Wonder Woman 1984 is a fun romp through the 80’s family movie for the holidays. As long as you don’t take it too seriously. The sophomore film in the franchise will thrive mostly on fans who’ve patiently waited in anticipation for DC Comics’ most famous heroine to return and with families who are looking for a place to park their kids on the couch for two-and-a-half hours. Although the movie attempts to leave us with a warm feeling of hope for the future (something we desperately need from entertainment right now), several missteps don’t quite stick the landing.
Spoilers ahead for Wonder Woman 1984
Directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Jenkins, with Geoff Johns & David Callaham for Warner Brothers, the first 15 minutes of WW84 begin in Diana’s past. We see her as a child (played once again by the incredible Lilly Aspell) in a fantastic action sequence as she competes in an Olympic style competition on Themyscira against adult Amazons 3 times her size. When she loses due to cheating, she learns a valuable lesson, from Antiope (Robin Wright) ”No true hero is born from lies.”
The extended opening sets the stage for an incredible journey, but when we jump forward into the 1980s, the movie turns from triumphant to tropey. Complete with stock characters, incomplete plot points, and stereotypes dressed as diversity.
Taking place more than 70 years after the first movie, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has settled into the life of a lonely yet successful career woman of the 1980’s. Beautiful and well-liked, she places distance between her emotions and others because they will eventually die on her like the love of her life, Steve Trevor, did. As an antiquities historian at the Smithsonian, her job is well suited for an immortal moonlighting as a superhero. (with some incredible perks).
In this story, one of two villains is Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a Ponzi scheming showman desperate for power and significance, who would lie to you about the time of day if it made him look better. The other villain is Barbara Minerva (a.k.a. – Cheetah), the mousy, socially-awkward gemologist and chrysologist who works with Diana who longs for real human connection.
What ties everyone together is the Dreamstone. Part genie lamp, part philosopher’s stone, the relic is imbued with the powers of the Gods and grants the wishes of anyone who states their intentions while touching it. However, like most magical talismans, there must be an equivalent exchange. In this case, the user’s life force is depleted.. The stone grants three wishes at first, Minerva accidentally receives a version of Diana’s powers, Diana inadvertently brings back Steve Trevor’s soul, and Max finds a way to draw power directly from the stone itself, sending him on his quest to take over the world. Max and Minerva ultimately team up against Diana and Steve over their shared anxiety of losing popularity, power and peroxide. Fear of being ordinary is the real enemy for these villains. (Edited 12/26)
One of the joys of this film is watching Pedro Pascal chewing the scenery as Lord. Although Max isn’t a very deep character and the writers wavered from canon, (and the nod to our current President’s antics are hard to miss), Pascal took what he had on the page and made it his own. Campy? Yes, but in a way that kids can enjoy.
I would give the same praise to Kristin Wiig if they gave her more of a storyline. Unfortunately, we spent so much time on Steve and Diana’s “sort of” relationship, and the retelling of Diana’s origins and Lord’s emotional state, that there didn’t seem to be enough time to give Minerva the development the character deserved. Instead, it feels like she makes the leap from angsty and fragile to angry feminist in the blink of an eye.
Chris Pine does an admirable job reprising his role as Trevor, Diana’s paramour without a purpose. In a role reversal of the first film, Diana must lead an out-of-sorts Trevor through a world he no longer recognizes. But because he exists simply due to Diana’s wish, somehow, his presence feels contrived. Even though Pine is responsible for most of the film’s comedic moments, there’s not enough there to give his character purpose.
At this point in the DCEU, Gal Gadot embodies Diana with all of the confidence that you would expect from an actress in a sophomore film in a billion-dollar franchise. (If you count Justice League, and Batman v Superman it’s her fourth round in the tiara). However, her character development feels caught between warrior goddess and “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” (Which, to be honest, is one of my critiques of the character in the comics as well). (Edit 12/26)
The action scenes, although few, were also a fun ride. If watching Diana wield her familiar arsenal: Lasso of Truth, bulletproof gauntlets, and boomerang tiara makes fans happy, her invisible jet and new power set will make them ecstatic. Cheetah, in her final form, moved incredibly well. And in a conversation with Patty Jenkins, she shared with me that she chose to capture most of Cheetah and Diana’s final fight practically with real Cirque du Soleil perfomers.
The final battle’s payoff was stunted only by the use of a dark, murky color correction. A choice that might not have been so apparent in a theater screening but ultimately made the scene hard to see. The other disconcerting portion of that sequence was the jarring use of makeup on Wiig, which gave her visage a slightly unfinished look reminiscent of CATS.
The part of Wonder Woman 1984 that really didn’t work for me was the film’s lazy use of diversity as a backdrop. The movie is clearly very ethnically diverse, and I was happy to see Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell make a brief appearance as Minerva’s boss. But most of the characters of color felt like a forced afterthought, so similar to the way POC actors were treated in ‘80s TV shows that I wondered if it was intentional. Some missteps, like the all-white breakdance crew on a corner (we literally invented breakdancing in the ‘80s) or Max’s dreadlocked assistant (we weren’t allowed to wear locs in business settings back then), don’t affect the plot but pulled me out of the story momentarily.
Others like Leon, the Black homeless man whom Minerva gives her leftovers to regularly on the way home, or Babajide, the Indian man with a horrible Walking Dead wig, who magically seems to know everything about the Dreamstone, are moments that genuinely made me facepalm.
A particular cringeworthy moment came when Max travels to Egypt to meet with his rival and grants him a wish, which basically amounts to ethnic cleansing and erecting a “Divine Wall” to separate his nation from the rest of Africa. I’m assuming the point was to show just how “evil” and racist people can be. as it is the catalyst for a series of horrific events that follow. But why Africa? And why Muslims? In my opinion, this is not the right message for a big budget movie to be sending in 2020.
After all of the real-life racial violence we all witnessed this year have left so many of us raw, resorting to this type of Raiders of the Lost Ark schitck is not a good look. Some fans, like myself, can’t simply shrug off choices like these for the sake of “entertainment.”
Ultimately the broad strokes lessons of perseverance, love and understanding born out of loneliness and rejection that WW84 is trying to convey unfortunately gets lost in too busy of a story. With too many emotions it tries to please too many people. I fully expect fans to be wholly divided over this. One side enjoying two and half hours of action entertainment without caring much for depth and the other, cringing at the paint-by-numbers diversity and 80’s stereotypes that wallpapered many scenes.
In WW84, Diana must ultimately learn the lesson of accepting the truth no matter how painful it is and no matter how much she wishes an outcome would be different. And the truth is, Wonder Woman 1984 is not a terrible movie, it’s just not a very good one. But don’t take my word for it. Watch Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max from the comfort of your own home this holiday and let me know what you think in the comments.