Count me among the many millions who likely logged onto HBO Max on Christmas Day to watch Wonder Woman 1984, Director Patty Jenkins’ hotly anticipated, oft-delayed stand-alone follow-up to her 2017 global blockbuster, Wonder Woman. I’m a major fan of the latter, which gave us our super-powered Amazonian’s origin story, and had high hopes for the follow-up.
Those hopes weren’t completely dashed, but they weren’t really fulfilled either. While Wonder Woman 1984 still has a bit of the old magic, and its leads all turn in terrific performances, the film is hampered by a frequently nonsensical plot, extraneous showy action sequences, and it’s way too heavy-handed with the moralizing. But it still delivers quite a lot of slick, 1980s-infused fun if you turn your brain off and just go with it—and you’ll definitely want to stick around for a post-credits scene.
(Some spoilers below, with a couple of major spoilers below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)
Inspired by the comic book heroine created by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s for DC Comics, Wonder Woman got her own TV show in 1975, with former Miss World USA Lynda Carter in the leading role and Lyle Waggoner as Steve Trevor. The first season was set in 1940s World War II, with the pair battling Nazis, and subsequent seasons were set in the 1970s, mostly to save on production costs. The dialogue is leaden, the acting is terrible (there are some very bad German accents), the effects are pure cheese, and the less said about the fighting skills, the better. (That… is not judo, Stella Stevens, I’m just saying.) But it’s entertaining in a campy kind of way, and HBO Max is currently streaming some of those episodes, for the nostalgically inclined.
The Amazonian superhero made her big-screen debut in the DCEU with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed by 2017’s Justice League. As we reported previously, the first fell short of box office expectations; the second bombed outright. So when Jenkins took on Wonder Woman’s origin story, she deliberately departed from the grim humorlessness and dark sensibility of those earlier films, bringing a brighter energy and wit to her tale, along with the usual action.
That vision paid off: Wonder Woman went on to gross $821 million worldwide and earned critical raves, making it the most successful of the DCEU films thus far. But let’s face it, origin stories—where a hero comes into his or her full powers, learning valuable lessons along the way—just seem to make for better films, whether we’re talking about Iron Man, Captain America, Superman, Spider-Man, and so forth. Jenkins’ sequel was probably doomed to come up a bit short.
That ’80s aesthetic
Wonder Woman 1984 is set almost seventy years after the original film. Since we’re now in the 1980s, Diana is operating in a Cold War scenario, taking on Pedro Pascal’s villainous Maxwell Lord, an ambitious, flamboyant businessman and purveyor of TV informercials. Jenkins has said her interpretation of Lord was modeled after Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street (1987)—his motto was “Greed is good”—and Lex Luthor in 1978’s Superman, starring the late Christopher Reeves. Kristen Wiig plays Barbara Ann Minerva, a gemologist who eventually evolves into Diana’s arch-nemesis Cheetah. And Chris Pine is back from the dead as Diana’s lost love, Steve Trevor (more on that later).
The film opens by bringing us back to Diana’s childhood in Themyscira, when a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in a grueling Amazonian athletic tournament. Diana does remarkably well for her tender years, but a momentary loss of focus results in her being unhorsed and missing a stage of the race. Desperate to win, she takes “the shorter path” to catch up, and is disqualified for cheating. It was a tough lesson for Diana to learn—”You cannot be the winner because you are not ready to win,” her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tells her—and one that will resonate throughout the rest of the film.
Flash forward to 1984, where an older, much less naive Diana is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, by day, and fighting crime as Wonder Woman by night. She foils a robbery attempt of a jewelry store in a local mall, which turns out to be a front for smuggling priceless artifacts. She and Barbara, a fellow Smithsonian employee, are tasked with analyzing and cataloguing the recovered artifacts. Among them is something that appears to be a cheap knockoff trinket made of citrine quartz, that turns out to be something much more powerful—and dangerous.
