Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva in Wonder Woman 1984

Kristen Wiig’s bruised villain is the best thing in Wonder Woman 1984

Kristen Wiig’s bruised villain is the best thing in Wonder Woman 1984

Kristen Wiig’s bruised villain is the best thing in Wonder Woman 1984

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n Wonder Woman 1984, Kristen Wiig plays a woman so consumed by feelings of loneliness and self-doubt that she willingly becomes a mutant supervillain to escape them. The film serves as a radical departure for the Bridesmaids star, but only if you haven’t been paying attention. Truthfully, Wiig has spent a decade in film playing the melancholy, the disappointed and the cripplingly unhappy.

Wiig, who rose to fame on the US sketch show Saturday Night Live, defies easy categorisation. She is a comedian but not a stand-up: hilarious but also capable of breaking your heart with a depressed glance. Jagged angles in her acting pierce through the lightest of her movies, upending the traditional narratives assigned to the famous and funny when they take on more overtly dramatic roles. Wiig’s performances are neither cynical stabs at Oscar glory, nor an antidote to years of comic slumming; instead, sad clownery is at the root of almost everything she does.

Wiig’s role in the Wonder Woman sequel, which is in selected cinemas now, is the apex of her sorrowful cheeriness. She is the best thing in an overstuffed movie, and an off-kilter presence substantially missed whenever she’s not around. She plays Barbara Minerva, a book-smart and chronically ignored archaeologist who works with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. She is reserved but desperate not to be, and approaches Diana with a curious mix of resentment and awe.

Through the intervention of a magical thingamajig that grants wishes, Barbara blossoms. She grows in confidence, develops supernatural abilities and loses her dowdy ensembles – at one point, because this is the Eighties and no cultural signifier is left untouched, she visits a gym dressed like an extra in an Olivia Newton-John video. And while the film ends up making her feline alter ego, Cheetah, very much the B-villain to Pedro Pascal’s Trumpian megalomaniac, Wiig is brilliant. She is spooky and threatening, but also bruised and vulnerable. She carries with her the weight of being overlooked all her life, the overeagerness around hoped-for friends, the private self-loathing.

Yet none of this unspoken tension is surprising. For as long as she’s been working, Wiig has seemed drawn to the tonally uncertain, or projects that match her onscreen ambiguity. “Her characters are always smiling on the outside and dying on the inside,” Wiig’s Bridesmaids director, Paul Feig, once said of her.

On Saturday Night Live, Wiig’s recurring characters were often underpinned with tragedy. There was the unnamed woman working in the American supermarket Target, whose perpetual giddiness felt like a plaster over an empty existence; Dooneese, the ostracised fourth member in a quartet of otherwise gorgeous singing sisters, was a woman cursed with baby hands and perpetual ill-fortune; Penelope, a friendless weirdo, was constantly compelled to one-up everyone around her. To apply psychological complexity to a handful of sketch characters may seem like a fool’s endeavour, but it was always easy to spot a kind of traumatised mania in Wiig’s creations.

A specific strain of thirtysomething malaise: Wiig in Bridesmaids, Hateship Loveship and Girl Most Likely

(Universal/IFC/Lionsgate)

Over the course of full-length movies, those creations have been able to breathe and deepen. Bridesmaids, which Wiig co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, is permeated by grief. Wiig’s character, Annie, is introduced as financially fraying, self-destructive and emotionally adrift. She’s in an aesthetically perfect relationship with Mad Men-era Jon Hamm – but he’s a raging asshole. She has a best friend, played by Maya Rudolph – whose new engagement puts a gulf between them. And baking, her true passion, has been so contaminated by failure that it’s now become a cruel reminder of when life seemed more hopeful.

In the 10 years separating Bridesmaids and next year’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which reunites Wiig and Mumolo as stars and co-writers, Wiig mined similar emotional territory as an actor. In Girl Most Likely (2012), she was a blocked playwright whose early industry buzz had evaporated. In the masterful The Skeleton Twins (2014), she was a suicidal dental hygienist who only came alive when she was allowed to regress – whether by dressing up in a Halloween costume like she’s 13 again, or having a series of passionless affairs with authority figures. Both films, along with Bridesmaids, capture a specific strain of thirtysomething malaise, where all the fearless showboating of your early twenties has been eroded, and a curious mix of dissatisfaction and regret has taken its place.

Wiig’s inherent melancholy hasn’t been spoken about a great deal, potentially because she’s regarded more as an amusing and silly presence in things, even when she isn’t trying to be. She’s aware of it, too, once recalling watching her film Hateship Loveship with a festival audience, and hearing them laugh at a scene she thought was completely unfunny. The 2013 indie is a peculiar movie, with Wiig playing a timid caregiver tricked by two teenage girls into believing a man is in love with her. In one scene, which prompted the laughter from the audience, Wiig’s character practises kissing for the first time by sloppily tonguing her own reflection in a mirror.

“I’m so surprised that comes across as funny,” Wiig told The Los Angeles Times. “I worried, are people gonna laugh at certain parts of this ‘cause they’re used to seeing me do things that are comedic? … I never saw it as funny … This poor girl, she’s kissing herself; that’s so sad. And then she just cleans the mirror.”

She may have reacted to the laughter with mild panic, but it seemed to speak to something bigger about her onscreen power. Wiig’s characters always seem to burn with a quiet desperation, of a kind that reflects back to us uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Whether in Bridesmaids or The Skeleton Twins or amid the day-glo Eighties kitsch of Wonder Woman 1984, she plays sadness in the way that people are genuinely sad. It’s not just aimless crying, but a messy blur of regret and shame, and the often graceless striving to be something or someone else. If anything, it makes sense that many would giggle nervously at Wiig going to such a place – we’re not used to someone going so low so well.

Wonder Woman 1984 is in selected cinemas now


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