Caught somewhere between Richard Donner’s Superman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. The boisterous sequel to the milestone 2017 hit ups the ante with exciting new characters and a new period setting, but what truly wins out is the vibrant heart planted firmly at its center.
After a rousing prologue set in her homeland of Themyscira, we find Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman in the year of 1984, where capitalism is soaring and the promise of the “American Dream” is ever prevalent. “You can have it all and not even have to work for it” promises Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), an egomaniacal TV personality/businessman making a living out of conning others in an attempted Ponzi scheme — sound a bit familiar?
Diana now works in the anthropology department at the Smithsonian where she befriends quirky loner Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Together they discover an ancient artifact that attracts the likes of Max Lord, and Barbara herself. Diana’s deceased lover, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), also mysteriously enters the picture, causing him and Diana to discover the powers of the artifact in order to bring down Lord and Barbara, who somehow is growing stronger.
Wonder Woman 1984 is a fairly radical change in tone from the previous film. While the predecessor had its share of humor and light, the tone was still fairly serious given its setting in World War 1. WW84, however, takes the joyous tone from the original Christopher Reeve Superman films and even a mixture of Tim Burton’s Batman and Joel Schumacher’s Batman (the good parts at least). Largely working as an effective satire of the greedy excess of the 1980’s, director Patty Jenkins merges the playful style of classic 80’s blockbusters, with the modern Superhero film DNA.
Gal Gadot is even better this time around as the titular heroine. Her charismatic charm is undeniable, but she’s able to dig even deeper into the complexities of the character. After 60+ years since the events of the first film, Diana has now outlived her friends and finds herself alone in the world. Her friendship with Barbara gives her a much-needed connection that is later complicated by Barbara’s transformation into the villain, Cheetah. Diana is also given the complication in the reunion with Steve Trevor. While details of Trevor’s return are lodged directly into spoiler territory, it’s not a spoiler to note how rich Gadot and Chris Pine’s chemistry remains. The two actors are an irresistible pairing that carry the film through some of its weaker elements.
Kristen Wiig, playing slightly against-type, showcases her exquisite range as an actor. Taking particular inspiration from Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman, Wiig seamlessly captures the meek figure we intially find Barbara to be, while finely channeling the rage and anger that leads to her ultimate transformation. While the character’s turn as Cheetah is perhaps a bit too shoehorned — and saddled with some unfortunate CG — Wiig’s dynamic performance is able to compensate for such shortcomings.
Pedro Pascal is exceptionally compelling as Maxwell Lord. What could’ve been a one-note character is surprisingly nuanced through Pascal’s lived-in performance. Even when Pascal operates at scenery-chewing highs, he’s still able to find the humanity that keeps the role from turning stale.
Director Patty Jenkins succeeds at maintaining a consistent vibrancy throughout the (admittedly bloated) 151 minute runtime. Jenkins, who has always been a great actors director, grows as a top-tier visualist filmmaker. The action sequences are used sparingly and although nothing is able to top the chill-inducing “No Man’s Land” sequence from the first film, each set piece is equally rousing. A freeway chase in the second act calls to mind Raiders of the Lost Ark, while an early, dazzling sequence in a mall feels directly lifted from the 50’s and 60’s comics.
The 80’s setting is in full force and while Jenkins surely jumps at the opportunity to satirize plenty of the era’s politics, costumes and culture, the jokes aren’t overdone. Jenkins allows the setting of 1984 to serve as the backdrop and not as a punching bag. Jenkins also uses the time period as her ode to 80’s blockbusters; channeling Spielberg, Zemeckis and the works to great effect. Many will likely be taken aback by the radical shift in tone, but Jenkins succeeds in mixing the vibrant, playful and occasionally goofy with genuine dramatic stakes. Composer Hans Zimmer, who returns to the DC universe, provides much of the gravitas that makes these shifts in tone work as well as they do.
When WW84 works, it works like gangbusters, but it’s frustratingly held back by an uneven script that gets too fond of plot conveniences and tired clichés. Some subplots are stretched a bit thin causing the narrative to muddle itself and although Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan take no shortage of risks — especially for a tentpole film such as this — not every risk pays off.
The biggest risk is in the form of the final act. Jenkins and co. clearly aim to sidestep the effects-driven climax of its predecessor that many, including Jenkins herself, found to be too unimaginative and generic. The climax here is sentimental and a bit corny but is executed in an open-hearted earnestness that makes it hard to resist it’s — fairly naïve — messaging. It also successfully tugs at the heartstrings without feeling too manipulative.
Wonder Woman 1984 will likely turn off some viewers looking for a mindless superhero flick that they’ve been starved for this year. As Diana is portrayed to be leas of a warrior, but more of a lover, the same also goes for the film. The subversiveness Jenkins is aiming for puts Wonder Woman 1984 more in league with Batman Returns or Iron Man 3. Still, this is a flawed, ambitious blockbuster bursting with heart and (ahem) wonder.
Gal Gadot continues to beam a liveliness and grace to the role of Wonder Woman that truly cements her among the most radiant film stars around.