It has been a year devoid of superheroes. The genre that has shaped the last decade disappeared thanks to COVID-19 and the nearly year-long pandemic that has engulfed the world and destroyed the U.S. theatrical system. It’s strange to think that outside of a few Netflix releases we really haven’t had a true action blockbuster since March and not a single superhero movie outside of Birds of Prey all year. On the surface, it’s something you think wouldn’t be that important to have but having watched Wonder Woman 1984 it turns out that it is very missed.
Wonder Woman 1984 might not be the best superhero movie ever and it might not be the best Wonder Woman movie ever but as a good superhero film, with the kind of heart and power that is often lacking from the genre, it is a welcome return of a genre sorely missed.
Wonder Woman 1984
Director: Patty Jenkins
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Theatrical, HBO Max)
Wonder Woman 1984, as the title suggests, takes place in 1984, long after the WWI events of the first film but well before Batman v. Superman and Justice League. We find Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) living a solitary life as a secret superhero in Washington DC as she works for the Smithsonian. There she meets Barbara Minvera (Kristen Wiig), a nerdy, unremarkable woman who is enthralled by Diana’s beauty and confidence. Barbara is tasked with identifying a wish-giving crystal that begins to grant the wishes of everyone who comes into contact with it, including con-man Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who uses the power to turn himself into the wish-giving stone itself. This sets off a chain of events that not only brings back Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) but also turns Barbara into Wonder Woman’s nemesis, Cheetah.
I won’t lie, this is a movie we should all see on the big screen. The action would be so much better up there. There’s a big fight at the end that takes place at night that desperately needs the vibrancy and size of a big screen. There are also moments that would just be so incredible to see with an audience of fans who cheer at key moments. One particular bit of fan service that leads into a truly stunning scene just can’t resonate without the audience’s excitement and a massive digital screen presenting it. This is in no way to suggest that you must see the film in a theater. In fact, I would encourage everyone not to go out at all. However, it is a movie that is missing something thanks to our current circumstances denying access to theaters.
That all being said, the main strength of WW84, much like its predecessor, is its emotional core. The story of Maxwell Lord, grounded by his desire to become an “important man” in the eyes of his son and the world, is both an obvious allegory to a current President and yet also a fully fleshed out human being (unlike the current President). Diana is once again challenged with losing her love in order to save the world, except this time it is her decision and her loss, and, while cliche, Cheetah’s character arc works.
More importantly, and unlike the first film, the movie is allowed to play out the emotional story without having a big bad guy at the end. The ending almost seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the first film’s hard veer into a bombastic battle that no one liked. Instead, we receive a conclusion that is more about the characters than the superpowers, delivering a moment more powerful than any fistfight between two superpowered beings. It helps, of course, that the movie can deliver both with two villains taking up space: Cheetah being the action bad guy and Maxwell Lord delivering the emotional through-line.
The movie, at times, feels a little too long for its own good, though most of the content that could be cut is some of the best emotional stuff. There’s a bit too much time spent with Pine being awestruck by the 80s but it’s also all pretty funny. Jenkins still needs some help stitching her action sequences together. She has trouble maintaining momentum in them and the final battle between Cheetah and Wonder Woman suffers from it, though a car chase earlier in the film is quite well done.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s CGI often is incredibly weak. I’m not sure why this is the case, but in both the opening sequence, set during Diana’s childhood, and the final battle the special effects are especially poor. The CGI humans look like the rubbery effects from 15 years ago, not a modern action movie. It’s odd for what should be the tentpole film of the DCEU but it definitely sticks out and often gives the film a budget feeling.
That being said, the movie is nothing but fun to watch. Gadot is in even more control of the character, both as a badass superhero and a person in love. Pedro Pascal, who most of us know completely masked in The Mandalorian, delivers a far more nuanced performance than the initial megalomaniac character suggests. He is at times, entirely and wonderfully unhinged, and yet always in control of the performance. Wiig plays her role admirably, though she’s stuck being the less interesting bad guy. Pine is probably, and uncharacteristically, the weakest link of the movie but that doesn’t mean he’s bad.
Wonder Woman 1984 does lack the power and originality of the first film, which delivered our first female leading hero in the DCEU’s first truly good movie, but a large part of that is the fact that it isn’t first. That shouldn’t be held against it, of course, but it is hard for it to deliver on the same level. This is a superhero film meant for the big screen but trapped on a smaller one. It delivers but due to circumstances, some creative decisions, and timing it can never be as wonderous as the first.