How Wonder Woman 1984 Will Use Our Past to Talk About the Present

How Wonder Woman 1984 Will Use Our Past to Talk About the Present

It’s faced a few delays, and, well, a global pandemic that could perhaps lay even an Amazon low. But at long last, Wonder Woman 1984 is ready to return Diana Prince to the DC Cinematic Universe spotlight. Her new adventure will not take her into the present but keep her in a somewhat recent past: one that will allow Wonder Woman to have plenty to say about the world we live in.

Two years ago on the UK set of Wonder Woman 1984, the gathered press were ready to see a glimpse of Diana’s next steps. What was seen painted a familiar picture to Diana’s smashing debut in the first Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot was back in action, of course, alongside returning director Patty Jenkins. Diana would still be in our historical past (albeit this time 70 years ahead of where the first film left off), still coming to terms with what life for an Amazon in the World of Men would be like, and she would be doing so alongside a surprisingly returned Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, upending her life all over again.

“I even think where the second movie came from, was me as a fan of her and as a fan of superhero films, craving what I haven’t gotten [in the first movie],” Jenkins told us after a long day shooting at Warner Bros.’ Leavesden Studios, just outside of Watford, England. “I wanted to see Wonder Woman out in the fucking world, not finding herself. Like, fucking Wonder Woman!

Wonder Woman 1984 is not simply Wonder Woman 2 — in fact, its cast and crew were hesitant to even see it as a direct sequel. There are new faces, friend and foe alike, for Diana and Steve to meet, new struggles for our heroine to face. Above all, what Wonder Woman 1984 hopes to bring to the table by taking us back to the excesses of ‘80s America is something the first movie could only deal with in broader strokes: a more pointed insight into how the more things have changed since 1984, the more things have stayed very much the same.

Ronald Reagan smashing his way into a second term in the White House. The assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. The first untethered spacewalk in human history. The UK miner’s strike. The Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, boycotted by the USSR and its allies amid Cold War tensions. At the box office, Ghostbusters and Terminator, on the airwaves, “Like a Virgin” and “Careless Whisper.” Alex Trebek ushering in the revival of Jeopardy on TV. Apple’s infamous commerical, named for the year, previewing a new age of computing with the release of the Macintosh.

That advertisement might just be the best example of the feeling Jenkins’ follow-up to Wonder Woman’s tale of World War I horrors and heroics wants to encapsulate. It’s capitalism at its grandest excess, lavish filmmaking to sell the world on a product dream that is still burned into our mind today but using the sinister imagery of dystopia to do so. Style and grace, yes, but also greed: it is iconic American excess, the good, the bad, the ugly, all rolled into a minute of big brother surveillance and giant sledgehammers. But why does that matter to Wonder Woman?

“[What] I loved about the first movie [was] where you could talk about current day, but use the metaphor of another time to detach it from everybody getting particular about the details,” Jenkins said of the choice to move Diana’s next journey into the ‘80s. “I thought that was so cool about 1917, 1918, where you could say, yes, ‘We’re talking about war, mankind’s mechanization of war, the way we make our choices,’ without anybody getting literal and without having to make up a war with much less weight. I think the same thing is true about the ‘80s. We’re talking about mankind at their worst, most excessive, and their greatest, most grand and opulent, and artistically [doing] some incredible, creative things.”

What that means is that Jenkins and her team can use the best and worst elements of American society in the ‘80s to comment on — in some ways subtly, and some ways (as we’ll get to) distinctly unsubtly — our present moment. “Instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of right now, and who’s to blame and what’s happening, it’s a way for us to talk about that. Like, this is basically the success of Western civilisation. This is the success of modern mankind’s way of living, and what does it look like to put Wonder Woman at the core of that? That was what I was psyched about, and the story just started to unfold really lending itself to [that].”

