by Tara Fotoohi
There has always been a deep divide between real-world issues and the plots that films and filmmakers feel are acceptable to produce. Heavy political topics seem too taboo to be used in mainstream plotlines, however, this underrepresentation of more serious issues leaves many voices and stories silenced to the point of rendering them non-existent. To rectify this, many mainstream studios chose to blend together a popular film genre and mask a political issue underneath in order to get across a particular issue without the fear of the film being labelled as ‘too political’.
Following the first installment in the franchise, Wonder Woman 1984 follows Diana Prince, an Amazon Warrior as she lives in the 1980s quietly curating ancient artifacts. She is living as an ordinary woman, dealing with the grief of losing her lover, Steve Trevor while occasionally venturing out as her superhero form to help solve a petty crime. Diana keeps her Wonder Woman persona hidden and is content with only using her powers for small issues, until Maxwell Lord unleashes a power into her world that miraculously brings back Steve from the dead while making her friend into the Cheetah, a villainess easily comparable to an apex predator. The world is in peril as the power Maxwell has released becomes unhinged and tips the scales, resulting in Diana having to make a difficult decision regarding her personal wants and what the world needs from her in order to survive.
This paper will look into how the film uses the action genre in order to make politics within the film, namely, feminism and female power, more easily digestible for a large audience. By marketing and presenting the film as an action movie about superheroes, feminism is broken down into pieces that cannot be critiqued for being overly political. First, this paper will examine the action genre as a whole, then will look at the standardization of action films, and lastly will examine how efficient action films as a genre are in carrying a political genre.
2. Understanding the Action Genre as a Whole
To begin to understand how the genre of Wonder Woman 1984 contributes to its ability to portray a political message, it is important to understand the genre in and of itself. Genre “is a French word meaning ‘type’ or ‘kind’ ” (Neale 27). As stated by Barry Keith Grant, “ ‘genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations’ ” (Neale 27). Most audiences can easily grasp the genre of a film they are watching, even if it is not explicitly stated. Comedy films include jokes and quips, aimed at making the audience laugh, while dramas include hard-hitting messages and decisions to make the audience feel moved. The genre of action is so commonly done that it is very easy to tell when a film falls into the action genre. These movies often include very intense sequences of action, characters engaging in fights or larger-than-life scenarios, very dramatic musical scores and more. At the centre of most action films, there is a heroic protagonist. The audience roots for this hero which easily allows the film to set up an antagonist for the audience to dislike. These films are structured and follow rules, and it is through these rules that the genre has been born.
In the case of Wonder Woman 1984, the film follows the construction of an action film to a tee. Diana is the powerful protagonist, she is set up from the previous film to be a hero of the people with supernatural strength and power as she is not human. In the second film, she is introduced to the audience through a moment in her childhood, in which she is seen demonstrating extreme talent and strength as well as learning a life lesson (Wonder Woman 1984 00:03:26). With this scene, she is introduced to the audience as a powerful person who is constantly learning from her own mistakes and who continues to grow. As mentioned before, because genres follow certain rules and systems and it is “these systems provide spectators with means of recognition and understanding” (Neale 27). Introducing Diana by showing a learning curve as a child and then, just moments later, with her as an adult doing good deeds for the people around her (Wonder Woman 1984 00:11:48), solidifies in the mind of the spectators that this is the protagonist that they should be rooting for. It is through these specific actions that the recognition and understanding of the role Diana plays is made clear.
Through this setup of Diana’s character, it is then equally as easy to set up the antagonist(s) of the story. The film on one hand portrays Maxwell Lord as the antagonist as his greed takes over the world. However, through his greed, a villainess is born. The Cheetah, also known as Dr. Barbara Minerva is the exact opposite of Diana. She is jealous and manipulative and rather than helping others she only hurts them to further her own gain. There is a clear difference between the two of them during their final battle, as Diana enters dressed in gold armour, clearly the colour and style of the ‘good guy’, while The Cheetah is shroud in darkness and is ominously standing atop a railing waiting for her (Wonder Woman 02:06:43). The setup of an antagonist is also one of the conventions of an action film. Without an antagonist, the hero would have nothing to do and would be stuck simply solving petty crimes like Diana at the beginning of the film.
