Wonder Woman 1984's Stark Warning About Big Oil

Greed, grifts, and the oil industry are at the heart of Warner Brother's latest superhero flick.

Caution: This post contains spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 is a refreshingly fun and shamelessly extravagant movie in which the eponymous, lasso-wielding superhero must save the world from a grifter in possession of a magical crystal. It is also, I was surprised to learn, an incisive commentary on the greed and deception at the heart of the fossil fuel industry, which has roots in the period of rampant consumerism that the movie takes place in.

Set decades after its World War I-era predecessor, the plot of the film revolves around the “Dreamstone,” a strange artifact that grants its owner whatever wish they want (for a price). Shortly after the stone arrives at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, is working as an enviably stylish anthropologist, it’s nicked by over-coiffed con artist Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who uses it to save his failing oil business while sowing chaos all over the world. 

While Lord’s character seems like an obvious metaphor for Donald Trump—an untalented, megalomaniacal TV personality who ascends to power through a combination of luck and lies—he is also a wannabe oil tycoon, making this the first superhero movie I can remember where the villain literally embodies the fossil fuel industry. And it’s worth unpacking that creative decision a bit more, because as an allegory for the many things wrong with fossil fuels, Lord ain’t bad.

One of the first things we learn about Lord is that his business is a Ponzi scheme, an investment scam in which earlier investors make money off of later investors until eventually, the investment bubble bursts. The U.S. natural gas industry has also been described as a Ponzi scheme, with fracking companies relying on massive capital investments to spin up drilling operations that never turned a profit. Later, Lord makes clear that he sees himself as above the law—also very on brand for Big Oil, which has poured billions of dollars into fighting climate legislation, avoiding legal culpability for its messes, and even helping advance bills that criminalize pipeline protests

Then there’s the fact that Lord discovers the Dreamstone while getting a private tour of the Smithsonian as he is considering making a large donation. This philanthropy is straight out of the playbook of billionaire oil tycoon David Koch, who made the largest ever donation to the Smithsonian in 2012 (Koch also contributed handily to the American Museum of Natural History in New York). Unlike David Koch, Lord’s patronage of the Smithsonian doesn’t seem to have sparked any backlash from scientists or environmentalists, but we can probably chalk that up to the fact that it is soon overshadowed by the worldwide pandemonium the oilman sets off.

Which brings me to the biggest similarity between Lord’s villainy and the industry fueling the climate crisis: The greed and deception at the heart of it all.

After taking possession of the stone, Lord uses his wish to turn himself into a wish-granting genie. He’s then able to grant wishes to anyone who asks, while taking whatever he wants from them in return. This unhealthy relationship between Lord and his wish-havers mirrors the toxic symbiosis between societies and fossil fuels writ large. While oil, gas, and coal have  boosted standards of living worldwide, countless millions have been sickened and killed by the pollution these dirty energy sources create. 

More deadly still are the planetary costs of our relationship with Big Oil.

In Wonder Woman 1984, society starts to break down as Lord’s wish-granting bonanza accelerates. Pretty soon, humanity finds itself on the brink of nuclear war. In the real world, our dependence on oil is causing the climate itself to break down, with equally devastating consequences. And only today—decades after oil companies began burying their own research on climate change and launching disinformation campaigns to further obfuscate the truth—is it clear that the industry’s prosperity-for-all promise was a marketing gimmick meant to get a few Lords very rich.

The one place where the film’s climate allegory falls apart for me is its emphasis on individual sacrifice. Ultimately, Wonder Woman realizes that the only way to stop the wish-pocalypse is for everyone to renounce their wish. Similarly, the oil industry has attempted to make climate change into a personal responsibility issue, precisely to obscure the fact that a handful of companies bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. Meanwhile, the industry’s political allies have used the specter of a world without cheeseburgers to kneecap ambitious climate proposals. By framing the solution to a systemic problem as individual sacrifice, the film winds up regurgitating a trope that has helped delay progress on climate and given cover to some of  society’s worst actors. 

Then again, this is a superhero movie, a genre that would not exist if it weren’t for individual actions saving the day. Frankly, I’ll take a little personal responsibility proselytizing at the end in exchange for what is, on the whole, a nuanced parable about capitalism, corporate greed, and the tragedy of the commons. And if Warner Brothers wants to pit Batman against ecofascism in its next superhero flick, I’m here for it.

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