SPOILER WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Wonder Woman 1984. Proceed at your own risk.
Superhero movies didn’t always get their antagonists. The Marvel cinematic universe has historically had a villain problem. Just like the DC Extended Universe. Like Malekith, Zemo, Ultron, and Kaecilius from the MCU, to name a few examples, are accused of being two-dimensional, uninteresting, and offering little beyond McGuffin status, so Steppenwolf and Doomsday from the DCEU offer intergalactic villainy by the numbers along with lame CGI and lack of significant motivation. And don’t take us to Wonder Woman’s Ares.
But in Wonder Woman 1984, by contrast, director Patty Jenkins serves not one, but two antagonists who simply made a few bad decisions as victims, and whose motivations are clear and heartbreakingly empathetic. In a year when “Be Kind” has become a heartfelt motto, and many of us are beginning to rethink our priorities and look at the world and how it works, with a new understanding of humanity’s role in the chaos we live in, Wonder Woman 1984 offers a pair of bad guys with whom we can make these great evils take the form of Barbara Minerva’s cheetah (Kristen Wiig) and Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), whose story is intertwined with Minerva’s.
From Thanos to Barbara Minerva
While some would argue that the MCU’s tyrannical enemy Thanos put forward motives that we could understand, putting the greater good at the heart of his decision to randomly erase half of all life, there aren’t many people among us who would say that he achieved his goal of saving the universe in the right way. And Thanos, of course, never regretted it; he never saw the error of his ways. Maxwell Lord, on the other hand, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Barbara Minerva, did. In fact, Lord even voluntarily bowed to Wonder Woman’s eloquent call to undo what she had done, giving up on her desire, which led to widespread greed and selfishness and, in turn, death and destruction.
But let’s rewind at the beginning 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 he set the film at this time because “I really wanted to talk about … what I felt was happening in the world.The 1980s were a time when we didn’t know the cost of wanting more; the damage that greed does to both the planet and humanity. Barbara Minerva is also a victim of society’s emphasis on its version of what constitutes success, and its visceral feelings of unworthiness and insecurity, which are perhaps caused by, or at least compounded by, the values espoused by society that rewards a narrow view of women, beauty, and merit.
We all felt unworthy, or less, sometimes. The seller’s goal is to make us feel like we’re parting with our money to buy material things, lotions, potions, and buy the latest diets, exercise, and self-help fads that boost our self-esteem. The salesperson’s goal is to encourage us to compare ourselves to others; to make us feel like we have to keep up with the Joneses; to crave that someone else has to fill perceived holes in our lives or create a sense of security within ourselves. After all, money makes the world go round, right?
“We didn’t want [Barbara] to be such a typical mouse girl turned villain. We really wanted to [explore] what about her, which makes her so lonely and so invisible, and what does she really want, really want?- Kristen Wiig speaks at the international press conference for Wonder Woman 1984.
(Don’t) Be More Diana Prince
Just as you might be more like that influencer who follows social media, Minerva wants to be more of a Diana Prince. The irony, of course, is that none of us can be anyone else. And the beauty in each of us is completely connected with our individuality. But that’s not what the media portrays, and it’s not what Minerva could see. For Minerva, the prince is the idea of grace, beauty, and power that she bought. It’s not necessarily her idea-something that came from within-but an idea from outside that was sold to her, and to all of us, through the media.
For Minerva to feel valued, she believes that she must imitate the prince. When she desires to be Diana and begins to show similar strengths, abilities and, in turn, confidence, Minerva moves away from herself and accepts and plays with her strengths to the ideal. But she can never completely eradicate her inner self, and it is this mixture of conflicting disparate personalities that makes her ignore the warning signs and behave selfishly and contemptuously.
Minerva leans closer to Max Lord, who tells her what she wants to hear and then promises her even more power, and she becomes so dependent on the desire for more and the thrilling feeling of being the woman she has become that she refuses to back down; to give it up. She would rather see the rest of the world burn and be complicit in it than give up what she “earned”.
She is, however, easy to empathize with – if you have ever been envious or jealous; if you have ever wished that you were more elegant; if you have ever wished that you were stronger; if you have ever wished that you were more attractive, you will find common ground with Barbara Minerva.All of this helps make her a more realistic and actually empathetic villain than her comic book counterparts.
The Original Comic-Book Cheetah
Comic book writer William Moulton Marston, who originally conceived the character, was also a trained psychologist and sought to create an opponent for his creation of the superhero Wonder Woman, who was motivated by jealousy. The original version of the cheetah character was called Priscilla Rich. This incarnation of character was a socialite, marked by an inferiority complex and a split personality disorder. The notion that society has a role to play in shaping its insecurities is not so pronounced, if it is. Marston wrote about the type of female character he called “less actively developed women”, and this meant that Cheetah was a manifestation of this, suggesting that he viewed Priscilla’s “emotional displacement”as something that came from within; it was her”fault”.
When Cheetah moved on to the original iteration of the Barbara Ann Minerva character, making her comic book debut in 1987, she was reimagined as an archaeologist and heir to a fortune. This version of Minerva was lured by the promise of immortality to become the new guardian of an African tribe that gains the powers of a cheetah. It’s a choice he makes, and the transformation ritual involves drinking human blood and consuming parts of Urzkartaga, the Plant God, a powerful and powerful male being.
