Like most other superhero movies, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 share a handful of conventions typical of the genre: a main character who possesses superhuman powers or skills that they use to save others, an adventure filled with peril and personal growth, and a showdown with a supervillain from the comics during the climactic finale. Yet unlike most other superhero movies, there’s something odd about how that last one fits in with the Wonder Woman films.
Specifically, said showdowns don’t really fit in at all.
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Wonder Woman: Gods on the Tarmac
Across most of the first Wonder Woman’s runtime, Diana is convinced that her half-brother Ares, the God of War, is entirely responsible for World War I. Simplifying such a complicated conflict as that war is repeatedly used as an example of her naivete about the outside world, and overcoming that is positioned as the “lesson” of the movie given how the finale is structured. Diana, pursuing her mission with dogmatic determination, corners General Ludendorff (who she believes to be Ares in disguise), kills him, and… nothing changes. The war is still on, and in her subsequent conversation with Steve Trevor, he says, “You don’t think I wish I could tell you that it was one bad guy to blame?” In that moment, Diana’s childhood worldview of mankind being innately good is shattered, finally opening up a chance for her to mature.
Except only a few minutes later, Ares actually does show up and reveals that he was, in fact, responsible for the war and Diana was right the entire time. In terms of function, this twist allows for Diana to have a big final physical challenge against one of her most prolific enemies from the comics; in effect, it negates Diana’s growth by saying she wasn’t wrong for believing that one ultimate villain was behind all the chaos and suffering she’s witnessed on her journey — she was simply wrong about who said ultimate villain was. Ares tries to argue that he only gives men ideas for weapons and doesn’t make them use them, but this doesn’t change that Diana’s initial “hunt down and kill one bad guy” plan still winds up solving her problems. Her saying “only love can save the world” rings hollow when she effectively ends World War I by vaporizing her brother.
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Wonder Woman 1984: Eagle vs. Cheetah
In Wonder Woman 1984, the big moral question of the story is whether or not Diana is willing to give up Steve, who has been brought back to life by a wish from the Dreamstone. She is finally reunited with the man she loves, but by keeping him, she loses her superpowers, making her incapable of stopping Max Lord from ruining the world with his endless granting of wishes. So Diana chooses to give up Steve to regain her powers so she can then thwart the bad guy and save the world. That all tracks, right? On paper it does, except there’s one roadblock on the way: First she needs to fight Barbara Minerva, aka the Cheetah. Like with Ares, Cheetah is there to provide Diana a physical opponent she needs to overcome. Unlike the Ares battle, the problem with the fight isn’t that it’s antithetical, but that it’s superfluous.
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Diana isn’t challenged by this fight in any way. Not physically, because with Wonder Woman’s powers and Asteria’s golden armor Cheetah is clearly outmatched. Not emotionally, because the film all but abandons any interest in the burgeoning dynamic between Diana and Barbara by the time Steve is revived, leaving their relationship too muddied and undefined to be the basis of conflict between them. And certainly not morally, because she’s already proven her moral integrity before the fight begins. It’s not like Diana tries to cheat the wishing curse by using the golden armor without her powers, or tries and fails to defeat the villains in a vain attempt to keep Steve. She has already made the morally correct choice that this fight could have hypothetically forced upon her. Thus, instead of feeling like a vital part of the story, the fight plays more like an obligation of the genre.
How Did We Get Here?
While it may seem strange for both movies to run into this same issue, it makes a certain amount of sense given Patty Jenkins’ sensibilities. Her strengths and interests as the main creative force behind this franchise appear to be in presenting Diana’s compassion, empathy and sense of duty to protect others rather than her ability to crush bad guys. Compared to blasting Ares to smithereens or electrocuting Cheetah into submission, consider how much more impactful moments are like Diana choosing to not stand by as people suffer at No Man’s Land, sparing Doctor Poison after Steve’s death, or breaking through to Max Lord by convincing him to go back to his son. Jenkins even made a commitment to non-lethal violence a significant part of Diana’s characterization for the sequel.
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Yet the realities of big-budget filmmaking is that there are certain expectations that have to be met. Jenkins recently admitted to IGN that the studio made her change the ending of the first film to include a large fight scene. To be clear, Diana fighting supervillains in bombastic action scenes isn’t in itself the problem. It would be rather strange to not have any action in what we know is an action movie. But hopefully for the already-announced Wonder Woman 3, Patty Jenkins and whoever else ends up working on the film can find a way to more naturally weave that action into the finale without contradicting the themes or breaking the structure of the movie, because so far these final battles have felt incongruous with what the rest of the movies are going for.
If only love can save the world, maybe it’s time to show that rather than just say it.