‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Review: A diminishing return

Wonder Woman 1984
Warner Bros/DC Comics

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984.

At the weird, gooey center of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 lies an object that a character describes is like “the monkey’s paw,” in which said object bestows a wish upon its user and exacts a dramatic toll for its reality-bending meddling, and in the middle of the film I could feel a finger on my own personal (imaginary) paw curling up. When I wished for superhero films to be broader and campier in their own way, for them to have fun again, I didn’t realize it would lead to something like this. It’s a bloated mess that totally misunderstands what made the original film resonate so strongly with audiences, and boy, is it dull, especially when, if you wanted ’80s camp, the Helen Slater-starring Supergirl will be sitting across from it on HBO Max on the exact same day. That’s a genuinely bizarre movie, and a better encapsulation of its era than anything on display here.

Cue the “Blue Monday ’88” four years early, motherfuckers: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has reached the year both George Orwell and Walter Mondale feared. After an intro sequence documenting young Diana cheating to win at the Amazonian equivalent of the Olympic Games and getting scolded by a contract-fulfilling Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, we pick up with Diana right around the time that Frankie Goes to Hollywood topped the charts and everything sucked for everyone who wasn’t a middle-class nerdy child who didn’t know how bad shit was. She does her superheroism as a side-hustle, as she works days at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist. One day, said “Monkey’s Paw,” a “Dreamstone,” arrives across her desk, and she and some colleagues, including the mousey-and-kind Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) begin wishing on it, as a gag. But Diana pauses for a second and really wishes she had the one thing in her life that would complete her — her beloved beau, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who died a half-century earlier. Sure enough, Diana’s wish is granted, and Trevor returns somehow, but their happy reunion is spoiled when a big oil-related con-man named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) makes a play for the stone and threatens the world in the process. You know how these things go.

It’s almost weird how steady and consistent Diana is written in the film itself — she hasn’t changed very much since the first Wonder Woman, outside of being able to be less weird around others. Gadot once again tries her best, but one can feel Pine’s absence before he makes his way into the film. Unless she’s doing specific types of superheroics — winking at children before tossing them into well-placed teddy bears out of the danger they’ve found themselves in, or resolutely heading into battle after making a hard sacrifice — she flounders a bit, partially because of poor scene-to-scene writing, and because the most interesting conflict in the first Wonder Woman isn’t replicated for her or explored further here. The reason that film works so well is that it’s rooted in this being Diana’s exposure to the World of Man at one of the absolute worst points in modern history, and how she responds to it. The iconography of her stepping over the top and deflecting bullets from German soldiers is made meaningful by her steadfast commitment to doing something to stop violence that Trevor tells her is inevitable, which she succeeds at doing. The attempts to echo those moments in 1984 all fall flat because of that lack of meaning, and no matter how many images you show me of Diana doing her best Kal-El, soaking up that sunlight high in the clouds, it can’t compare.

That’s not to say there’s not any measure of culture conflict here, though this time the roles are reversed: Where Trevor was Diana’s guide through his world, Diana is now his minder through a world of parachute pants and Pop-Tarts. It’s almost exclusively gag-based, with little of the type of reflection you’d hope would follow some of these moments (honestly, waking up in 2094 would be a waking nightmare, knowing that everyone you loved was dead and everything you valued has either disappeared or morphed into something unrecognizable), but, again, this is a funny blockbuster, so there’s no real room for that, I guess. Pine’s a sturdy hand in situations like this, and he’s easily the most charming thing about the film, though some of his rakishness, a key aspect of his appeal, has been stripped of him here. He’s also saddled with a particularly bizarre story thanks to our “Monkey’s Paw,” which puts the film’s final moments in a slightly discomforting light once considered for more than a minute and a half. However, Pine’s presence means that Jenkins can indulge one of her great filmmaking loves — flight — and a scene in which the pair take flight in a commandeered jumbo jet over Washington, D.C. is as lovely as it is awe-inspiring. I still wish she’d been able to make that biopic with the recently-deceased Chuck Yeager, but I’m sure she’ll have a lot of fun making Rogue Squadron for Disney, given that it seems this iteration of the DCEU is over and done with and her time in the system is over.

Perhaps the novelty of the first Wonder Woman‘s setting might have been preserved had Jenkins and her compatriots settled on a time period other than the ’80s, which is ground so well-trod at this point by nostalgia-filled action filmmakers that one can almost still see the impressions Charlize Theron’s platform boots and Millie Bobby Brown’s chucks left upon the soil (and the fact that not one of them has had the gall to use Killing Joke’s “Eighties” in any capacity remains a shame). To be fair, a lot of work went into paying proper tribute to mall culture — including a slavish recreation of a Waldenbooks and various sly references to Commando‘s mall chase — and to the Jane Fonda Workout era of fitness, full of leg-warmers and pastels. Sure, they’re low-hanging fruit, but they are done well, and Jenkins warmly and lovingly shoots all of it in a warm tungsten haze, as if she’s both trying to apologize for the Snyder-mandated blue hue of the previous film and extract her own memories of the decade from amber in order to reconstruct its DNA for the screen, and the color just proved to be a side effect. I can understand why she’s bummed that you might not get to see this on the big screen: Even disregarding the over-sized nature of this spectacle, one can much easily see the seams at home, as the small screen brings out every little flaw in the CGI or the set dressing like one’s taking a blacklight to their roommate’s mattress. Some things were just not to be seen through that lens, initially.

Our villains are firmly rooted in Issues of the Day as well, and whatever devil is in charge of Greed down in Hell in the DC Universe was probably eating well for a bit. I’ve seen certain people claim that Pascal’s take on Lord is wholly derivative of our soon-to-be-former President, and while I believe some of that holds — my man loves himself a gold mane and probably sucks at golf — but it feels more in line with Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, being more of a greedy, scheming buffoon who hobnobs and swindles from the rich and powerful (then again, he’s got a capacity for change that neither of those characters shows, as you’ll see later on). He’s even got a combo Ms. Teschmacher and Otis in Wiig’s Minerva, who begins the film as a typical Wiig character — awkward, overdressed and goofy, buoyed by a massive heart — and transforms, thanks to the “Monkey’s Paw” at the heart of the story, into the villainous Cheetah after an extended bit where she essentially glows-up like she’s a misfit in a John Hughes film transformed by a popular kid’s attention. The particulars of this character, well-known to nerds but a little less so to the general audience, were always going to be a hard sell after Cats, and I’m sad to say that the effects work done to transform her here are better than in that film, but not by much. Both of these portrayals — who have the barest resemblance to their comic counterparts — feel like they’ve been preserved in solid blocks of ice for the last 40 years from some abandoned concept for a Richard Lester Superman IV and were defrosted and reconstructed by Jenkins and her writers into Wonder Woman villains.

To be fair, I thought of Lester a lot during Wonder Woman 1984, and how this film seems deliberately made to resemble the kind of superhero film that was most often released back in his heyday as the man in charge of Superman. You could do a line-by-line comparison of plot points and find plenty of similarities (it should be noted that the “giving up powers for love” point has been often done in these films, but rarely is it done as half-baked as it is here). Jenkins loves the same kind of quick-cut slapstick humor that he infused into action-filled sections of Richard Donner’s version of Superman II after Donner was fired off the project, and he also enjoyed juxtaposing comedians with superheroics like he did when he gave Richard Pryor in Superman III co-lead status. The sprawl of the film is another thing — it’s a proper epic, coming in at 151 minutes, when the story probably could have been told better in half of that time, but hey, it’s a prestige picture. Or, well, it was, before the telecom got its mitts on it. But the main point of comparison between the two is the valley in quality between the first installment and the second, though Jenkins doesn’t have the excuse of being a director put in charge of another man’s project in that case. It’s Superman II without the iconography of General Zod and more horseshit humor, and fundamentally misunderstands what made people enjoy the first film — or the character — so beloved after their first big-screen outing.