ruling the box office unopposed, because that seemed so important to some people. Besides, by then he was the Number Three or Four Guy in the company, and criticizing his work was useless for anything besides getting fired.
This continued through the Zack Snyder Era, as the whole of DC fandom rent itself apart over whether or not $800 million was enough to call a Superman movie “successful”…I’m joking, of course. They actually rent themselves over questions of a hero’s moral responsibility for the collateral damage of their fight scenes – which is only right, to the point of being, in all likelihood, The Point – and whether or not Snyder ripped the ending of Man of Steel off from Wonder Woman Vol. 2 #219 (cover dated September, 2005) where Wonder Woman had to snap a dude’s neck on live TV, lest he continue mind-controlling Superman. Which is a funny story that sounds unbelievable…so it’s probably true.
For years, rumors swirled that Johns was trying to become DC’s own Kevin Feigie – the One Producer to Rule them all and bind a phalanx of filmmakers together, creating a singular vision for these WB superhero movies that could not be easily dismissed as “dark” and “edgy” or “grim” and “gritty,” or whatever else internet-based commentators use as slurs. One that, to point a fine point on it, wasn’t Snyder’s.
The closest we got to that so far was 2017’s theatrical cut of Justice League, about which I’ve already said my piece. After its failure, Geoff Johns stepped down as Chief Creative Officer to, apparently, fulfill his life-long dream of making a Titans TV show where Dick Grayson swears while writing comics on the side. It looks like he wrapped up work on that other blasphemous Watchmen sequel – Doomsday Clock – just in time to start this collab with Patty Jenkins. And the results are – surprise, surprise – stunningly mediocre, verging on outright-bad.
I know movies of this size are big, complex machines and that no one person can possibly be responsible for the results, no matter how coherent they may or may not be. That said, I’ve had beef with Geoff Johns since before it was cool, and when word got out he was co-writing this script, I felt that old familiar Fear creep up my spine. But I swore to keep my damn mouth shut until I had the actual movie in front of me. And now that I have, I find Wonder Woman 1984 to be a fascinating mess, far worse than I imagined…and, in consequence, far more interesting to talk about.
First of all – why is it set in 1984? The obvious answer is, “Well, Diana’s last movie was set in 1918, so they had to fill in the gap between this and Batman v. Superman with something.” But this continues a trend, already worrying back in 2018, of making all the solo, female superhero movies of the post-Avengers era period pieces. So the real question becomes, “why make a period piece in the first place?”
There’s an article on Comic Book Resources from 2018, written by Angie Dahl in the lead up to Captain Marvel, called “Why Are Female Superhero Movies Set in the Past?” It answers its own question with (to paraphrase) nostalgia’s a hell of a drug, and (to quote directly) “Studios are likely uncomfortable showing sexism in the present day, especially given the current social climate.” By “the current social climate” I’m pretty sure Dahl means the “Me Too” hashtag campaign, since this was before Hollywood threw #MeToo under a bus for the sake of electing Joe Biden. To quote further: “By keeping the story and therefore the sexism, in the past, the films are insulated against some of the harsher audience reactions to a hot-button subject. With the sexism safely contained to another era, writers and directors aren’t responsible for creating commentary on what’s still happening in the present day.”
Both those sentences still contain grains of truth, no matter how retroactively naïve the intervening, hellish years make them seem. All Captain Marvel had to do to inspire “harsher audience reactions” was to get up on a stage and wonder, “Hey, where all the lady film critics at?” (Something I used to shout in the lobbies of theaters doing screenings without drawing so much as a rude stare.) And while creative types of all stripes love dodging responsibilities, some of us have long theorized that period pieces exist to comment on the present day while maintaining plausible artistic deniability. To me, Wonder Woman 1984 bares this out, because it is (far more so than its predecessors or cross-studio competition) a transparent attempt to comment on America in last half of the 2010s….or Twenty-Teens. I’m not sure what to call this decade. Post whatever you call it in the comments.
