A film review by Craig J. Koban December 31, 2020


2020, PG-13, 151 mins.

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince / Wonder Woman  /  Chris Pine as Steve Trevor  /  Kristen Wiig as Barbara Ann Minerva / Cheetah  /  Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord  /  Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta  /  Robin Wright as Antiope

Directed by Patty Jenkins  /  Written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham

There is a sly moment in WONDER WOMAN 1984 that thoroughly captures the titular character's power, grace, charm and inherent goodness. 

It's set in a packed shopping mall during the neon colored Regan-era in question and features a squad robbers trying to make a getaway, with one of them nearly harming a young girl.  The most powerful Themysciran herself swoops in and quickly dispatches of the evil doers with lightning speed and ease.  She also manages to save the girl in the process, and while Diana Prince holds one of the shocked crooks upside down by his ankle she turns to the astonished child and gives her an all knowing wink, almost as if to nonchalantly say, "It's alright.  We got this."  

I remember coming out of 2017's superb WONDER WOMAN - which I proudly placed on my list of the Ten Best Films of its year - thinking that finally seeing William Moulton Marston's immortal creation given her due on the silver screen would strongly elicit a sensation of giddy awe and wonder in young girls (and hopefully boys) in the same way that I experienced watching SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE as a child.  And, yes, I still think that the stunning and effortlessly confident Israeli-born Gal Gadot is as well cast as Wonder Woman as the late Christopher Reeve was before her as the Man of Steel.  She's the perfect physical embodiment of the character while also imbuing in her such an unwavering optimism and inherent goodness.  That's an awfully hard performance dichotomy to effectively pull off without coming off as hammy.  Gadot was instrumental in making the first WONDER WOMAN such a pioneering and stupendously realized piece of super hero pop entertainment, which places its sequel in WONDER WOMAN 1984 in an daunting position.  

Bloated running time, some pacing issues, and far too many characters thrown in for its own good aside, WONDER WOMAN 1984 is most definitely not the equal of its predecessor, but it's nevertheless a grand, sprawling, and wondrously engaging sequel that further captures the colorful, gee whiz grandeur of its hero.  That, and it gives her not one, but two villains to combat this go around, with one of them being granted unexpectedly frightening, God-like powers. 

WONDER WOMAN 1984 opens with a staggeringly well executed prologue that's not set in the decade of excess, but rather in the past and back home on Diana's Amazonian home island of Themyscira, where the younger Wonder Woman-to-be (played again by the adorably determined Lilly Aspell) partakes in an epic gladiatorial contest of dexterity, strength, and stamina against other Amazon woman far older than her.  You'd initially think that a pint sized girl would be no match versus her fellow adult warriors, but she holds her own quite well...that is until one crucial point near the finish line when she loses sight on the prize and falls behind.  She uses some quick wits to take a frowned upon shortcut that almost secures her victory, that is until her mentor in Antiope (Robin Wright) and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) refuses to allow her to finish because, in their mind, she cheated.  Truth is the way to honor and success, something that the wet behind the ears Diana struggles to understand, but realizes that she must accept moving forward. 




We then get whisked away into the "future" of 1984 Washington D.C., where adult Diana - having not aged a day since we last saw her at the end of World War I in the previous film - now tries to live a quiet and reserved life working in antiquities, but she does make small appearances as her bullet proof bracelet clad hero when called upon.  Even though several decades have passed, she still heavily grieves for the loss of her mortal lover in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who gave his life to help her and their comrades in the war to end all wars.  All in all, Diana tries to lay low and keeps out of the social limelight, but she becomes drawn towards a new hire at work in the mousy, introverted, and not well liked Barbara (Kristen Wiig), who introduces her to the new archaeological find dubbed "Dreamstone" that has been mythologized for granted those that hold it their wish.  Diana predictably casts away such ideas, but she can't help herself in making just one wish while holding the magic rock.  Within no time, Diane is shocked to learn that not only is the Dreamstone's power real, but that her long since dead Steve has been resurrected (at least his spirit) in the body of an unnamed Washington man.  Both are equally astonished to be in each other's arms again. 

