Wonder Woman Brings the ’80s Back on HBO Max
DIRECTOR: PATTY JENKINS/2020
Wonder Woman 1984 is the kind of movie you’re taken with start-to-finish but doesn’t hold up entirely upon reflection.
Not that this is a “he loved Big Brother” realization, if for no other reason than the ties to George Orwell’s novel are more tenuous than you’d expect from the title. The more appropriate connection to make is, well, the literal year 1984 and its fashion and pop culture. Hans Zimmer’s score infuses pop synth into the themes he developed for the first film, and unlike most of the DC Extended Universe, the color palette is filled with shockwaves of brights and neons. The characters aren’t tortured by their greatness like Henry Cavill’s Superman, nor are they moody like Christian Bale’s Batman. Our cast isn’t dressed in spandex or black body armor—they go out of their way to fashion, with the all the eye makeup, fur, perms, and shoulder pads they can get away with. Instead of gritty, Wonder Woman 1984 feels electric.
Yes, the glorious ‘80s have come to the world of superheroes, and if you thought the Stranger Things kids didn’t spend enough time at the Starcourt Mall last summer, this one’s for you. While it would’ve been better to watch Tenet, EMMA., or Mank in theaters, Wonder Woman 1984 is the first 2020 movie I’ve watched at home to make me feel cheated by our circumstances. The top-notch action reminded me how much I miss big screen blockbusters, and that glowing, twirling Lasso of Truth? That magic July 4th scene? Oof, they deserved a giant screen. I have no idea if Warner Bros. will keep this on the silver screen past the pandemic, but I’d be tempted buy a ticket just to see this aesthetic dream 1000% larger.
Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) is battling this time with…a TV salesman? In true ’80s fashion, Maxwell Lord’s (Pedro Pascal) evil plan is to be get rich quick by promising viewers they’ll get rich quick thanks to his shady, televangelism-style business. He and Diana are also fighting for the soul of Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), Diana’s insecure Smithsonian co-worker, and the three of them are in a tug-of-war for a mysterious, powerful artifact. The only one Diana can trust is…Steve Trevor? Chris Pine is back as Diana’s love interest and former WWI comrade, though you wouldn’t have thought that possible after seeing the first Wonder Woman—like Captain America was revived for Winter Soldier, it seems comic book characters can be resuscitated when desired. (Side note: The parallels between this sequel and Captain America’s are uncanny. A guy named Steve learns about history he missed from a D.C. museum decades after going down in a plane during a World War? Just saying.)
I wish more superhuman stories would follow Wonder Woman’s example, even if her golden wings did get too close to the sun this time.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in Wonder Woman 1984, well, there is. To its credit, it does manage to keep its story clear, which we know isn’t a given for comic book adaptations. (Here’s looking at you, Dark Knight Rises. I will always love you, and I will also never be able to explain your third act.) Moment by moment, the plot is gripping—I wasn’t tempted to look at my phone once, which is an embarrassing benchmark of quality for the last nine months. It’s only after that mid-credits scene that you realize not everything you watched hung together as intended.
Yes, that Themyscira prologue was necessary to clarify the message, but the final product is at least 20 minutes too long. Kristen Wiig works surprisingly well as both goofy Barbara and vicious Cheetah—not a sure bet after uneven dramatic work in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Where’d You Go, Bernadette—but the script doesn’t provide enough to convince you that transition was motivated. I was thrilled to see the charming and tenderhearted Steve Trevor again, and I love him as a partner for Diana, but the bizarre plot finagling to get him there brought up uncomfortable—and unacknowledged—consent issues. (The scenario is so far removed from the real world it’s difficult to make a judgment on his and Diana’s choices in that situation.) Furthermore, as the plot thickens, the story might be interpreted as a treatise on why women can’t simultaneously juggle a career and a personal life; I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, and I’m also sure it’s not fair to ask a single franchise to make an exhaustive statement on an entire sex. (Perhaps if we’d also seen tentpoles like Black Widow or Eternals this year, the pressure wouldn’t feel so acute.) With all the characters it’s trying to juggle, neither of the villains or the romance get the development they need or deserve.
Still, I can’t help but admire this film’s ambition. Its problem is unlike many other sequels’—it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to coast on love for the last movie or repackage it with a new title. Instead of leading with dazzling special effects, a movie star’s charisma, or some you’ve-never-seen-this-done-before gimmick, it’s attempting to lead with the well-tread territory of “be careful what you wish for” and make it new. Theme feels like an afterthought most superhero outings, but here the special effects and movie stars only serve the message. The film feels zealous to do something new with the superhero genre and just doesn’t stick the landing.
It reminds me of Interstellar, another imperfect blockbuster that attempted to lead with its theme. Not every part of that Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic worked, but it reached for something bigger than Nolan (and most 21st century sci-fi) had before. Perhaps coincidentally, this film also explores characters choosing between career commitments and personal lives, and the story spends significant time humanizing and developing the antagonists. Aside from the Eriks Killmonger and Lehnsherr, how many big budget bad guys in the last decade have demanded the level of empathy and redemption that WW84 asks for?
But Wonder Woman’s fight is not with bad guys as much as with the lies they sell. In an era when truth is up for debate, we need a heroine with this conviction who also has a tool to extract honesty from her adversaries. (And when the villain is a businessman/TV personality with swoopy hair who invades the White House and gains power by fulfilling your dark desires? Um, no, the point you’re trying to make is not lost on me, 1984.) I spent much of WW84 thinking of—get this—my church’s most recent Christmas sermon, which included discussion of how “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In 2017, Wonder Woman battled the god of war and the evil in human nature, and the 2020 sequel feels like an attempt to expand and deepen that conflict. I can’t think of another superhero franchise that has aimed to battle with the abstract concept of evil itself so literally. Wonder Woman 1984 may not live up to the reputation of its predecessor, but I wish more superhuman stories would follow her example, even if her golden wings did get too close to the sun this time.