SPOILER WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Wonder Woman 1984. Proceed at your own risk.
Superhero movies haven’t always got their antagonists right. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has historically had a villain problem. And so has the DC Extended Universe. Just as the MCU’s Malekith, Zemo, Ultron, and Kaecilius, to name a handful of examples, stand accused of being two-dimensional, uninteresting, and offering little beyond MacGuffin-esque status, so the DCEU’s Steppenwolf and Doomsday proffer by-the-numbers intergalactic villainy coupled with unconvincing CGI and a lack of meaningful motivation. And don’t get us started on Wonder Woman’s Ares.
But in Wonder Woman 1984, by contrast, director Patty Jenkins serves up not one but two antagonists who simply made some bad choices as victims, and whose motivations are both clear and heartbreakingly empathetic. In a year in which “Be Kind” has become a heartfelt motto, and in which many of us are beginning to re-examine our priorities and look at the world and how it operates — with a renewed understanding of humanity’s role in the chaos we’re living through — Wonder Woman 1984 offers a pair of baddies we can empathise with, forgive even, and practice extending the “Be Kind” message towards. These big bads take the form of Barbara Minerva’s Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), and Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) — whose story is intertwined with that of Minerva’s.
While some would argue that the MCU’s tyrannical foe, Thanos, presented motivations that we could understand, placing the greater good at the heart of his decision to randomly obliterate half of all life, there aren’t many thinking, feeling humans among us that would say he went about achieving his goal to save the universe in the right way. And Thanos certainly never repented; he never saw the error of his ways. Maxwell Lord, on the other hand, and arguably to a lesser degree, Barbara Minerva, did. Indeed, Lord even willingly bowed to Wonder Woman’s eloquent appeal to undo what he’d done, retracting his wish which had resulted in a widespread proliferation of greed and selfishness and, in turn, death and destruction.
But let’s rewind to the start of the film and the main focus of this article. Wonder Woman 1984 is set in a decade known for greed and excess. Jenkins said in an interview with the New York Times that she set the film in this era because she “really wanted to talk about … what I was feeling is happening in the world.” The 1980s was a time when we didn’t know the cost of wanting more; the damage that avarice does to both the planet and humanity. Barbara Minerva is both a victim of society’s emphasis on its version of what constitutes success and her inner feelings of unworthiness and insecurity — arguably brought about by, or at least exacerbated by, the values held up by a society that prizes a narrow view of women, beauty, and merit.
We have all felt unworthy, or lesser, at times. It’s the marketer’s aim to make us feel that way in order to get us to part with our cash to buy material things, lotions, potions, and buy into the latest diet, exercise and self-help fads that increase our self-worth. It’s the marketer’s aim to encourage us to compare ourselves with others; to make us feel like we must keep up with the Joneses; to covet what somebody else has in order to fill the perceived holes in our lives, or generate a sense of security within ourselves. After all, money makes the world go around, right?
“We didn’t want [Barbara] to be this typical sort of mousy girl-turned-villain. We really wanted to [explore] what is it about her that makes her so lonely, and so invisible, and what does she want really, really want?” — Kristen Wiig speaking at the international press conference for Wonder Woman 1984.
Just as you might want to be more like that influencer you follow on social media, Minerva wants to be more Diana Prince. The irony is, of course, none of us can be another person. And the beauty in each of us is actually entirely bound up in our individuality. But that’s not what the media portrays, and it’s not something Minerva was able to see. For Minerva, Prince is an idea of grace, beauty, and strength that she has bought into. It’s not necessarily her idea — something that has come from within — but rather an idea from without that’s been sold to her, and all of us, through the media.
For Minerva to feel of value, she believes that she must ape Prince. When she wishes herself like Diana, and starts exhibiting similar strengths, abilities, and in turn confidence, Minerva moves away from herself, and accepting and playing to her own strengths, towards an ideal. But she can never eradicate her inner self completely and it’s this blend of conflicting disparate personalities that leads to her ignoring the warning signs and behaving selfishly and contemptibly.
Minerva leans closer to Max Lord — who tells her what she wants to hear and later promises her even more power — and she becomes so addicted to both wanting more and the exhilarating feeling of being the woman she has become that she refuses to back down; to give it up. She’d rather watch the rest of the world burn and be complicit in that than give up what she has ‘gained’.
She is, however, easy to empathise with — if you’ve ever been envious or jealous; if you’ve ever wished you were more graceful; if you’ve ever wished you were stronger; if you’ve ever wished you were more attractive, you’ll find common ground with Barbara Minerva.This all helps to make her a more realistic and indeed empathetic villain than her comic-book counterpart(s).
Comic-book writer William Moulton Marston, who originally conceived the character, was also a qualified psychologist and sought to construct an adversary to his superhero creation, Wonder Woman, that was motivated by jealousy. The original version of the character of Cheetah was named Priscilla Rich. This incarnation of the character was a socialite marked by an inferiority complex and split personality disorder. The notion that society had a role to play in shaping her insecurities isn’t as pronounced — if it’s there at all. Marston wrote about a female character type he called “less actively developed women,” and meant Cheetah to be a manifestation of that, suggesting that he saw Priscilla’s ’emotional misalignment’ as something that came from within; that it was her “fault”.
When Cheetah transitioned to the initial Barbara Ann Minerva iteration of the character — debuting in the comics in 1987 — she was re-imagined as an archaeologist and heiress to a fortune. This version of Minerva was lured by a promise of immortality to become the new guardian of an African tribe who is bestowed with the powers of a cheetah. It’s a choice she makes, and the ritual for the transformation involves drinking human blood and consuming parts of the Urzkartaga, the plant-god — a powerful, potent male being.
