When the first Wonder Woman film came out in 2017, it was something of a revelation. It was the first DC Expanded Universe film that wasn’t ruled by a gritty, urban aesthetic. It featured a main character who’s heroism sprang from a genuine desire to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. It traded cynicism for hope. Its sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, runs on the same kind of energy even if it doesn’t quite reach the same height as its predecessor.
Since World War I, Amazon warrior Diana Prince (Gal Godot) has continued her superheroic adventures in secret while she poses as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian. When a cache of stolen antiquities arrive there, both Diana and her coworker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) take notice of a strange gemstone artifact. Soon after, Diana encounters a resurrected Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and Barbara begins developing powers very much like Diana’s. And it turns out that businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wants the gemstone for his own nefarious purposes.
It’s hard to discuss even the basic plot of WW84 without giving away at least a few spoilers, although everything in the last paragraph can be gleaned from the film’s trailers. I’m going to do my best to not ruin any of the film’s twists or surprises, but this would be a good time to slap a POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS label on the review.
Returning director Patty Jenkins, who also takes a co-writing credit this time around, definitely has an obvious connection to the story and to Diana herself. It’s clear she definitely believes in what she’s doing here. Like in the first film, she presents Diana as a heroic and admirable figure who is not without her flaws. In the first film, Diana’s relatively naivete and idealism often got the better of her. Here, Diana is more mature but also more world-weary, her hope tinged with regret and sadness that makes her more aloof and detached.
Jenkins fills the screen with color and movement, eschewing the grays and browns of the first film’s color palette for the gaudy, neon-drenched landscape of 1984. The frame sometimes threatens to become too busy, but this is a time of excess, and Jenkins’ filmscape is as extra as the culture of the 80s. The fashions are fierce, the statements are bold, and the music is glam (both the incidental songs of the era and Hans Zimmer’s exquisite score). Jenkins has clearly spent a lot of time refining her approach to fit this new setting.
Gal Godot’s performance likewise has evolved along with the character. She plays Diana closer to the chest, reigning in some of her emotional responses, saving those moments for the climactic parts of the story. Diana has always been a character who’s power comes from love and hope, and it’s not until she’s pushed to the limit and drops her guard that her true self emerges. Godot is magnetic as Diana Prince, but she is majestic as Wonder Woman. Like in the previous film, there is no doubt that she was the perfect choice to play the character.
Her supporting cast, however, is just as perfect. In fact, there are times they even threaten to steal Diana’s spotlight. Chris Pine is obviously a welcome sight as Steve Trevor, this time flipping the dynamic between the two as Steve is the fish out of water. The chemistry between Pine and Godot is off the charts, and even in the film’s more tedious moments (more on that soon), it’s this genuine connection that sustains the film. The relationship between Steve and Diana never feels forced, and their bond grabs the viewer’s heart instantly.
But it’s the antagonists that really shine here. Unlike the generic and frankly boring villains of the previous film, Diana’s foes are multi-dimensional and even sympathetic. Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord is the very embodiment of the 80s “greed is good” mantra. He’s charming and charismatic, but that hides a desperate hunger for more. Lord is terrified of being perceived as a loser, and he’s willing to do anything to win, even if it puts the entire world into chaos and the brink of disaster. While Jenkins has said he was inspired by classic 80s characters like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, it’s impossible not to see a certain American president in Lord’s relentless attempt to be number one.
The real surprise though is Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva, who fans of the Wonder Woman comics will know as Diana’s arch-nemesis Cheetah. Wiig might have been an unconventional and even puzzling choice for Barbara, but she handles the role beautifully. Barbara might begin life as a more stereotypically awkward and goofy Wiig character, but her evolution is remarkable to behold. As Barbara grows more powerful she goes from nerdy and invisible to sleek, sexy, and commanding, and Wiig is simply captivating. Barbara’s ambition and bottled-up rage leap from the screen thanks to Wiig’s arresting performance.
As great as these characters are, and as dedicated as the cast and Jenkins is, there some definitely flaws to this film that can’t be overlooked. The first half of the film is slow and too quiet for its own good. After a couple exciting set pieces in the beginning, it settles into a more moderate energy that coasts more than it drives. While the second half of the movie picks up the pace, it takes a long time for the action to rise. There are plenty of nice character beats in this first half, it’s true, but it still seems like it could have been tightened up far more than it is. On a theatrical screen, this first half would have possibly hobbled the film before it even had a chance to thrive.
This is also not a terribly complex film, which is both good and bad. It does touch on some very weighty topics, especially on greed and selfishness, but it never really goes too deep into exploring that. It’s interesting to note that if you watch the film at home with captions on, at no point do the captions have to summarize long bouts of text or fail to keep up with the dialogue. The captions are curiously enough also the only place Diana is referred to as Wonder Woman. The film goes down easy, and it’s never pretentious or self-important, but it also feels like the script aims a bit lower than it should.
The upside to this relative simplicity is that it leads to a final act that works far better than the final act of its predecessor. Even if it does indulge in too many superhero film cliches (enough with the damn sky beam already), it feels earned and appropriate. In the end, Diana’s mission has always been to instill hope in others, and in that respect she succeeds without a doubt. WW84 might lack the brightness and fire of the previous film, but it’s often just as emotional and exhilarating an experience.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Wonder Woman 1984 is streaming exclusively on HBO Max and is also available in select theatres.