Wonder Woman writer/director Patty Jenkins follows up her critically adored megahit with the entertaining yet imperfect Wonder Woman 1984.
Over six decades after her epic, planet-saving efforts during World War I, we rejoin Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Washington, D.C. It’s unclear how or why she’s arrived at this particular place, but it appears as though she splits her time between working as an archaeologist for the Smithsonian Institution and secretly saving children from bad guys in malls — all while holding a silent torch for her long-lost beau, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Amid her inexplicably discreet life — she has seemingly no close friendships and lives in relative obscurity even after 60-plus years of Wonder Womanhood — Diana befriends new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a dorky, overqualified scientist, and the two encounter a rare artifact that changes their lives forever. This gem, called the Dreamstone, grants wishes to those who hold it, but in exchange for something intangible (e.g., one’s soul, humanity or superpowers). As expected, once it gets into the hands of the greedy oil tycoon Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), all hell breaks loose, and Wonder Woman is tasked with saving the world — again.
The script, written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, may sound a little too far-fetched on the surface, but the first half of the film works surprisingly well enough for viewers to go along for the ride. With the introduction of all these new characters, plus a criminally brief sighting of everyone’s favorite Amazon warrior, Antiope (Robin Wright), and an utterly ridiculous yet exciting reappearance from Steve Trevor, WW84 feels as if it’s going somewhere lighter, brighter and more fun than its predecessor. However, once the competing plotlines are revealed, the narrative struggles to untangle them, and the structure unravels in a way that’s almost as disappointing as it is disjointed.
Early on, though, the big-budget blockbuster attempts to make good with its throwback premise. We see neon leotards, permed hair and parachute pants on passersby, and the insistence on the Dreamstone as a central MacGuffin is just whacky enough to feel ripped directly from the ’80s. As Diana holds on to the Dreamstone and subconsciously wishes for Steve’s return (#PiningForPine), his spirit inexplicably snatches the body of another handsome man, and Diana is smitten, declaring that even though he looks like someone else, she only sees him. But after merely one joy-filled night together — can we please let Diana have a full 24 hours of fun? — the two quickly realize that something about the stone is amiss, and they must uncover its true nature before it’s too late.
While perfectly cheesy in premise, the Dreamstone is an interesting (albeit thinly veiled) critique of ’80s capitalism, global consumerism and widespread greed, and Jenkins’ attempt to use it as a larger commentary on modern society is admirable. However, its implementation often feels so clunky that it ultimately boils the narrative down to a film about a man who becomes a magical rock or a woman who becomes a killer cat (more on those later) or a sullen goddess who is still mourning the loss of a mortal man from 60 years ago.
As much as I loved having Pine’s dreamy-eyed, zany pilot Steve back on screen to generate a much needed sense of levity and loosen Gadot’s superserious Diana, I had a hard time fully connecting with their emotional relationship (he’s literally in the body of another man) and subsequent parting (we’ve bid Steve farewell before). Though the scenes in which she playfully schools him in fashion trends and all that he’s missed (effectively reversing their roles from the first film) are genuinely sweet, there seems to be little more than a friendship there, and certainly not enough emotional resonance to warrant a tearful investment on my part.
Exacerbating this disconnection is Diana’s central “love is weakness” struggle — a tired, misogynistic trope of the past that aims to humanize her character but ultimately confines her. Her decadeslong yearning for a lost love echoes that of Captain America’s Steve Rogers, but there’s something about Diana’s pain that feels particularly limiting. Sure, she’s still able to fight crime and invoke her superhero status whenever she wants, but she hasn’t created a life outside her bubble of loneliness.
I found myself trying not to roll my eyes at the notion that, after all this time, Diana’s greatest wish is to resurrect her World War I boyfriend, and, in doing so, she’ll lose her superpowers and ability to save others. This cruel dilemma — which can only be reversed if she renounces her wish and sends Steve back into oblivion — signifies the annoying adage that women can only have success at the expense of a fulfilling romance (or vice versa). Though I’m sure Jenkins’ goal was to make Diana appear more vulnerable and therefore relatable — a balance that Gadot pulls off much more skillfully here than in the first film and feels like a welcomed reprieve for us mere mortals who find it difficult to connect with a figure who’s practically a goddess herself in real life — the writing comes off as lazy, stereotypical storytelling that should have stayed in the ’80s, not migrated to movie screens in 2020.
Another glaring narrative issue is the sudden introduction of Barbara as “The Cheetah,” a feline foe who seeks to protect the Dreamstone at all costs, even if it means defeating her friend and covetable colleague. Wiig’s character goes from a shy, overlooked and underestimated wallflower who halfheartedly uses the stone to wish for Diana’s confidence, strength and recognition, to a completely confounding evil extra from Cats. I understand suspension of disbelief, but am I really supposed to believe that this gawky zoologist who just learned how to walk in heels without falling down suddenly wants to become a vengeful “apex predator” in a bad catsuit?