We might as well call this “the Trump Era,” since Trump’s election was, in its own way, as traumatic a national experience as 9/11. Neither was “supposed” to happen. The right wing, ruling class consensus that dominates American political life was supposed to have everything all buttoned up forever and ever, amen. When that didn’t happen – when something came along that completely surprised everyone who isn’t stupid rich – it broke the brains of our entire political media. And just like the bad old days after 9/11 and the Forever Wars it inspired, one of the most brain-dead centrist-liberal responses to Trump was, “Well…at least we might get some decent art out of all this.”
Those of us who talk about popular art for a living instantly knew that was a lie, because we remembered the Dubya Bush Era with no fondness, for its art or anything else…unless Spider-Man 2 is still our favorite superhero film. And if that’s the case, you’ll probably love this one. It, too, is a superhero sequel slavishly beholden to the formulas Richards Donnor and Lester set down without even really trying back in the early 80s.
As such, WW84 sees Diana of Themyscira working as a Smithsonian cultural anthropologist by day and friendly neighborhood Wonder Woman by…well, also by day, since they don’t have punch-in clocks at the Smithsonian’s back end, and setting too much of it at night might make people call it “dark.” After she foils the robbery of a mall jewelery store that’s actually a front for black market artifact dealing (which some have a problem with, but hey – it’s northern Virginia, the Pentagon’s right down the highway, so whatever), the FBI asks her Smithsonian colleague, Dr. Barbara Minerva, to look into the artifacts. One appears fake at first glance, with a Latin message on its base that says it grants wishes. Further digging indicates it was meant for an up-and-coming oil man named Max Lord, who soon arrives and starts getting real friendly with the Smithsonian’s hot nerd archeology department.
Max Lord is a long-term reoccurring Justice League villain who, starting in the late-80s, did many and various evil things – eventually leading up to that incident above, where Diana once had to snap his neck like a chicken bone. And none of that matters since, here, he’s completely reconstructed – from his dyed-blonde hair down to his too-polished shoes – into a non-actionable satire of Donald Trump. Specifically, Max is the fantasy version of Trump other rich people make up at Beverly Hills fundraisers for Diane Fienstein and Silicon Valley fundraisers for Nancy Pelosi and/or Kamala Harris.
As such, Max is a confused chimera of cultural signifiers, meaningless to the uninitiated, ensuring the satire will not land anywhere near its intended target. He’s a Ponzi schemer with an empty office in a too-big-for-him building with a golden name above the door. When pressed, he calls himself “a television personality” on a quest for “more” – more money, more power, and more people staring at him from the other side of a screen. He believes in the power of positive thinking so hard he dedicated his life to finding a rock that grants wishes…and, like Jafar wishing to be a genie, Max wishes to become the wishing stone, then utilizes the price of other people’s wishes to amass all the money and power in the world. All of which is fine. Up until Act Three Max proceeds on a fairly logical path to power…for a superhero fantasy film enslaved to the delusion that you can proudly walk backward into the mid-80s, and that doing so is a good thing in itself. But because even the dumbest blockbuster can’t help but try to “humanize” its antagonists, we ultimately discover he’s doing all of this out of…*sigh*…sincere love for his son.
And this is where the “Max Lord as Supervillain Trump” metaphor breaks down, along with the entire film, as far as I’m concerned. Other people may think other things tank this film outright, and that’s fine, but heroes are defined by their villains. And it seems the makers of this production couldn’t decide whether to make Max into a Max or into a Trump. At some point, it seems like someone said, “Why not both? That won’t confuse or annoy anyone anymore than our other choices are already doing.” And while I think I know who that person was, I’m clearly biased.
