Article ID: JAR2101CB | By: Cole Burgett
Note: this review contains spoilers for Wonder Women (2017) and Wonder Women: 1984 (2020).
Click here for our Review of Wonder Woman (2017)
Wonder Women: 1984 (2020).
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Story by Patty Jenkins and Geoff Johns
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2017’s Wonder Woman was an unexpected Warner Bros. hit. Sure, it was produced and advertised as a big-budget star vehicle for Gal Gadot’s take on one of the most enduring comic book icons (she first played the character in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), but I don’t think many people expected the film to be such a rousing spectacle. Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman took the tried and true “origin story” formula and turned it into a thoughtful, resonating study of humanity’s depravity and their capacity for goodness when they have someone to show them a better way. Gadot imbued Diana Prince with a gracefulness and fierceness seldom seen in female characters in these particular types of adaptations, without sacrificing one shred of her inherent femininity, giving us one of the most complex and nuanced superheroes ever put to screen and — for my money — producing one of the best superhero films to date.
Now, the long-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), though perhaps less focused than its predecessor, nonetheless takes the characters and themes introduced in Wonder Woman and expands and deepens them in important ways. The film has received its fair share of criticism, primarily, it seems, due to issues of pacing and a generally “lethargic” middle act.1 Perhaps some of these criticisms are simply the product of a culture that has become so inundated by action-heavy superhero films that delight in computer-generated spectacle, that any work in the genre that is heavy on dialogue and relatively low on action seems, to us, confused. Saying that the film is “less focused” is not a criticism, to be sure; it simply means that the film tells less of a singular story than the previous one. The narrative is complex in the way sequels should be, and the plot is surprisingly dense, being split between three primary threads that weave together and diverge at key points throughout the film. We follow Diana as she is unexpectedly reunited with lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and geologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) as she gains new powers while losing her humanity, as well as businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) as he reaches for godhood at the expense of the world.
A Film About Longing. A major temptation when adapting comic book material is to sacrifice characters and emotionally resonant narratives for action sequences driven primarily by special effects and computer-generated images. While Wonder Woman 1984 is not short on action, and the special effects are top-notch, the movie does not turn upon these sequences. Instead, the narrative is carried primarily by four very capable actors who turn in strong performances in a film that is fundamentally about longing and the great patience that defines suffering.
We live in a culture that does its level best to cut out longing through instant gratification. This is not a new idea. In the past five years, no small amount of research has been conducted and articles published concerning what we are told is a defining aspect of “millennials” and younger generations: the “fear of missing out” syndrome (or, FOMO, if you’re into cutesy acronyms). In essence, what this idea attempts to articulate is the reason why you and I cannot sit in a restaurant anymore and not be surrounded by silent tables where entire families are not talking but are instead mesmerized by the low-light glow of their social media pages on their cell phones.2 I find this broad-stroke characterization applying only to younger people a bit hilarious, as it seems more difficult to get my fifty-year-old family members to put their devices away than it does the children, but I digress.
The point here is simple: through evolving technologies and the expansion of social media, people now have an unprecedented number of personal and professional avenues vying for their attention at any given time. The result is a people paralyzed by choice, terrified of commitment, because something they deem more worthy of their attention could come along at any given moment. Categories of self-control break down, along with patience, because the things that once might be longed for are exchanged for things more readily accessible in the moment.3 In other words, what used to have to wait until a face-to-face conversation on Monday can now be dealt with on Saturday with the few clicks of a button, and no two parties have to be in the same location.
Consider, for example, how the texture of high school relationships has changed. What once required a note, perhaps, to be dropped into a locker, followed by eager anticipation regarding whether or not the other party is even interested enough to respond, met with hopes of securing a phone number that would require no small amount of courage to dial because it almost certainly meant having to speak first with the ominous parental gatekeeper, who may or may not like the sound of your voice, has been replaced by the sending of a quick text — the sum total of one’s fears being “left on read.” Gone is the patience-developing middle, the longing-inducing emotional range that young people used to have to feel their way through.