It’s through this ceremony that Minerva gains feline characteristics — the orange skin with black spots, the tail, and the claws, along with superhuman senses and reflexes. However, because she wasn’t a virgin, she is cursed in the process condemning her to pain and disability in her human form, and a euphoric bloodlust in cat form. We see this version of Barbara want to possess Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, using deceit to try to take it from Diana before resorting to force. Eventually, Minerva submits to vengeful feelings and a vendetta against Wonder Woman, essentially for bruising her ego.
In The New 52, Barbara Minerva’s backstory was rebooted. Initially an ally of Wonder Woman’s through her expertise in dangerous relics and her childhood spent in an all-woman commune known as Amazonia, she was created as an antithesis to Diana Prince. Her origin story involved her accidentally cutting herself with a cursed dagger that once belonged to a tribe of lost Amazons. Possessed by the Goddess of the Hunt, she was transformed into a human-cheetah hybrid.
The DC Rebirth version of the character also saw Diana and Barbara begin as friends. Barbara travels to Bwunda to learn more about the gods she has become obsessed with after witnessing Diana and several of the Olympian Gods mount a defence following an attack by Ares. It’s here that she is married (against her will) to Uzkartaga and becomes the Cheetah. Barbara blames Diana for what happens to her and thus enmity festers.
The Barbara Minerva we meet in Wonder Woman 1984 displays very different characteristics and motivations to these comic-book iterations. Her initial wish to be more like Diana is made unintentionally, and almost unconsciously, without the knowledge that it might come true. This is unlike the very present choice she makes in the first comic-book incarnation of Barbara Minerva. The initial form of a “powered” Minerva in WW84 — the origins of the fully-fledged version of Cheetah she will become — is one that is created with her unwitting involvement.
Minerva’s live-action origin story is changed from every comic book incarnation to incorporate an inadvertent wish upon an enchanted stone. The ancient artifact is imbued with a curse by the God of Lies to take something away from every person whose wish is granted, with the ultimate aim of toppling civilisations. Barbara’s wish is the kind of wish any one of us might make under our breath, in our minds, or even out loud, without necessarily meaning it or wanting it to come true. The same way countless unsuspecting citizens in the film are manipulatively enticed to give voice to a wish, encouraged by Max Lord who is under the influence of the God of Lies, and the enchanted Dreamstone.
Lord is responsible for taking advantage of Barbara’s jealous thoughts and insecurities. She is susceptible to flattery, and the promise of riches and power — whatever form those may take. Even before Lord wishes to become the Dreamstone, thereby becoming an all-powerful puppet master, he is already manipulating Barbara in order to get his hands on the stone. If your mother ever told you that men can make you believe the moon is made of cheese, here’s a scenario where that’s precisely the case. He preys on her weaknesses to get what he wants. And we can all identify with that, or at least sympathise.
But, as we’ve already touched on, Max Lord isn’t a cut-and-dried villain either. He is also a victim of a society that tells him he has to be a certain way to be successful. His relationship with his son, and his motivation to make himself a man he believes his son can be proud of, are what drive him and ultimately redeem him. By the end, he realises that all he needs is to love his son in order to gain his son’s respect, adoration, and reciprocal love. He becomes a man able to admit his mistakes, and repent.
There are no monsters in Wonder Woman 1984, and that includes Cheetah — despite her physical transformation. When she accepts Lord’s promise to make her even more powerful and grant her a (forbidden) second wish, bestowing her with the power of the Cheetah, it’s because of everything that’s gone before and for fear of falling behind in a society that still prizes the attributes she has acquired. Yes, she wants more — but that’s also because she also wants to prevent Wonder Woman from carrying out her ‘threat’ to reverse the wishes, and the widespread damage done. While she’s acting selfishly, it’s the only way she can see herself achieving in a world that continues to advocate avarice and excess.
It’s interesting to note that Diana herself is shown to be equally imperfect in the film; acting selfishly. Inadvertently wishing for her perished love Steve Trevor’s return, she is surprised and delighted to see her wish manifested when he turns up — in some other dude’s body, naturally. If she is to reverse the actions of Max Lord and the Dreamstone, she will have to lose Steve all over again, which is the last thing she wants. So, she tries to find another way to undo the damage dealt by the God of Lies’ cursed artifact. Ultimately, she can’t, and must give up Steve for the greater good. In drawing this parallel with Barbara, pointing out that both can and do operate selfishly, the film further blurs the line between hero and villain and increases our ability to empathise with Minerva.
Barbara’s gradual transformation (“She goes through three really big stages,” says Wiig), alongside Max Lord’s, reflects the insidious nature of society’s dangerous ideals. Barbara is representative of the Instagram generation and thus is someone we can all identify with. As we compare our lives to the filtered online lives of others, we determine ourselves lesser. Kristen Wiig’s incarnation of Barbara Minerva is a reflection of those of us living in a society where we’re told that in order to be accepted, we must look a certain way, and behave a certain way — the escalation of cosmetic procedures is testament to the fact that for many of us, these messages take hold. The messages in Wonder Woman 1984 are clear — the individualism, egotism, and greed rife in society lead not only to poor mental health, but they’re also responsible for hate, war, and climate change.
It’s pure poetry that WW84 doesn’t end with a big, violent set-piece battle, but instead finishes with a powerful and emotive speech. Make love not war, guys. Patty Jenkins’s fiercely feminist Wonder Woman 1984 is making a stand.Recent search terms: