Where to begin with the jumbled but sporadically interesting mess that is Wonder Woman 1984? Well, the beginning is a good place to begin, because that’s the movie’s best part. WW84, as we would call it if we were only paying attention to its title card, starts with a bang. We’re thrown into a flashback to the childhood of Diana Prince, when she was still on Themyscira, preparing to compete in an athletic competition that might be their version of the Olympics. Diana, unique specimen that she is, is the only child competing against a bunch of impossibly exceptional Amazonian women, and boy what a competition it is.
The camera helicopters in (really, it’s all digital) on a cliffside stadium, with a kind of whirling orb of various interlocking mechanics at its centre, which might give Rube Goldberg a stiffy. These moving platforms and obstacles are the gauntlet through which the athletes will run and climb, their gleaming brass surfaces reflecting the bright sun. Emerging out the other side entitles a competitor to dive a thousand feet into the glistening waters below, at which point she swims to the shore and climbs on horseback. At which point we realise this competition has only just begun.
The amount of creativity contained in these opening 15 minutes seems like it should be a harbinger of things to come, but alas, that’s not really so. Well, it is a harbinger in the sense that it really has nothing to do with the rest of the story, which will become a common refrain as this movie moves along. A conflict is supposed to be established that Diana is not yet ready to win – she has to “cheat” to get back into the race when she falls off her horse – but that theme literally plays no role in the remaining 2+ hours of the movie. The opening bang gives way to increasingly lesser bangs, which have increasingly less to do with each other, until at times it feels like they are strung together in random order. Such is Wonder Woman 1984.
We come in on Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in the year 1984, you will not be surprised to learn, when she is a specialist on ancient artefacts working for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. She’s still not over the loss of her World War I love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), as we can tell from the photos strewn around her apartment. But life goes on – has been going on for nearly 70 years – and she’s doing the day to day successfully enough, though still has never given love a second try.
Diana’s existence is upended by the entrance of two new characters. One is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a mousy new hire by the Smithsonian, the type who’s so unassuming that the douchebags who work with her will not even stop to help when she inevitably spills her paperwork all over the floor. The other is Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a suspiciously Trumpian TV personality who markets an appearance of success but is secretly broke. The three are brought on a collision course by their interest in a sort of phallic-looking geode/crystal rock thingy that pops up as part of an FBI investigation into a robbery at a local shopping mall, which Diana also happens to have helped thwart, in the guise of her alter ego, the still-never-named-on-screen Wonder Woman.
It turns out this phallic-looking geode/crystal rock thingy can grant wishes, and pretty soon, each of these three has made some kind of wish/deal with the devil that starts to come true – Diana sort of accidentally, since she doesn’t, you know, want to take over the world like the other two do. Diana’s wish does have a pretty big impact on her, though, as her lost love is suddenly reincarnated in the body of a 1984 twentysomething hunk (Kristoffer Polaha) – though she only sees Chris Pine.
It was smart to bring Pine back given how great he was in returning director Patty Jenkins’ original Wonder Woman from 2017. He was the perfect comic foil to Gadot in her breakout performance as one of the first female superheroes with her own movie, a truly aspirational figure for young girls everywhere. In one of the only instances in Wonder Woman 1984 where we actually get less of something, we get less of what both Pine and Gadot bring to the table. He’s still funny and she’s still aspirational, but the purity of the way they connected with the audience is muddied by a plot that suffers from typical sequelitis, characterised by multiple villain disorder and a fatal enlargement of the set pieces.
Simply put, this story is all over the place, but its most glaring flaws can be summed up pretty easily. One is that the rules of the film’s central conceit are not properly established. The second is that the central conceit is wacko. Both of these relate to this mystery geological formation that can grant wishes. The origin of its powers are something ancient that relates to the gods – you can see the screenwriters brushing off the explanation with a wave of their hand – but they subject this world to way too much mystical reality warping. Superhero movies have been willing to go off the rails bending reality in recent years, with such Marvel movies as Doctor Strange and the final two Avengers movies, but when there isn’t the storytelling to back it up, it just bends our suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. A world where even the most impossible of existential wishes is immediately granted is just not a world that makes any sense, even by the loose standards of comic book movies.
It’s a notable departure from the first Wonder Woman, which, yes, dealt with gods, but grounded everything about its World War I setting in a basic reality with which it did not meddle. The same can’t be said of this 1984, which lands some basic cheap 80s nostalgia but serves little other purpose. And since this world is not as interesting as World War I, it gets easily gobbled up by all the wish fulfilment, and lost in the general hullabaloo.
Wonder Woman 1984 had the unenviable task of carrying the torch for all big budget 2020 movies that couldn’t make their release dates due to the pandemic. It couldn’t make its release date either, but it bravely debuted at Christmas – in cinemas here, on HBOMax in the States – as a determination to deliver the world some much-needed Hollywood spectacle around the holidays. It serves that purpose, and just for the sheer foolhardy courageousness of that decision, it’s worth applauding on some level. But on another level, it reminds us that even when superhero movies are as good as the original Wonder Woman, they can rarely sustain that magic. They’re much more likely to get weighted down by superfluous villains smashing each other through too many walls.