For Jenkins, there was another personal reason for the ‘80s setting in particular outside of its potential commentary — the period was also a time important to Diana’s pop culture history itself, and the director’s personal history with the character. In our world, the prior decade had seen Lynda Carter bring the character to life in three seasons of the iconic Wonder Woman TV show. In the comics, thanks to Crisis on Infinite Earths shaking up DC Comics’ canon, 1987 would give us George Perez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter’s character-defining take on Diana’s origin story.

“It’s a very different version of the ‘80s, but I grew up watching Wonder Woman, loving Wonder Woman, so there’s also something so American ‘70s and ‘80s about Wonder Woman too that this is our own version of it, but I love being a part of [that era].”

Diana is on the attack at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros)
Diana is on the attack at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros)

But the past is also a freeing opportunity for Warner Bros.’ DC movie timeline. Even in the two years since Wonder Woman 1984 was being shot at Leavesden Studios in London, the future of the studio’s comic book blockbuster franchise — and Wonder Woman’s place in it — has evolved dramatically. The release of Justice League to box office disappointment cast a shadow of lingering fandom controversies that still hang in the air, even as we now live in a world where the fabled version of Justice League by original director Zack Snyder is set to hit HBO Max next year. At the box office, Warner Bros. has continued to diversify (and found success in, both critically and commercially) its DC offerings with movies like Shazam, Aquaman, and Birds of Prey.

But the unified future Wonder Woman became part of when she joined the Justice League has grown under increasing scrutiny — even more so since the groundbreaking success of Joker has seemingly pushed the DC movie world less into an interconnected universe and more into isolated, auteur-driven spectacles. There’s an air of less focus on what’s tying all these movies together and more on making those movies interesting in the first place. Wonder Woman 1984 wants to straddle the line between the world established by Justice League and this current aim for DC’s movie slate by setting the stage for why Diana is the way she is in the modern-day of Justice League, but also not being directly beholden to it.

“When we were looking to do what the next movie should be about [for] Wonder Woman, we didn’t feel that we need to be bound by, ‘Well, in Justice League she’s come together and been part of this group, so let’s pick up the story from there’,” producer Charles Roven told us. “We wanted to actually deal with the evolution of her character from the time that we left her. We didn’t just want it to just be the next day. We wanted to pick up a character who had lived life here in our world for a period of time, and who was a bit seasoned, and also had dealt with not just the loss of Steve Trevor, but also the loss of her other friends and companions over a period of time, because she doesn’t age and they do.”

It is in this moment of solitude, then, that we will reunite with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, living a life of isolation after years of both fighting the good fight where she can, but also in retreat from the world around her. Burned by the loss of her love, she has been separated from the rest of the world and the people around her by her position and abilities as a Princess of the Amazons. As an anthropologist working for the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., Diana is still the watchful protector of Man’s World, but a lonely one.

“When we meet Diana in 1984 she lives a rather monkish or spartan life,” Roven noted, “other than the fact that she’s still totally interested in antiquities…but also the only joy that she’s really getting is when she has the opportunity to help people.”

“She’s engaging with people, but she doesn’t have any close relationships,” Gadot added, speaking to us in between takes during a hard day’s work running down the hallways of Wonder Woman 1984‘s recreation of the White House — filming scenes lassoing her way through guards, flinging them about with graceful abandon. “It’s either she’s going to hurt them, at some point she’ll have to disappear, or she’s going to get hurt because they’ll die and she won’t. And I think she accepted [that] as fact. At her core, her calling is to be here and to help mankind to do good. And that’s exactly what she’s doing. But she’s still missing, you know, the one who was the love of her life. She never got to really explore the relationship.”

While Diana is lonely, she isn’t alone when we meet her. As glimpsed in the trailers, she’ll have a confidante in Barbara Ann Minerva, played by Kristen Wiig. A fellow researcher at the Smithsonian — a gemologist — Barbara Ann is an unlikely foil to someone with the commanding presence of Diana. “I think they’re both lonely, and Diana sees Barbara’s insecurity and it touches her,” Gadot said of the newfound friendship. “Diana kind of sees things that she misses in her life, in Barbara — her humour, her light, these type of things, and she really makes her feel good when she’s next to her. And Barbara sees other things in Diana that she doesn’t have necessarily, and they kind of really attract together. They can be amazing best friends.”