Though set in the mid-eighties, Wonder Woman 1984 deals very profoundly with this uniquely 21st century crisis. The plot really takes off with the discovery of the “Dreamstone,” an ancient and chaotic magical rock that immediately grants the one who touches it their greatest desire, or ultimate longing. When Diana touches the rock, Steve Trevor is returned to her. When awkward Barbara touches the rock, she suddenly becomes the coolest lady in the workplace, with a desire for more power and popularity. When crummy TV personality Maxwell touches it, well, he’s a little more creative. He desires to become the stone itself, because he knows the stone operates with a catch.
See, the stone grants one their greatest desire, but it comes with a price. They lose the thing that makes them who they are, their best quality, the thing that makes them most good. For Diana, this means she loses her powers, her ability to step in and help others. For Barbara, she’s less awkward, but she’s also less kind, less interested in other people. Maxwell, however, in becoming the stone incarnate, now grants people their wishes, but uses the trade off to demand something of his own interest in return. It starts off relatively harmless enough, using the stone’s power to find employees for his fledgling oil company. But things quickly begin to spiral out of control when he uses his new power to rob his competitors of their land and oil claims. And when the stone’s power begins to kill him, he starts using people’s desires to mine them for their very life force. By the end of the film, he uses then-new satellite technology to reach out to the entire world via televisions and video screens (I doubt this particular plot point was coincidental), encouraging people to wish for the thing they want most right then, so that he might grant it, and receive their life force in turn.
The only way to reverse the stone’s power is for one to give up the thing most longed for, to renounce the thing they wished for upon touching the stone. This means giving up the thing they want the most in that moment, the thing that is within their immediate reach.
A Film About Sacrifice. Both Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 are remarkable in their assessment of human nature. Rarely do major studio films produced by the Hollywood machine so readily acknowledge humanity’s flaws while simultaneously pointing mankind to higher truths. These decidedly Platonic notions, found within the heart of pre-modern Christian apologetics as argued by the likes of Augustine and C. S. Lewis, affirm in no uncertain terms objective truth and objective goodness.4 With the rise of modernity, and in our current post-secular age, thinking in categories that allow for objective truth and morality can sometimes seem archaic or trite. Indeed, most modern superhero films are less interested in these kinds of important philosophical and theological quandaries, opting to preach a kind of humanistic heroism that suggests mankind, left to its own devices, can better itself.
Tony Stark becomes the heroic Iron Man through his genius intellect and must spend the rest of his character arc learning that his brainpower doesn’t actually make him all that great. He essentially thinks his way into heroism. Steve Rogers, though a good man, is incapable of becoming Captain America until science intervenes. What sets characters like Diana Prince apart from the usual superhero fare is that she, like Superman, is wholly other from humanity. Whereas most of the superheroes currently dominating the zeitgeist represent an almost carelessly optimistic view of mankind, Wonder Woman presents us with a vision of mankind that is a little closer to reality.
Consider the climax of Wonder Woman 1984. As Maxwell Lord grants the world its most immediate desires, we are given glimpses of people in the throes of their most fickle wants. One warfighter wishes for more weapons, an arguably justifiable desire for one engaged in warfare, even if the end result is destruction. But then we glimpse a couple in a heated argument where, in a fit of rage, the husband shouts at his wife that he wishes she would just drop dead — and then she does. These are the kinds of small, unsexy, yet entirely accurate aspects of humanity that many superhero stories tend to gloss over or pretend do not exist. As the world burns, we see a street preacher condemning mankind for its greed, begging people to look at what their selfish desires have wrought, as Maxwell’s gospel of have-it-now pours forth from video screens. This mirrors the climax of 2017’s Wonder Woman, wherein Diana finally realizes that humanity chooses war and death on a daily basis. Left to their own devices, people stumble and fall — every single time.
What makes Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 so profound is the realization that humanity must be shown a better way — we can’t get there on our own. Humanity has a potential for goodness that must be stirred up. Goodness has to be shown to us, because we tend to fail to see it for ourselves. This is where Diana Prince comes in so powerfully. In Wonder Woman 1984, she interrupts Maxwell’s broadcast to the world to appeal to a mass of broken people to put aside their immediate wants for the sake of one another. Though immediate satisfaction is at their fingertips, Diana pleads with them to suffer loss, to die to themselves, and to suffer well. In other words, she calls upon humanity to make a very important sacrifice.
