2017’s Wonder Woman remains an energetic and refreshing entry into the cinematic superhero universe as it delivers big fun, plenty of action, and the long overdue arrival of a female lead hero. It was overshadowed some by its insistence on a heavy-handed romance, though, the likes of which male heroes rarely have to endure. The Amazon goddess returns in Wonder Woman 1984, and while the fun and action are greatly reduced our hero is still endlessly and unfortunately pining for her lost love.
It’s been nearly seven decades since Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) helped end World War I, and she’s living a much quieter existence now. She works at Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Museum as a cultural anthropologist, and while she does the occasional heroic deed out in public she prefers to leave no evidence behind aside from memories and the smiles on little girls’ faces. Her heart’s just not in big acts of heroism anymore, in part because it still belongs to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) — the first man she ever met, the one she immediately fell in love with over a few days, and the one who sacrificed himself to save others seventy years ago.
A jewelry store heist results in a rare artifact coming into the museum’s possession, and both Diana and her co-worker, the klutzy and forgettable Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), take an interest. They’re not the only ones, though, as a fast-talking TV personality named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) immediately sees its true power — the Dream Stone grants wishes, but they come with an unspoken price. Barbara becomes a powerful, graceful, and menacing apex predator, Maxwell finds an endless stream of power that soon grows to engulf the world, and Diana? She gets what her heart desires most.
Wonder Woman 1984 goes heavy on the 80s setting in its production design, wardrobe, and sense of humor, and much of it works to capture the heightened sensibilities of the decade. If that same attention to detail had been paid to the script and set-pieces this would be a worthy sequel and a heroic end to a year otherwise devoid of superhero movies — but, and you knew there was a but coming, it instead struggles to find the thrills and highpoints across its bloated running time.
The film’s troubles start immediately with a Themyscira-set flashback showing a young Diana cheat in an Olympics-like event. It’s an unnecessary distraction and delay, but once we land back in the 80s things pick up with the introduction of Pascal’s power-hungry “villain.” The actor does great work with the character in crafting a charismatic ball of energy, and while his humanity — he’s a failure who only wants to prove himself to his young, adoring son — becomes too much of the film’s overall theme it works on his singular level to build a character shaped by regret and pathos.
That one character is more than enough to explore the idea, but director Patty Jenkins and her co-writers (Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham) clumsily reach a bit too far with the idea building to a highly simplistic ending that feels like a direct contradiction to Diana’s main lesson from the first film. She learned then that people aren’t inherently good, that they’re just as prone to acts of evil as ones of kindness, and that some people are simply straight up bad. It’s a hard truth, but Wonder Woman 1984 lets her return to that earlier Pollyanna attitude, and this time it agrees with her to the film’s detriment. Add in a wish fulfilment storyline that quickly gets out of hand and creates an endless stream of logical inconsistencies, and you have a story that stumbles to engage.
Cloyingly false optimism would be more palatable if it came couched in exciting thrills and cool action set-pieces, but the film drops the ball there too. It would be unfair to expect another slice of perfection like the first film’s “No Man’s Land” sequence, but nothing here even comes close. We get a single (and minor) action sequence in the film’s first hour and another small one later on, but the film’s two big ones are marred in different ways. The first is hampered by some iffy CG while the second falls prey to the above-mentioned “all people are inherently good!” conceit.
The film instead wants to rely on charisma and a message of redemption, but at two and a half hours neither arrives with enough conviction. Pascal is fantastic throughout, and Pine brings some smiles, but while it’s fun seeing Wiig in an action role her pre-transformation shtick feels like a rejected character from Saturday Night Live. Gadot continues to cut a solidly heroic figure, but she feels a bit shallow and dull beside her two male co-stars — an unfortunate reality given the otherwise female-led nature of the film. Diana’s ongoing issues with love just hang a pall over her character, and the end result is her becoming rather one-note and lackluster while the dudes shine. (And don’t get me started on the lack of consent issue that Diana commits in the name of love…)
There are highlights in Wonder Woman 1984, but they can’t lift the film off the ground to be anything beyond merely watchable. A few fun bones are tossed towards longtime Wonder Woman fans, but more than anything else it’s still good seeing a female superhero lead on the screen. We need more, and they deserve better.