Wonder Woman 1984 movie review: Patty Jenkins's sincere sequel soars despite its flaws
Gal Gadot's sequel of her 2017 superhero film is as big and broad as they come, but it’s also filled with laughs, spectacle, and a whole lot of heart.
castGal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal
Wonder Woman will release in Indian cinemas on 25 December.
In a year where theatres have been largely closed, the action blockbuster has fallen by the wayside, for better and for worse. Tenet wasn’t released in India until December (and is yet to see a streaming release), while franchise fare like Black Widow, Eternals, and F9: The Fast Saga were pushed to 2021. While this allowed smaller films to thrive online, it’s also meant fewer big, broad popcorn movies to collectively fawn over — the ostensible junk food of cinema —which is where Wonder Woman 1984 enters the fray after several delays of its own.
Patty Jenkins’s sequel is as big and broad as they come, but it’s also filled with laughs, spectacle, and a whole lot of heart.
Every strength of its 2017 predecessor is magnified here, as is every weakness, all woven together in a manner that feels like a lost art in Hollywood: the simple, four-quadrant family blockbuster of the 1980s. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Unfolding seven decades after World War I — when Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) first stepped foot in “the world of men” — the film is beholden only to the lore of its own predecessor, rather than the franchise bloat of lesser films like Justice League and Batman v Superman, still several decades in Diana’s future. It opens in the past, during her childhood on Themysrica (the secret island of women warriors Diana once called home), with an extended footrace that feels like a video game obstacle course, and serves only to impart young Diana with a lesson about honesty that doesn’t fully connect to the rest of the film. Still, the prologue feels like a fable, signaling unequivocally that Wonder Woman 1984 is, first and foremost, a children’s film, and that’s probably the best thing about it.
While this initial scene has only a tenuous thematic connection to what follows, the rest fits together like a well-oiled machine, and continues working at its optimum for well over two hours. The next time the film falters, during its 150-minute runtime, is during its disconnected, CGI-heavy third act battle, which feels like a remnant from an earlier draft. Thankfully, this action set piece isn’t the film’s conclusion, the way it was in the first film.
After a slow start, the lessons of honesty and not taking shortcuts are re-established, in a much better, much breezier introduction: an energetic, era-appropriate walkthrough of a 1980s American mall. TV personality Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) sells himself and his oil company from every screen in sight, promising quick returns for very little work and investment, as a trio of thieves attempts a shortcut of their own, stealing antiques in a robbery gone awry. A rescue ensues, and we meet a Wonder Woman who crushes guns rather than firing them, and only hurts people if she absolutely has to (though she avoids it for most of the film). Where she spent the first film still constructing her outlook on humanity, here, Gadot’s benevolent Diana leaps off the page fully formed, into a candy-coloured on-screen world bursting with life and sincerity.
It feels like the cinematic reality of a time gone by, a schmaltzy universe constructed through careful long and medium shots, which makes each environment feel like living, breathing stages (rather than incidental backdrops with no life of their own, like several other DC films). The best point of comparison is probably Richard Donner’s Superman films, though recent nostalgia properties like Stranger Things have certainly replicated the look and feel of the era.
Nostalgia is, in fact, at the center of Wonder Woman 1984. Though it’s not nostalgia for intellectual properties, or even the 1980s. It’s nostalgia for people. When Diana isn’t out superhero-ing in secret, performing simple feats like saving joggers from oncoming cars, she spends her days peering into the past as an archeologist at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. By night, she lives a life of isolation, unable to move on from the loss Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whose photographs and old timepiece populate her bookshelf. Steve’s last words to her in the previous film — “I can save today. You can save the world.” — have been embodied as her ethos. But she’s spent so much time saving other people that she hasn’t really made a life for herself.
An opportunity comes along in the form of klutzy coworker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), Diana’s equal in intellect but opposite in social competence. She’s invisible to the men around her, but Diana sees her hidden warmth, and the two become friends while investigating an ancient relic recovered during the mall heist. This relic, a wishing stone inscribed with Latin, seems like a fake at first, but Diana and Minerva each try their luck regardless, the way one might when blowing out candles on a birthday cake, or blowing a fallen eyelash into the wind. They don’t necessarily think it’ll work, but their private moments with the stone give us an insight into their deepest desires. Diana wishes she could see Trevor again. Minerva wishes she could be more like Diana. And, unbeknownst to them both, the Smithsonian’s new benefactor, Maxwell Lord, is in pursuit of the stone for reasons of his own.
