When lies become law, fables become duty. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 preserves its predecessor’s dreamlike texture and fairytale essentiality, but by this chapter the dream is going American, and bad. Wonder Woman herself, encased in coincidentally patriotic colors, has been semi-underground for most of the century, a battlefield legend of World War I who’s seen fleetingly in snaphots from a few other moments of global crisis and is now operating in Washington, D.C., emerging fleetingly to save some days and cutting out surveillance cameras and other proof that she might really exist; an American Dream in hiding, but gathering its strength.
The ’80s style and design references are note-perfect and all surface, just like the ’80s itself. What Jenkins taps is the real decade underlying the dayglo daze, an extended moment of numb dread. Princess Diana is under cover as an antiquities expert, tracing a crystal artifact that materializes wishes; this power (and price) falls into the hands of an unscrupulous faux tycoon, and the ensuing hijinks take the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.
The tycoon, Maxwell Lord, becomes an actual billionaire overnight and talks his way into the White House; then the ultimate weapon of desire changes hands and a rival oil magnate spontaneously rises a wall across the Middle East which gives him sovereignty and cuts off the poor; the US President gets the excess firepower he always wanted and provokes the Soviet Union to declare war, etc. Lord keeps assuring his neglected son that he will inherit “greatness” rather than ruins — as the above description demonstrates, the movie’s metaphors are absolutely direct, and in this it makes its archetypes of misrule and personal irresponsibility indelible. Trump started as a creation of pop culture, and that’s how he ends his last days in office, a modern Wicked Witch of the West Wing, immortal at last.
The morally costly reality crystal causing all the trouble is magical thinking made material, and the period setting, in an era remembered for its illusory prosperity and common purpose, is an epic reminder to be careful what you wish for. The movie is lesson-first, fable-second; in a majestic opening sequence detailing an Amazon athletic contest, the young Diana gets a painful schooling in how to earn her achievements rather than seize credit; the admonition from the society’s head warrior to accept a loss and let life move forward is hard to imagine arriving at a more perfect moment than the delayed premiere-date of Christmas Day 2020, a month out from the final chapter of the never-ending election dispute.
By the time of the movie’s present-day, it still seems that no one has learned. In the enchanting, eerie resurrection of her one love Steve Trevor, Diana herself has to wrestle with her assumptions of what she deserves, and the scorching of the earth in the name of each human being’s personal grievance feels almost inevitable — an admonition against deprived resentment and imperial entitlement alike that is made with the most inclusive brush and gentle emphasis.
Some of our dreams are more than just that of course, and Wonder Woman 1984 and its characters drift through some that it’s divine to linger in. Amidst a sea of cinematic shooters and fistfights, Jenkins takes an approach to spectacle which to me feels specifically feminist, striving for, yes, wonder over bombast. The action and pyrotechnics of this film — the Amazon Olympics’ grandeur, a flight above the clouds while Fourth of July fireworks go off underneath — are as often about beauty as violence, showing us the creative heights and personal perfection we can share and work toward, and proving that blockbusters can awe us with artistry and not just bludgeon us with battle. Those conflicts of course are the vicarious vengeance we all think we’re due, and the treatment of actual human combat in this movie takes a toll much more recognizable (and advisedly ugly) from real life. One of the film’s final scenes, which my own magical thinking makes feel destined, takes place on a newly peaceful Christmas. From the beginning sequence, we’ve seen characters be warned and struggle with accepting that to simply want something is not enough reason to have it. On the day this movie opened, its wakeful honesty and hard-won happiness were all I needed.