Disclaimer: Warner Bros. provided me with a screener of Wonder Woman 1984.
With two directing credits to her name, director Patty Jenkins set out to make the world’s first female-led superhero live-action film with Wonder Woman. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last three years, you will know that the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Finally, something fresh and different. This led to films like Shazam! and this year’s Birds of Prey trying something new to varying effect because DC finally realized that you don’t have to make every scene look like it was shot in black & white or be an overall bummer to watch. This begs the question: Can lightning strike twice?
The answer to that is very complicated here. Now that DC has plans for a semi-reboot of 2016’s Suicide Squad named The Suicide Squad (this time with James Gunn in the director’s chair instead of David Ayer), a second Aquaman film, and a prequel Batman story appropriately titled The Batman but as it is a prequel, it will be Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne/The Batman, I’m sure that there is some reining-in by Warner Bros. to make sure that all their heroes stay in their respective timelines until a big team-up event film like Justice League. However, what this does for a film like Wonder Woman 1984 is that it places creative constraints on what Patty Jenkins is and is not allowed to do and reducing the Wonder Woman films to a chessboard on a large piece WB can use on the DCEU checkboard, rather than respecting the inherent individuality that she brings to the table.
However, I think Jenkins finds a way around this, setting Wonder Woman 1984 in, well, 1984 and injects the 80’s nostalgia with parachute pants, an appropriately techno soundtrack, and lots of neon. Just as the background of World War I became the heart of Wonder Woman, 1984 uses the year to once again show just how much Diana and Wonder Woman are different from Batman, Superman, and her other Justice League members.
Opening with another look at Themyscira – this time during some Olympics/Iron Man competition – Wonder Woman 1984 rockets out of the gate to provide the message that will be core to Diana’s journey in the film as an ordinary citizen and as Wonder Woman. No more apparent is the core message of the film than when young Diana (again played by Lilly Aspell) is told “no true hero is born from lies” by her aunt/trainer Antiope (Robin Wright), making sure the audience knows what kind of film they’re getting into before they get too deep into the narrative.
In the first Wonder Woman, Diana was portrayed as a warrior first and a fish out of water forced into the messy world of World War I. Here, Diana is seventy years older and buries herself in her work. While she’s had some good times since, her friends are all gone at this point and unable to move on Steven Trevor since his death.
As the protector of humankind, Diana isn’t the kind of warrior who lets her pain influence her duty, and as the film transitions into the glamour of the ’80s, where Diana’s main concern of saving humanity is excess and greed, not saving the world. In a fun sequence that takes cues from Superman III, Diana finds that life in Washington, D.C. is getting weird. Not ready to out herself as Wonder Woman, she’s relegated to small scale crimes that the police find trivial.
Given the 1984 setting, Wonder Woman 1984 gets in a sequence at a mall, where Jenkins reminds us that while we love the 1980s, capitalism, and greed corrupted this era more than most would like to admit. Jenkin’s spin on this mall sequence provides excellent visuals, a fun sense of humor, and some winks at the audience – as Diana gets closer to the Wonder Woman we all know from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
In the same sequence, we are introduced to the film’s primary antagonist, the campy and overall ridiculous Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, who looks to be having the time of his life), an ever-present on practically every CRT television that appears in the film and promises viewers that “You don’t have to work hard for it. You just have to want it.”, an idea his investors do not share.
Coincidentally, Max has some plan that I still don’t understand involving a magic stone (I’m not kidding) with a messy history of its own that is enough to get Diana involved. When the stone is dropped off at the Smithsonian, thanks to the FBI (for some reason), where Diana works and is placed in the hands of Barbara Minvera (Kristen Wiig), anxious to find out what makes this stone worthy of an FBI investigation. If you’re confused yet, grab a cup of coffee and come back. I’ll wait. Okay, you back? Cool. Eventually, all these loose threads converge into somewhat of a cohesive story, but if you can suspend your brain for long enough, the Indiana Jones vibe does enough to dull the fact that none of what’s being said here makes a lick of sense.
After about halfway into the film, the plot simplifies vastly and essentially says to the audience that Max wants power to advance his company, Black Gold Cooperative. Max intends to achieve this through a stone that can grant one wish, and that stone falls into many hands throughout the film. Barbara wants to be like Diana – which I get. She’s smart, powerful, and wise. The thing is, this stone has consequences of using it. So does Max’s wish for everyone he involves in his quest for power. Without giving away blatant spoilers, Diana’s wish highlights her deeply human nature and why she should embrace that weakness as one of her strengths.
Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah is a very modern take on the character while still rooting it in the concerns that many women had in the 1980s (or so I’m told by people who’ve lived it). However, Pascal outshines her as Max Lord, having the time of his life with the role, building up this cheesy persona that feels both parts hilarious and appropriate for someone who strives for the shiniest life and attempting to feeling that he doesn’t feel good enough. Both actors bring this incredible sense of fun, at the same time dropping some profound thoughts on whether looks are worth it.
While the film is set in 1984 and could easily be a modern version of a 1980s movie, Jenkins fills Wonder Woman 1984 with a story to the point that most of the film doesn’t feel like a Wonder Woman movie at times. I can count on one hand how many action sequences take place in this film, with most of it impossible to follow. That said, there are a few visually dazzling sequences, like a sequence in which Diana and Steve are flying through Fourth of July fireworks.
Wonder Woman 1984 is concerned with providing more of the same while trying to pave the way forward for a third film. The problem with stuffing the movie with these teasers is that it hurts this film as a standalone film, which by virtue of no DC heroes existing in this timeframe, it is. Sometimes bigger is not better, and I hope Patty Jenkins finds the same goodness in Wonder Woman that she did in the first film.
Wonder Woman 1984 will be released in select theaters and HBO Max this Friday, December 25th.