CS Soapbox: Wonder Woman 1984 is Basically Superman II
WARNING: Major Spoilers ahead for Wonder Woman 1984! If You do not wish to be spoiled, please watch the movie on HBO Max first!
It was a privilege to get to visit the set of Wonder Woman 1984 Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden in England back in August of 2018, where I witnessed the lensing of the Amazon Olympics as well as the White House hallway shootout sequence, and got to take a casual stroll through Diana’s apartment set. Even luckier was the chance to recently be among the first to see the film itself and then speak to director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot. After the film had been delayed from November 2019 to summer 2020 (pre-COVID) and then ultimately landed a post-COVID dual theatrical/HBO Max December 25, 2020 release, I had assumed the worst. No studio delays a big anticipated tentpole because it’s so awesome, right?
Luckily my assumptions were misplaced, as Wonder Woman 1984 is hardly the trainwreck many assumed. In fact, it’s a totally worthy sequel in the best sense, mainly because Jenkins chose smartly not to make a rehash of her phenomenal first Wonder Woman flick from 2017. There were probably plenty of voices telling her to simply do the first one again but set it in World War II or Vietnam or even Iraq. Instead she chose to tell a more topical story of Maxwell Lord, a secretly-broke con man business douche who uses his influence to prey on everyone’s worst instincts amplified by a media firestorm. That influence is fueled by a magical artifact which allows Diana to be reunited with her long lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) while simultaneously giving mousy Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) a taste of the strength that Diana possesses… at Diana’s expense.
“I really like doing things for the first time,” Jenkins told me during our discussion. “There’s something so fresh about discovery and it’s so electric not knowing how to do something. As we were finishing the first film it became clear to me, I said, ‘We’re never doing more of this.’ I made a big deal in the press to say we’re not making a sequel, we’re making a brand new film. It’s a whole new movie, so wrap your head around it. Wonder Woman is the same person, Steve is the same person. I thought it was such a journey to create Wonder Woman in the first film, so what I wanted to do this time was make a Wonder Woman movie. What does Wonder Woman stand for in this world? She stands for something so unique in that she stands for love and is godlike in the fact that she’s really trying to be the best for people.”
The movie is delightfully quirky and doesn’t really follow the template of any previous DCEU movie or even a Marvel-esque formula, as Jenkins promised during our set visit. Instead it goes in a direction that’s very true to the character herself in that she (and likewise the movie) remains eternally optimistic even in the face of utter hopelessness, and there is not ONE SINGLE ONSCREEN DEATH. In other words, it’s the anti-Zack Snyder movie.
“This is part of the reason why we decided she shouldn’t have a sword or a shield: Diana is not aggressive,” Gadot told us after our screening. “She’s not there to fight. She’s a peacemaker. She also has the higher understanding that people are not bad, per se. We’re all the same, we all have our moments where we don’t do the right thing in order to fill this hole. She assumes the best out of people, so her default is always to protect them. She leads by example. Humankind will get it eventually, but she will always give all that she has in order to bring goodness to humankind.”
“Not one person dies in the whole movie, which you may or may not notice but we went out of our way,” Jenkins added. “People are under the power of something else, so it’s not their fault. People get pretty hurt, probably!”
While Wonder Woman 1984 certainly earns its place as an outlier from the DCEU’s early grimdark fare like Batman v Superman or The Suicide Squad, and even the studio-mandated slugfest ending of the first Wonder Woman, there is one classic DC film it actually shares a deep kinship with: 1980’s Superman II.
Directed by Richard Lester (who took over from original director Richard Donner), Superman II involves the title hero (Christopher Reeve) facing off against Zod (Terence Stamp) -an adversary of equal strength- while simultaneously attempting to outwit the Machiavellian machinations of corrupt businessman Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Along the way Zod and Luthor team up. It also includes a subplot about Superman deciding to selfishly cast away his world-defending duties in order to be with his true love Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), at the expense of his superpowers.
By contrast, Wonder Woman 1984 is about… the title hero attempting to outwit the Machiavellian machinations of corrupt businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) while simultaneously facing off against Cheetah/Minerva (Kristin Wiig)… an adversary of equal strength. Along the way Lord and Cheetah team up. It also includes a subplot about Wonder Woman deciding to selfishly cast away her world-defending duties in order to be with her true love Steve Trevor, at the expense of her superpowers.
Much like Superman wishing to simply be Clark Kent but ultimately realizing that not having his powers will have dire consequences for the world, Diana verbally spars with Steve about wanting to have something (him) for herself, with Steve ultimately convincing her that she needs to renounce her wish to have him back in order to return to full strength and stop the damage that Lord is doing. The biggest difference is the plots are flipped: Lord is the main baddie. Cheetah is more of a side villain, only squaring off two times over the course of the film, once with Diana in a weakened state at the White House and then again at the broadcast station once Minerva has fully been transformed by the power of the Dreamstone. Incidentally, the Dreamstone created by the God of Treachery and Mischief is a glowing green rock that weakens Diana in much the same way Kryptonite weakens Superman.
Once you realize the similarity between the two films it’s not surprising in the least, as Jenkins has gone on record many times saying Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman was the biggest influence on the first Wonder Woman, saying “It was my Star Wars.” That’s right down to a catching-the-bullet scene in an alleyway as homage to the same scene in Donner’s picture. It only seems fair that she should appropriate the essential core of Superman II to hang the second Wonder Woman story on. However, pointing out the similarity is not a criticism but rather a strong point. Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and David Callaham go to great lengths to make this a WONDER WOMAN-style story as opposed to a Superman story because Diana truly goes to great lengths not to destroy her enemies, in fact making Lord the engine for saving the human race that he has blindly endangered.
That is no small difference, as both versions of Superman II (including the 2006 Donner cut) depict Supes blithely dispatching Zod, Ursa and Non in the Fortress of Solitude battle, while they’re de-powered no less. The deaths are played almost for laughs, yet elicited nowhere near the controversy of Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel where Supes grimly snaps the neck of Zod in a visceral moment of inner conflict. Snyder’s first Superman outing is also essentially a remake of Superman I & II in drab modern drag: Kryptonian backstory intro, childhood origin stuff with Ma & Pa Kent, then meeting Lois and duking it out in a city with Zod. The difference between Man of Steel and Wonder Woman 1984 is the latter carries forward the hopefulness of Donner’s original Superman while the former, uh, goes its own way.
Even the setting of Jenkins’ sequel feels distanced from the second Superman, because even though Superman II was released in 1980 a great bulk of it was shot in 1977 simultaneously with the original, so it still has the feeling of a 70’s-set movie. The Reagan-era 80’s were famously a time of selfishness and greed, where the Gordon Gekko’s of the world thrived and the myth of trickle down economics left Americans in a financial and spiritual deficit. This is the perfect point for Diana to intervene and try to bring a sense of humanity back to humankind, as she valiantly does in her final plea to the people of earth. Without even revealing herself to the world, she manages to be its savior… by helping us save ourselves. In that way she’s even greater than Superman, and ultimately why Wonder Woman 1984 is the movie we so very much need right now.