REVIEW: “Wonder Woman 1984”

Three years after its theatrical release, 2017’s Wonder Woman remains one of the best entries in the DCEU. Perfectly capturing the spirit of Wonder Woman, the film is a testament to how good the DCEU can be when it allows itself to take risks and tell character-based stories. So, naturally, anticipation and expectations were high for Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins’ return to the character. Now, after numerous delays (some pandemic related, some not), a sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, is finally out. And it’s good. While having a couple of underbaked character arcs, running a bit too long, and being light on action, Wonder Woman 1984 is a marvelous return to the world of Wonder Woman. It’s buoyed by gorgeous visuals and even better performance and is sure to delight fans old and new. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There are mild spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984. Read at your own risk.)

Wonder Woman 1984 (written by Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and David Callaham; directed by Patty Jenkins)
Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) lives quietly among mortals in the vibrant, sleek 1980s — an era of excess driven by the pursuit of having it all. Though she’s come into her full powers, she maintains a low profile by curating ancient artifacts, and only performing heroic acts incognito. But soon, Diana will have to muster all of her strength, wisdom and courage as she finds herself squaring off against Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and the Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), a villainess who possesses superhuman strength and agility.

Picking up sixty-six years after the previous film, Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) working out of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. while secretly fighting crime as Wonder Woman. In all facets of her life, Diana tries to keep a low profile. That is until she meets Dr. Barbara Minevera (Kristen Wiig), a new hire at the Smithsonian who has been tasked with helping the FBI identify some mysterious stolen jewels and stones that were recovered in a mall heist foiled by Wonder Woman. Diana and Barbara form a quick friendship as they focus their attention on one specific unidentifiable stone—the Dreamstone. The stone claims to grant wishes to those who would wish upon it. Naturally, Diana and Barbara both make a wish—though neither of them expects their wishes to come true. Also seeking the Dreamstone is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a television personality and oil tycoon who strikes up a friendship with Barbara to get closer to the stone. Of course, he eventually obtains the Dreamstone and all hell breaks loose.

Even more so than the previous film, Wonder Woman 1984 is a character-driven piece. Unlike what you might see in other superhero films, everything that happens here is driven by what the characters want—Diana wants Steve Trevor back in her life, Barbara wants to be a stronger woman, and Maxwell Lord wants as much power as he can get his hands on. The plot of the film is led by the characters. There’s no bigger, convoluted storyline happening—it’s all just human wants and desires driving stories. And, honestly, that’s refreshing for a superhero movie. There’s a simple linear progression to everything that happens. Barbara and Diana discover the stone and wish upon it. Their wishes come true. Maxwell Lord takes the stone, wishes upon it, and his wish comes true. And so on and so on. There’s causality that’s easily trackable and everything is motivated by clearly defined wants and needs. It’s incredibly easy to follow what’s going on here, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s not that the movie doesn’t require intellectual engagement, just that it’s not exceedingly difficult to follow. The complexity comes in the nuances of the ideas and not in the minutiae of the plot. This narrative simplicity is often missing from these big superhero blockbusters and it’s nice to understand what’s going on for most of the film, for a change, and be able to focus on the character motivations and thematic arcs.

It’s even nicer being able to identify what a villain like Maxwell Lord wants and why he wants it. It’s nice almost being able to sympathize with the film’s antagonists. Getting to see both Barbara and Maxwell in a weaker, vulnerable state before they both are at the apex of their powers allows audiences the chance to invest in them as characters. This is particularly true for Maxwell Lord, whom audiences follow for a large majority of the film. His arc is probably the one best defined—which is definitely unique for a superhero film. Pedro Pascal is beyond good in this role, perfectly balancing charming charisma and unhinged insanity. His Lord is the kind of villain you can understand people getting behind. On the surface, he seems to be offering charity to people. But, naturally, things are not as they seem and that’s where the delicious drama happens. I love stories where the antagonist provides a compelling temptation for the hero, and that’s exactly what Maxwell Lord does for Diana. Even though she distrusts him from the beginning, Lord’s powers prove tempting to Diana. She genuinely struggles with what to do. After all, the Dreamstone has given her everything she’s wanted for sixty-six years. Watching that struggle play out throughout the film is the film’s best asset and I enjoyed every second of it.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a long movie—it runs roughly two and a half hours and it often feels as long as it is. There are pros and cons to this length: the longer runtime allows more time for quieter character moments and atmospheric developments, It gives the whole film room to breathe between big plot points before rushing to the next one, and it can make everything seem extra epic—but, like many things in the film, it comes at a price. Namely, pacing. I wouldn’t say that the film is poorly paced, but the pacing is uneasy. The opening sequence on Themyscira runs a solid five minutes longer than it needs to, overstaying its welcome even if it is enjoyable to return to Themyscira and revisit these characters from the first film. The middle half of the film sags as it slowly makes its way to a climax, even though it’s filled with delicious atmosphere and quiet moments that allow the weight of everything to weigh down on its characters. There are times when Wonder Woman 1984 feels less like a film and more like a four-hour miniseries that’s been edited down into a two-and-a-half-hour film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with long, slower-paced films, but they do come with a trade-off. You run the risk of losing some people’s attention for the gain of more time to explore plot and character arcs.