Kristen Wiig's Barbara Ann Minerva, an unlikely friend — and unlikelier foe — for Diana to face with Pedro Pascal's Maxwell Lord. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Ann Minerva, an unlikely friend — and unlikelier foe — for Diana to face with Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Bookish, shy, and harbouring a secret desire to be a little more like her lonely, mysterious, and glamorous best friend, Minerva is a familiar name to comic book fans, just not in this exact form: instead, she’s best known as one of Wonder Woman’s most enduring foes, the animalistic Cheetah. For Jenkins, incorporating such a fundamental character from Diana’s comic book past required examining that comic legacy in its entirety.

“Really, the same way I kind of approached the first movie where I was like, ‘What’s the core of Wonder Woman that we’re all fans of, and how do I honour that?’ That’s what I feel like I cared about with Cheetah,” Jenkins said. “So instead of saying I’m going to take Liam [Sharp, artist on Wonder Woman’s DC Rebirth run when it first launched]’s version of it or any one person’s version of it, I really looked at all of the different incarnations of Cheetah and said, so what’s the core of Cheetah? Who is Cheetah in the world, and what does she stand for, and how do we [tell that]? The story and Cheetah’s storyline really evolved together quite naturally from the beginning.”

“Cheetah is one of the greatest villains of the canon of Wonder Woman, and probably one of the greatest villains in the superhero canon of all the [DC] superheroes,” Roven said of Barbara’s addition to the mix. “And, so we thought that she would be — both Barbara and Cheetah who are really the same person — we thought that they would be an appropriate villain, not only because of the legacy value but also again, because of what she is at the beginning of the movie and what she aspires to become. Many of the characters in this film have desires that they’re trying to fulfil.”

“One of my favourite versions of Cheetah is that she [often] starts out as friends with Diana,” Jenkins noted. “So when I think about how great, how much I loved having Etta Candy in last time, and I love having humour, I like having a humorous balance. Anybody who’s jealous of you and wants to be like you, why not make that a great, fun, charming, interesting character? Even if what we’re talking about [in the movie generally] is an excess of our times, I kind of am interested in telling a grounded story of how you become, how you want to be like somebody else. So [Cheetah] became a great version because she has both.”

It’s who is up to helping our heroes (and eventually would-be villains) fulfil those lingering desires that not only propels the character drama of Wonder Woman 1984 but really encapsulates its goals for its period setting. Discussed only in hushed tones on-set as the mysterious president of Black Gold International, we now know that Pedro Pascal’s villain is none other than another familiar name from DC’s comic book roster: Maxwell Lord.

In the comics, Lord was initially felt to be an ally of the Justice League — a sleazy businessman who even set up Justice League International before it was revealed he was being influenced by a sinister computer program. And even before becoming a villain, Lord’s comic history is an extensive and appropriately complex one. He’s been a master of the criminal underworld, he’s been a cyborg, hell, he’s been killed — literally by Diana’s hands when she snapped his neck in Infinite Crisis — and resurrected, and even (perhaps of most interest to Wonder Woman 1984, it would seem) gained limited superpowers, with the ability to control minds.

“‘Black Gold’ is synonymous with oil, so [Lord]’s a guy who, in particular, is trying to get people who normally think they can’t afford to invest in something that could give them riches — because they don’t have enough money, he’ll take any amount of money,” Roven teased of Lord and his company’s capitalistic pitch to the world in the movie: a chance to make anyone’s deepest dreams become a reality. “He’s offering an ability for people who, let’s say ‘don’t have to have,’ let’s call it that. And he himself is struggling with the reality of what he’s pitching.”

Maxwell Lord is giving the world what it wants. But what does he want? (Image: Warner Bros.)
Maxwell Lord is giving the world what it wants. But what does he want? (Image: Warner Bros.)