It is thanks to this ceremony that Minerva gets feline features-orange skin with black spots, tail and claws, as well as superhuman senses and reflexes. However, since she was not a virgin, she is cursed in the process of condemning her to pain and disability in her human form and euphoric bloodlust in the form of a cat. We see that this version of Barbara wants to own Wonder Woman’s truth loop, using deception to try to take it from Diana before resorting to force. In the end, Minerva is subjected to vengeful feelings and revenge against Wonder Woman, essentially for bruising her ego.
The New 52 and DC Rebirth Cheetah
In The New 52, Barbara Minerva’s backstory was relaunched. Originally an ally of Wonder Woman due to his experience in dangerous relics and past childhood in the women’s commune known as Amazonia, he was created as the antithesis of Diana Prince. Her origin story stems from the fact that she accidentally cut herself with a cursed dagger that once belonged to a tribe of lost Amazons. Possessed by the goddess of the hunt, she transformed into a hybrid of a human and a cheetah.
The DC Rebirth version of the character also featured Diana and Barbara starting out as friends. Barbara travels to Bwunda to learn more about the gods she became obsessed with after witnessing Diana and several Olympian gods set up defenses after Ares ‘ attack. It is here that she is married (against her will) for Uzcategui and becomes a Cheetah. Barbara blames Diana for what is happening to her, and so the feud rages.
Make a Wish
The Barbara Minerva we encounter in Wonder Woman 1984 exhibits completely different characteristics and motivations than these iterations of the comics. Her initial desire to be more like Diana is made involuntarily and almost unconsciously, without knowing that it can come true. This is different from the very real choice he makes in the first incarnation of the Barbara Minerva comics. The original form of the “fed” Minerva in WW84, the origin of the full version of Cheetah that she will become , is one that is created with her unintentional participation.
The real-time origin story of Minerva changes from each comic book incarnation to include an unintended wish for the enchanted stone. The ancient artifact is imbued with the curse of the god of lies to take something away from every person whose wish is fulfilled, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing civilizations. Barbara’s wish is a wish that any of us can make under our breath, in our minds, or even out loud, without necessarily meaning it or wanting it to come true. Similarly, the countless unsuspecting citizens in the film are manipulatively drawn to the voice of desire, encouraged by Max Lord, who is under the influence of the god of lies, and the charming Dreamstone.
The Lord is responsible for taking advantage of Barbara’s jealous and insecure thoughts. She is susceptible to flattery, and the promise of wealth and power-no matter what form they may take. Even before the Lord wants to become the dream stone, thus becoming an all-powerful puppet master, he is already manipulating Barbara to get his hands on the stone. If your mom ever told you that men can make you believe that the Moon is made of cheese, here’s a scenario where that’s exactly the case. He uses his weaknesses to get what he wants. And we can all identify with it, or at least sympathize with it.
Lord, Have Mercy
But, as we have already mentioned, Max Lord is also not a cut and dry villain. He is also a victim of society, which tells him that he must be a certain way to succeed. Your relationship with your child and your motivation to become a person you think your child can be proud of is what drives you and ultimately redeems you. Eventually, you realize that all you need to do is love your child to earn your child’s respect, adoration, and mutual love. He becomes a person who is able to admit his mistakes and repent.
There are no monsters in Wonder Woman 1984, and that includes Cheetah, despite his physical transformation. When you accept the Lord’s promise to make her even more powerful and give her a second (forbidden) wish by granting her the power of a cheetah, it is because of everything she has experienced before and because of the fear of remaining in a society that still rewards the attributes she has acquired. Yes, she wants more, but that’s also because she also wants to prevent Wonder Woman from fulfilling her “threat” to reverse desires and widespread damage. Acting selfishly is the only way to see yourself in a world that continues to advocate greed and excess.
Wonder Woman Can Be Selfish Too
It’s interesting to note that Diana herself is equally flawed in the film; acting selfishly. Unintentionally wishing for her lost love Steve Trevor’s return, she is surprised and pleased to see her desire manifest when she becomes some other guy’s body, naturally. If he’s going to reverse the shares of Max Lord and Dreamstone, he’s going to have to lose Steve again, which is the last thing he wants. So, she’s trying to find another way to undo the damage done by the god of lies ‘ cursed artifact. Ultimately, she can’t and must give up on Steve for the greater good. By drawing this parallel with Barbara, noting that they both can and do act selfishly, the film further blurs the line between hero and villain and increases our ability to empathize with Minerva.
Barbara’s gradual transformation (“she goes through three really big stages,” says Vig), along with Max Lord’s transformation, reflects the insidious nature of society’s dangerous ideals. Barbara is a representative of the Instagram generation and therefore someone we can all identify with. When we compare our lives to the filtered online lives of others, we define ourselves less. The incarnation of Barbara Minerva’s Kristen Wiig is a reflection of those of us who live in a society where we are told that in order to be accepted, we must look a certain way and behave a certain way: the escalation of cosmetic procedures is a testament to the fact that for many of us, these messages are being reinforced. The messages in Wonder Woman 1984 are clear: The individualism, selfishness, and greed that abound in society not only lead to poor mental health, but are also responsible for hatred, war, and climate change.
It’s pure poetry that WW84 doesn’t end with a big fierce battle, but ends with a powerful and emotional speech. Make love, not war, guys. The fiercely feminist 1984 Wonder Woman Patty Jenkins takes a stand.
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