‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Review: Gal Gadot Soars, Her So-So Movie Doesn’t
I, like, totally understand why director Patty Jenkins chose to set the Wonder Woman sequel in the 1980s. This was the decade of excess in all its glory. Think big shoulder pads and bigger hair. Neon wasn’t just a color shade; it was an attitude. And it can be argued (by, uh, me) that 1984 — the year that introduced us to Cyndi Lauper and the Footloose soundtrack and Ghostbusters — was the most awesome of all. Sticking our beloved heroine in the middle of a culture that just wanted to have fun in combo with all the Orwell-ian undertones is the ultimate superhero no-brainer.
What I didn’t understand was why a climactic scene featured a wild-haired villain accosting strangers on the street and shouting “what’s your wish?! What’s your wish?!” like he’s some kind of perverse genie from Aladdin. Or why Kristin Wiig’s Cheetah costume resembled something out of a discount rack from Contempo Casuals. Or why this movie, despite its sparkling cinematic sheen and stellar performance from Gal Gadot, just lacked an overall purpose.
I know, I know. I’m the superhero Grinch-ette who’s throwing Koosh balls at arguably the most anticipated movie of the year. (Friends, I will not stop until I squeeze at least 10 more 80s references in this review.) With an original release date of November 2019 and approximately 12 delays because of the pandemic, we’ve had to wait way too long for this follow-up to the groundbreaking smash Wonder Woman. And after enduring a series of turgid survival dramas this winter, I assure you that I was rooting for this baby to soar. It never quite does, at least not in the metaphorical sense.
For your reference, Diana began her Wonder Woman adventures in 1917 when she fished American military pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) out of the waters of Themyscira and embarked on a mission to stop Ares, the God of War. She begins the sequel at a mall — shout out to Waldenbooks and B. Dalton! — to strong-arm a group of thieves who just stole a bunch of jewels and gems. (One of the bandits dangles a girl from the second floor as a threat, kind of like that scene in Clueless when Christian rescues Tai.) She’s still fierce, still ready to save the day. As Diana Prince, she’s quietly and unassumingly working at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. Because of her immortality, she prefers not to get emotionally attached. Besides, she’s still mourning her long-deceased great true love.
Considering I confuse way too easily when it comes to action hero movies (I needed a diagram to decipher the events of Captain Marvel), I’m pleasantly surprised to report that the nuts-and-bolts Wonder Woman 1984 plot is relatively benign in a good way. Seems one of the thieves stole a rare gemstone that possesses the same powers of the genie’s lamp: If you wish on it, your dreams come true. This is the catalyst for Steve’s inevitable return. It’s also how a meek gemstone expert named Barbara (Wiig) evolves into a super-strong and sultry and come-hither lioness.
Obviously this gemstone will soon fall into the wrong hands. And when an oil exec named Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, way over the top) — the man who masterminded the robbery — wishes to the extreme, he becomes a cartoonishly power-hungry villain, incapable of anything resembling empathy. Insert obvious Trump metaphor here. Wonder Woman and Steve chase after him, they learn that getting what you wish for has a price, etc. etc.
Speaking of wishes, I watched Wonder Woman 1984 while longing to be in a movie theater instead of my living room. Some of Jenkins’ sequences are just awe-inspiring — notably a scene in which the duo fly an invisible plane (that’s an OG WW reference!) through the Washington D.C. fireworks on the Fourth of July. Even her golden lasso has a magical, gleaming aura. The action scenes are so vivid that I even forgive Jenkins for basically eschewing the period ambience early on and keeping things modern. In that sense, this is the anti-Mank. No doubt I’m looking forward to her just-announced new Star Wars movie.
But too many times, I harkened to a line in Deadpool 2 when Ryan Reynolds looks to the camera to break the fourth wall and snipes, “that’s lazy writing.” Here, every dot is connected, every T is crossed. In the prologue when young Diana learns a lesson about the importance of honesty, the message will obviously come into play later. Barbara compliments Diana’s cheetah-printed heels. Max’s son complains that he doesn’t spend enough time with him. I could go on but this review already feels long. The movie, by the way, is 150 minutes.
Even the parable is as subtle as one of Super Mario’s hammers. One of the beauties of Wonder Woman was seeing Diana resolve her internal conflicts as she was thrown into a war for the first time. Here, we learn to be careful what you wish for. (The line is literally uttered in the third act. I was half-expecting Max to yell out, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good!!!!” For that matter, I’m sure there is a feminist-slanted essay out there focused on the fact that the altruistic Wonder Woman must realize that as much as she tries, she can’t have it all. Slightly more troubling: She apologizes to Cheetah before inflicting some much deserved and non-fatal pain on her. Iron Man would never.
Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the most amusing scene involves Pine trying on a series of wacky 80s outfits. For once, guy gets the makeover montage. (Though it’s a missed opportunity to not set it to Madonna’s “Dress You Up.”)
I’m rooting for Wonder Woman 1984 to hit big. And I still think that if this movie were released in theaters this summer originally as planned instead of Tenet, the big-screen situation might not be as dire as it is today. But there’s a lot to build on for the third installment — and if she ends up in the 1990s, I recommend a story that smells more like queen spirit.
Wonder Woman 1984 is in theaters and HBO Max on December 25
Also published on Medium.