Within a handful of scenes, the film establishes its “be careful what you wish for” parable with precision. Minerva finds her life changed the very next day — through a combination of self-confidence and sudden admiration from her peers — while Diana mysteriously runs into a certain pilot from her past. Lord’s wishes are far more nefarious and best left unspoiled, but each character’s secret dreams come true with equally secret wrinkles. For what the stone gives, it takes in equal measure.
Seeing Diana and Trevor reunited on screen is an unbridled joy. Gadot and Pine’s chemistry, both comedic and dramatic, is as enticing as it ever was, and Trevor’s adjustment to modernity feels like the fun man-out-of-time story we never truly got from Marvel’s Captain America (don’t be surprised if Pine’s pronunciation of “futon” becomes a running joke online). Although, while this central romance is one of the film’s major strengths, it fumbles what could have and should have been an equally potent romantic subplot. Its refusal to allow the subtext between Diana and Minerva to become text feels like another exhausting example of a major studio imposing restraints on creative expression. The two women have just as much chemistry; their story is told with the cinematic language of a romance gone wrong, from a clumsy meet-cute, to a dinner date with lingering glances, to a rescue scene where Diana holds Minerva in her arms, to an unspoken, adversarial tension between them once Trevor enters the film. Besides, Diana has been canonically queer in the comics for years, so it wouldn’t have even been a major departure.
But more than just the question of representation is the question would have made for a stronger narrative. Minerva’s eventual turn towards villainy (as the comics’ Cheetah) feels half-baked in the process. The visual parlance suggests something deeper troubling Minerva about her dynamic with Diana — deeper than just petty jealousies, that is — but the film feels shackled in its exploration of Minerva as a person. Whether this is intentional “queer baiting” without putting in the narrative legwork, or whether it’s a case artists trying to smuggle in queer subtext where they might not have been allowed to be overt (my guess is the latter; Jenkins wrote and directed queer serial killer movie Monster, after all), the result is a film whose heteronormativity kneecaps what might’ve otherwise been a thematically cogent story of unrequited love — especially since the film’s magical mechanics frame Minerva’s wish(es) as stemming from a place of deep hurt and betrayal. Instead, she’s merely rendered a knock-off of Syndrome from The Incredibles; she’s a powerless character who eventually becomes a bully over sour grapes.
However, for every misstep with Minerva, the film takes a sharp and occasionally nuanced approach to its primary villain. He’s Maxwell Lord in name only, a radical departure from his uber-wealthy evil mastermind counterpart in the comics, but the film imbues him with tremendous narrative purpose. While not a one-to-one parallel by any stretch, Pascal is clearly modeled after US President Donald Trump, with a red-haired combover, a put-on affect, and an eye towards the seat of power. And yet, Lord is only modelling himself off Trump types; he’s pretending to be rich and white, and his TV-ready grin masks a real and tangible emptiness, which prevents him from being a loving father to his son.
Largely hidden from the trailers are the ripple effects of Lord’s magical pursuit of money and influence. They’re so far-reaching as to be grim spectacles unto themselves, vast, and ugly embodiments of his “More! More! More!” ethos, which gels so perfectly with the 1980s setting, and the birth of Ronald Reagan’s cult-of-capitalism America. The US president in the film doesn’t seem to be Reagan, though he bears enough of a resemblance (besides, DC has a fun penchant for fictitious politicians as it is). The film feels, at times, like a funhouse mirror reflection of this year’s accelerationism, a convergence of incompetence and selfishness that thrust the world into chaos in 2020, much of which can be traced back to Reagan-era deregulation.
