Three years ago, Wonder Woman charged into movie theaters, an epic adventure about an Amazon warrior who relished a good fight as much as she did a good ice cream cone. Gal Gadot divinely captured a super heroine who was radiant with grace, strength, and a mesmerizing joie de vivre. So, it was little wonder that this origin film not only became a box office smash but also one of the best-reviewed entries of the DCEU to date. Fans demanded a sequel. Sadly, Wonder Woman 1984 is not what we–or Diana–deserve.
Directed once more by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman 1984 picks up 66 years after Diana Prince (Gadot) ended World War I with the help of her self-sacrificing beau, the late Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). A day-glow montage sets the scene, racing audiences through a comical portrait of ’80s culture that includes muscle cars, aerobic wear, popped polo collars, and BIG hair. But none of it amuses Diana. Though she cherished the community of Themyscira and her war buddies in the first film, she now lives in quiet solitude. She works at the Smithsonian by day and dines alone at night, all while wearing a forced smile of polite bemusement. She’s still operating as a superhero, but not on the World War level. Preventing hit-and-runs, stopping shoplifters from accidentally upgrading to manslaughter, and foiling a mall heist, she’s become a friendly neighborhood “mysterious female savior.” In short, she’s a shadow of the vivacious Amazon we know from Wonder Woman, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League. Then, she meets hot mess Barbara Minerva (an amicably daffy Kristen Wiig), who toddles into work in wobbling heels, then immediately spills her briefcase’s contents all over the marble floor, as if she’s in the first act of a rom-com.
While Diana is a vision of cool confidence, Barb is the Hollywood version of frumpy. Her skin and teeth are flawless. Her body is fit and thin, but she swaddles it in clunky combination of oversized clothes in an unsophisticated color palette. Her hair is bramble of undefined curls. Her voice is a waddle of nervousness, and did I mention she wears glasses? Glasses! WHAT A DWEEB! Nonetheless, she and Diana hit it off, while chatting over a curious antiquity. For a moment, it seems they might be the answer to each other’s prayers; Barb could offer the camaraderie that Diana’s lost, and she could help this awkward gemologist see how great she already is. For a moment, I wondered if the DCEU would dare make this sequel into a buddy comedy that would then turn into a curious exploration of how rivalry can sour bonds. (After all, Barb is destined to become the savage villainous Cheetah.) But then Steve Trevor is back, and that subplot gets dropped like a Barb briefcase.
With Steve returned to her, Diana brightens a bit. But this time, their roles are reversed. She is the straight man, while he is the funny fish-out-of-water, astonished by the modern world. (Pop tarts! Breakdancing! Fanny packs!) He is the center of the requisite makeover montage, which is no longer about the confines of women’s fashion but instead another cheap punch-line about ’80s styles. (Did I mention the fanny packs?) Don’t mistake me, it’s a joy to have Pine back. He’s at his best when he gets to texturize his leading man sex appeal with a bit of goofiness. Plus, he and Gadot have a crackling chemistry. However, Steve is one of several elements that feel stitched in for fan service over service to the character. For instance, the film begins with a Themyscira flashback, which carelessly retcons a detail of Diana’s background. Perhaps that’s a small price to pay to see the return of General Antiope (Robin Wright) and the Amazon version of American Ninja Warrior. But all this looking back makes it difficult for the plot to move forward. It’s as if screenwriters Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham (none of whom are credited on the first film’s screenplay) fell for the pitch of Ponzi-schemer Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal): More is more.
Oh yes. On top of rehashing bits from the first film, an extended flashback, a resurrected romance, and a buddy plot that introduces one Wonder Woman villain, these DCEU creatives decided to loop in a second foe. This one wears slick suits and a desperate smile while promising his could-be investors all they’ve ever wished for. The ’80s setting with Lord as the Big Bad makes sense in theory; if you want to do something radically different in tone/style from the WW1 origin, flee far from the mud-colored No Man’s Land to the violently vibrant era of Greed is Good, then center on a guy who’s made that his maniacal mantra. To Pascal’s credit, he clearly revels in playing an unhinged conman. However, this plot swiftly runs away with the film, dragging in haphazard geopolitics, problematic stereotypes, and muddy themes, all while subjecting Pascal to a haircut that is a crime against his face.
While Max is wheeling and dealing, and Diana is canoodling and cavorting, Barb is becoming her idea of an empowered ’80s woman. Predictably, she’ll go too far, but in a way that’s so rushed, it’s cringe-worthy. Wonder Woman 1984 whips through Barb’s transformation from bumbling good girl to vicious super villain so fast she might well snap her neck. Disturbingly, the film signals that Barb is going bad when she is “mean” to a lecherous dude who is creeping on her. This Wonder Woman movie is infested with Bad Men and Nice Guys, who condescend, grope, and make the world worse for women. Yet the instrumental score veers into ominous tones when Barb pushes back, suggesting what? That she’s just as bad–or worse–than the drunk man who has twice attempted to assault her? Any thoughtfulness here is lost, because all the other plots drown out a challenging thread about female empowerment for one about a greedy dude who only cares about himself.
So, what does this leave for Diana? Well, Jenkins does offer a string of good to excellent superhero sequences that allow us to revel in the power fantasy of being an Amazon battling for a better world. However, the rest of Diana’s sequel story simply sucks. In the first film, her romance with Steve elevated their story to being one about the power of love, yet here her love for Steve has turned her into a mildly miserable spinster who has presumably spent seven decades lonely and brooding. That doesn’t jibe with the Diana from any of the other DCEU films, and it’s not fun to watch Gadot dim her dazzle to suit this sloppy screenplay.
In the end, Wonder Woman 1984 feels written by committee to appease Twitter hashtag campaigns. It seems as if the screenwriters mercenarily focused on what would look good in the trailers: ’80s whiz-bang, Themyscira, slo-mo action, funny lady Kristen Wiig, and Chris Pine. Then, they reverse engineered a script, paying little attention to the actual execution. This is how you get a first act that trumpets how you should never short cut your way to your dreams, then a plot that if you squint is sort of a cautionary tale along that line. Just ignore that all the characters are dreaming about things they couldn’t achieve any other way. But hey–look over here: Beautiful people and fireworks! Who cares if all this chasing of shiny objects means this sequel has lost touch with the core of the character we loved?
There’s a lot going on in Wonder Woman 1984 – so there may be enough that works for you to make it feel worthwhile. Still, this feels like a shame. The first film meant the world to generations of women, who finally felt seen onscreen in the power fantasies of super heroes. For a sequel, Jenkins could have created a film that used this platform to explore female friendships, rape culture, and the empowerment of finding joy in yourself. Those elements are in this sequel, amid so, so, so many others. However, when you’re just chucking stuff at a wall to see what sticks, it seems themes deeper than “don’t be a selfish cheater” prove too heavy.
“Wonder Woman 1984” streams Christmas Day on HBO Max.