Wonder Woman 1984 is the 9th film in the ever-evolving DCEU, which began in 2013 with Man of Steel. It is also the direct sequel to Wonder Woman, which marked a significant turning point for both the DCEU in terms of quality storytelling and for superhero cinema as the first widely celebrated superhero film with a female lead and female director. Since the original Wonder Woman’s release in 2017, the DCEU has been in a constant state of flux. Following a failed Justice League film that same year, the franchise released Aquaman, a zany and fun, but relatively dumb movie to the tune of $1 billion box office return, and Shazam!, which earned the least of any DCEU flick, but received the most critical praise of any in the series. Though Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the latest entry in the decidedly mixed franchise, was released in February of this year, it failed to garner enough critical praise or box office receipts to reach the same levels of success its more immediate predecessors (though, for my money, I enjoyed it).
There has been a lot riding on Wonder Woman 1984, to say the least, especially after months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the theater industry and a surprise announcement from Warner Bros. that this film will be the first to simultaneously release in theaters and on HBO Max (a move which has now also has been applied to WB’s entire 2021 film slate, prompting a firestorm of controversy). The success of the DCEU with its first-ever direct sequel, the state of flux currently covering both that and the theatrical industry as a whole, and perhaps even the future success of the HBO Max streaming service are all waiting to see if WW84 can bring people enough hope, joy, and fun to carry WB into the future on the wings of the titular character’s golden armor. To tell the truth, after having seen the film, I don’t know that it can. However, that doesn’t mean that the film in and of itself, is entirely unsuccessful.
I came out of WW84 feeling decidedly mixed on it, half loving many of the aesthetic elements the film brought to the table, as well as some of the performances (hello, Pedro Pascal and Kristin Wiig) and a fair amount of the action sequences, and half bemoaning certain characterizations, moments that made me scratch my head, and the lack of justification for certain elements of the film to play out the way they did. I remain mixed on the film even now, but while I will affirm that this is a good movie and you should check it out (especially if you’re a fan of the first film), the elements of it that bother me have a stronger hold over my thoughts than the things I liked, largely because many of the things I liked were carried over from the first film, though to a less impactful extent since I had seen them before.
To start, Gal Gadot embodies the character of Diana with poise and grace just as much as she did before, though the performance itself is a tad less impressive since we’ve now seen her do this a few times. The film doesn’t really have a No Man’s Land-level sequence in terms of emotional or narrative power (though it does try just before the finale is meant to kick in) to allow Gadot to shine her absolute brightest, but she does enough with what she’s given that the few times her line readings feel weaker don’t color the rest of the time we spend with her. Chris Pine, returning as Steve Trevor for this film, also remains a highlight in performance, re-establishing himself as the true MVP of this franchise, although the character itself features in the more negative elements of this review for reasons we’ll get into later.
The action sequences this time around aren’t as commanding or powerful as last time (again, there’s nothing like “No Man’s Land”), though they’re not exactly bad either. The highlight of the film is the Cairo sequence, which may not have the most expert camerawork in terms of action filmmaking, but has plenty to recommend, not the least of which is Gal Gadot giving it her all as she hangs on the underside of a truck while a machine gun is attempting to take her out. It’s easily the most exciting action scene in the film, but even then, could have used more wide shots to establish the geography of what was taking place. We mostly understand what’s happening, but it still could have used an extra dose of clarity. The visual effects, too, are a bit mixed, but less bothersome than something like the final shot at the end of the first Wonder Woman. When Diana flies through the air during some scenes, it’s clearly green screen, and other times, it genuinely looks real. Those worried about the VFX on Cheetah, however, can rest easy knowing that they look just fine on Kristin Wiig, and her movement as the villain works within the finished product. It’s not Planet of the Apes-level good, but it’s far from Cats-level bad. And that leads us into the highlights of the film.
The two best things about this movie are Pedro Pascal and Kristin Wiig. Their performances each embody everything that their characters are meant to feel, represent, and value, and both performers bring their A-game to the table. Pascal’s characterization as Maxwell Lord is clearly meant to be a comic book-esque representation of Donald Trump (though the President’s genuine ugliness inside and out seems more subdued in this character), and Pascal does very well with playing that line exactly as it’s meant to be played, but the film also gives the character some unexpected emotional depth towards the end that, despite not being very present in the first two acts, does end up being genuinely touching – I even started to tear up at a point. It’s not a perfectly nuanced turn from Pascal, but it’s as outright evil as he’s ever been allowed to be, and it’s clear he’s having a tremendous amount of fun.
