Essays · Movies

‘Wonder Woman 1984’ and the Melodrama of the Gods

The sequel wants nothing to do with a recognizable reality. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot are here to clash with titans.
Wonder Woman Melodrama
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on December 24th, 2020

Watch the background characters in Wonder Woman 1984. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about Patty Jenkins‘ intention. When Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) swings in on her lasso and yanks a jewel thief into the air, the extras plummet their jaws, and their eyes stretch to fill their entire faces. These are not reality’s representatives; they’re champions of melodrama.

As a product of the gods, Wonder Woman roots herself in the theater. All the world’s a stage, and every seat is cheap. The front row gets the same performance as the back row. Her adventure is loud, and the world constructed around it, even more so.

As a comic book obsessive, I bounce back and forth between how I’d like to see adaptations handled. On one side, there is my child self. He wants the grownups to take his passions seriously. Comic books are not kids’ stuff. They’re a big deal and should be treated as such. Christopher Nolan, show them the way. Make Batman growl, but ground him in a recognizable Gotham.

On the other side, there is my adult self, who yearns to maintain a vanished childhood. Comic books are a delight built around extremes, bright colors, and brighter ideas. The stories are grounded on concepts and characters that scream and reach for the heavens. They’re not dramatic; they’re melodramatic, or hammy, overdone, exaggerated, or flamboyant. Stack all the synonyms together, and now you’re getting somewhere.

Every panel in a superhero comic book is an explosion, and the frames they transform into on the big screen should be as bold as and as electric as their source. Comics slap to gain their readers’ attention. To mute their tone to achieve some form of authenticity is a horrendous misreading.

Wonder Woman 1984 slaps.

Set decades after her last solo outing, the movie finds Diana having established Washington DC as her base of operations, spending her days as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She longs for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who exited her life, and his, via poisonous fireball. Every plane overhead acts as a reminder of his noble sacrifice, and while she finds thrills in stomping thugs in shopping mall food courts as the mysterious Wonder Woman, Diana can’t shake the raincloud over her head.

When an ancient artifact rescued from the black market by Wonder Woman lands on the desk of Diana’s co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), the conniving wannabe mogul Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) comes sniffing around the offices as well. He wants the Dreamstone for nefarious purposes, as it can grant its wielder whatever their heart desires. He gets his wish but not before Barbara and Diana accidentally manifest a secret fantasy and have a little piece of themselves stolen from them.

As dreams are granted and perverted, Wonder Woman 1984 reveals the ultimate villain of the piece: disappointment. Well, that and maybe also the godly bastard who fashioned the stone to watch us puppets kill ourselves for what we never had. All of us face regret at some point. What could have been if we turned left instead of right? The question can gnaw and destroy if we let it.

Diana is a keeper of the truth. The concept is bonded to her lasso, and to become entangled in it is to know the gospel. The world is. To change it into something it is not is a lie. To live that lie is a betrayal of self. The trick is to find the beauty that already exists around you.

Screenwriters Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and David Callaham navigate morality with the subtlety of a Grimm fairy tale or a Pixar lesson. Wonder Woman 1984 is the kind of story where Diana Prince can address the whole world, break the fourth wall, and look every audience member in the eye, and declare her love for them. You can meet her gaze with cynicism or love in return. Your availability will determine your enthusiasm for the experience. Are you the kid who wants the grownups to take their stuff seriously, or are you the adult who craves a bold connection?

Diana is the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta. She rides lightning, and her blood rages. The realm she inhabits belongs to theatrical boomers like Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Jack Gwillim. Titans cannot be confined to a close-up. They shatter delicacy; obliterate pragmatism. In going big, they underscore the small, the real, the tangible.

Wonder Woman 1984 is one gargantuan neon highlighter. Patty Jenkins paints a world in agony; a collection of people who wish to correct the obstacles barricading them from happiness. She uses Diana to disrupt this fruitless thinking. As a servant of truth, Diana must confront the world as it is presented to her. There are no quick fixes. Jenkins is telling us to put in the work. Follow Wonder Woman’s lead.

The director wants us to wear the “WOW” faces worn by her background extras. Clearly, Jenkins is in awe of Wonder Woman. She is a character who knows pain and who almost succumbed to it. As a result of one human’s self-sacrifice, she fights for us despite our continual disappointments. She believes in a way only a god would. We can do better.

Wonder Woman 1984 bellows so you can hear whether you’re sitting in an apartment in Georgetown or on Mount Olympus. It’s blinding, goofy, and wild. Every emotion is high, and they bleed profusely. The melodrama might get laughed out of A24, but it earns a mighty slap on the back from Zeus.

Wonder Woman 1984 begins streaming on HBO Max on December 25th. 

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)