“Be careful what you wish for.”
This is one of the lessons we learn in Wonder Woman 1984, and unfortunately, may hold meaning for audiences as well. After the success of the DC heroine’s origin movie, 2017’s Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot return here for the sequel, which on the surface seems to be a striking departure. The first Wonder Woman was a muted, gritty war-themed movie. Wonder Woman 1984 has neon colors, a 1980’s setting, action scenes that play out like a comic-book panel, and whimsical homages to the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman television series. Reviewer and comic book writer Grace Randolph notes in her review of the film that Wonder Woman has two distinct personas that often divides her fanbase. She’s either the more aggressive, no-holds-barred, fierce Amazonian warrior, or she plays defense, never starting a fight and always trying to stop her enemies with words of compassion. The first film shows more of the first side, and WW84 emphasizes the second, leaning into Wonder Woman/Diana’s gentleness and flaws.
This tonal shift for the character and franchise is just one of the risks Jenkins takes. Other risks in WW84 include not setting up any future franchise movies, having few action sequences, and a final climax that isn’t Diana fighting Maxwell Lord, but simply talking to him. And while the 80’s setting is fun, Jenkins shows restraint in not making it a nostalgia-fest of “oh look I recognize that!” and instead ties the decade’s consumerism and paranoia into the main plot.
I also admire the choice to depict Diana as being miserable. Throughout the film, Diana is lonely and embittered. She does good deeds but never gets what she wants in return, which makes her similar to Maxwell Lord and susceptible to the same temptations as he is. In most sequels, we see the heroes at the top of their game, and over the course of the movie are humbled and then regain their strength. Starting Diana in a place of personal weakness, and then physically weakening her throughout the film, and ending her in an ambivalent place again, is a strong choice and one that I like, because it humanizes an otherwise god-like character.
While I appreciate many of these choices and Jenkin’s confidence as a filmmaker, not all the choices work. Wonder Woman 1984 is stuffed to the brim with characters and ideas, which shortchanges everyone. Kristen Wiig is a promising Barbara Minerva/Cheetah but is pushed aside for more Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). In the comics, Barbara and Diana are friends, making Barbara’s turn into Cheetah a personal betrayal to Diana. In WW84 though, their relationship is barely above acquaintances, making the stakes less personal and Barbara less compelling than if their relationship had been given more time to develop.
Much has also been made out of the way Steve Trevor comes back. Chris Pine is one of the best parts of the film to be sure, and his Steve Trevor continues to be the perfect partner to Diana. But he comes back in a random man’s body, and Diana… has sex with that body? She lets Steve use the body and bring him into violent situations? This man doesn’t even get a name, he’s just credited as “Handsome Man” (Kristoffer Polaha). The cartoonish tone of WW84 means this Get Out scenario isn’t dwelt on, but it’s a strange, almost reprehensible choice that is easy to latch onto as a symbol for all of the weaknesses of the film.
Wonder Woman 1984 is admirably experimental, but always pulls back with just enough convention to never be either truly weird or easily palatable. There’s a lot to like, but it gets mixed up in the long-running time and some sequences that seem to go nowhere. I want to see Patty Jenkins get to finish her trilogy with Wonder Woman 3 and see if she can balance the approaches of both Wonder Woman films. But, I suppose I should be careful what I wish for.
– Madeleine D.