Warning: Very spoilery, right to the end (if you want to read my four-star review, it’s here)
Wonder Woman 1984 is about truth, so I’m going to come right out and say it. I don’t know how – considering the movie’s generally fabulous ’80s styling – they managed to miss out the key cultural clothing icons from 1984: Wham!‘s Choose Life t-shirts and the iconic Frankie says… Relax.
The main message of Wonder Woman 1984, beyond the enduring rightness of shiny leggings and batwing tops, is that truth is really all we have. Luckily this is explicitly stated, as the film, while great fun and Just What We Need Right Now™, is also quite messy (particularly towards the end).
Patty Jenkins’ film is a cinematic tonic for the end of an awful year (assuming your cinema is even open) but it’s also a sharp examination of the 1980s, a decade which – with its later focus on success as virtue, and personal gain rather than community – has led directly to where we are now.
It links what we could call our present post-truth world, of fake news and Twitter bots, with the 1980s, which kick-started with a drive for people from any background to make something of themselves but became twisted into a desire for success by any means.
“Anything you want. Anything you dream of, you can have it!” offers dodgy-as-hell businessman Max Lord, summing up the decade that reticence forgot.
Both Max Lord and Barbara Minerva want success in a flash. Their insecurities and backgrounds – Barbara has always been ignored, Max was bullied by his abusive father and his schoolmates – push them to grab what they can to prove to everyone they are successful. It doesn’t work of course, and they get off pretty lightly: Max’s journey ends with him reuniting with his young son, determined to be a good father; by the closing minutes, Cheetah is alone, but human.
We see at the start of the film, in an incredible sequence where a very small Diana competes in an event watched by her fellow Amazonians, how she learnt about the importance of truth. She’s discovered cheating in order to win, but it’s made clear to her that a faked win is worthless. It’s a lesson she carries with her, until she has the chance to wish for Steve on the dreamstone and almost throws it all away.
That dreamstone is a bit of a daft idea, a Get Out Of Jail Free card, and besides any child could have told them all to make their wish for a shedload of extra wishes with no strings attached. (Perhaps I, and most children, are more cynical than the makers of this film.) Its historical appearances are interesting though. The dreamstone pops up all over the place, granting one wish yet giving a trick in return; and whenever the stone appears, that society collapses. (The references to The Monkey’s Paw relate to a short story about a magical paw which grants three wishes but “takes as much as it gives,” as Diana says to Barbara.)
Max’s wish from the dreamstone is to become the dreamstone, and that comes true. Though as for everyone else granted a wish, there is a terrible price. Even then he thinks, as his body starts to fail, that he can simply win back his health through granting other people wishes, because they too must give something up to get what they want.
Barbara’s wish is to be like Diana, and every day she finds she has more power: whether to transfix an audience, or accidentally pull the door off the fridge. (Her feline charms reminded me of that study that found a parasite transmitted by cats makes men stupider and women sexier. Sometimes truth – yes we’re back to that again – is actually as strange as fiction.) As her powers grow Diana’s lessen, until the two women meet (and fight) in the White House. Barbara can’t let Diana stop Max because then Barbara will lose her new powers.
Meanwhile political, business and crime leaders make their wishes to Max, and the world becomes destabilised – the American President’s wish for more nuclear weapons leads to an imminent war with the Soviet Union.
Diana knows that to end the chaos the stone must be destroyed or everyone must renounce their wish, but for her to do that means losing Steve. Eventually they say goodbye on a chaotic Washington street, as she realises what she must do.
She then flies to find Cheetah and Max, a skill she has never been able to master before (and she looks very Superman-like in the sky). Taking on the now-fully transformed Cheetah, Diana wears a golden-winged suit of armour created millennia ago for Asteria, the greatest Amazonian warrior. Asteria wore it to hold back the world, giving the other Amazonians time to get back to Themyscira and safety.
Barbara – have wished through Max to become an apex predator – has transformed into Cheetah. The aerial fight between she and Diana ends with Diana holding Cheetah underwater, though she doesn’t drown her. Instead Diana leaves her frenemy on the side and goes into the broadcasting centre to find Max.
He is broadcasting over all the world’s TV channels, utilising top secret American technology he acquired from the President, asking people round the world to look into his eyes on TV and make their wish.
Diana speaks, supposedly to Max, though it turns out she’s really addressing his worldwide audience, who are currently making wishes and discovering terrible consequences: “You must be the hero, Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save the world.”
Diana shows Max images of his young son Alistair wandering around outside as the nuclear sirens sound, and Max finally realises what he’s become. As he and people around the world renounce their wishes, their consequences are reversed and order is restored. The launched nuclear weapons disappear from radar and the two belligerent superpowers stand down their attacks.
Max runs outside and is reunited with Alistair, telling the boy “you don’t ever have to make a wish for me to love you,” and Diana flies off into the sky.
We later see Diana in a snowy scene at a Washington Christmas market. A handsome man approaches,the man whose body Steve Trevor had to inhabit when he arrived in 1984. He and Diana make snowy smalltalk, before going their separate ways. Why doesn’t he ask her out? She’s his best option – everyone else looks terrible because, well, it’s 1984.
That mid-credits scene: it wasn’t screened for critics, though I am informed it features… Linda Carter, 1970s Wonder Woman! I shall pass you over to my friends at Get Your Comic On who know all about it…