(WARNING: A couple of major spoilers below. Don’t read further if you’ve yet to watch the film.)
The artifact turns out to be a magical Dreamstone, created by an unnamed god of treachery and mischief, and it grants one’s dearest wish. Unaware of the Dreamstone’s true power, the lonely, isolated Diana longs for the return of Steve Trevor, while the mousy Barbara idolizes Diana and wishes to be just as strong and special as she is. Both wishes are granted: Steve’s soul takes over another man’s body (Kristoffer Polaha), reuniting our star-crossed lovers, and Barbara becomes stronger and more confident, and with more stylish sex appeal.
But like the proverbial monkey’s paw, those gifts come at great cost: the stone grants your wish and takes what you value most. For Diana, it is her demigod powers. She becomes progressively weaker as the film progresses, even as Barbara becomes stronger, while losing her warmth and humanity.
Make a wish
Of course, Max Lord gets hold of the Dreamstone, and makes a wish to become the embodiment of it, investing himself with the power to grant wishes. This is where some the aforementioned incoherent plot elements come into play. Everyone only gets one wish, except Lord is able to manipulate others into making wishes and extracting whatever he wants from them in return. He has to be physically touching them, but finds a loophole around that, too, so he can grant wishes via satellite TV—something about the “particles” that convey the information in the broadcast “touching” everything makes it work. I’m not a stickler for textbook physics in superhero films by any means, but these elements should at least be internally consistent. A willing suspension of disbelief can only take you so far, even for a plot that revolves entirely on an wish-granting magic stone.
The same goes for the new superpowers Diana mysteriously develops. For instance, before her powers wane, she’s able to concentrate really, really hard and make the plane she and Steve commandeer invisible, both to the human eye and to radar. Yes, it’s Wonder Woman’s trademark invisible plane! Diana is apparently able to, I dunno, create a magical cloaking metamaterial with a negative index of refraction. It’s actually never explained, which is probably for the best, but it still makes little sense. And while she’s always been capable of gravity-defying leaps, by film’s end, she’s learned to fly like Superman, thanks to a brief conversation with Steve about how he thinks and feels when he’s flying planes.
That said, there’s much to like about Wonder Woman 1984, even if an extended action sequence set in Egypt feels unnecessary and probably could have been cut entirely. The production and costume design are spectacular, and one could write an entire thesis on the contrast between Diana’s and Barbara’s changing looks, as a reflection of their shifting power dynamics and fundamental natures. I also loved the comic scene where Steve is trying to pick out a suitable outfit—a callback to when Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) helped Diana do the same—and discovers parachute pants. It’s a nice role reversal, where Steve becomes the fish out of water in Diana’s new world.
Their relationship (and the stars’ onscreen chemistry) remains the heart of the film, and they make a good crime-fighting team, even though Diana must eventually accept that the cost of keeping Steve in her life is simply too great. Pedro Pascal imbues Max Lord with a vulnerability that makes his overweening desire for more—money, power, fame, influence—almost tragic; his wish drains him of health and vitality, and also threatens his young son. As for Wiig, she starts out playing a version of her scattered, insecure Bridesmaids/Ghostbusters characters, but gets the chance to stretch her range as Barbara slowly transforms into Cheetah, fueled by a crippling inferiority complex, and bitter resentment of Diana for the latter’s perceived patronizing manner.
Ultimately, Jenkins seems to be trying to make a profound statement about 1980s-style greed—we want what we want, and damn the consequences—and how everything has a price; how our power must be earned, not magically granted; and how we must have courage to face hard truths, because “nothing good is born from lies.” But despite hammering those various points home with all the subtlety of a pile driver, her message ends up as muddled as the plot. And that’s too bad, because it’s the sort of timeless wisdom we could all stand to be reminded of in these troubled times.
Wonder Woman 1984 is now streaming on HBO Max and playing in select theaters.
Listing image by Warner Bros.