Wonder Woman was a critical and cultural revelation in 2017. It proved to studios that a giant, female-led blockbuster could be one of the biggest hits of the year. It was so big that even director Patty Jenkins was TIME Magazine’s runner up Person of the Year that year. She delivered a wartime film that was filled with earnestness and heart, but many—myself included—also argue that it was let down by the predictability of its origin story and its video game-like, CGI-laden eyesore of a third act. What it absolutely did deliver was a lovely romance at the centre between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor, which was more tender than you’d expect from a superhero film. With this sequel, Jenkins said she wanted to create something completely different to the first. The 1984 setting is the first major difference, but she definitely swings for the fences in trying to change tack for this instalment… for better or worse.
Nearly 70 years after the first film, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is living in secret while still mourning the heroic death of her boyfriend Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Working as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Museum, she comes into contact with an ancient stone that can grant a single wish to those who use it. Anyone can guess what Diana’s is (yes, Steve is back). Her zany and constantly ridiculed co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) wishes to be as strong and beautiful as Diana, while corrupt oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wishes to become the stone himself—granting wishes to those who will bring him political gain. However, each wish strips you of your most cherished possession.
Simply reading that premise should give anyone a clue that this is far more zany, campy and outright silly than the first film. It was definitely the intention of Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham to ramp up the camp as much as possible. While the first was very much a romantic war story, this film doesn’t really occupy a specific genre within the constraints of a superhero film. I guess the closest thing you could call it is an adventure caper, with its globetrotting and a MacGuffin that would make even Indiana Jones blush. I haven’t seen a blockbuster that chaotically owns the mantra of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks this much in a long time. If you want a prime example of a film that is trying to go far too big and becomes a mess because of it, Wonder Woman 1984 is it.
A large part of the first film was seeing Diana adjust to the world outside of her island of Amazonian warriors—Themyscira. While this island was significant in the first film, it only plays a role in the opening prologue of the second, which sees Diana compete in an Olympics-style obstacle course. It’s only really there to set up the main dilemma for Diana—that we can’t have everything we want. They didn’t even give the returning Robin Wright an action scene! As well as this, the film ultimately recycles and repurposes the first film’s main theme that humanity is inherently good despite its flaws. Jenkins is clearly a director who has a lot of empathy. She herself has identified it as one of her main strengths, and while this empathy is what makes these sweeping thematic statements work, they’re within a film that is exhausting and scattered.
If Wonder Woman 1984 does one thing well, it’s justify Steve Trevor’s return. Even if a magical wishing stone had to get us there, Chris Pine is such a welcome presence and his chemistry with Gadot really holds up amongst the cacophony of plot beats. While Pine is as fun and charismatic as ever, Steve’s only purpose is to give Diana a moral dilemma and punch a few henchmen when required. The character has no autonomy, and once he exits the story earlier than expected, the film loses all too much of its charm.
Jenkins brought a lot of Zack Snyder’s established action directing techniques to the first film, utilising slow-mo and speed ramping to emphasise Diana’s prowess. The No Man’s Land set piece in the first film is one of my favourites in any superhero film. It’s rousing, triumphant and incredibly inspirational. There’s only one scene that even attempts to reach the heights of the No Man’s Land scene, and it just doesn’t hit as well. Jenkins’ action in this film doesn’t have the same wonder (awful pun, truly) as the first. While there isn’t anything as egregious as the Ares third act fight in the first, nothing stood out, not even a truck chase that is heavily inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Then there’s the villains, who take up a substantial part of this film. Barbara Minerva doesn’t transform into Cheetah for a large portion of the film and even if the below-par CGI isn’t as heinous as it could be, her big action set piece doesn’t stand out amidst a murky night-time backdrop. There’s no prowess or intimidation factor with this character. It also delivers the ultimate cliché of a character having to wear nicer clothes and remove their glasses for anyone to notice them. When Wiig gets to be in her trademark awkward and zany mode, she works, but she’s straddled with some really hackneyed dialogue when she turns into a true antagonist. Pedro Pascal gives one of the most exaggerated and over-the-top villain performances ever in a superhero movie, so much so that at some points I didn’t know whether it was wholly deliberate or not. Unlike Black Mask—a similarly flamboyant DC villain from this year’s Birds of Prey—he’s not really intimidating at all, even if Pascal is on a good camp wavelength for a film as silly as this.
Thankfully, despite the ‘80s setting, the film isn’t laden head to toe with era-friendly needle drops. However, it is laden with one of Hans Zimmer’s most bombastic scores, which is so brash that it even overpowers a couple of scenes. His score is emblematic of the whole film. It’s big and brash, but I wanted more quiet moments. It’s a film that never stops during its long 151-minute runtime. Even though there’s a solid 45 minutes to an hour without a single action scene after the first act shopping mall set piece, there’s so much plot to cover that the film still feels exhausting without any spectacle. There’s fish-out-of-water antics (with Pine instead of Gadot this time), Middle East political negotiations, resurrections, MacGuffin explanations and villain daddy issues wall-to-wall. It’s like Jenkins wants to cram two to three movies in one. The fish-out-of-water gags with Pine are the only bits that feel paced and relaxing. Again, I admire that Jenkins takes big thematic and emotional swings, but it’s just crammed within too much plot noise. I was missing the simplicity of fellow DCEU entry Shazam!.
This year has been barren of big budget releases bar Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, so it’ll come as refreshing to many. For audiences who simply wish for a big blockbuster as cinematic eye candy, Wonder Woman 1984 will probably deliver. But if there’s anything this film teaches us, it’s that wishes are saddled with consequences. I wished for a heartfelt and engaging spectacle, but I got a cripplingly overstuffed one along with it.
Wonder Woman 1984 is out in Perth cinemas.