Beware of spoilers below
I’ve been seeing a lot of criticism of the newly released Wonder Woman 1984 and frankly it has me puzzled. Granted that I tend to be easily pleased when it comes to cinema, and as long as it’s a fun ride I’m generally happy, but WW84 seemed to have some fairly good lessons in my opinion. So I thought I’d share some of the lessons I saw in the hopes of helping others to realize this movie isn’t all bad.
First, however, I’d like to address two of the concerns I’ve seen raised around the movie, and to address those briefly.
Concern 1: Optics & The Middle East
One of the situations that arise after Max Lord becomes the Dreamstone is chaos in the Middle East. One of the complaints that several viewers had is that the actress who plays Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, is Israeli-American, and she is a former Israeli Defence Force member (which is, in fact, true of almost everyone born and raised to a certain age in Israel because of two years mandatory military service). The concern raised is that it’s bad optics that an Israeli saves the Middle East.
This criticism is spurious to me. Gal Gadot may be an Israelite but her character is an Amazon, a race of all women hidden on Themyscira. Further, while Wonder Woman does save the Middle East she also, as a super hero, saves the world from nuclear armageddon–and at that point the USA is in just as bad a state as the Middle East. Narratively, no nation comes out looking better than any other, and to focus on the background of the actress and this one area of the world that was saved is largely a red herring.
Concern 2: The Beschdel Test & Woman vs. Woman
Another criticism that is raised is that the movie barely passed the Beschdel Test despite being a movie about a female superhero. Again, I find this rather spurious–we get a whole opening ten minutes featured in Themyscira with no men present at all. Granted that after that Diana and Barbara are the two main female characters and they don’t get as much conversation together as would be ideal–but their conversation isn’t all about men, and the only two male characters who rival them for screen time are Max Lord and Trevor–so all in all, the score is relatively equal there. It also is set in 1984 where you would expect to see gender inequities in the largely public setting that the film took place in.
Some may be concerned that Diana and Barbara are pitted against each other, but they lose sight of Diana clearly having sympathy for Barbara and trying to lift her up, even trusting her with research into the Dreamstone. It takes a while for Barbara to choose to go against Diana, and is actually a case of Diana largely missing the signs that might have prevented tragedy earlier.
Now that we’ve addressed a couple of the concerns in brief, it’s time to move onto the lessons that I see that we could all stand to be reminded of.
Lesson 1: What We Want vs. What We Need
Perhaps the most obvious lesson of the film is the danger of getting what we want, whether or not it’s what we need. The uninhibited granting of our most desired wish is portrayed as what led to the collapse of Carthage, Rome, and the Mayan Empire among others. The film shows the consequences in ways that are really quite compelling–when everyone gets their most desired wish, society collapses and the world comes to the brink of destruction. There are times that what we want and what we need line up, and these are to be celebrated, but we’re also very bad at knowing what we need, and uninhibited access to our wants encourages a selfishness that leads to chaos and disaster.
Lesson 2: Sacrifice For Others
Perhaps one of the most compelling subplots is between Diana and Trevor. Many mind find fault that Diana has never stopped mourning the loss of Trevor, but narratively this actually makes a lot of sense. It’s important to keep in mind that she grew up in a society with no men, and that she had barely begun to love Trevor when he sacrificed himself. She then had to live among those who slowly faded away over the decades while she herself remained unchanged. It’s not surprising then, that she’d wish for his return and never completely get over him.
His return is at first, quite exciting–but it quickly becomes clear that this is a situation that cannot last. As the consequences become clear, Diana feels the weight closing in on her–she’s had to be selfless for so long, and all she wants is just one thing in return, the love of someone she’s lost. This is a need we can all sympathize with, but it is not to be. For the good of all, Diana must give up her lost love, renouncing her one great wish. It takes some convincing, but in the end it is her that must make the choice–and I read it more as Trevor reminding Diana of things she already knows than of any actual persuasion. Diana’s ability to sacrifice so much for humankind and to still be amazed at and in awe of humanity is a testament to her character and a necessary mirror for all of us to reflect upon.
Lesson 3: It’s Not All Fun & Games
One of the characters we’re introduced to early on, Barbara, meets Diana. At this point, Diana seems to be withdrawn from most others–but she is not so far gone that she fails to see Barbara’s isolation and her empathy moves her to learn more. Over dinner, they find much to be amazed at within the other and the ground seems laid for a lasting friendship.
Unfortunately, Barbara takes the wrong lesson from this encounter–rather than realizing she is already enough and embracing her individual gifts and talents, she makes a fateful wish that she could be like Diana. Diana encounters her shortly after her transformation begins and sees Max Lord & Barbara chatting it up. While Barbara may interpret Diana’s cold reception to Lord as jealous interference, it is in reality Diana’s experience and perception that causes her to be distrustful of Lord’s toxic positivity, bluster, and charisma. This shows quite a growth from Diana’s naivete and conception of what “evil” looks like in the first film.
As Barbara continues her metamorphosis, Diana fails to miss the signs but counts on Barbara to do further research into the Dreamstone. Barbara meanwhile is almost effortlessly popular and admired–but she fails to see the hollowness of it, and how people who ignored or derided her such a short time ago were so endeared to her by a mere change in appearance.
When Diana finally realizes what has happened, she tries to make Barbara see the error of her ways, but Barbara views her well-meant warning as condescension and doubles-down. Diana tries until the very end to convince Barbara of the mistake she’s made, and Barbara learns the hard way that her powers lead only to isolation and her talents are nothing without empathy backing them up.
This dynamic between Barbara and Diana highlights that we all have our struggles and our talents, and while the grass may seem greener on the other side, there’s a lot more benefit in leaning into our own talents and being authentic to ourselves.
Lesson 4: You Must Be The Hero: Truth & The Power of Individual Discernment
In the climatic confrontation Diana has with Maxwell Lord, she is unable to defeat him herself. She can’t get near enough to take him down–so what she must do instead is to confront his promise of wish fulfillment with truth. In perhaps one of the most timely messages of an era where misinformation runs so rampant and has so many far-reaching effects, she challenges each individual receiving Lord’s broadcast to be the hero and renounce their wish. She exposes the truth that their desires and wants come at a price and that the world is on the brink–she challenges all people to choose the better path. In this case at least, truth wins out, wishes are renounced and the world is saved.
The two big takeaways from that for me is, firstly, that truth still has a power and does still win in the end. Secondly, in what has become a common theme of the DCEU, the power of individual, ordinary people making the right choice is emphasized. The DCEU has its superheroes–but the decisions and actions of non-superheroes matter.
Lesson 5: Coming Back From The Brink–Redemption & Love
The character of Maxwell Lord has a fascinating arc. A divorced father, trying to do the best for his son, makes decisions that lead him down a path of destruction–but he ultimately renounces his powers when it becomes clear that his powers have put his son in danger. This is an echo of the Darth Vader arc in Star Wars. His love for his son leads to him making all the wrong choices; but his love for his son also is what allows him the way back to redemption. This is a difficult lesson for our romantic culture that believes love can solve all–but its a lesson we need to learn–love must be balanced with principles to avoid falling into the trap of rationalization. Good intentions aren’t enough to avoid disaster, despite what we may think,.
So there you have it–the lessons of Wonder Woman 1984 that stuck out to me, and which I think make it a film worth watching–especially in a year as rough as 2020 has been.