Wonder Woman: Climate Warrior?

Wonder Woman does righteous battle in 1984’s Washington, DC (Warner Bros Pictures 2020).

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), the most recent movie to feature the DC Comics superheroine, is directed and co-written by Patty Jenkins, who also directed the title character’s 2017 origin story and reportedly fought hard for its feminist themes. These included portraying the Amazon princess as a force for love instead of war, and her legendary all-female race as warriors rather than victims. In the 2020 follow-up, also known as WW84, Jenkins goes a step further and takes Wonder Woman into ecofeminist territory.

Following our recent and damning analysis of the subtle climate denial in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), we decided to write another retrospective review to show an alternative to the environmentally-damaging ideas of that Marvel title. Embracing constructive climate storytelling and its aims in mainstream entertainment, or superhero movies more specifically, is not only possible — it was accomplished to a similarly subtle yet noticeable extent in WW84 the very next year!

Like our previous reviews, we’ll run the film through the Climate Test to see what it turns up on climate storytelling grounds. For those unfamiliar with this new measure of climate representation in fiction, you can get up to speed on the three rules of the Climate Test in our first Medium article here.

Rule One: Does it acknowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing?

Not really. Obviously, the impacts of climate change weren’t as apparent in the 80s — when WW84 is set — than they are today. Still, the film manages to incorporate, among its multiple crises, a growing environmental problem: In one scene, we’re told that Cairo’s poorest communities are hit by a water accessibility issue. This problem is visually resolved by the end of the film, when we observe the restoration of the freshwater supply. As Egypt normally has a hot semi-desert environment, however, it’s unclear whether the water scarcity surrounding this issue is related to the climate crisis.

Rule Two: Does it portray unchecked business-as-usual as the cause of climate change and as a negative character trait?

In a way, yes. While the climate crisis isn’t explicitly acknowledged, the film’s primary villain is an oil man aptly named ‘Max Lord’, who — in his relentless pursuit of wealth and excess, and his passionate push for everyone else to follow suit — embodies the materialistic and capitalistic values of our present-day zeitgeist. Indeed, his opening monologue as a television personality is heard over a montage of consumerism and theft around a gaudy shopping mall: “You deserve to have it all… You don’t even have to work hard for it… All you need is to want it.” In a reference to the film’s environmental themes, he adds in a later scene, “Never accept the limitations of nature.”

Everything comes at a cost, however, and the film represents this through a phallic, wish-granting relic called the ‘Dreamstone’: While it magically makes your dreams come true, it’s also revealed to be empowered by Dolos, the Greek god of lies, and thus it steals something precious from you too. Indeed, as our protagonists come to discover, the stone is responsible for the collapse of many dead civilizations, including that of the Mayans. And through the course of the story, we witness the near-destruction of our own society when all of humanity’s unchecked wishes and desires, unleashed by Max Lord, lead the world to territorial conflicts, global instability, and nuclear war. Again, given the film’s 80s setting, climate change isn’t explicitly represented in this mishmash of existential crises — but we do see a nod to it before the end.

Rule Three: Does at least one character do something at least once to help solve the climate crisis?

In a way, yes. Early in the film, a very young Wonder Woman learns that anything worthwhile must be attained honestly, and that true acts of bravery include, among other virtues, the “courage to face the truth”. Indeed, her weapon of choice — the Lasso of Truth — is itself revealed to be empowered by the truth. So it’s apt that Wonder Woman, in the climax of the film, counters the deception of the Dreamstone by speaking truth to the world, a message that also reaches the audience in a fourth-wall-breaking moment: “This world was a beautiful place just as it was. And you cannot have it all… So look at this world. And look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you wish to save this world.”

When her heartfelt plea inspires everyone on the planet to renounce their wishes, we see nuclear missiles disintegrate in mid-air, explosions run in reverse, and the world’s multiple crises averted. For a brief moment, we also see the carbon emissions of fossil fuel power stations go backward and return inside their smoke stacks. By including this visual, the film acknowledges at the last minute that unchecked human desire and unabated business-as-usual are responsible not only for the worldly ills we saw earlier, but also for greenhouse gas pollution and its consequence, global warming. Moreover, it’s when we all face this truth together that we’ll be able to start addressing the climate crisis.

The carbon genie is put back inside its bottle (Warner Bros Pictures 2020).

While WW84 doesn’t clearly meet the first rule of our Climate Test and, therefore, falls short of passing the test, we think it deserves an honorable mention for tackling an underlying driver of the climate crisis — a true rarity when it comes to Hollywood movies!

Although the representation of climate change may have been somewhat limited by the film’s 80s setting, we also think there was a missed opportunity here. By the 80s, the Earth had warmed relative to pre-industrial times, and the issue had entered public awareness, becoming prominent enough to be featured in opinion polls. With a clearer acknowledgement of global warming in some form, then, WW84 would have easily passed the Climate Test and made a stronger statement on the climate crisis.

Moving forward, we only hope (and wish!) that the major Hollywood studios will become less shy about including and representing climate change in their mainstream movies. As we’ve witnessed on many other issues — such as racism, women’s rights, the AIDS epidemic, and the Vietnam War — the power of storytelling and entertainment can help to bring about significant social and cultural transformations, and that’s exactly what we need right now if we’re to solve the climate crisis.

If you’d like to see Hollywood’s major studios including Warner Bros make more films with effective climate stories, please support our Hollywood climate storytelling campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page:

https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/hollywood

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