Something that’s been very clear from our first look at him is that Pascal’s take on Lord not only leans into that “sleazy businessman” vibe but does so in a way that very much embodies Wonder Woman 1984‘s desire to comment on our present. Perhaps, say, by looking at a controversial ‘80s businessman that has, even more controversially, found themselves a place as one of the most powerful people in the world? According to Jenkins, however, the current occupant of the White House was but one real-world influence on 1984‘s Lord.

“He’s one of them. I mean, honestly the funny thing is like, [Trump] is [an influence], but I’m not trying to make [a point],” the director said of the questionably-haired elephant in the room. “We have the president in this movie and I’ve gone out of my way not to make it look like Ronald Reagan. I don’t want to get political, it’s not about [getting] political. Actually, a huge influence of this movie was also [convicted fraudster Bernie] Madoff. What I was looking at was…the young Madoff story fascinates me, because I’m like, ‘How do you end up being Bernie Madoff?’ And when you really start tracking that story, it’s like, it all started out in a way that made sense, and he was paying it off, and then doing this, and then paying it off again. And then, it’s just like you become an evil dude when you don’t even realise that it’s happening.”

“So yes, Trump’s definitely one of the people that we looked at, but it’s any of those kind of mavericks of business success that was big in the ‘80s [and] went on to be major players in our world in potentially questionable other ways,” Jenkins continued. “Yeah, I don’t have an agenda [or] have a political message to send to the world, but I think that the world all needs the same political message: everybody needs to look at themselves right now and our politics, our belief system of excess and stuff.”

“I think that we loved the idea that there was that relevance to today, but still it was its own time,” Roven said of the period. “It’s an unforgettable time when you think about all of the wonderful things that were invented in the ‘80s, the fashion, the music, and it was also a time where people thought that they could have everything that they wanted. So therefore a character like Max, it’d be a good time [to introduce him] — he’s not a unique character in that period, and yet he’s a character that resonates with us today.”

But while Lord’s sleazy wish-granting schemes will pave the way for Barbara’s transformation into Cheetah, it would seem that Diana’s gift in all this chaos is one that is significantly less transformative, but still as magical: the apparent resurrection of Steve Trevor. It was an idea, according to Jenkins, that had been percolating ever since production of the first Wonder Woman. You know, before Steve dramatically exited the picture via exploding plane.

“This entire story came to me probably midway — not the whole thing, not in great detail, but the shape of this came to me — I’d say, midway through shooting the first movie,” Jenkins said of her decision to catapult a reborn Steve back into Diana’s life. “It was not born from, ‘Oh shit, that was so great. We have to get Steve back.’ It’s actually all of the story [between Wonder Woman and 1984] is one story that fits hand in hand. It was something that I loved, the two of them together. I think they’re super great and so it is really nice to have them back together.”

Reunited and it feels so good. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Reunited and it feels so good. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

It was just as fun for Pine and Gadot to be back together — especially as this time there is an element of role reversal in Steve and Diana’s relationship. “The first film is obviously very much Diana being a fish out of water, and then this one is fun for the audience and it’s a total switch of that dynamic,” Chris Pine told us, fresh from set as Gadot was, as Steve charges into battle alongside her character in the White House. “He’s way less of the jaded realist [than] the war pro that he is in the first one, and this one is just kind of, you know, a boy transfixed by the wonderment of this incredible, incredible era of sophistication.”

“You know, he’s not who he used to be, she’s a little different,” Gadot teased, albeit a little jokingly. “No, it’s fantastic and it’s great and it’s very romantic and it comes from [a] different place because Steve was her first love, the first man she ever fell in love with. She was very young when she met him, and he kind of opened her eyes and discovered the world for her — in a way, literally with romance and with the world itself. Now their relationship is much more mature, and there’s been so many longings and you know, it’s true that you know what you had only after you lose it.”

But as Pine hinted, Steve’s return also layers in another chance for Wonder Woman 1984 to use its setting to comment on our present. Steve, a man of a very different era of the past, is coming at it from a different worldview than the audience, seeing how far the world went on in his absence rather than looking back into our not-so-distant past. “In the disparity in terms of the character of evil in [1984 compared to Wonder Woman] is this really unchecked greed, unchecked want, and unchecked desire, and the need to feed that unfillable hole,” Pine said of Steve’s view of the mysterious future he’s found himself flung into.

