The best movie villains are ones who tie into a deeper theme. The Dark Knight Joker isn’t scary solely for his mad unpredictability, he is terrifying because he embodies a thematic nihilism that Bruce has chosen to fight against every time he puts on the cowl. It will (hopefully) be six weeks before we see Wonder Woman 1984, but Den of Geek had the chance to garner some insight into the sequel film during a set visit two years ago.
Coming away from that visit, I was most excited about the relevance of the film’s main themes to contemporary America. While the Wonder Woman sequel is set in 1984, it seems to be a story that taps into the anxieties and frustrations of late stage capitalism (though the producers and cast never used this terminology). Wonder Woman 1984 antagonist Maxwell Lord (played by The Mandalorian‘s Pedro Pascal) is the perfect villain to embody that theme. Described by producer Anna Obropta as a “desperate, self-obsessed, fraudulent entrepreneur who runs a business selling the American dream,” Wonder Woman 1984‘s depiction of a villain doesn’t sound so far away from what many of our society’s real-life villains look like, and that might not be a coincidence…
Maxwell Lord has a long history in the comics. First introduced in 1987’s Justice League #1 and previously depicted on-screen in Smallville and Supergirl, Lord is generally depicted as a cunning and powerful businessman. In Wonder Woman 1984, he is the president of Black Gold International, a corporation that promises to give the people of America, according to the trailer, “everything [they] always wanted.”
“[The 1980s] was the height of everything that we’re now paying the price for,” says director Patty Jenkins. “It was like we thought for sure it could go on forever and there was going to be no price and you could just exponential growth then it could keep going and all of this excess. And so I think, in that way, we’re talking about then and we’re also talking about right now. We’re talking about what we’re dealing with right now because that struggle is very much alive in our own psyche.”
Producer Anna Obropta expands on this discussion of theme by highlighting the decision to set the sequel film in 1984.
Why 1984? America was at the peak of its power and its pride. It was everything from commercialism, fashion, wealth, even violence was in excess. It was a decade of greed and desire with time of me and more, so America was really at its peak. It was humanity at its best and at its worst. 1984 because it was a year of lessons learned, lessons for a goddess warrior and lessons for all of us.
How does Maxwell Lord tie into all of this? He epitomizes that greed and desire, building his unsustainable business model on that part of all of us that wishes for having without consequence. As Jenkins puts it: “[He is] somebody who’s everything about that era and what we believed in then that has resulted in who we are now.”
When it comes to a film, nothing you see on screen is a coincidence. It was a conscious, ideally story-driven choice made by a production department under the vision of the director. When it comes to the aesthetic of Maxwell Lord, it’s not a coincidence he dresses like Donald Trump circa 1980-something. When we visit the costume department, a photo of 80s-era Trump is on a board of inspirations for Lord’s costuming.
“[Maxwell Lord is a man who] appears to have quite a bit of money, but not so much taste,” costumer designer Lindy Hemming tells us. “So he has really beautiful tailoring done by lovely tailors, and beautiful fabrics, really elegant and expensive, but just something is not quite right. How’s that? They don’t quite fit and they’re not quite right. And I’m sure that people will think I don’t know anything about tailoring when they see it, but the truth is, that’s how we wanted them to be.”
Speaking about using a younger Trump as inspiration, Hemming says: “There is something about the period of Donald Trump and being a businessman, isn’t there, of being rather sleazy a little bit, and a bit goofy and a lot of talk. So that’s why he’s there.”
Much of the action in Wonder Woman 1984 is based in Washington D.C. During our set visit, we get to tour Diana’s swanky-yet-comfortable, D.C.-based apartment, as well as a White House Oval Office set where, presumably, Maxwell Lord spends some time. Later in the set visit, we watch Jenkins films a scene that sees Diana and Steve facing off against Maxwell Lord and his henchman in the halls of the White House—another not-so-subtle hint that, while Lord is very much his own filmic character with a history in the comics, his specific portrayal in this film draws at least partial inspiration from the real-life antagonist currently sitting in the real-life Oval Office.
“You know, what I wanted this movie to be about was pretty clear fairly early on,” says Jenkins, discussing the thematic important of truth and its manipulation in the film. “There is something about what the world wants to talk about right now, and [Diana] happens to have this lasso of truth, and truth ends up figuring in very large.”
It should be noted that, like most big-budget studio tentpoles, this film is not overtly political. In fact, when discussing having filmed in D.C. and the city’s prominence in the film, Gal Gadot specifically says: “The movie is not a political movie, but … it taps on issues that are very current.”
I don’t believe there is such a thing as an apolitical movie—films that viewers tend to classify as such are really just movies that reinforce the political and social status quo. I doubt that Wonder Woman 1984 is going to be particularly subversive (though, frankly, as a big-budget Hollywood film that centers women in positions of creative authority both in front of and behind the camera, its existence in and of itself is subversive), but I am interested in the filmmakers interest in using the 1980s as a setting not solely for its fun fashion and its hip tunes, but as “a metaphor for this time,” as producer Charles Roven puts it.
The best antagonists and themes also challenge our hero in some way. Maxwell Lord and his promise of easy happiness driven by greed and desire goes against everything that Diana believes in and works for, but that doesn’t mean she might not be susceptible to the temptation. (Isn’t it interesting that Steve Trevor somehow appears decades after his death?)
When we catch back up with Diana, she is secretly saving the world as Wonder Woman, but also working in cultural anthropology and archeology at the Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian.
“While she’s still doing her best to stoically perform her duty to protect humanity, we learn early in the film that she’s very slightly disengaged with the world, and a bit lonely,” says Obropta. “The world whips around her, as people chase after dreams of wealth and power and fame, dreams that are apparently for sale by [Lord].”
The film’s other antagonist, Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah), is one of the people who buys what Lord is selling. While Barbara enters the story as Diana’s co-worker and newfound friend, she “falls prey to this scheme of Black Gold International,” says Obropta.
“She starts to transform,” continues Obropta. “At first look, it is a dream come true. She’s wished for and now feels more confident. She feels more beautiful. She feels physically stronger. She feels more seen and respected in the world, but her power takes a very fast, very dark turn as she transforms into this vicious and savage creature, like nothing we could have ever imagined.”
Barbara isn’t the only person whose dreams begin to come true.
“At first, it’s great,” says Obropta, “but what happens if you get everything you ever wanted, everything you think you deserve? … What happens when the entire world gets what they want at the same time? What are the consequences for Barbara? For [Maxwell Lord]? For Diana? For you and for the world?”
Through a certain lens, it’s a capitalist thought experiment wrapped up in a superhero movie, and I say that with the utmost delight presuming that it is still going to be mostly epic fight sequences and Diana getting shit nobly done. Movies don’t have to be overtly political to mean something. They’re reflecting and impacting our culture whether they are meant to or not, whether we want them to or not. I appreciate that Wonder Woman 1984 seems to be trying something thematically new, especially in its use of the 1980s not simply as an excuse to rock shoulder pads and Walkmans but as a major turning point in our country’s relationship to and execution of its capitalist ideals.
“I would say that it’s a good bet that Patty was using that time as a metaphor for this time,” reflects Roven. “There are a lot of similarities to where the world was. It’s remarkable how those similarities just keep growing.”