And this is not an empty call. For Diana herself has made this very same sacrifice. She renounces her own wish, giving up Steve Trevor once again. In doing so, she becomes a symbol, a beacon, and her words a rallying cry to a flailing humanity that cannot of its own accord rise above its base nature. She becomes an example, a not-quite-human whose capacity for goodness actually makes her the best example of what humans can and should be. In this way, she looks less and less like any number of other more popular superheroes, and more and more like Christ.
A Film About Truth. The human capacity for creating a fantasy that is removed from reality cannot be overstated. This is a fantasy in which people tend to place themselves at the center, with the whole of this fantasy world revolving around their own wants and desires. This seems to be what John Calvin had in mind when he wrote the famous line, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.”5 And the idols produced always take the shape of the thing the heart most desires. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “the heart wants what it wants — or else it does not care.”6 The heart desires immediate satisfaction, lost in a kind of perpetual spiritual FOMO that demands gain without loss, victory without sacrifice, and grace without suffering. And the truth is that many of our fantasies are born out of pain, a desire to see personal wrongs righted, to find a way to ensure that we never have to hurt again. The great deception, of course, is in thinking that if we just get what we want right now, then we will somehow be made complete.
One of the great truths of the Christian life is that these idols — these fantasies — must shatter against the reality of Jesus Christ. The reason Christians hold to the Bible as a source of authority is, in part, because of the stark clarity by which it helps us to see the world. Its words are taken as Truth with a capital “t,” just as Jesus Himself claimed to be “the truth” (John 14:6), before appealing to the Father to sanctify those whom the Father had given Him “in the truth,” for the Father’s word “is truth” itself (17:17). All throughout Scripture, we learn of mankind’s darkened mind (Rom. 1:21), and how, in this dim state, mankind refuses to recognize this truth (Eph. 4:18), even suppressing God’s self-revelation (Rom. 1:18–19). Suffering, therefore, must be embraced despite the pain. It is not that Christians do not believe in suffering; on the contrary, the apostle Paul rejoiced in his suffering because of the hope it ultimately produced (Rom. 5:3), and the apostle Peter admonished his readers to rejoice in light of the fact that they suffered with Christ (1 Pet. 4:13).
“This world was a beautiful place just as it was, but you cannot have it all,” Diana says in the stunning finale of Wonder Woman 1984. “You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough.” As Maxwell threatens to plunge the world into chaos, Diana calls to him: “You are not the only one who has suffered…who imagined a world where everything was different, better….But what is it costing you? Do you see the truth?”7 Her words are a plea not only to Maxwell, but also to the world. Fantasy must shatter against reality, and the cost of our desires must always be counted. The nightmare world presented in Wonder Woman 1984 is one in which humans attain their immediate desires, without a moment’s thought given to their fellow man. It takes Diana and her example to come breaking in before mankind sees a better way forward, one that is marked by the milestones of suffering and sacrificial living for the sake of another.
The message of Wonder Woman 1984 is one, I think, Christians can understand profoundly. In our darkened fantasies, we are the center of the universe, and the world becomes our oyster. We are ruled by our selfish wants, deceiving ourselves into believing that what we desire is best for the world, and everyone else should just fall in line with our vision for our future. Yet the Scriptures teach us time and again that these fantasies must shatter against reality, a reality that tells us we cannot have the world. We can only have the Truth — and He is enough. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a seminary student, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- See Manohla Dargis, “Wonder Woman 1984 Review: It’s Not About What We Deserve,” New York Times, December 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/24/movies/wonder-woman-1984-review.html.
- See Lauren Thompson, “FOMO: It’s Your Life You’re Missing Out On,” ScienceDaily, March 30, 2016, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160330135623.htm.
- See Elliot Taylor Panek, “Immediate Media: How Instant Gratification, Self-Control, and the Expansion of Media Choice Affect Our Everyday Lives,” PhD dissertation, (University of Michigan, 2012).
- See Janet Blumberg, “Plato and Augustine in the Writings of C. S. Lewis,” Seattle Pacific University, Speakers and Events, 665 (2001), https://digitalcommons.spu.edu/av_events/665.
- Originally given in Latin as “hominis ingenium perpetuam, ut ita loquar, esse idolorum fabricam” in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 ed.), I. 11.8.
- Emily Dickinson, “Letter to Mrs. Samuel Bowles,” The Letters (1862), 262, https://www.emilydickinson.it/l0261-0280.html.
- Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins, written by Patty Jenkins et al., Warner Bros., 2020.