The unsung MVP of the film, though, is Kristin Wiig as Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah. Her character development sort of falls off near the end of act two, and she doesn’t really get an ending like all the other characters do, but up until then, she’s by far the most interesting character in the film. Wiig gets a lot of chances to shine in this movie, and her motivations (though not always written well) are clear from the start of how her character is set up. She’s very clearly the 80’s version of what a “nerd” would be in every sense, and that state of being informs almost every decision she makes throughout the narrative. She’s not inherently evil or selfish, and when she gets to fight back against the things that she and many other women in the world have had to deal with, we understand that she doesn’t do it out of maliciousness, but out of a desire to feel the same confidence in her power that those who would do her harm feel. Hers is the most nuanced character in the movie, and her relationship to Diana is one I didn’t expect to develop as it did in the beginning.
But now is where to we come to the parts of the film that didn’t really work. There’s not really one section of it that doesn’t work while the rest does, like most of the third act in the first film, but that weakness in narrative and theme is more sprinkled throughout this movie. It’s not nearly as heavy, but it’s more frequently present, and much of that has to do with the plot of the film. The characters involved in the plot are often fun to watch, and the sequences the plot allows for are often impressive to witness, but the plot itself is pretty messy, and not particularly compelling, as it’s spread a bit too thin to impact the viewer in the way it was probably meant to. As the characters progress through the story, one may not realize until the finale that the emotional undercurrent of the film doesn’t quite have the same impact as it did in the first, and much of that has to do with how the plot revolves around a particular object of fascination for many of the characters. It’s not an entirely poor story to sit through, and the way the film goes about it is ambitious, bold, and wildly different from what the DCEU has tried to do up to this point. It’s just that it doesn’t entirely work for the story this movie is trying to tell, and the message of that story, while somewhat refreshing for a superhero movie, doesn’t feel as new as it probably is, and isn’t executed in such a way that it’s clear to the audience what it all means by the film’s end. Some messages conflict with each other, and it all ends up sort of jumbled.
Many of us wondered why Chris Pine was back as Steve Trevor, and how Patty Jenkins was going to justify the decision in the WW84 story. To be sure, Chris Pine is once again excellent as the character, and many of the film’s funniest moments (of which there are fewer this time around) are due to his immense skill as an actor. Unfortunately, while it’s nice to watch Pine act circles around just about everyone he interacts with, I didn’t find his character being back to be all that justified. He’s really only here as motivation and emotional conflict for Diana, but that conflict isn’t really addressed for most of the movie, and Diana’s motivations aren’t strong enough to justify the presence of his character. It’s not something that breaks the movie by any stretch, but it is the biggest thing about the film that didn’t really work for me, and I was disappointed that my original suspicions of them only bringing him back so Chris Pine could get some 80’s-set screen time seemed to be confirmed.
There are also some smaller things about the film that bothered me. Sometimes characters will say certain things with other characters present, and those other characters should be shocked to learn that information, but they don’t react to it at all, or they respond as if it’s something they always knew. Additionally, the finale of the film itself just feels a little bit dissatisfying, as if there were a more emotionally rich but less bold option they could have gone with, but decided to try the risky thing instead. Trying the risky thing is a good move that I wish more superhero movies would do, but it does also mean that sometimes, that risk won’t pan out, and unfortunately, that ended up being the case for this movie.
Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t a bad movie by any means, and a lot of it works most of the time, but the elements that don’t work are more consistently present in this than they were in the original, so the film never feels bad, but always feels sort of lesser. The first two acts aren’t as strong as the first film, but the finale doesn’t hurt the movie as much as that did either. I’ve said my piece on what works and what doesn’t, so I won’t belabor those points again. I will simply leave off with this, that though I enjoyed the film, and a lot of its individual elements, my feelings towards this highly-anticipated sequel, in narrative, action, and thematic depth, are aptly summarized one of the signature lines of its principal characters: “[it’s] good, but it can be better.”
I’m giving “Wonder Woman 1984” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.