By now, moviegoers know what to expect from big-budget superhero films. They know they’ll be treated to eye-popping CGI and sprawling action scenes, followed by a grand final battle in which the hero will dispense justice in the form of an epic beatdown of the villain. And hopefully, all of that will be wrapped in some compelling themes and engaging character arcs along the way.

However, in a year when almost nothing went as expected, it’s fitting that the only major superhero film of 2020 should subvert some of the genre’s most familiar tropes.

Wonder Woman 1984 has plenty of stunning visuals and thrilling action, of course. There are battles to be fought and enemies to be defeated.

But none of that is the true focus of the film. Instead, at the heart of WW84 is the personal journey of its hero, Diana of Themyscira, her commitment to truth and kindness, and what her mission to save the world will cost her. More than that, the film’s real enemy and Diana’s chosen path to victory are the last things audiences might expect in a superhero movie – except maybe for those who watch the film through the lens of biblical faith.

[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from Wonder Woman 1984. If you’re planning to see the film and haven’t yet, you may wish to do so before reading further.]

The beauty and power of truth

The movie opens with a flashback to Diana as a little girl on Themyscira, competing in an Amazon version of the Olympic Games. After getting disqualified for cheating, the young princess learns a hard lesson from her aunt, Antiope: the truth is all that matters. There’s no shame in failure, only in denying the truth.

This lesson from her youth shapes Diana’s life and flows from her words and actions throughout the film: the truth is all we have. Nothing good is born from lies, whether we lie to others or to ourselves. Only the truth can save us, individually and as a race. Even when it’s hard, the truth is ultimately beautiful and needs to be embraced. One almost expects Diana to add, “the truth will set you free.”

Contrast this with the dominant cultural message of relative truth and following your heart. In Diana’s ethos, there’s no “your truth” or “my truth” but only the truth, no matter how it may challenge our beliefs and wishes. To deny it is to deceive ourselves and to court chaos on a personal and societal level.

Goodness and kindness, no matter the cost

As an immortal Amazon and daughter of Zeus, Diana has lived countless lifetimes. In the first Wonder Woman movie, she left her island paradise, her family and her culture, and entered the world of mortals during one of its darkest hours, the First World War. She did it knowing she could never go back, and committed to staying and serving humanity throughout her long life.

Wonder Woman 1984 finds her living in Washington, D.C., in the colourful and affluent 1980s, working at the Smithsonian Museum and using her powers to help people wherever she can. Over many years, she has seen everyone she loves grow old and die, leaving her alone. Yet despite decades of loneliness, Diana remains as kind and generous as ever, faithful to her mission of doing good.

In the course of her work, Diana comes across an ancient artifact with the power to grant any wish (this is a superhero movie, after all). Without knowing it, she triggers the artifact and soon finds Steve Trevor, the love of her life who had died in the First World War, back from the dead. The two share a joyful reunion, during which Diana introduces an awestruck Steve to the wonders of modern life in the 80s.

It becomes clear, however, that the artifact exacts a steep price for the wishes it grants. Diana’s shy friend and colleague, Dr. Barbara Minerva, uses it to become strong and popular but loses her warmth and humanity in the exchange. Worse still, a TV huckster named Max Lord becomes one with the artifact, using it to grant the wishes of millions, in return acquiring their health, wealth and power for himself and creating chaos around the globe.

The cost of Diana’s wish becomes apparent when she tries to stop Max and Barbara. In exchange for Steve’s life, she’s losing her powers, and the two of them realize the awful truth: to save the world, Diana needs to renounce her dearest wish and lose her love yet again. “Can’t I just have this one thing?” she pleads in anguish before letting Steve go. It’s a heartbreaking struggle that evokes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it allows Diana to reclaim her strength and her mission as she embraces the truth.