So Max is a divorced dad trying to impress his kid…who’s eight-to-ten-going-on-forty in 1984, so he’d be impressed with a big screen TV and a few VHS tapes of G.I. Joe, but never mind. Max is trying to impress his kid because his own father was an abusive asshole whose lack of conventional “success” condemned Max to an early life of poverty and misery. So Max’s drive to wish himself into being the Horatio Alger of the ’80s is really a drive to escape his own daddy issues and avoid passing them down to his son. He never considers (until the very end, with a little help from the Lasso of Truth) that one can give a kid just as many daddy issues by being an absentee workaholic…even before one almost destroys the world. “Hey, dad? Remember that time you got on every TV on Earth and started rambling like you do after your third beer?” “Not in this house, son.”
One thing that’s become clear after four years of madness is that the American imagination is completely incapable of processing Trump’s rise to political power. The only real explanations it offers involve some form of magic, whether secular (Russian hackers brainwashing people with memes it stole from gamgergaters) or outright, as here, with a stone made by a literal god of lies. In real life the magical explanation hinges on the literal God of Abraham appointing Trump to lead a Righteous Crusade against the Deep State pedos, through the democratic will of They, the People – that is, his fans, who view themselves as the only real people left in a sea of satanic zombies.
The full horror of Trump (the banal evil of him, you might say) is that he’s little more than a spoiled daddy’s boy who got handed everything in his complete waste of a life, lost it all several times over, and then regained it because, at a formative age, he learned the true power of filibustering his way through “conversations.” I put “conversations” in quotes, because…well, have you heard him talk to other people? Since they barely exist to a true narcissist like Trump (other people are like shadows in a fog to him, at best) he doesn’t talk to people so much as at them, until they get fed up and give him whatever they think will make him go away. That’s the real Art of the Deal, right there, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.
The American imagination must offer up magical explanations for how this, of all things, could possibly succeed because the liberal critique of Trump has always been wrong. It’s not that he’s a rich boy with daddy issues – oh no, perish the thought, those are both our favorite superheroes and our favorite politician’s Big Money donors – it’s that he’s the wrong kind of rich boy with daddy issues, you see? The kind that spends all his money on gold toilets when he should be spending it on sending his dipshit kids to the right school, where they can join the right frat and learn the right secret handshakes. That’s what passes for “meritocracy” in these United States, and only an entitled baby would dare wish to “cheat” that system by skipping all that humiliating self-debasement. Or so goes the consensus view in our society. And that’s how you get a supposedly “optimistic,” “uplifting” “throwback” of a superhero film where “wishing” is conflated with “lying” and “lying” is conflated with “cheating.” It’s not that “a dream is a wish the heart makes,” anymore. That’s some 1950s bullshit. In our awful 21st century, a wish is now a dream that your primitive cerebrum must be forcibly woken up from, because better things aren’t possible…and anyone who says they are is a lying liar.
Now, look: I don’t know Donald Trump, so at the start of all this, I did a lot of reading in an attempt to get to know him. This frustrated and annoyed me, so I see why most people don’t try. There’s just not that much to know – no there there – which is what allows his fanboys and -girls to project whatever they want onto him. This explains his success with no recourse to magic, beyond the bastardized image magic of TV commercials, celebrity culture, and parasocial relationships: it’s a fandom.
But we know the real Trump has nothing but contempt for his own kids…except for the one he seems to see as, and personally groomed to be, the Rule 63 version of himself. One of the sons (Don Jr., or Eric – I forget which) used to tell a story about being four years old, and having his father tell him, as he was heading out the door to school, “Don’t trust anyone ever.” Immediately, Don Sr. asked, “Do you trust me?” And four-year-old Eric (or Don Jr., whichever) naturally said, “Of course I do, you’re my dad!” To which Don Sr. responded, “What did I just say? Jesus! Guess my son’s a loser, then! Oh well!” That’s how Trump treats his own sons in really-real life. (The son relating this meant it to be a positive story.) But such a total amount of child-traumatizing narcissism is too “dark,” and/or “grim” for most people, even when they’re trying to make Trump into a supervillian.
