The expectations for Patty Jenkins’ follow-up to her 2017 commercial and critical success “Wonder Woman” are high. Amidst the morass of the DC Extended Universe, Wonder Woman emerged as a resplendent beacon of dynamism and joy. With this success, and a rich back catalogue of stories to draw from, where Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince went next was a matter of great anticipation. The shifting release date due to the Covid-19 pandemic served to whet audiences’ appetites even more.
Wonder Woman 1984 delivers many of the same delights as the earlier film. Gadot (“Justice League”) is, appropriately enough, a wonder: Her charisma, elegance and power make Diana an engaging and magnetic presence. What is notable about this sequel is that Diana is no longer a fish-out-of-water — now at home in the modern world, she displays poise and confidence that those around her, especially Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, “Masterminds”), can aspire to. Aspiration is a central theme of the film, as wishes and wish fulfillment, as well as their dangers, form the narrative crux and receive some exploration. Yet the fantasy of wishes is sometimes heavy-handedly juxtaposed against the importance of truth. From the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, “Extinction”) competing in Themyscira to the elaborate displays of entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, “Triple Frontier”), hopes, dreams and desires interweave with the acceptance of and indeed potential of reality.
It is interesting that a film founded upon myth and fantasy emphasizes the need to accept the real, and this may account for the thematic and narrative unwieldiness of Wonder Woman 1984. Central tenets of the superhero genre like hope, compassion and the proper uses of power are present, but are jumbled with this tension between wishes and reality. Repeated mentions of the classic tale of “The Monkey’s Paw” serve as a rather clunky reminder to be careful what you wish for, and the wider ramifications of unmitigated wishing appear in unexpected but often underpowered ways. One source of criticism that the first film came in for was the simplistic notion of love saving the world — ironically this idea comes up in Wonder Woman 1984 but with insufficient emphasis to be persuasive, whereas if it had been the central thread the film might be more convincing. As it is, many scenes work fine on their own, but the various elements do not always come together in a satisfying whole.
These individual scenes do offer much to enjoy. The interplay between Diana and Barbara is excellent, Gadot’s reserved performance style playing well against Wiig’s brilliant comedic timing. Further comedy is provided by a new fish-out-of-water scenario, as the return of Chris Pine’s (“Hell or High Water”) Steve Trevor (not a spoiler, he’s in the trailer) allows him to experience a strange new world much as Diana did in London of World War I. This might be the best part of the film, as Steve is dazzled by new technology and befuddled by modern art. Best of all is a montage where Steve tries on different outfits, a neat reversal of a similar scene involving clothes for Diana the first film that playfully inverts gender norms and highlights the fluidity and constructed nature of identity. 80’s fashions and designs are on full display and sometimes the artifice becomes a little grating, which again seems like a too overt highlighting of fantasy and reality. Is the film trying to critique nostalgia? If so, it needed to be sharper in order to do so effectively. The problem seems to come from the script, with the story written by Jenkins along with Geoff Johns, who both share credit with Dave Callaham on the screenplay. Maybe this is a case of too many ingredients going into the pot and thus diluting each other’s flavor.
On the action side of things, Jenkins delivers on the awe and spectacle, while director of photography Matthew Jensen’s lenses Aline Bonetto’s bright production design in vibrant color, contrasting with the dour shades of the first film. Diana moves through combat sequences with speed, grace and power, slamming bodies and bullets with grand aplomb. Slo-mo sequences of Wonder Woman’s famous jumps remind us of her semi-deity status, while the inclusion of vulnerability ensures that she is never less than a human presence. Digital effects are used to enhance physicality, giving a sense of embodied dynamism rather than the distancing effect of super-beings lobbing energy strikes at each other. Some aerial set pieces are unnecessary, but the fight sequences between Diana and Barbara are especially thrilling, the combat imbued with an interpersonal dimension reminiscent of those between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in “Captain America: Civil War.”
The arcs of Diana and Barbara, including their clash, is indicative of the film’s gender politics, which are firmly in the right place. Diana has a duty that she fulfills, and her eventual decision works as a demonstration of women being expected to do what is necessary. Arguably this is true of all heroes, especially superheroes who accept that with great power comes great responsibility (where have we heard that before?), but when compared with Barbara’s arc this takes on a further meaning. Barbara’s downtrodden position and subsequent rise is understandable, as is her desire not to give up what she has acquired. A device around heels lends this conceit a smart gender twist. Furthermore, two key scenes involving gender-based assault highlight the gender politics of power, and serve to make this adversarial figure sympathetic and perhaps more representative of women than the larger-than-life super-heroine.
Furthermore, the film’s engagement with presentation, sales and showmanship makes it an interesting Trump-era film. Max’s appearance (especially his hair) is reminiscent of the 45th POTUS, and the platitudes that this TV salesman offers also sound familiar. This again ties to the dangers of wish fulfillment, as the film demonstrates widespread problems and dangers associated with simply wishing rather than considering consequences. Come the finale of the film, a message of individual responsibility for collective good works as a counterpoint to unmitigated solipsism, but this is again undercut with an unnecessary familial dimension. Ultimately, Wonder Woman 1984 is certainly enjoyable, but it feels like more focus would have given it the necessary wonder.