Knowing and loving your enemies

Once Diana has her powers back, she’s set for a final showdown with Max Lord and Barbara Minerva, to stop their destructive plans. But Barbara and Max aren’t the real villains of the film. The true enemy is the spirit of selfishness and avarice that informed the zeitgeist of the 1980s. As in the first movie, WW84 doesn’t blame the world’s woes on a powerful bad guy. The problem lies in all of humanity. People wish for fame or fancy cars or political power or the destruction of their enemies, with catastrophic results.

Diana recognizes this, but she also sees the potential for good in people, as individuals and as a species, a potential that’s worth cherishing and nurturing in every way. She sees the brokenness as well as the beauty – in biblical terms, the fallenness as well as the divine image – in the human race she’s sworn to defend.

Throughout the film, Diana treats everyone, both friends and enemies, with kindness and respect. She only uses as much force as needed to subdue a foe. Collateral damage is never acceptable to her. She shields innocent bystanders at great risk to herself, and even protects her adversaries from suffering unnecessary harm. At one point, when she’s still vulnerable and Steve picks up a sword to help her, she tells him to put it down. Their enemies aren’t to blame, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

In Diana’s final confrontation with Max Lord, he tempts her to reclaim her wish. “Don’t you want your lover back?” he asks. “I’ve never wanted anything more,” she admits, her voice cracking with grief, but she knows he’s gone and she can no longer live a lie. She uses Max’s high-tech communications, together with her lasso of truth, to appeal to the people of the world and show them the truth. She acknowledges their pain and suffering, but urges them to embrace the truth of their lives. And she persuades everyone – including Max – to renounce their hasty wishes in order to heal their world.

It’s an ending that audiences could not have seen coming. Rather than crushing her adversaries in an epic beatdown, Diana triumphs by redeeming them through compassionate persuasion, turning enemies into friends. In Diana’s own words, “Greatness is not what you think.”

The power of stories

Unlike other superheroes, Wonder Woman isn’t driven by personal tragedy or a quest for retribution. Instead, she’s motivated by love and kindness and a genuine desire to seek the best for humanity. She’s more about protecting the innocent than punishing the guilty.

This positive, uplifting ethos lies at the heart of both Wonder Woman films, courtesy of their director, Patty Jenkins. “I truly believe in the power of story to inspire and to process different things that we face in our lives,” Jenkins said in an interview about WW84. “And what better way to use a superhero story than to try to inspire the next generation . . . to be a hero themselves, find the hero within themselves, find the bravery and the courage to make difficult choices and try to save the world?”

The director admits the inspiration for her films came from the Wonder Woman TV series and the Superman movies of the 70s and 80s. The two characters share much in common, including an undeniable messianic symbolism: both are powerful beings who enter the world to do good and to save humanity from itself. But it’s Wonder Woman – Diana of Themyscira – with her commitment to truth and sacrifice and the love of enemies, who arguably reflects these messianic qualities more fully and deeply.

Jenkins is right: stories are powerful, especially ones that echo so many facets of biblical truth. Wonder Woman 1984 made some bold, unexpected narrative choices, and not everybody liked it. Some viewers and critics were put off by the light bright retro 80s tone, the emphasis on character over action, and the lack of a big final battle. But others resonated with the film’s uplifting message, its moments of heartbreak and joy, and its theme of truth and mercy triumphing over judgment. For many of them, WW84 was the perfect movie during a season of loneliness, fear and division in the world.

It’s hard to ask much more of a superhero film released on Christmas Day, at the end of the most challenging year in living memory.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Wonder Woman 1984, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Wonder Woman 1984 is appropriate for you or your family.]

Sources and further reading

K. B. Hoyle, “Wonder Woman 1984’s good true story,” Christ and Pop Culture, December 29, 2020.

Mark Hughes, “Review: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ may be the film to define 2020,” Forbes, December 23, 2020.

Michelle Reyes, “Wonder Woman 1984 and the myth of having it all,” Think Christian, January 7, 2021.

Amy Stamm, “Wonder Woman and the Smithsonian,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, December 30, 2020.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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