Concurrent to this is the appearance of a snake oil salesmen-like Maxwell Lord (THE MANDALORIAN's Pedro Pascal, well cast here), a fake news-esque oil tycoon who's a ubiquitous TV presence peddling people into investing in his Black Gold Cooperative oil company (he paints a pretty picture for himself as an ultra wealthy and powerful individual that can make anyone's financial dreams a reality, but in actual fact is nearly penniless).  Driven by pure greed for land and money (kind of like Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in the SUPERMAN films), this egomaniacal fraud decides to get close and cozy with Barbara when he learns that she has located the Dreamstone.  Like many a comic book villain, Maxwell never sees himself as pure evil ("I'm a TV personality and respected businessman!" he pathetically boasts), but when he does get his hand on the stone he makes a remarkably selfish minded, but smart wish: He wants the power of the Dreamstone itself.  Now, everything you'd think a petty crook would aspire to attain via granting anyone he comes across their wish...well...he gets it, and in the process slowly begins to unravel the very safe and secure fabric of world.  Barbara, on the other hand, made one simple wish when she had it: To be as sexy, respected, and powerful as her boss in Diana, and she did so without fully knowing her alter ego. 

Let's talk about the time period used here.  The 1980s, it could be argued, has been done to relative nostalgic death in modern fiction, but it does serve a couple of worthy purposes here in terms of (a) giving us a look and feel to this sequel that's the exact polar opposite of the gloomy trench warfare imagery of the last WONDER WOMAN and (b) being set far apart from that film, but not as close to today to the point when this narrative would confusingly intertwine with the contemporary events of the DCEU.  Co-writer and director Patty Jenkins (thankfully returning again for round two) has a lot of fun with this new vibe here, but doesn't go too far with the period decor and costumes to alarmingly garish effect (it's all subtle and tasteful).  What this new setting does do exceedingly well is to find a contrived, but nevertheless light and fun twist on the first entry's fish out of water subplot of Diana leaving her mystical home and discovering the world of man in 1918.  Now, it's Steve that's the fish out of water, and WONDER WOMAN 1984 has a lot of fun at his expense, showing him in various states of slack jawed amazement at modern technological innovations, like jumbo airplanes that can cross continents, subways, escalators, and, God help him, fanny packs and parachute pants ("Does everyone parachute in this time," he amusingly asks Diana). 

The budding romance between Steve and Diana was the emotional epicenter of WONDER WOMAN, so I certainly understand the motivation to bring him back (albeit, via a magic rock).  Pine is in really fine form again here (he does a remarkable job of accurately relaying Steve's giddy, childlike bewilderment at everything in 1984 that he comes across) and he still has superb and easy going chemistry with Gadot.  It's a trip to see them share the screen again, granted, in a reverse circumstances.  I think it's also deceptively easy to overlook how good Gadot is again as Wonder Woman, who still has a statuesque beauty alongside an infectious aura of nobility, courage, and earnestness.  Gadot may not have tremendous range as a performer, but she crafts a mighty on-screen presence and never overplays her hero to cartoonist effect.  And I was frankly surprised by the emotional payoff that Steve's resurrection has later on in the film in terms of further allowing Diana to evolve into a more powerful being that's only just begun to realize the full magnitude of her abilities. 