The leap from Barbara’s relatable human envy of Diana’s godlike stature — who wouldn’t want to look and feel like Wonder Woman? — to enacting a feral, jealous rampage as The Cheetah feels confusing and almost laughable. Though the plot posits that the Dreamstone steals the part of people that they hold most dear (presumably Barbara’s humanity, in this case), I’m not convinced that that’s her most cherished quality or a clear enough motivation for her to turn so bloodthirsty so quickly.
Not only is her villainous transformation as underdeveloped as her maniacal motivations, but so is her supposed friendship with Diana. The film doesn’t take enough care to flesh out their bond in the beginning besides a casual get-to-know-you dinner. (Sidebar: Was anyone else rooting for these two to get together and star in their own queer romance superhero flick? Just me?) So, when they face off in a muddy, visually incoherent and poorly stunted catfight in the penultimate climax, it feels unearned, unsatisfying and anything but cathartic.
Conversely, Diana’s other foe, Max Lord, gets more than enough screen time to flesh out his kooky character and cement his villain status. He’s a pinstripe-suit-wearing sleazeball who’s on the brink of losing his oil empire, sense of decency and young son all in one fell swoop. His slimy salesman persona, embarrassingly bad blond wig and fraudulent foundation mirror an ’80s Art of the Deal-era Donald Trump so closely that it’s impossible not to compare the two. And had WW84 been released prior to the results of the 2020 presidential election, Lord’s harmful influences would’ve been much more impactful and downright frightening to watch.
Still, it’s clear that even with a character so outlandish and unlikable, Pascal is having a ton of fun and hams it up enough to make his performance the most memorable of the film. He goes full slick, unhinged ’80s villain here, and though his transformation into the actual Dreamstone feels a tad too illogical to understand (can you really wish to become the Dreamstone?), his selfish endeavors turn him into a mostly formidable nemesis. There’s also an underlying brokenness to Lord — he reeks of desperation and approval-seeking amid his crumbling facade, allowing viewers to see his motivations just enough to understand him. He’s hungry for success, admiration and respect, and, like Barbara/The Cheetah, is willing to forgo almost anything in order to achieve it. But his unwavering love for his son is what ultimately sets him apart from Wiig’s bizarre semivillain.
Adding yet another tick in the unfortunate misstep column is the soundtrack, which relies almost entirely on Hans Zimmer’s original score instead of ’80s hits that could have transformed the film into a truly enjoyable period piece. Except for a few barely detectable early blips from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Gary Numan (plus a dash of Duran Duran in the credits), I found myself wondering, “Where exactly is the ’80s of it all? Where are the iconic Prince, Michael Jackson and INXS needle drops? Where are the Madonna and Cyndi Lauper influences on Diana? Why is there so much serious orchestral music in a film that’s supposed to be about the wild ’80s?” Don’t get me wrong: Zimmer’s score is as gorgeous as it is epic, but it’s used so heavily in place of the feel-good synth-pop I was expecting that it eclipses much of the film’s lightness and robs viewers of the chance to have some real sentimental fun.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of its obvious decade-specific, female superhero companion, Captain Marvel. It’s clear that while WW84 tries to match the pop culture nostalgia of its predecessor in terms of tone, theme and overall production, next to Captain Marvel’s cool, grungy ’90s universe, WW84 falls mostly flat.
Jenkins’ decision to set the film in 1984, at the height of the Cold War and the rise of global capitalism, is smart in intention, but ultimately lacking in overall execution. Perhaps if the music, costuming and set design had been more thoroughly drenched in the bold, excessive ethos of the ’80s, Jenkins’ aim to highlight the problems of that era could have been more fully realized. Instead, the title rings a tad hollow and lacks a true ’80s sensibility. After all, our main character’s civilian outfits consist almost exclusively of chic silk blouses, perfectly tailored trousers and timeless silhouettes that would be considered fashionable at any time period — and the glaring lack of decade-appropriate fashion made me wistful for the ’80s Wonder Woman flick that could have been.
Still, for all of its technical flaws, confusing plot points and peculiar villains, WW84 still manages to feel like a fun, fantastical flick that’s certainly unafraid to show its core comic book self. There’s no doubt that the prevalence of the lasso of truth, an invisible romantic jet ride through Fourth of July fireworks, golden armor from Diana’s ancient homeland and the sudden ability to fly all work together to keep the fantasy of Wonder Woman alive and on full display. Even the midcredits surprise cameo is a nod to what has come before and what still lies ahead — and for that, I’m intrigued. I just wish that the film in between employed its own lasso of truth and delivered on all its promises.
Available to stream via HBO Max. Also playing at AMC River Hills 10 and the Carolina Cinemark