America has never seen quite as dark a day as Wednesday, January 6, 2021, when the President of the United States incited his MAGA mob to storm the Congress in an unlawful attempt to turn over a fair election and threaten the lives of everyone there. The domestic terrorists he encouraged even wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and, as we all know by now, five people died as a result of the rioting. The horrors of such treasonous acts are just beginning to be dealt with and for the nation to heal, the Republican Party must not only start to respect the rule of law but recognize what is fact and what is fake news. Does the GOP believe in truth, justice, and the American way, or do they believe that Trump’s lies trump everything else?
“Truth, justice, and the American way” are words that should matter to those in power in D.C. and, as you may recall, they have been the motto of Superman in DC Comics for the past 83 years. Another DC superhero with a similar bent is Wonder Woman and she, too, has been righteous about those words since her introduction in 1941. Such beliefs were certainly evident in the story that took place in her first movie in 2017. In that story, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) joined American forces in 1918 to fight Germany in WWI and help save the world. Compared to most superhero films that create fantastical, made-up conflicts, WONDER WOMAN stood out for dealing with a real, historical backdrop and the genuine stakes involved in that war. Such distinctions lent her franchise real gravitas, something sadly missing from the sequel WONDER WOMAN 1984 that premiered this past Christmas Day.
Debuting simultaneously on December 25th in theaters and on HBO Max, WW84 was much lighter in tone than its predecessor to the point of seeming almost frivolous. It leaned far too heavily on lampooning the greed decade and ribbing the ridiculous styles of teased hair, oversized shoulder pads, and day-glow color schemes. The larger problem though was how superficially the film treated the decade it took place in. Rather than deal with genuine issues of that time period like the Cold War, Iran/Contra, the Moral Majority, and the rolling back of strides made for minorities, women, and the gay community by the conservative movement, the film was content to traffic in fanny-pack jokes. Granted, there was a section of the movie that took place in the Middle East, but the many conflicts that were occurring there at the time were barely touched upon. Instead, the plot dealt mostly with a power grab centered around a fictional ancient relic that gave its users magical powers. Rather than real stakes like those on display in the first film, this one peddled a plot that would have been more apropos in ALADDIN or THE MUMMY. For those who applauded Wonder Woman penetrating “No Man’s Land” on the Western Front in the first film, fighting to save the starving Belgian villagers, the glib WW84 felt like a whole different franchise altogether.
That’s not to say that for Wonder Woman to succeed onscreen, she needs to continue to be placed in real battles and/or genuine historical contexts, but why shouldn’t she be? It worked spectacularly well in the first film and seemed to set up a template, one that even allows Diana/WW to jump around from decade to decade because the Amazonian woman doesn’t age rapidly like regular human beings. Thus, the franchise could showcase Wonder Woman fighting Hitler during WWII, or any other significant event from the past century. Indeed, what did Wonder Woman do to confront fascism? Did she participate in Korea or Vietnam? For that matter, what was her take on the Civil Rights movement or Women’s Liberation? The possibilities of Wonder Woman mining history are fruitful, to say the least, and I for one would love to see her aiding the likes of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in the fight for equality in the 1970s.
Yet, WW84 would suggest that Warner Bros and DC Comics have skipped over such possibilities for their film franchise. Still, shouldn't there be a better explanation of that gap between the end of WWI and 1984 than there is in the sequel? The narrative all but glosses over it, but a period of 66 years is ginormous, a chasm so wide that it begs the question of just what Diana was up to that whole time. Where did Wonder Woman fit into all the history in between, let alone, what did Diana's personal life look like? WW84 suggested that Diana kept a very low profile during all of those decades, through all of those events, and that’s a real shame. It’s not a good look for a superhero to sit out conflict. One would like to think that Wonder Woman was more interested in world events than in merely stopping mall robberies in the 80s. Are the producers telling us that Diana would rather emulate Paul Blart than Martin Luther King, Jr.? One hopes not.
