Wonder Woman has been a symbol of power for me since I saw her in Bruce Timm’s Justice League. Her intimidating presence and strength all balanced with her vulnerability and empathy. This is what was brought to Scott Snyder’s Dark Nights: Death Metal series which is a Wonder Woman story at its heart. And while I didn’t find myself in love with 2017’s Wonder Woman the way others were, due in large part to not being able to see myself in the film, I could see how the film worked and empowered others who were deeply in love with it. Now, with Wonder Woman 1984, another female-centered superhero period piece, and a direct sequel to Wonder Woman, we’re given a version of the titular character that expands the mythos of the property and also offers a message and lesson on selflessness.
Directed and written by Patty Jenkins, along with writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, Wonder Woman 1984 is Gal Gadot‘s fourth time putting on the hero’s gauntlets in DC’s cinematic universe. Rounding out the cast of the film is Chris Pine returning as Steve Trevor, Kristen Wiig stepping into the role of Barbara, or as fans know her, Cheetah. Additionally, Pedro Pascal is the big bad of the film, Maxwell Lord and brings every once of charisma and charm needed for the role.
In Wonder Woman 1984, Diana Prince has been living quietly among mortals since the events of the first film – unless she needs to step in to save patrons from robbers. Now in the 1980s which is characterized as an era of excess driven by the pursuit of having it all, Diana has chosen a life of scholarship and anthropology. While Diana has come into her full powers, she maintains a low profile by curating ancient artifacts only but soon, Diana is forced to muster all of her strength, wisdom, and courage as she finds herself squaring off against Maxwell Lord and his pursuit of “more.” More power, more money, more success, just more.
Right off the bat, Wonder Woman 1984 has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to world-building. In a new time period, the two and a half-hour movie has to make time to introduce to Diana’s new life, new characters, and a whole new set of rules that shows new ways to interact with the world. This is a burden that pushes the film’s long runtime at a very slow and methodical pace. With large action sequences that break up the film’s acts and a stunning finale, the moments of grandeur have a hard time balancing out the slower and dialogue-heavy section of the film. Too long is something I try not to say in regards to films, but too long without a narrative that keeps pulling its audience in causes Wonder Woman 1984 to feel even longer.
But while we don’t get any grand action sequences or a fast pace, the action the film does offer is phenomenal. While we have all seen elements of the mall fight sequence, the film offers a wonderful sequence that shows Diana getting creative with the caravan of cars she’s pursuing and integrates more of her lasso. It’s a strong action section of the film that pulled me back in while the story began to slip. Additionally, Diana’s confrontation of Cheetah and Lord is riveting and emotional in a way that delivers on both fronts. That said, there are moments of lackluster effects work, most notably when Diana saves two children in the middle of the road only to roll with them in her arms and have very easily recognizable dummies in their place. It’s not American Sniper level bad, but it isn’t great.
Then there come the issues of representation. First Barbara is a villain. We know this. As a character, Cheetah’s role in the comics is as Diana’s rival. Rooted in their pre-existing relationship of mutual respect, Cheetah’s push to villainy is deeply embedded in her inferiority complex and how it pertains to Diana. This is replicated in the film and is a strong piece of it. That said, this is only in the final act. Instead, the bulk of Barbara’s growth into Cheetah is deeply rooted in men.
While she comes into her powers and takes revenge on a man who has been harassing her – a moment where she becomes villainous that quite frankly doesn’t seem to empower, given the man she beats up is not only a catcaller but physically assaults her, to give her the villain score and lighting at that moment is odd. But even after that, her pursuit of power warps from being rooted in her self and becomes a need to protect Maxwell Lord, out of either love or out of a need to keep her power – the narrative isn’t entirely clear here. As Barbara becomes Cheetah, her CGI look is well-done and intimidating and should be applauded, but the journey to becoming an apex predator is marred by bad narrative choices.
I would remiss to not also note the issues with Middle East and North African (MENA) representation, more specifically how the film seems to offer a parallel to the Israel/Palestine conflict that is not only extremely overt but completely lacking nuance. It’s a section of the film that left me with more questions than answers and feels even more awkward with Gadot’s time in the IDF and the criticism she’s faced for it.
But while those elements make me question the film, there are moments of greatness within it that outweigh the cringe and the bland. The first of these is the costuming. From the golden armor that awed people in the first promotional material to the baggy suits that Gadot’s wears with a charisma I wish translated to her dialogue, the costuming in Wonder Woman 1984 is stunning. Living through iconic elements of the 1980s, the film also does an amazing job of highlighting lesser fashions and stearing clear of the tradition shticks that are used in media showcasing this time period. Additionally, Diana’s personality is worn, in a way I don’t think happened in any of her other appearances. There is a regal quality to all of Diana’s clothing in the film, and her gravitation towards suits feels like a conscious choice to showcase that in any room, she is in control.
Enter another one of the film’s successes: Pedro Pascal. With his rendition of Maxwell Lord, Pascal brings the charisma and charm of not only a playboy but also a charlatan. He oscillates between these two personas easily and it seals the deal on his character. The ability to switch between a pitiful man, charismatic gentleman, and sleazy cars salesman is wonderfully crafted. Even stronger is how the film uses his Latinidad, while brief, to create a backstory that exists to draw empathy with the character and be a moment of reflection for him.
If there is one thing that saves Wonder Woman 1984 for me, it’s the larger theme of selflessness and struggle. In a time where it’s hard to make yourself care for others who won’t care for themselves (you know, the anti-maskers and holiday travelers who somehow have decided we’re not in a pandemic), the film asks its audience to think beyond their personal issues. You may struggle. You may be in pain. But none of that is an excuse to hurt those around you. A push for power and for what you think you are deserved should not harm people. And ultimately, sometimes you will need to look beyond your needs and wants to make the right decision. But while this is a generic call for empathy that many people might note in other mediums, it’s how the film centers Diana in the narrative that makes it succeed.
Diana wants one thing. Steve. He is the one this she has allowed herself to cling to and reach to. She sacrifices parts of herself daily, and for once would like joy, if but for a moment. Diana’s struggle with wanting happiness while understanding the choice she has to make is not only powerful to watch on screen, it’s also something that many of us can identify with. While it is easy to dismiss this specific plot point as too much romance, when you live your life for everyone else, wanting just one thing for yourself is not only understandable, but deeply human.
Overall, Wonder Woman 1984 offers an emotional narrative that will land for many. While it could have easily been shorter and has its problematic elements, it isn’t a dud. Fans of Jenkin’s first superhero outing will be thrilled, that is a fact. But for a character who has inspired me every day since I first saw her on Toonami, I want more from her franchise, and I’m beginning to think I always will.
Wonder Woman releases in theaters on HBO Max December 25, 2020.
Wonder Woman 1984
Overall, Wonder Woman 1984 offers an emotional narrative that will land for many. While it could have easily been shorter and has its problematic elements, it isn’t a dud. Fans of Jenkin’s first superhero outing will be thrilled, that is a fact. But for a character who has inspired me every day since I saw I saw her on Toonami, I want more from her franchise, and I’m beginning to think I always will.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.