Review – Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal
In a year that has been, for obvious reasons, almost entirely devoid of genuine blockbusters, Wonder Woman 1984 emerged as a Christmas present for moviegoers desperate for some good, old fashioned, big screen spectacle. Warner Brothers decided, having sat on the film since its originally slated June release date, to take the plunge and simultaneously release it in cinemas and on their streaming service, HBO Max. As a beacon of hope and goodness in a genre largely populated by cynical wise-guys, it is fitting Wonder Woman is the character to try and draw audiences back to the multiplex. She’s the right hero for now. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t quite the right film, struggling to recapture the magic of the original.
Six decades after her exploits on the battlefields of the Europe, we find Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) keeping a low profile in Washington DC, working in the archaeology department of the Smithsonian and doing some light superhero work on the side. When TV personality and aspiring oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) starts poking around the museum, interested in a seemingly worthless artefact recovered in a bungled heist, Diana discovers that it is the Dream Stone, an ancient piece infused by the gods with the power to grant wishes. For her mousy colleague, Barbara (Kristen Wiig), a wish to be more like Diana ends up being more than she anticipated, while Lord, and ambitious conman, has bigger plans. Diana doesn’t have to face them alone, however, with her own desires having inadvertently brought back her lost love, Steven Trevor (Chris Pine).
After an exhilarating opening sequence that takes us back Diana’s childhood on Themyscira, we are dropped into the 1980s and, in the process, confronted by the complicated chronology of this character. Having first met Diana in the contemporary set Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, we then jumped back to the First World War for her first solo film before returning to the present day for Justice League. Even ignoring the team up films, going from the sombre battlefields of the Western Front to the garish shopping malls of 1980s Washington is a jarring shift of gears. However, the 1980s setting does allow the film to tap into a different tone of superhero narrative to what we’ve become used to. Wonder Woman 1984 feels like a throwback, much more akin to Richard Donner’s Superman in its hopefulness and aspiration than to any of the recent, dark and brooding DC films. There is also some fun to be had with the reversal of the dynamic from the first film, with Steve being the fish out of water now, walking around mouth agape at the marvels of the future. In fact some of the film’s funnest moments come from Pine’s wide-eyed wonder.
At a narrative level, though, the film needs its 1980s setting because this decade represented the height of Reaganite capitalist ambition and excess. Diana has been established as a hero who sees a bigger picture. In the first film, where Steve and the others were focused on Ludendorff and the Germans as the enemy, Diana was fighting against war itself. This time around, though we are presented with two primary antagonists, it is ultimately the greed and self-interest of humanity which Diana has to overcome. This sense of a greater evil is important given neither of the antagonists represent an adequate adversary for Diana. A rather too thinly veiled Trump-alike (“I’m not a conman, I’m a television personality”), Lord’s charlatanism makes him the antithesis of Diana’s honesty, but he lacks any sense of menace or genuine threat. As Barbara transitions into Cheetah, a super-powered version of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, she has the physical presence to compete with Diana but is too thinly drawn as a character to hold that narrative weight. The result is a film that lacks stakes and thus drama.
While it has its narrative shortcomings, Wonder Woman 1984’s strength remains its protagonist. Jenkins and Gadot have fashioned a character distinct from the plethora of superheroes that dominate our screens. A symbol of goodness and decency, without the boy scoutishness of Superman, she brings a very different morality to these films. She spends as much time protecting her opponents as she does combatting them. Her struggle is to win the day by convincing people to choose rather than through an act of force. Her act of personal sacrifice is not a physical one but one that is truer to her character, and more interesting as a result. So confident is Jenkins in the appeal of her protagonist, she boldly leaves the middle third of WW1984 virtually action-free to focus on character exploration, particularly the Macguffin-enabled reunion with Steve. While Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Trevor are a lot of fun together, it is worth noting that the extent of her pining over a a relationship that only lasted a couple of weeks six-and-a-half decades ago seems questionable.
The determination for Wonder Woman to be something different remains clear, but unfortunately lightening has not struck twice with Wonder Woman 1984. But while it is a disappointing film, given the high hopes after its impressive first instalment, it is not a disaster. Gadot’s Diana remains a great character with something interesting to bring to the Superhero genre, and this sequel does move her forward. Her chemistry with Pine remains as sparky and enjoyable as it was first time around, even if this specific narrative falls a bit flat.
Review by Duncan McLean
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