If indeed Diana chose to face down small-time thieves rather than more important conflicts in history, that’s a betrayal of her character, her comic book history, and the first film in the franchise. Additionally, are we also to believe that Diana never found any other loves during that 66-year gap because she still pined for the long-deceased pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)? Such torch-carrying by Diana doesn’t feel noble, it seems psychotic. Are we to believe that Diana is so stunted in growth that she couldn't even date or look for love in the half-century between 1918 and 1984? Does she think of herself as a veritable vampire, hiding her superior strength and gifts away so no one discovers that she has lived a century without aging a lick? If those are her choices, what’s admirable about any of that? It's a life far from super.
That presentation of the character hardly seems to jibe with the one director Patty Jenkins superbly showcased in the first film. Diana was shown there to be thoughtful, mature, righteous, and earnest. Gadot’s powerful performance brought such noble characteristics to life, echoing the landmark debut of Christopher Reeve as SUPERMAN in 1978. They both made goodness desirable, even sexy. But in the sequel, audiences were presented a Diana who was far too morose, bitter, and easily pulled into the silly illusion of Trevor’s return via the magic relic.
So how can the filmmakers fix the franchise and return the character to its greatness? For starters, Diana could skip around and take part in major occurrences in the history of the last 80 years. If the filmmakers would rather have her jump forward to our modern-day, then they should at least allow her to deal with grounded, real-world problems like she did in the first film. Such choices would return the proprietary gravitas to her franchise, as well as deepen the continuing story of Diana/WW.
The next story should also have Wonder Woman come out of the shadows. It’s silly that two franchise films in, no one calls her "Wonder Woman" yet, and if she “came out,” such a plotline could make for an empathetic commentary on the struggles of the LGBTQ community in our often hostile modern world. If Wonder Woman believes in truth, justice, and the American way, perhaps she should start by being honest about herself.
Equal rights and justice under the law is one of the biggest issues of our day too, across the globe, and it would be interesting to see what Wonder Woman’s fight for justice could do to aid that cause. It might be too on-the-nose to show her participating in Black Lives Matter marches, but what would she think of such events, and how would she use her powers to aid the disenfranchised? These certainly are questions worthier of Wonder Woman than her opinion on parachute pants.
Other real-world issues that Diana could address in a modern-set third movie could be about the need for returning the world, particularly America, to the acceptance of facts, especially when our nation's refusal to accept them continues to cripple the world. There is no debate: global warming is a clear and present danger, Joe Biden won the election, trickle-down economics never works, and healthcare is the right of every person on the planet. It would make for a fascinating story for Diana to fight the powers that continue to hoodwink half our nation, selling them harmful fantasies and lies that keep America from progressing.
Another issue that would be fascinating to see Diana confront in our modern world would be the dangers of celebrity. Indeed, if Wonder Woman becomes a known entity on the world stage, what would be people’s reactions to her? Would world leaders welcome her or resent her god-like gifts? Would she become a pop culture icon, worshipped and adored, or one reviled and trolled on social media? Would Wonder Woman need a Twitter feed or her own website? If the filmmakers want to riff on pop culture, social media is ripe for the pickings and the perils of it carry much more weight than parachute pants and fanny-packs.
Additionally, it would be interesting to see Diana date, now that she's officially over Steve Trevor. A new love story for her would be wholly fascinating - what kind of mate would she want and how would her partner feel about her secret identity? Such a B story would deepen her character exponentially, allow her some genuine joy, and showcase her explorations as a red-blooded woman. There are many possibilities that could better the franchise from here on out and allow Diana/Wonder Woman to be seen in much stronger storylines and contexts.
No matter what course the filmmakers take, they need to realize that Wonder Woman needs to be grounded in a more recognizable reality. Her best look is battling real problems, genuine issues of the time, and not being relegated to chasing down supernatural relics or engage in fights with a badly done CGI-version of Kristen Wiig's Cheetah. (My God, she looked like she pranced in from 2019's awful CATS film.) Wonder Woman doesn't need such frivolity; she needs stakes, something truly worth fighting for, and a people that need saving. Given this past week, I’d say 2021 offers her a host of possibilities. Shall we start with Wonder Woman fighting to uphold the Constitution?