Of course, there’s a downside to these political parallels too. In the case of the Trump-like Lord, it’s strange to invoke a current world leader so closely associated with white supremacy and misogyny, only to have his fictional avatar seek “power” in the abstract. Lord’s mystical ploys lead to major political instability, though only by accident. The film, while it portrays tensions simmering elsewhere in the world, constantly shies away from depicting ’80s America as a place of unrest (whether the AIDS crisis, or second wave feminism, or racial inequality). The film’s America is largely utopic, apart from the occasional petty crime, and any threats to its fabric are nuclear a la the Cold War — which wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue if similar problems weren’t so readily evoked during montages of other countries. While perhaps not intentionally nostalgic for the 1980s, it does have a tendency to view the era through rose-tinted glasses.
But despite this reductive political approach, the film’s second half unfolds with wild momentum. Pascal makes a meal of the role, oscillating wildly from sympathetic and misunderstood, to a cackling maniac; no one else in the film seems to be having nearly as much fun.
And while the film still explores the megalomaniacal Lord with nuance, it thankfully bucks the trend of comic-book villains with magnanimous motivations. There’s no moment in the film where the audience is likely to agree with Lord — it has no “Hmm, he has a point, you know!” speech, and there are unlikely to be any “Maxwell Lord Was Right” t-shirts anytime soon — which is an oddly refreshing approach in the modern superhero landscape. Like I said, the film works best because it’s unapologetically simple and aimed at younger audiences. Lord is no Thanos or Magneto, but despite lacking complicated motives, he feels like a real person, and it’s his latent humanity that allows Diana to save the day. Not through punching, but through appeals to our better natures.
Of course, punches are eventually thrown, in the fight between Diana and Cheetah teased in the trailers, in which Diana sports golden armour with a historic connection to her people. It’s a sudden, disappointing detour in an otherwise enjoyable romp, not only because of Diana’s physical approach (a departure from the rest of the film), or because it’s visually unpleasant (it is), but because the whole scene feels devoid of any real drama. By the time it rolls around, the film has already dropped the ball on its Diana-Minerva story, and the subplot about the armour feels like a remnant of some earlier idea (Diana doesn’t really need the added help here, though she might have when she was magically forced onto the backfoot earlier in the film).
However, these flaws fail to stop the film from soaring as a whole. Jenkins knows how to make a movie — a movie, in the heightened, glossy Hollywood sense. She captures beauty and thrills in equal measure, sometimes making them one and the same, while composer Hans Zimmer even trades in his heavy guitar riff (which he wrote for Diana in previous films) for something more evocative of Superman: The Movie composer John Williams or Batman's Danny Elfman. The film is nostalgic without being heavy-handed (though do stick around through the credits if you absolutely need some winking fan-service done right).
With the exception of the seemingly pre-visualised third-act fisticuffs, each scene is carefully constructed, without a wasted camera set up in sight. Jenkins’s medium shots aren’t some stilted default setting used to film improvised quips and deliver plot, as they tend to be in so many other franchise films. Rather, they capture the relationships between characters (and their relationships to the spaces around them), in moments that last long enough to feel magnetic. The camera glides through action scenes — a car chase in Cairo is especially a delight — capturing the feeling of flying better than any other film in the genre. It also helps that the story adds dramatic heft to what flight actually means, to a superhero who lost the love of her life in mid-air.
What’s more, much of the film’s action feels emotionally charged. It’s purposeful, and graceful. On occasion, it’s even angry and emotionally raw, and it almost always feels like an extension of Diana herself, whose approach to conflict involves finding innovative ways to avoid inflicting bodily harm. Boy, does that Lasso of Truth get some play.
Wonder Woman 1984 is riddled with issues, but barring its off-kilter final battle, it’s also one of the most visually and emotionally coherent Hollywood blockbusters in recent years. That may not sound like much, just a year removed from seemingly incomplete studio films like Cats and The Rise of Skywalker, but the film harkens back (aesthetically and tonally) to a time when superhero movies still felt special, and weren’t bogged down with setting up a dozen different spin-offs in lieu of a satisfying ending.
It achieves this not only through action, but through a strong emotional core; eventually, the question of Trevor’s presence in this world forces Diana to finally confront her grief, until she emerges on the other side of her pain still breathing. It's what makes her human, and it’s what allows Gadot to tap into an operatic sincerity on par with Christopher Reeve. But what makes Wonder Woman a “superhero” — in the simple, traditional, comic-book (and Saturday morning cartoon) sense of the word — is who all she brings with her to this other side.
All images from Twitter.
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