Now it’s time to talk about Barbara Minerva, the other villain in this typical superhero sequel, which, by Unwritten Movie Law, must contain at least two villains. The comics have been trying to turn Barbara into Diana’s nemesis for years, with middling success, and this movie does her no favors by turning her into an awkward nerd. By which I mean, “they put her in clothes that are supposed to read as ‘frumpy’ and the biggest pair of glasses they could find.” Which was even more unintentionally hilarious than it would’ve been, since I just rewatched Rising Sun, where they tried to pull the same trick with Tia Carrere. Then, as now, it’s not like I don’t know what Tia Carrere or Kristen Wiig look like. But I’m supposed to believe they aren’t fighting potential suitors off with sticks just because they have glasses. Was this not exactly the type of thing the last Wonder Woman movie made fun off, to rapturous applause? Christ, at least Clark Kent changes his hair up when he’s in the suit.
The comic book Cheetah I grew up with would’ve actually been the perfect compliment to an I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Trump main villain. She’s like the evil version of Lara Croft: born to money and privilege, but of that British, lordly kind that’s in severe, self-sabotaging decline. The exact opposite of a Trumpian social climber, but equally as avaricious, narcissistic, full of nothing but guile and spite, and prone to using people for her own ends. Which usual involve stealing some mysterious and powerful ancient artifact, pretty much just for the sake of having it. Like an Indiana Jones villain, only instead of finding the Holy Grail, Barbara found exactly the right combo of plant juice and human blood to turn into an immortal cat-person. In a fictional African nation no less…Oh, hi, T’Challa. Didn’t see you there. RIP. And I think I just figured out why they changed Barbara’s origin so much. So my follow-up question becomes, “Did they have to change it into something as boring and route as ‘awkward nerd goes from Zero to Psycho in under a week after tasting the slightest amount of power?’”
Apparently, yes. Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Jim Carrey’s Riddler stand in silent condemnation. At least the Riddler had a plan. Like Movie Electro, Movie Cheetah aimlessly wanders through this plot until she jumps onto the main villain’s plan, because she doesn’t actually have one of her own…beyond “keep the superpowers I wished for and, hell, why not wish for more?” Because if there’s one thing female super villains need more of, it’s to become the henchwomen of male villains. Just like, if there’s one thing female heroes wish for, it’s gotta be a man.
Now we come the big can of worms this movie opened, probably without even trying. Would you put your dead boyfriend’s brain in another person’s body? Not on purpose, surely – Diana wishes upon the dreamstone well before she knows to take it seriously. But if you accidentally wished your dead boyfriend’s brain (or soul, or whatever) into another person’s body, would you just kinda…roll with it? All the way into bed with him? Apparently, Diana would. And this is, to quote director Patty Jenkins, the “great love story” meant to distract us from this film’s failed satire of a villain plot and paint-by-numbers secondary antagonist. And it succeeded…by making the entire internet commentariat spend a whole week debating which sexual crime Diana committed by jumping the bones of this dude, who looks like an Overcooked Christian Slater to everyone else, but like good ol’ Steve Trevor to her. Great job, everyone. You went out of your way to avoid making Diana a murderer (well…more so than she was already, tripped over your own squeamishness and fell into making her…what? A rapist? A second-degree sexual assaulter? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, and these days I get out of jury duty by saying, “All cops are bastards” to the judge.
I’d much rather litigate Geoff Johns. Read enough of his comics and you start to realize that, no matter their gender, the Johnsian hero is always flummoxed by situations that, under the pen of any other writer, they’d solve in two pages, max. And while Chris Pine is far more bearable when he’s not doing a William Shatner impression, his Steve Trevor could be replaced by literally anyone, so long they needed the plot explained to them by Diana. Granted, that “anyone” would need to help out in the action scenes…Gee, if only Diana’d just made a new friend at work…a friend who woke up one morning to discover their wish for superpowers had come true…a friend who could then end up betraying Diana because said friend values power more than friendship…which is kinda what happens, bu, in another staple of Johns’ work, the emphasis is on the wrong syllable. And Diana’s too involved globe trotting with Steve to notice her new work friend’s sudden preference for hooker boots and evil eyeshadow…until it’s too late and they’re fighting in the White House, the one action scene I unabashedly liked. Yeah, you fuck that White House up, ladies. Don’t stop until you make Aaron Sorkin cry.