The problem with this approach is that Wonder Woman 1984 is this long but both Diana and Barbara’s arcs feel underbaked. Barbara’s arc starts pretty strongly, seeing her grow from a nervous, downtrodden woman into a more confident one. But then, about two-thirds into the film, it takes a sudden, jarring shift where Barbara is antagonistic toward Diana seemingly out of nowhere. While I love the dynamic between Barbara and Diana (especially in the beginning as the pair befriend each other), Barbara’s turn against Diana feels very sudden and, consequently, isn’t as effective as it could be. Perhaps one more scene that better established Barbara’s resentment towards Diana (or “people like” Diana, as the case may be) might have helped the beat land better. But, as is, it feels pretty out-of-left-field. Luckily, Kristen Wiig is a superb actor and repeatedly proves why she was such a good choice for this role. Her performance is good enough that even though the script doesn’t entirely support her character arc, Wiig’s performance does and you’re willing to go along with it because she’s so good.

On the other hand, Diana’s character arc feels extra weird. Essentially, her arc for the film is that she has to get over Steve Trevor. Wishing for him to come back came at the cost of her powers and to be the hero she needs to be to defeat Lord, she has to give him up and regain her powers. It’s a sweet idea, I guess, but I have some problems with it. I never like it when female superheroes have their arcs reduced to their love interests and that seems to be the case here. It’s extra weird since a big part of the first film was her having to let Steve Trevor go for the betterment of the world, so it just feels repetitive when done again here. I know there’s this whole thing about heroes having to make sacrifices and embrace the truth, but the execution of that theme didn’t quite land for me. Additionally, the movie never fully commits to the idea that Diana has lost her powers. They keep saying it and making a big deal about it, but she never seems to have truly lost them. She can still do most all of the things she could previously do, but she’s a little worse at them and a little more fallible. I wouldn’t call that “losing one’s powers,” though. And this lack of commitment makes the emotional weight of her arc fall a little flat. Again, both Gadot and Pine sell this storyline as well as they can. They both maintain the same levels of electric chemistry they had in the first film and it will never stop being enjoyable seeing the two of them share a scene, but I can’t help but wish Wonder Woman had more to do in the movie than…this.

Even with these problems, Wonder Woman 1984 is still a great watch. While the film’s pacing is a bit wonky and its character arcs aren’t as strong as I’d like, the script is still solid. The dialogue is littered with clever lines and one-liners that’ll make you giggle with delight. Patty Jenkins is a fantastic director and she is a master of capturing your attention and pointing it exactly where she likes it. The shots she frames, along with her cinematographer, Matthew Jensen, are frequently gorgeous. The film is jam-packed with bright colors and fun scenery and, while I hate that such a decision still feels unique in superhero films, I can’t pretend like this film’s atmosphere wasn’t a breath of fresh air when compared to recent superhero fare. Jenkins’ style perfectly straddles its 1980s sensibilities with more modern filmmaking. The 1980s setting is, unfortunately, used pretty superficially, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to watch Diana and Steve Trevor traverse 1980s fashion and technology. Hans Zimmer’s score is sweeping and carries a lot of the film’s energy and scale. There are hints towards Rupert Gregson-Williams’ Wonder Woman score, but much of Zimmer’s work is new to this—except for his iconic Wonder Woman theme, which still slaps as hard as it did in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The action, though there isn’t a lot of it, is just as good as you’d hope it would be. Some of the wire work is noticeable, but seeing Diana swing around a room and take on large groups of people will never cease being thrilling. The VFX are a bit of a mixed bag, with some of the effects (like the Invisible Jet) being excellent while others are a bit less stellar (Diana’s flying scenes and Cheetah’s CGI). All in all, it’s a fun watch.

At the end of the day, Wonder Woman 1984 might not be as strong as its predecessor was, but it’s still an enjoyable watch. The film’s stakes might be big, but they feel extremely personal—and that personal connection makes it far easier to get invested in what’s going on. It’s wonderful being able to follow the motivations of these characters, to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they hope to gain from their actions. The character arcs don’t land as well as I’d like them to, but I still enjoyed revisiting Diana and Steve and getting introduced to characters like Max Lord and Barbara. The cast of Wonder Woman 1984 is incredible, with everyone at the top of their game. It would be easy to say that Kristen Wiig or Pedro Pascal steal the show, but they don’t—because everyone is just that good. The movie’s a bit too long and it drags in the middle, but I can’t imagine anyone is going to be that annoyed about spending extra time with Wonder Woman, especially after the year we’ve all had. Maybe it’s down to the lack of superhero films we’ve had this year, but even though Wonder Woman 1984 has problems, it’s a fun watch that’ll leave you wanting to watch it again. It’s a great Christmas gift for all DC and Wonder Woman fans.

4 out of 5 wands.

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