Superheroes are aspirational figures. They’re faster and stronger than the rest of us, and although their powers put them beyond certain limits (like gravity), they’re firmly bound by a moral code. The best sequence in the first Wonder Woman movie came when Diana Prince (Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot) climbed out of a World War I trench to run across no-man’s-land. Her golden bracers deflected bullets as she sprinted through the mud, mustering her strength in defense of the innocent.
In her second film, the recent Wonder Woman 1984, Diana isn’t facing down an enemy power, but a distinctly American moral threat. Her antagonists are relatively ordinary people: a shy scientist (Barbara Minerva, played by Kristin Wiig) and a floundering con man (Maxwell Lord, played by Pedro Pascal). Both covet the kind of mastery displayed by Diana, but they pursue the outward signs of strength while neglecting the inward discipline required to wield them.
Lord is a crook who’s even snookered himself. In his infomercials, he invites investment in his oil business with his personal mantra, “Life is good! But it can be better.” His oil fields may be secretly dry, but he still believes his own tag line, “All you need is to want it.” He has no exit planned from his Ponzi scheme because he doesn’t think of himself as a fraudster, just as a winner whose time hasn’t come yet.
Barbara has less faith that her time will ever come, but when Diana treats her with kindness, she takes her as an aspirational model. She doesn’t know how to be Barbara, so she fantasizes instead about being Diana. Putting aside our own calling to long for that of someone else is always dangerous, but Barbara’s error is magnified when she and Lord have the chance to pursue their dreams with the help of a mysterious, magical gem.
The Dreamstone grants wishes, at a price. It is a well-realized bit of comic book zaniness. At their best, superhero stories take our quotidian troubles and blow them up to heroic proportions, allowing us to return to our own lives determined to be faithful in small things. In our everyday lives, it takes time to see the consequences of ill-considered desires. But in the world of superheroes, small movements in the soul are externalized and super-sized.
When Barbara has her chance to use the Dreamstone, she wishes to be just like Diana. Lord has a grander scheme in mind. He cradles the gem in his hands and wishes to become the Dreamstone. It’s a perfectly bonkers take on wishing for more wishes. There’s no one thing that can make Lord happy. He cannot imagine ever being content without the ability to reach out and grab more.
Diana is the perfect foil for both restless dreamers, because her heroism is rooted not in her own strength, but in her docility to truth. The film opens with a flashback to her childhood among the Amazon warriors. Young Diana (a delightful Lilly Aspell) competes against full-grown women in a kind of Amazon warrior obstacle course. She is well in the lead when she looks back at her competitors and is unhorsed by a tree branch overhanging the course.
In order to claim the victory she feels she deserves, Diana cheats, cutting part of the course. Her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) plucks her out of the race just before the finish line. “You cannot be the winner because you are not ready to win,” Antiope tells her. “And there is no shame in that. Only in knowing the truth in your heart and not accepting it.”
Wielding her Lasso of Truth, Diana strikes a contrast with both Barbara, who does not know the truth of her own worth, and Lord, who has built his whole life around rejecting the truth. Unfortunately, after setting this stage, the movie becomes shallow and scattered.
Lord uses the power of the Dreamstone to grant other people’s wishes at costly prices of his own choosing. He targets a rival oil magnate, “The King of Crude, ”who has the kind of fame and wealth Lord longs for. When Lord tries to claim the sheik’s oil holdings, he finds that the “King of Crude” has sold them. What Lord has coveted isn’t even there.
For a moment, it feels like the film is setting up an Ecclesiastian journey for Lord. The Dreamstone could allow him to see that under his heroes’ veneers is only vanity, vanity, naught but vanity. Instead, the film squanders this set-up. The biggest wasted opportunity comes when Lord preys on a televangelist. While watching the scene, I held my breath, wondering if this anxious man might ask for the preacher’s faith or his peace. Instead, he aims lower, asking for and receiving the televangelist’s audience. If he had instead asked for what he clearly needed, he might have discovered that no one taking the path of greed ever sates his hunger and feels whole.
Barbara’s journey similarly wastes its set-up. She gains strength and agility and finds herself able to stand up to the men who harass her for the first time. But she is addicted to the feeling of power and, like Lord, wants more. She winds up (for poorly explained reasons) as a cat-woman hybrid, with a CGI Cheetah costume so embarrassing that her final scenes are all set in the dark, wasting Wiig’s acting.
The filmmakers seem to have failed to think Barbara's character through. As I watched, I wondered why the transformed Barbara didn’t resemble the Diana she had wished to be. After all, it was Wonder Woman’s kindness, not her costume, that first drew Barbara to Diana. Did the stone truly make her Wonder Woman’s equal, or did it only lift Barbara to the level of her imagined Diana, which is always smaller and shallower than the full reality of another person? It's an interesting tension, but one the film failed to explore.
In a better film, Barbara might have provided a lesson for the audience of superhero blockbusters, who err when they take the flashy action or well-scripted quips for what makes their heroes superhuman. Heroes excel through their restraint, not their abilities. Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben offers an answer to Plato’s Ring of Gyges: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Imitating a hero means taking responsibility for whatever is given to you to protect. Barbara is too quick to write herself off as inadequate, while Lord disdains any responsibility insufficiently glorious. The film never quite manages to offer a clear alternative call to heroism, enraptured as it is by fight sequences and globetrotting adventures. Diana may ultimately save the day, but Wonder Woman 1984 lets all the Barbara Minervas and Maxwell Lords in the audience down.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.
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