Haunted by the memory of first love, an immortal hero stays out of the spotlight for decades before being confronted by a scenery-chewing foe seeking to subjugate the world with space-based particle projection. Only by wishing hard enough to return a formerly-deceased comrade from the dead is the hero able to overcome the trials ahead. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the plot of 1991’s infamously-terrible Highlander 2. It is also the plot to 2020’s Wonder Woman 1984.
Unfortunately, the similarities don’t end there, as, in both cases, the returning directors (Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman, Russel Mulcahy for Highlander) undermine their first film with what can only be explained as a near-total misunderstanding of what made it work in the first place.
Buckle up, boys and girls – this isn’t going to be pretty.
The year is 1984, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Fast and Furious) is living as Diana Prince, an anthropologist at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. In her spare time, she fights crime, while taking care to keep a low profile. When a mysterious stone finds its way into the hands of Diana’s coworker Barbara (Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters), it attracts the attention of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian, Game of Thrones), who seeks the artifact’s power for his own nefarious ends. What follows is a globe-hopping adventure that will test Diana’s values and powers, as she’s tempted by the promise of a love from long ago.
The sophomore slump
Shot largely in 2018, WW84 had already been delayed for a year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with rumors of poor test screenings being cited as the reason. With audiences avoiding theaters due to the global lockdown, the filmmakers had plenty of time to get things in order. Clearly, that time wasn’t enough — the film is a jumbled mishmash of random elements, a two-and-a-half-hour film that somehow manages to be both cluttered and devoid of purpose. To wit, sequences start and end with no apparent direction, characters are introduced and forgotten, action scenes proceed without vigor or urgency, computer-generated effects are wildly inconsistent in quality, logic and consistency are theoretical concepts, and there are enough tonal shifts to give one whiplash.
Is this a superhero epic or a comic book romp? A lighthearted rom-com? A nostalgia trip/critique on 1980s consumerism? A live-action cartoon? We, the audience, are never entirely sure, but that’s ok — from all indications, neither were the filmmakers.
The first Wonder Woman was a superhero film in the mold of Superman: The Movie (1978), introducing the character and her world with the momentousness of myth, before unleashing her and her powers on contemporary society in a second act culminating with a major action sequence set to an unforgettable theme tune. By the time the third act descends into nonsense (turning back time in Superman, beating Ares with the power of love in Wonder Woman), you’re too invested in the perfectly-cast lead character (Gadot remains a joy) to care.
Wonder Woman 1984, similarities to Highlander 2 notwithstanding, lifts key elements from 1980’s Superman II (including the hero losing their powers for love, inexplicable slapstick, and a two-bit con artist talking his way into the White House while backed by powers he can’t hope to control) but doesn’t manage to do anything interesting with any of them.
Where Patty Jenkins’ previous film was the perfect distillation of what made Wonder Woman an icon for hope, this second outing has seemingly no idea what to do with the character. Indeed, following the opening action scene, we literally don’t see Wonder Woman for another 80 minutes. The only trouble is, there’s nothing interesting to fill the gap, and it shows.
Wiig and Pascal do what they can with their respective roles, but they are undone by the clumsiness of the material, with the former doing a riff on Batman Returns’ (1992) Selina Kyle (mousy, insecure woman is reborn as confident cat person), and the latter overacting as if his life depended on it.
It’s a shame, really, because there is some good stuff here; it’s not hard to imagine a Barbara-based story about the divide between the haves and have-nots, with drama derived from Wonder Woman questioning her role as defender of the everyman when she’s so far removed from the everyman as to be unrelatable. Heck, there’s probably an alternate reality where Max Lord is a self-help guru or televangelist, or something, ANYTHING, to justify his actions, or even the titular time period, because other than the opening mall scene and a couple of fashion jokes, this movie could have been set in literally any other year.
Questions to make sane men mad
Regardless of the decade, though, it’s the lapses of logic that’ll stick in your craw long after your viewing ends. Here are some of the questions that came to mind while watching this movie:
- Why does WW84, like Transformers 2 (2009), assume that the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., has an airstrip with fully-fueled vintage planes in the back?
- Why does a pilot from World War 1 know how to fly planes, a car, and an armored truck manufactured years after his death? Did he gain this knowledge from being resurrected, or was the body he possessed that of a super soldier? Is that how he knew how to fire a rocket for his girlfriend to latch onto?
- How did Max Lord get to Egypt when he left his plane ticket in the garbage for Steve and Diana to find?
- How did the only person familiar with the curse just happen to be handing out flyers, and what would have happened if Barbara hadn’t picked one up?
- Why bother justifying the famous invisible jet if, in the same movie, Diana learns to fly (a skill she only developed in the comics specifically because her writers no longer wanted to use said jet)?
- Why does Barbara get a second wish, when Max’s son couldn’t even get one granted? More importantly, if Lord could dictate the conditions of the wishes, why didn’t he just set ones that he wouldn’t be weakened by?
- Does ancient Amazon armor protect one from being electrocuted?
- Did the entire world just forget about Diana asking them nicely to renounce their wishes? Because Bruce and Clark had no idea who she was in 2016. And how is it that no warlord, terrorist, or even a petulant child, held onto their wishes? And did they seriously not show Barbara giving up hers so as to set up a potential return? Oh wow.
- Why did the President’s chopper give Lord a ride back to his son after all the wishes were renounced?
- Why is the film set in 1984? Since Jenkins doesn’t comment on 1980s greed or consumerism, was it to avoid having to explain what every other hero on Earth was doing during Lord’s rise to power? In any case, too many things happen here that outright contradict major plot points of other DCEU films, such as her being grateful to Bruce Wayne for giving her a photo of Steve, despite already having an apartment full of them.
Feet of clay
From the outset, a suspension of disbelief is necessary to invest in an ageless Amazon battling evil with a magic lasso and an invisible jet, but no amount of disbelief can explain why Jenkins chose to reduce her lead — one of pop culture’s strongest, most prominent female characters — to the level of an emotional cripple, pining for the love of a man she knew for two weeks, some 70 years prior.
Diana having feelings for Steve (played once again by Star Trek’s Chris Pine) isn’t an issue in and of itself, of course, but given everything we know about her up to this point, it’s impossible to accept that she would put her happiness before the fate of humanity. The film tries to present this as an ethical dilemma, but neither Gadot nor Pine are strong enough actors to overcome the weak screenplay, much less sell the emotions required to make us care. Jenkins’ staging is even less helpful — when Steve delivers his final words from behind a pillar, unseen, as Diana runs towards the camera in slow motion, it has all the emotional heft of a bad telenovela.
The Steve Trevor problem
Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: do Steve and Diana rape a man? Yes. Am I kidding? No. The film’s emotional core — the one we’re supposed to feel all hung up about when Diana makes her ultimate decision — is built on a lack of consent. From the moment Steve shows up, reincarnated in another person’s body, he and Diana lose any pretense of morality, gleefully having their way with said body before seriously questioning the dark magic involved. Gadot and Pine are massively charming, but the fact that the body is reunited with its original owner later on, presumably with no knowledge of its having been violated, just makes things worse.
The bottom line
Wonder Woman 1984 is a staggering example of how not to do a big-budget sequel, and it’s easy to see why some have labeled it as being worse than Batman V Superman (2016). After all, for as much criticism as that movie gets, there’s little doubt that it’s precisely the film that its director, Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), wanted to make, and can arguably be respected on that level. Sadly, the same can’t be said about the cluttered, unfocused mess that is Wonder Woman 1984, and those are words that this writer desperately wishes he didn’t have to write.
What did you think of Wonder Woman 1984?