Wonder Woman 1984
Put more firmly in control of the most iconic female superhero in comics (and certainly comic book movie) history after the success of Wonder Woman, director and sometime-screenwriter Patty Jenkins developed Wonder Woman 1984 to more accurately represent the values that both title character and Jenkins herself hope to advance. What that means is that Wonder Woman faces a central villain who’s complex and perhaps even sympathetic beyond the lip service of a probing, empatheti...
Put more firmly in control of the most iconic female superhero in comics (and certainly comic book movie) history after the success of Wonder Woman, director and sometime-screenwriter Patty Jenkins developed Wonder Woman 1984 to more accurately represent the values that both title character and Jenkins herself hope to advance. What that means is that Wonder Woman faces a central villain who’s complex and perhaps even sympathetic beyond the lip service of a probing, empathetic actor (in this case Pedro Pascal) trying to relate to his character, while in and out of costume, Diana Prince exudes the change that she wants to see in the world while wrestling with the unique challenges of being a statuesque immortal — such as living for decades as the memory of her first love continues to fade, and more mundanely, maintaining friendships with ordinary mortal woman who simultaneously envy and resent her accomplishments, much less her physical perfection.
But if Gal Gadot has settled so firmly into the role (and overnight movie stardom) that she feels virtually synonymous with the superhero’s cinematic incarnation, effortlessly embodying all of her virtuous qualities, Wonder Woman 1984 fails its heroine with an overlong, meandering story that avoids conventional pitfalls only to step into a handful of significantly problematic new ones, earning its lead actress and certainly Jenkins points for effort without them quite adding up to something substantially more successful or effective than their previous work.
Some 60 years after the events of Wonder Woman, Diana works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where she helps catalog antiquities during the day while performing heroic deeds in her spare time. Shortly after befriending a mousy crypto-zoologist named Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig), the two of them are asked to identify some items recovered from an attempted robbery, including the “Dreamstone” which grants its holder one wish even as it takes something else in exchange. Unknowingly, the two women use its powers to fulfill their own fantasies — Diana to summon her deceased lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and Barbara to cultivate the poise and confidence of Diana (and without realizing it, Wonder Woman’s strength). However, Maxwell “Mad Lord” Lorenzano (Pascal), who initially coordinated the failed robbery, tricks Barbara into turning over the Dreamstone, and uses its power to barter for power and wealth.
Despite her skepticism how Steve returned to her life, Diana refuses to lose her love another time, while Barbara uses her newfound powers to exact revenge on a man who attacks her, and eventually, anyone who presents a threat to the empowered identity she has created for herself. But after Max Lord begins recklessly brokering deals with political leaders, not realizing that their respective xenophobias are amplifying military and eventually nuclear conflicts between warring countries, Diana is forced to decide whether her own deepest desire is worth the cost of creating a world that threatens to destroy itself out of selfishness and fear.
Notwithstanding the noble if unlikely fact that Diana has not met (much less loved) another person since her arrival in the world of men six decades prior, Jenkins and co-screenwriters Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham don’t think quite deeply enough about the repercussions of resuscitating Steve Trevor via the body of a random man, even one who might otherwise very willingly provide a corporeal host for Wonder Woman to share a bed with after such a build-up of sexual energy. It’s not entirely clear why in a world where people’s dreams manifest themselves out of thin air, Steve must replace another person at all; but the choice conjures questions of consent at a time when the answer is culturally extremely important — even if based on dozens of 1980s sex comedies, it wasn’t at that particular time. But outside of one or two montages (mostly at Steve’s deserved if comically-effective expense), it’s also unclear what purpose is served by setting the film in 1984: aside from the fact that the leap fails to explain what Diana did during World War II and any dozen global conflicts that occurred during the intervening time, Jenkins and her collaborators seem only to use it to revisit the window dressing of Cold War politics, and inexplicably mostly shy away from pop cultural cues, from fashion to music, that might give this adventure a pointed, fun edge.
Again, Gadot seems as chiseled out of marble as the Amazonians that inspired her character, and she conveys precisely the kind of compassionate strength you want from Wonder Woman. But she’s still a much better movie star than actor, and doesn’t quite deliver the emotional or intellectual complexity required from a character wrestling with the film’s larger moral issues. (Questions were also rightfully raised about the Israeli actress playing a character prevailing upon Middle Eastern conflicts, a significant plot point whose metatextual implications the movie elides.) Conversely, Pascal conveys the right kind of energy as Max Lord, the choreographer of a literal wish-fulfillment pyramid scheme who’s desperately trying to convince everyone of its legitimacy — himself most of all — delivering a performance that’s slightly more sensitive and astute than the rest of the movie can match.
But Wiig’s Barbara Ann/ “Cheetah” is done its primary disservice by the script, first by giving the character a cliched ugly duckling transformation borrowed from way, way too many other superhero (and villain) stories, and then saddled with a combination of bad character design work and dubious motivation when time comes for her to square off against Diana, a person who’s never been anything to her but a friend. Meanwhile, Pine ably fulfills his responsibilities as the revived Steve Trevor in a shrewd gender reversal of “dream girl” roles from movies from the ‘80s, and seems to have fun even if he’s more of a story lynchpin than a real person.
Jenkins stages the action scenes with an increased confidence after the first film, which shrouded too much action in darkness, this time not only creating big, expansive set pieces but capturing moments of wonder and beauty that feel better suited to the eponymous superhero. But even if there’s something admirable about a superhero movie that hinges not on simply physically defeating or destroying the bad guy but convincing him of the error of his ways — and moreover, teaching the audience a lesson in true goodness and altruism — its premise that the truth will set you free, or at least comes without negative consequence, is naïve philosophically, but underwhelming narratively.
Ultimately, however, Jenkins’ film does mark an improvement in some important ways from its predecessor, much less the version of the heroine depicted by Zack Snyder as a warrior claiming the heads of her enemies as a trophy. But as a new, empowering direction for Diana Prince and the legions of fans inspired to live by her example, Wonder Woman 1984’s best takeaway is that it’s important to be honest, and even if this version squares better with what audiences expect from the character, there’s still much room for improvement in stories that hope to balance superheroic theatrics and the moral compass meant to guide the lives of mortals watching them.