Age of Wonder
Wonder Woman 1984 is Streaming on HBO Max
To one degree or another, superheroes are all about symbolism. Despite having been originally designed as characters for children, they have become our modern mythology. When used correctly, they can simultaneously deliver surface-level thrills while also having something legitimate to say.
If Batman is about dealing with trauma and Superman is about the desire to help, then Wonder Woman is ultimately about hope.* Hope with a clear-eyed and flinty view of things as they are and not as we’d like them to be. Consider that, while she has the Lasso of Truth, Wonder Woman carried a sword in the comics for a long time and was not shy about using it.
Hope is important. It’s an absolute necessity, particularly in this foul year of our Lord 2020. The belief that, somehow, things will get better, can sustain our spirits and inspire us to stand and take action. Hope without truth, though? At best, it can be wispy and insubstantial. At worst, delusional and dangerous. In 2017, Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut. Despite a not great third act, the film has strong performances and an absolute banger of an action sequence. It made a metric ton of money and, like the inevitability of gravity, brought on a sequel. Does Wonder Woman 1984 capture the magic of the first film? No. Is it a trainwreck of cinematic proportions? Also no.
Like the original, we begin on Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. A young Diana (Lily Aspell) is raring to grow up and assume the mantle of adulthood. So much so that she shoves her way into a long and ludicrously dangerous athletic competition, and is the only kid taking part. While Diana gets off to a good start, she’s thrown from her horse and elects to take a shortcut. Bad form, Diana! This gets her disqualified and a stern talking-to from her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who tells her that, “No hero is born from lies.”
The theme of the film having been set up, we move forward to the glittering golden age of 1984. Somehow, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has continued to combat evildoers while managing to escape detection.** She’s also landed herself a job as a researcher at the Smithsonian and a cushy pad at The Watergate. Life in the nation’s capital is pretty good, and while at work, Diana strikes up a friendship with the skittish Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a woman who seems to exude desperation. Everything Diana seems to be, Barbara wishes to be, and in a different film, we’d have a Single White Female scenario where a pre-Justice Leaguer is stalked by an increasingly unhinged obsessive.
Instead, after foiling a robbery at a local mall (!), the FBI contacts Barbara for help (!!) in identifying stolen antiquities found in the back of the mall jewelry store (!!!). One of the antiquities is adorned with ominous Latin incantations and, wouldn’t you know it, it has the ability to grant wishes. Why does it have that power and how did it end up in the back of a cheeseball jewelry store in a mall? Because reasons, silly!
Anyway, Barbara accidentally wishes to be more like Diana and, wouldn’t you know it, she starts to gain superhuman speed, strength, and self-confidence.*** In a moment of loneliness, Diana wishes for the return of her love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Despite the inconvenience of being dead, Steve is miraculously revived.**** Making matters worse, we learn that television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) has been searching for the fiendish thingy. Once he gets his hands on it, there will be all manner of peril, setpieces, and expensive special effects.
Look, despite the snide tone, I’m not saying that WW84 is a bad film. Director Patty Jenkins has an excellent eye for visuals, and you can trust her action scenes to be cleanly shot and propulsive. There are a number of great shots in the film, particularly a sequence where Diana and Steve fly through a fireworks display. However, the pacing here is not great. You feel very acutely the entire two and a half hour running time, and easily 30-40 minutes could have been cut to tighten up the narrative. It’s a common affliction with sequels, the belief that more equals better. I don’t know if this was due to a flurry of studio notes or not. I like Jenkins a great deal as a director, but it felt like she was swallowed up by the huge machinery of a franchise.
The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and David Callaham is where we really start to run into problems. I get that the script is an indictment of greed, and setting it in the venal 1980s makes good sense thematically. My first issue is with the Dreamstone. Remember back in the 1980s when movies like Weird Science and Big threw around magical power with abandon? That trope sucked then and it sucks now. A little research tells me that the Dreamstone was created by the mischief god Dechalafrea Ero. So did he let the artifact into the world to sow chaos? Was it part of a long game and a vendetta against Diana? We’re never told, and no rules are established early on. As a result, things just happen. The script also lurches between plots involving Diana and Steve, Barbara, and Max Lord, all of which hammer home the themes of greed and wish fulfillment. While there’s no need for thematic subtlety in a superhero movie, I think two of the subplots could have been condensed and rewritten to pack more of a punch.
The role of Diana blew up Gal Gadot’s career, and it’s easy to see why. Like Chris Evans as Captain America, Gadot perfectly embodies the heroic ideal, and her Diana is brave, powerful, confident, and most importantly, kind. While the best of the Chrises, Chris Pine, is as amusing as he was in the first film, he loses a lot of screen time and doesn’t have much to do. I like both Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig, but the film features too much of the former and too little of the latter. Just like his role in The Mandalorian, Pascal’s Max seems to begin his journey as a heartless scumbag. Here, his performance becomes increasingly broad and he whipsaws between a cliched villain and a sympathetic antihero. Much better is Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva. She does such good work using her deadpan awkwardness as a mask for seething insecurity. Once she’s powered up, I got some serious Batman Returns vibes and I wished more time was spent with her.
An awful lot of people will see WW84 and think of it as a shining light of hope at the end of the darkness cast by 2020. I don’t begrudge anyone getting comfort where they can, and if that’s how you felt, I’m happy for you. For me, it felt like a middle to a lower-tier superhero movie. It lacks the dynamic energy of Spider-Man: Into the Spider–verse, the imagination of Avengers: Endgame, and the beating heart and hope of the original Wonder Woman. I’d love to see Gal Gadot return, but only in a film that’s worthy of an Amazon.
*And The Atom is about…ah…I’m gonna have to get back to you on that one.
**This makes Batman look like a bit of an idiot. You’d think The World’s Greatest Detective would have noticed the mystery woman foiling crime for several decades.
***Is self-confidence really a superpower? When compared to invisibility and heat vision, I’m sorry to tell you that it isn’t.
****In the body of a complete stranger, which opens a gigantic can of worms, ethically speaking. And that’s not the only ethical can of worms the screenplay blithely skips past.