When it comes to villains in superhero movies, fans have come to expect a mixed bag. You’ve got your top tier like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Thanos, Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, a few varieties of the Joker, Michael B Jordan in Black Panther.
After them you’ve got your mid-range menaces (think Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok, Mads Mikkelsen in Doctor Strange and plenty of others) who do just fine, and then the downright duds (sorry, Malekith, Steppenwolf and Yellowjacket) unlikely to linger in your mind once the credits have rolled.
But Wonder Woman 1984 brings us something altogether more interesting with its villain Maxwell Lord, as played by Pedro Pascal. From the off, I actually found myself wanting Max to win – despite the trouble it would cause – and the film apparently agreed with me, granting the character an extremely rare happy ending for a superhero baddie.
In fact, from the off Max is a fairly sympathetic figure. Desperate to turn his fortunes around and impress his son, the wannabe billionaire is all style and no substance, and could have come off as a money-grubbing sleaze played by another actor. But in the hands of Pascal, instead Max is warm and likeable – very cheesy and over-the-top, but charming in the extreme.
It’s worlds (or lightyears) away from Pascal’s current starring role as Disney+’s masked Mandalorian, and somewhere closer to his swashbuckling (and doomed) Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones. But crucially, unlike both these figures Max feels vulnerable, an underdog. His evil scheme isn’t presaged on his private army, his super-strength or his doomsday device – instead, it’s his ingenuity and adaptability that drive him to the top.
When Max gets his hands on the Dreamstone, a mystical object that grants the holder one wish at a terrible personal cost, he doesn’t just ask for money or influence – he asks to become the Dreamstone, taking on its wish-granting ability for others.
In principle, this could seem like an odd move – it’s not like he gets more wishes, he just gets to give them to others – but Max has realised something more profound, which it takes our heroes Diana and Steve (Gal Gadot and Steve Trevor) longer to notice. The Dreamstone’s true significance isn’t in what it gives, but what it takes away.
Accordingly, Max gives people what they want – but then he takes what he wants, cleverly propping himself up with the power, influence and health of those around him even as their own wishes turn sour. And again, oddly, I found myself rooting for him through most of these scenes. Watching Max outwit and outsmart a series of domineering snobs is extremely satisfying, even if his overall goals (a relentless pursuit of wealth and power to excess) are distasteful.
Maybe it wouldn’t work if Pascal wasn’t such fun in the role, but the intense energy he imbues Max with really shines everyone off the screen. It’s an over-the-top, almost insane performance that’d again completely at odds with his restrained work on The Mandalorian – but as Pascal has revealed in interviews, that’s sort of the point.
“With Wonder Woman, [co-stars Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig] are doing the action, baby, and I’m doing the schm-acting!” he told EW. “I am hamming it up!”
Later, in a press conference for the film he seemed more nervous about how out-there he’d been, joking that if fans reacted well he’d take credit, but if they didn’t like it they should take it up with director Patty Jenkins – but he needn’t have worried.
In a film focused so much on a brash, day-glo stereotype of the 1980s and its excesses, this version of Max Lord is perfectly pitched, and even when he’s villainously cackling, trying to fight off Wonder Woman or taunting Steve it’s hard not to warm to him.
After all, weirdly, in the final count Max is sort of the hero of the whole film. In Wonder Woman 1984’s climactic finale, Max has seized control of an experimental US government system to broadcast a message around the world, “touching” everyone at once and granting their wishes and causing global chaos.
Despite defeating his sidekick Cheetah (Wiig) Diana can’t stop Max, because only he can. Attaching him to the Lasso of Truth, Diana shows Max his entire life – his abusive childhood, the school bullies, how he’d struggled to find success despite his disadvantages – and then his own son, who he abandoned in his office to pursue this mad dream of world domination.
“You can save him, Max,” Diana tells him – and he does. Like the workaholic dad at the centre of a classic Christmas movie (which Wonder Woman 1984 also is, by the way) Max realises what’s truly important, renouncing his wish and returning the world to normal. In one of the film’s final scenes we see Max joyfully reunite with his son, telling him “you don’t ever have to make a wish to make me love you.”
Max doesn’t (at least onscreen) get his comeuppance, get banished to the Phantom Zone or have his neck snapped by Superman. He’s not turned to dust by Infinity Zones, thrown into the Quantum Realm or stomped on by a big monster. Instead Max gets his happy ending, after learning an important lesson about his priorities.
If Wonder Woman 1984 is a film about wanting it all and realising you can’t have it, then it’s as much Max’s film as it is Diana’s – maybe more. While Diana has to learn to give up Steve and move on to connect with humanity, Max has to reformat his entire drive and ethos. Diana re-learns a lesson she already knew, while Max has a tougher path to enlightenment, forced to give up something he’d worked towards for years for the sake of his son.
In short, there’s definitely an argument to be made that Max Lord is the hero of Wonder Woman 1984. If nothing else, it’s his happy ending that will stay with you when the credits roll.
Wonder Woman 1984 is in select UK and US cinemas now, and on HBO Max in the US. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.