Unfortunately, the budding, flowering, and eventual decay of Diana and Barabra’s relationship couldn’t be the “great love story,” Patty Jenkins talked about. The combination of good, old-fashion, American Puritanism and the vast variety of state-censorship regimes every movie that wants to be worldwide must submit to at some point, ensures live-action Diana will never be even the slightest bit gay. Hell, DC’s too scared to even try that in any comic that’s not labeled “Elsworlds.” Oh, they’ll queer-bait the hell out of Barbara and Diana’s friendship, but that’s all we’ll get. Just enough to make gifs out of. Yeah, I take my work friends out to dinner at swanky restaurants with stunning views of the Washington Monument all the time. Nothing romantic about that, no, why do you ask?
I can see the Johnsian logic at work in this, combining with old school Producer Logic to create all the problems people have with this picture. As much as Johns likes to big up the Silver Age of comics (the 50s and 60s) his writing is permanently stuck in the Bronze Age of the ’70s and ’80s – an age when comics became even more inspired by movies and TV shows than they were already. And what are the three things people who don’t read comics remember about Wonder Woman? The things they learned from Lynda Carter’s TV show: that she’s got the magic lasso, her Love Interest is named Steve Trevor, and she flies around in an invisible jet. This movie sees bringing Steve back to life as an attempt at fanservice and uses his presence to justify bringing in the jet. After all, someone has to fly it. And give a (quite nice, in isolation, but still) monologue about flying that’ll eventually teach Diana how to fly under her own power. Because if there’s one other thing female heroes need more of, its getting told how to do stuff by their dead boyfriends.
Speaking of speeches, Diana does what people have been asking Clark Kent to do ever since they repressed their memories of Superman IV: save the world with a Stirring Speech. The fact that people hate it is proof of the movie’s thesis that getting what you think you want can actually be the worst thing in the world. As an 80s-set action movie, its three major action set pieces are all 80s Action Movie cliches: the armed robbery. The car chase. The “big, boring, punch-em-up climax,” as Mr. Nobody would put it (ultimately, the only reason Cheetah’s here). But then, because this is a film that at least began life in 2017, we get another climax with the main villain, wherein he’s redeemed through the power of love and truth and empathy…the way actual villains never are. I get it, though. We wish they could be. Which would be fine, if this movie didn’t spent so much time equating “wishing” with “lying” and “cheating.” Because, to quote Diana’s Moral of the Story, “this world was a beautiful place, just as it was…and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough.”
I’m throwing the bullshit flag on the play. Number 03, Defense. Five yards. Repeat First Down. So congratulations to all involved, then – you made a bad Wonder Woman movie. Meaning Diana has finally joined her fellow Justice League founders in every sense, textual and metatextual. It’s not even the first bad Wonder Woman movie, and it certainly won’t be the last. Not with Number 3 already greenlit. May it be set in the present and may Geoff Johns stay the hell away from it. I’d implore Hera about this, the way Wonder Woman used to…but these movies seem to’ve gone with the New 52 version of Diana’s origins, where that story about her being sculpted from clay really is just a story her mother, Hippolyta, tells to avoid talking about the good, old-fashioned baby-making session she had with Zeus.
Maybe that’s the secret reason this movie turned out the way it did: Hera’s pissed a man (or two, or a whole team of them) made one of her last modern champions into one of her husband’s bastards. So she cursed the whole production, start to finish. Hera always did enjoy setting plagues upon her enemies. But then again, they all did, and I’m glad their all being dead in this timeline hasn’t stopped their artifacts from causing chaos. Circe next time, please.