Beneath the action movie conventions and narrative chaos in Wonder Woman 1984, something brilliant tries to break through, Dr Neal Curtis writes
I was looking forward to Wonder Woman 1984. The first film starring the titular superhero had been strong, touching on some of the character’s central themes, especially in relation to gender politics and female empowerment, while also offering a clear story that director Patty Jenkins did a brilliant job bringing to life.
The early scenes of the new film, including a return to Wonder Woman’s Amazon home, Themyscira, and her early intervention to foil a robbery in a mall, nicely set the tone of the film and introduce the primary motif that pits truth against lies and self-sacrifice against greed. This also explains why the film is set in the 1980s, the decade when we learnt the mantra that “greed is good”.
This greed is epitomised by the film’s central antagonist, Maxwell Lord, who is ripping off clients with a Ponzi scheme, selling non-existent oil, while also looking for a sacred stone that grants a wish to anyone who holds it. Him finding the stone is, of course, the start of his rise to absolute power and the beginning of the usual world-ending scenario that now seems obligatory in the genre.
Also, the fact that the disaster stems from granting everyone a wish is another example of the boring Warner Bros/DC convention that states any time the populace is shown expressing its desire it must automatically be destructive. Surely one person would have wished for world peace? To be fair, Lord’s megalomania does allow the film to place an authoritarian narcissist in the White House where Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth takes on extra significance.
Adrift in incoherence
Unfortunately, this simple conceptual framework does not save the film from incoherence. There is a completely tangential and largely pointless Egyptian angle that does nothing aside from allowing the film to indulge in rather unimaginative and prejudicial stereotypes about people from the region.
Another aspect of this narrative jumble involves the second antagonist, Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, who is the vehicle for addressing the issue of male violence that has been the crux of Wonder Wonder comics since they first appeared in 1941. After experiencing harassment and sexual assault, Minerva uses Lord to grant her wish to have the kind of power that would no longer leave her vulnerable to such attacks. Unfortunately, she is seduced by this power and refuses Wonder Woman’s request to relinquish her wish to be an apex predator.
This is initially very promising, but the unsatisfactory treatment of this character’s story and her complex relationship with Wonder Woman is another point at which the film loses focus and ends up adrift. That said, though, the major fight scene between the two female characters does raise an intriguing question, and to answer it we need to do a little time travel ourselves.
When William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman he gave us a superhero from an all-female, warrior society. She was also created by her mother from clay, and animated by the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite. There was no man in sight.
To fully understand the significance of this origin we need to also know that Marston’s ‘mistress’, Olive Byrne, who lived with Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (and remained with Elizabeth after Marston’s death), was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood in the United States. Margaret saved her sister, and Olive’s mother, Ethel, from hunger strike in prison where she had been locked up for distributing leaflets to women about contraception.
So, women’s reproductive health and rights over their bodies was, along with women’s suffrage, a major issue in the politics of the Marston household in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. From this perspective the very deliberate creation of a child by Wonder Woman’s mother, Hyppolyte, is a clear and rather radical statement about women’s bodily autonomy.
Breaking the matriarchal lineage
This origin story survived for the next 70 years until, in 2012, the men from DC’s Superman office, which has editorial control of Wonder Woman comics, decided to say it was all a lie and Hyppolyte had concealed the fact she had slept with Zeus who was now Wonder Woman’s father.
In an instant the matriarchal lineage was broken, and rather than being a deliberate choice, Wonder Woman’s birth was now the unexpected outcome of a night of passion. This destroyed a core aspect of the Wonder Woman mythos in a way that would be unimaginable for Superman or Batman.
Unfortunately, this became part of the DC cinematic universe in the first Wonder Woman film; a feature that meant the central message of female empowerment was significantly undercut. In the new film, however, this issue makes a rather oblique and potentially subversive return.
In the course of the film, Wonder Woman mentions her father and uses his power over lightning just once, in a rather tangential way. And yet these blue flashes of electricity are central to the major fight scene between Wonder Woman and Cheetah.
In this scene, Wonder Woman wears the winged, golden suit previously worn by Asteria, a fabled Amazon who once used it to protect her people from an army of men seeking to enslave them. We are offered an image of this earlier in the film, where we see Asteria wrapped in the wings, and encircled by a horde of violent men.
In the fight scene with Cheetah the image is repeated. This time it is Wonder Woman defending herself against Cheetah who now effectively takes the place of the men. Here, we are reminded that Cheetah’s own descent into violence was in response to the male violence perpetrated against her.
Interpreting this, I would argue the manifestation of Zeus’s ‘bolts of lightning’ in this scene, appearing as surges of electricity emanating from the broken cables Cheetah swings from, is no accident. Seen in the light of that earlier image of Asteria it takes on a potentially subversive meaning where Zeus is now associated with the consequences of male violence. Knowing also that in a comic from 1987 Zeus tried to rape Wonder Woman, the presence of Zeus’s power here is both disturbing and fascinating.
Is Jenkins offering us her own coded take on the change of origin here? By linking Zeus to male violence, I believe this becomes a broader condemnation of the localised sexual violence we see at various points in the film, while also being a denunciation of the decision to make him Wonder Woman’s father. If this is the case, a rather average film is redeemed. It doesn’t excuse all the bad bits, but in the end, I can’t help thinking there is something quite brilliant trying to find its way past all the clutter and cliché.