‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Goes for Bigger, Louder, Longer Thrills

Wonder Woman 1984” follows in the footsteps of a groundbreaking first movie while keeping alive the age-old tradition that the sequel must be twice as big. Director Patty Jenkins’ 2017 “Wonder Woman” was a wonderful moment in recent pop history. Finally a female superhero proved blockbusters are no longer a man’s game. Overnight Gal Gadot went from mere action actor to icon, elevating the idea of the role as something quite beyond a comic book. But as per Hollywood rules, you can’t score a billion dollar hit and not go bigger in the next round. Now Jenkins tries to pack it all in: Nostalgia, ‘80s laughs, potential nuclear war and ancient wishing stones. Much of it is exhaustive, some of it clunky, with enough sections that remain escapist fun.  

As the title reveals it is indeed the year 1984. Diana Prince (Gadot) is now living in Washington, D.C. as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian. Sometimes she puts on the Wonder Woman armor and stops crime, lasso’s some thieves and returns to her apartment at the Watergate (yes, that Watergate). But she also feels loneliness and remembers Steve (Chris Pine), the World War I pilot she fell in love with in the first movie, but who gave his life in battle. Meanwhile at the office, a new researcher named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) arrives with a nerdy, nervous vibe. She’s easily intimidated by the nearly regal Diana. A strange stone soon arrives in their lab, taken from smugglers. Research shows it’s a stone supposedly imbued with a power to grant wishes. Diana’s wish is that Steve would return while Barbara just wants to be like Diana. Also seeking the stone is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a TV oil tycoon with a somewhat resemblance to Trump. Lord wants the stone for the usual checklist of every insecure villain, he wants to rule the world and have it all. 

The first “Wonder Woman” was both refreshingly game-changing while working like a familiar adventure movie. It had much in common with classics like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in its cheer, color and romance. In many ways the sequel is an even sunnier movie yet more of a standard superhero romp.  Gone are the drained colors of combat trenches or war god villains dripping lava. Jenkins has jumped on the ‘80s nostalgia train, which can clearly be seen in the opening scenes which have a goofy, innocent glee in a mall where Wonder Woman stops a couple of jewel thieves. This is also the movie’s key “Stranger Things”-style moment, where Jenkins gives us the now familiar tour of ‘80s arcades, shops and general fashion trends. Oddly enough, it is also the only time we will see Gadot in costume for at least another hour. Most of the time she’s in a business suit, attempting to figure out where the wishing stone is and puzzled as to why Steve seems to be back from the dead (hint, she wished it).

Running at just about 10 minutes longer than the first movie, “Wonder Woman 1984” opens with high energy and then spends most of its middle attempting to assemble three different storylines. First there’s Diana, who seeks love or companionship (which she has not been able to do since World War I), then there’s Barbara, who is envious of Diana’s intelligence and strength and thus wishes for it, which the wishing stone then grants, and finally Maxwell Lord. Lord is like Jim Carrey’s Riddler in “Batman Forever,” seeking to absorb the world’s knowledge and its wishes into his brain to then do whatever he wants. Pascal brings manic energy to the role, channeling a comic book tycoon well. As a villain he’s quite cliché, although there is an emotive side story involving his young son who just wants dad to be around, but dad feels he’s a loser if he doesn’t have billions. Barbara, who as everyone knows by now becomes Cheetah, an equally-matched foe to Wonder Woman, gets the short end of the plot. We learn nothing about her except that she’s clumsy and wants to be like Diana. When she attains the super strength and hyper intellect the movie gives her a few entertaining, early scenes where she rips off the door of her fridge or gets everyone at the office to turn heads. Before long, however, she becomes a regular action tool, meant to just give Diana as Wonder Woman someone to slam against a wall.

Aside from the battles on screen, that is the real clash of forces in this movie: Three stories squaring off with a need to pack the film with massive visuals and ‘80s winks. The best moments are inevitably the smaller ones, where Jenkins does highlight how “Wonder Woman” as a franchise saves the superhero genre from the male gaze. The first act has some sly humor concerning the demand women wear high heels to look good, and when Barbara can finally defend herself against a drunken creep while jogging at night, the acting and writing touch on the subject in a way most male-dominated comic book movies wouldn’t. Notice the subtle comment on toxic masculinity at work when Lord forces his secretary to follow him through a maze of an office on heels, only to realize she’s not needed. On the level of basic popcorn entertainment, it’s again refreshing to see the charismatic Gadot champion the idea that brains can outshine looks. Too bad the same can’t be said for the rest of the movie.

“Wonder Woman 1984” might work best for viewers seeking nothing but spectacle. It is DC Comics trying to reach the size of its great competitor, Marvel, with less lean storytelling. Everything gets swallowed up by the bigger ideas. Lord gets control of the world’s wishes but somehow still sees a need to travel to the Middle East to secure its oil wells, granting an unwise sheik a giant wall cutting Egypt in half. Steve suddenly returns to Diana’s life but there’s little room to explore their romance, although there is a cute scene where she introduces him to 1984 fashion and the shock of escalators. Their romance and buddy bond in the first movie gave it real heart.  Here it’s just a device to service fans while not even giving it adequate attention. There’s just not enough time once Lord starts to need more wishes and the whole world goes crazy with expensive shots of rampaging crowds, Soviets and Americans firing nukes at each other and Barbara still jumping in with cheetah spots to battle Wonder Woman. On top of all that there are the moral implications of Lord’s actions with the usual lessons about being careful what you wish for in life, etc. And where is the music? Hans Zimmer’s score is the usual loud brass notes, but the soundtrack itself is devoid of any true ‘80s sound. Yes, it’s common now to throw in Duran Duran or Queen into every new costumed saga, but with titles designed like VHS and references to parachute pants, there wasn’t a budget for music licensing?

Jenkins is an excellent director and she does deliver some moments that are entertaining on their own. Gal Gadot, with her alluring Roman profile, still brings a warmhearted charisma to the role as well. Individual CGI moments that break away from the mayhem have their own potential for comic book wonder, like Wonder Woman flying through the heavens, using her golden lasso to swing through lightning bolts. Jenkins also knows how to shoot action well without the frenetic editing more common to Michael Bay films, or ironically those of one of this film’s producers, Zack Snyder. Her sequences are still more organic, including a chase and shootout in the Middle East. Yet her best moment is the humorous takedown of some thieves in the opening scene of the movie. It’s almost as if this would be a much better film if it was simply slimmed down to one villain, one idea and then combined with Jenkins’ skillful eye.

“Wonder Woman 1984” as a sequel is also breaking new ground, only this time in its release plan. Originally part of the slew of blockbusters that were delayed earlier this year due to the pandemic, the movie will now release simultaneously in select cities and on HBO Max. Maybe on streaming the movie will prove to be more enjoyable, because you can pause it without attempting to digest its cluttered scale in one go. It still manages to be an entertaining film, except that’s because all of its stories have the potential to be good escapist fare if they were all given their own movie. Jenkins should be commended for again proving she’s willing to take risks, but sometimes the greater risk is the idea that less can be more.

Wonder Woman 1984” releases Dec. 25 on HBO Max and in select cities.