Pascal's Lord is kind of an emotional foil to the understated performances of Gadot and Pine here.  He's dialed into pure scenery chewing mode as his megalomaniacal huckster who gets in way, way over his head when the power of the Dreamstone starts to have its way with him (emotionally and physically).  Having this Ponzi-scheme loving charlatan bare a semi-resemblance to our current American President may or may not be coincidental (both are reality TV stars that have been granted extraordinary powers), but Lord ties nicely into the underlining sentiment that permeated the 80s as a whole: greed is good...greed works.  I couldn't think of a more threatening power for a super villain to have in a film like this than the ability to give instant gratification to those he comes in contact with and provide everything they want during this period of wanton excess.  In a way, he's an intriguing reflection of the unhealthy gluttony of consumer consumption of the eighties, but also ties into the larger moral lesson of being careful what you wish for and how wish fulfillment can be unendingly damaging.  Wonder Woman is a gallant symbol of truth and justice, whereas Lord peddles in destructive lies.  Pascal plays up to all of the histrionic extremes of this flamboyant antagonist, and he does come off as more than a bit hammy at times, but there's a lot more going on under the surface than I was frankly expecting. 

This brings us to Wiig's atypical casting as the other villain of the piece, who goes from being someone so deeply unsure of herself within her own skin that - after her own wish - literally becomes as strong as Diana herself, which allows the former to flaunt her newfangled abilities to highly damaging ways that makes her a threat.  We've kind of seen the trajectory of these types of baddies before in comic book cinema (the meek and mild mannered klutz that worships the hero and then becomes one of their biggest adversaries due to twists of fate), which gives Barbara a sense of been-there, done-that as a character.  Still, I liked the outside of the box audacity in casting Wiig here as her apex predator in training, as it allows her to come out of her performance comfort window.  There's something to be said as to whether WONDER WOMAN 1984 really needed two villains, which is fair (this is an issue that has plagued multiple comic book themed sequels before).  That, and seeing Barbara transform into something even more monstrous for the film's climax should have paid off much more, seeing as the very hasty and unpolished CG work employed sort of betrays said transformation. 

Ultimately, that's one of WONDER WOMAN 1984's most difficult to ignore issues: needless bloat.  It commits a common blockbuster sequel sin of thinking that bigger and more equals better.  There's nothing inherently wrong with switching things up and daring to different (which this film absolutely does), but there's simply a lot that's introduced, explained, and elaborated on throughout the course of the screenplay (overload is glaring here).  The running time is also problematic, and at a gargantuan 150 minutes WONDER WOMAN 1984 struggles to validate such a runtime.  Plus, it takes this film a terribly long time to put the costumed Wonder Woman back into her own film, which may have many viewers frequently checking their watches.  When Jenkins and Gadot do unleash her, though, in her full Amazonian glory, WONDER WOMAN 1984 offers some stupendous, large scale set pieces that does this hero full justice.  Aside from the totally rad opening shopping mall sequence mentioned earlier, Jenkins also gives us a stunner set on a highway in the Egyptian desert that shows Diana running at super speed in making chase against Lord and a squadron his heavily fortified armored cars, and she proceeds to fly and crash through them in ways only she's capable of.  It's all so gloriously silly, but it sure feels like comic book panels of old leaping on to the silver screen and giving Wonder Woman fans precisely what they want to see. 

And Wonder Woman remains such a potent figure of untiring dignity.  Again, it's interesting placing her knee deep in the middle of a decade made infamous for its superficiality and me-first neediness...and then she has to face off against a super villain that can essentially fulfill everyone's voracious impulses for wealth, fame, and notoriety.  WONDER WOMAN 1984 builds to a chaotic, but enthralling showdown between Lord and Diana (between symbols of falsehood and honesty) where she must stop this madmen from plunging everyone deeper into near apocalyptic chaos as a result of his wish granting powers making the planet implode on itself.  The film concludes on a noble minded and inviting message of hope, which is welcome considering our current pandemic and how dark the DCEU got off to in its early days.  For those that have bemoaned the lack of brightness in the DCEU during its opening stages, WONDER WOMAN 1984 fully embraces its sometimes preposterous comic bookiness like a badge of honor and doesn't try to subvert it.  That's why Wonder Woman remains the emotional heartbeat of larger and somewhat fractured DCEU; she just might be the go-to hero we all need right now.  And as a piece of pure hearted comic book escapism, this one goes down much easier than most. 

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