Note: The writer of this review watched Wonder Woman 1984 on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
In 1982, then-Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown published Having It All, a follow-up to Sex And The Single Girl for the go-go ’80s, in which she told working women that they didn’t have to give up on marriage and motherhood just because they wanted a career. In truth, Brown’s breezy bromides about how to land a man and the big account would be next to impossible to actualize unless one also happened to have a full household staff. But it’s still ironic to hear the opposite sentiment coming from Wonder Woman 1984, DC’s splashy continuation of the first superhero blockbuster helmed by a woman—that’d be Patty Jenkins, who returns for the sequel—and the first female-led superhero movie in more than a decade upon its release in 2017.
Wonder Woman drew gravitas from its World War I setting, opening up dramatic possibilities as Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot)—a.k.a. Diana Prince, the half-goddess, half-Amazon princess of a tribe of immortal female warriors—was exposed to the cruelty and selfishness of humanity. The sequel fast-forwards more than six decades, and if the title didn’t give away the year, a jogger in leg warmers running past a bank of square TVs would. Wonder Woman 1984 makes the most of the decade’s eye-popping aesthetics, transitioning from a Ninja Warrior-esque athletic competition back on Themyscira to a high-flying heist at a shopping mall where Diana takes down a gaggle of bad guys robbing a jewelry store with an improbable sideline in rare antiquities.
That first adventure is one of only three major action sequences in a superhero film that’s surprisingly light on superheroics. The rest of Wonder Woman 1984 is largely comedic, reversing the roles Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) occupied in the first movie, as Steve reacts in wide-eyed wonder at the futuristic world of the ’80s. (How is he back, you ask? It’s so far-fetched it’s barely worth explaining.) Some of this is enjoyable, like a montage where Steve tries on a variety of oversized fashions before landing on a track suit and fanny pack. Some of it is annoyingly anachronistic, like the scene where he’s borderline terrified riding an escalator. (Escalators were invented in the 1890s.) All of it distracts from the overarching plot, which pits Diana against an unethical business tycoon named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) who’s hijacked an ancient artifact that grants anyone who touches it their dearest wish.
On an ideological level, superhero movies are all about maintaining the status quo, arguing that power can only be responsibly held by an elite few who are “capable” of handling it. And while Wonder Woman 1984’s message is partially a warning about greed—a suitable theme for a movie set in the Wall Street decade—it also argues that the masses don’t know what’s best for them, and if you give the people what they want, the world will descend into chaos. But that’s not until later. At 151 minutes, Wonder Woman 1984 takes its time getting to where it’s going, at one point pausing to watch a fireworks show from Wonder Woman’s famous invisible plane before heading off for the Middle Eastern chase scene that has become de rigeur in contemporary action movies.
This leisurely screen time allows Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham to insert some secondary commentary as well. The most interesting of that is a recurring theme of leering, predatory men—an everyday peril that isn’t often seen in superhero films, which tend to focus on an abstract notion of “crime” or larger planetary threats. A scene where Kristen Wiig’s newly superpowered Barbara Minerva, a.k.a. Cheetah, pounds a creep into the pavement after he harasses her on the street may be the most satisfying in the entire film.
But that speaks to a larger issue with Wonder Woman 1984, namely that, in many ways, this isn’t really Diana’s story. It’s the Diana and Steve show, first of all—not only because he tags along for most of the action, but also because he’s the driving factor behind much of Diana’s decision-making in the film. Not an Amazon’s duty, not protecting humanity, but Steve. Fucking Steve, in his fanny pack, scared of escalators.
This is not a slight against Chris Pine, a solid contender for the title of Best Hollywood Chris and a fine actor who gives an amusingly dizzy performance in this film. It may reflect Gadot’s limitations as an actor—a plot with less action means fewer chances to show off her physical prowess, and more chances to whiff a tender emotional moment. But in a Wonder Woman movie, you want the story to be about Wonder Woman. And although the film starts off promisingly in this regard—as Barbara and Diana strike up a cautious friendship—the narrative is so overstuffed that by the end, Gadot’s character and her performance are being shown up by those around her. Combined with the script’s tendency to go “Look over there!” whenever a plot point strains credulity, the movie is pulpy in consistency, too.
Wonder Woman charged forward with singular purpose until its last act, when it devolved into the murky CGI soup that seems to be inevitable in these DCEU movies. Its sequel isn’t exempt, either; presumably to hide flaws in the CGI, the final showdown between Wiig and Gadot is so dimly lit that it’s difficult to follow the action. Up to that point, Wonder Woman 1984 is lively and bright and entertaining enough that it only occasionally feels like it’s going to go on forever. But it’s hard to get past what seems like a lack of consideration—or perhaps concern— for what motivates Diana Prince, or what fans like about her. If a superhero can’t have it all, then what hope do the rest of us have?