“The last one was more kind of characteristic of there’s, like, an inherent flaw in the human, that’s [maybe] just characteristically evil in one thing — misery and entropy and death and all that. But [the conflict in 1984] is very specifically greed, and you can make your own kind of correlations between what’s happening today — but I think a very apropos concept to investigate now in the ‘80s being kind of one of the high points of [things like] Reaganomics, all that stuff.”

Greed is a much more esoteric and nuanced concept for Wonder Woman to grapple with — literally and existentially — than the simple primality that World War I’s battlefields provided in her first solo film. To Gadot, that means Diana isn’t just in a much more ethically complex place coming into Wonder Woman 1984, but unsure of whether or not it’s even her place to weigh in on Man’s latest dark impulse. “I don’t know if she really tries at the beginning; instead, I think she tries to defeat the greed — she still thinks that mankind should be able to help themselves and she can’t educate them to do good. She can only inspire them,” Gadot pondered when asked about Wonder Woman’s role in the excess era.

In some ways, she thinks, that’s because Diana herself, having lived in this world for so long at this point, is becoming a little bit like humanity in the process. “She’s also in a place in her life where she gets involved with the world when there’s emergencies. Greed is not necessarily an emergency. So she’s not there to educate. She’s there to inspire,” Gadot continued. “But you know, she has her own things that she’s — I can say that she’s greedy, you know, about [those desires]. But I think that there’s things that she would want to have as well.”

As for Jenkins’ perspective on it, this idea of your own desires and how you act on them, it all comes back to that desire to comment on our own time. “It certainly reverberates across every single storyline. It’s not exactly [about] how that all happens,” the director noted, “but the theme of the movie is about excess and want, so certainly that theme is being played out with every character.” Diana and Steve included, it would seem!

We’ll find out (hopefully) later this year just how Diana and her newly returned love will deal with those desires and the sinister forces behind them. But even now, as we prepare to witness the next chapter of Wonder Woman’s story, the three most important architects of her box office success — the trio of Jenkins, Gadot, and Pine — are already thinking about the future the character and her adventures may hold, even as DC’s cinematic slate is ever-evolving. “You know it’s funny,” Gadot said of her time in Diana’s red, blue, and golden boots. “We shot Wonder Woman and we were already fantasizing on the next one. The three of us work really well together and truly love each other. And even on this one, we’re already talking about our next journey together, and what’s the next movie we’re going to do together just because we really, we have great chemistry and we enjoy working together.”

Jenkins and Gadot on the set of Wonder Woman 1984. (Photo: Clay Enos)
Jenkins and Gadot on the set of Wonder Woman 1984. (Photo: Clay Enos)

It’s the same for Jenkins. Just as she was already thinking about ideas like Steve’s return in 1984 on the set of the first Wonder Woman, the director is continuing to think of what she yet may tell for Diana’s third outing — an outing Jenkins believes would be her last time behind the camera on a Wonder Woman film. “Sadly, yes,” Jenkins concluded when asked about if she’s thinking about Diana’s future, two years ago and likely even more now as 1984’s actual release draws closer and closer. “Because I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m retiring after this movie and so — goddamn it!’ And every time I think [I’m done], yeah.”

“There’s one more thing I’m craving,” Jenkins teased, “which is true to her theme, which is true to everything that she stands for, that I’m like, ‘Ooh, there’s one more chapter of Wonder Woman that we don’t quite get [in 1984]. It doesn’t quite make sense for this movie. It didn’t for the last either.”

And so, even as her latest chapter seeks to remind us all of the struggles we face right now, Wonder Woman’s future at the box office seems brighter than ever.

Wonder Woman 1984 is currently set to release in theatres on October 2, 2020. Stay tuned to Gizmodo Australia for more from the set of the film later this week, before we get another glimpse of the movie at DC Fandome on August 23.