3. The Standardization of Action Films
Due to the presence of the aforementioned system to recognize and distinguish an action movie from other genres, the rise of standardization of the genre is brought about. Because these films now need to include certain elements to fall within the genre, there is the fear that they will all end up being the same. It may seem like a better option to have an original film that does not follow a system but there are reasons that standardization exists within the genre. “By applying a tried and true recipe that will guarantee the success of a film to a new subject, producers minimize their risks and justify the production” (Moine 64). Using the same devices and plot points ensures that the audience will be getting what they know they like. Therefore, when creating Wonder Woman 1984, the producers and director stuck with the natural standardization of action films to create the second installment of the franchise. “Standardization allows for films to be produced more quickly and in a way that is more profitable, all the time observing a norm of excellence” (Moine 65). The norm of excellence stated is what audiences have come to expect when entering theatres to watch an action film. There is always the possibility that a film that deviates from natural conventions will do well and entice audiences with something new, however, it is a near certainty that action films that fall under the standardization norms will succeed.
4. Politics Within Action Films
Based on everything that has been analyzed thus far in this paper, it is now easy to take a look into the effectiveness of action films as a genre to carry political messages. “For some, genre expresses the desires, aspirations, and beliefs of the audience” (Moine 71). Due to the standardization of action films, the studio marketing and producing Wonder Woman 1984 knew that to a degree, the movie would most definitely succeed. By using typical tropes and narratives of action films, the creators are able to ensure that the film will be seen, and can therefore insert political opinions into the film without making the film outwardly political in nature. In the case of Wonder Woman 1984, the film may have low political intent, however, the political content is high. The plot of the film centers around the downfalls of grief, and how important telling the truth is. The message portrayed is not one of politics, but rather of moral beliefs and actions. However, the characters and actions taken by them within the film are political, resulting in high political content. In general, the fact that Diana is a woman is a political topic, regardless of how much the gender norms have been broken in recent years, having the strong, powerful and god-like main superhero be a woman presents a viewpoint that is not often represented in action films. Women are not often cast or seen as leading characters, or as the main protagonist that has all the power. Diana however, is everything to the story. She is the strongest character and is pivotal to everything that happens. By centring around a female character, the film presents a backstory of female empowerment and feminism, while presenting itself as simply another action movie. Moreover, nearly all of the important characters in the film are female. The main antagonist, The Cheetah, is also an all-powerful and important woman. The film does not draw explicit attention to the fact that both characters are female, but rather just presents itself as any other action film would, except with female heroes and villains.
Despite not outwardly referencing the gender representation in the film, there are moments that occur within the film that are a direct byproduct of the main characters being female. These are the only moments in which political intent is evident, as these incidents had been pre-written for the script. There are several places in the film when the female characters are harassed by men and treated poorly. Diana, being all-powerful from the beginning never has an issue fighting back and escaping from her harasser. The film portrays her as a strong, independent woman, and paints the men in a bad light, showcasing how women are more than objects and can fight back. This representation of an uncomfortable situation that many women go through is more outwardly vocalized through Barbara’s character. She is harassed twice in the film, by the same man. The first time Diana comes to her rescue, once again placing women as strong characters in the film’s world. The second time, Barbara has developed her powers and fights back. She spews a long monologue about how she will not be walked all over any longer, and her first display of rage and power are shown (Wonder Woman 1984 01:14:51). In other action films, this monologue would be typical of a villain. The antagonist often has a speech to explain their motives, however, in the case of this film, a large reason for Barbara’s rage is based on the way she is treated as a woman. Her rage is perfectly synced with her character, thus keeping the audience submerged in the simple action movie plot.
The film’s choice to slip in the feminist storyline underneath the existing typical action plot is a perfect example of how powerful action films can be to get a political message across. Audiences are so enthralled and comfortable with the norm of an action film that they will subconsciously accept any subplots also being shown. The genre of action is beyond a doubt one of the most effective genres for carrying a political message, as it can be disguised with explosions and fantastical fight scenes in a way where it is not obvious that the film contains any political messages at all. Wonder Woman 1984 is a perfect example of how a film can follow all the standardization conventions of its genre, and use that adherence to the rules as a cover to bring forth a more complex message from the shadows.
Jenkins, Patty. Wonder Woman 1984. Warner Bros., 2020.
Moine, Raphaëlle. Cinema Genre. Malden, Blackwell Pub., 2008.
Neale, Stephen. Genre and Hollywood. Routledge, 2009.