“No true hero is born from lies.”
In 2017, Warner Bros. and DC released Wonder Woman; the first superhero movie of the modern era to be centred around a female lead character, and the first attempt at a female-lead comic book movie since 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, crashed and burned both critically and financially. DC were onto a winner; not only did they beat Marvel to the punch on a female-lead superhero film, but they also brought in the well-renowned Patty Jenkins to write and direct. The movie hit the landscape to critical and audience acclaim, and presented a shining light for the potential future of the DC Extended Universe (or DCEU for short); a venture that had, until that point, been met with mixed success. Was Wonder Woman the turning point for DC’s big screen challenge to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Legacy, however, can be a difficult thing, and the legacy of the DCEU is certainly shaping up like no other experiment in the history of cinema. While this is not the time for an analysis of the full DCEU output so far; Wonder Woman 1984 (or WW84) is a fascinating example of the best and worst that the project has had to offer so far. No longer is DC simply competing with Marvel for superhero supremacy at the box office; but also with an out-of-control pandemic that has seen the majority of the world’s cinemas closed for the best part of 12 months. Opting to release the film on-demand through their HBO Max streaming service in the US, and other similar services in markets without access to cinema, DC took the ultimate risk – taking the first viewing of the first superhero film since 2019 out of the cinema, and straight into our homes. Does WW84 have what it takes to make that jump work?
WW84 sees us rejoining Gal Gadot (Justice League) as Diana, Princess of Themyscira (known as Diana Prince in everyday life); who is working in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C, 66 years after the events of the first Wonder Woman film; while secretly engaging in feats of heroism on the side to keep the people of the world safe. That endeavour becomes more difficult when, following a jewellery store robbery that Diana herself thwarted; her Smithsonian colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Ghostbusters: Answer The Call) is brought a number of artifacts by the FBI, including a particular item that is sought after by TV personality and deceitful businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian); one which will eventually give Lord the ability to change the landscape of the world forever – if Diana can not stop him.
The plot of this film is pretty standard superhero fare; power-hungry villain who desires to attain more power and wealth engages in an action that threatens the human race, and must be stopped. There are elements that make this take on it different, though they’re hard to discuss without stepping into spoiler territory, which I prefer to avoid; but Wonder Woman’s grounding in mythology allows the nature of this film’s central MacGuffin* to take on an interesting slant in terms of origin. While the first film saw Diana, daughter of the Greek King of the Gods Zeus, going head-to-head with Ares, the Greek God of War; WW84 adopts a more secular approach to the origin of central plot device. She describes the inscription on the side as being “the language of the Gods”, and while a specific character from the Wonder Woman lore is attributed to its creation; the item is referenced as having been present at the downfall of a number of prominent civilisations across the world, such as the fall of Roman Empire and the end of the Mayans; meaning that this particular plot device is not rooted firmly in the mythology of the ancient Greeks, but could be theoretically linked to any nation and religion in history. This approach should be celebrated; allowing those less familiar with the history of the ancient Greeks to understand the significance of the object in a more direct way, without needing the background knowledge of the lineage of the Greek gods to understand Diana’s personal connection to it.
Speaking of Diana, Gadot delivers another solid performance akin to her solo debut, but the difference in construction of this film does more to highlight her weaknesses on screen. When we join Diana in 1984, we see that she has mostly been living a life of isolation; 66 years after the end of the First World War, all the people who fought alongside her are most likely dead, and Diana has to be careful who she keeps company with to ensure nobody realises that she has barely aged a day since 1918. Gadot is not as experienced an actor as you would expect from the lead of franchise of this magnitude, and she is at her best when she has somebody with her to play off, or when she is deeply engaged in the action set-pieces; and the more lengthy monologues she has been given in this sequel only serve to highlight her inexperience on screen.
Fortunately, the nature of the story results in the return of Chris Pine (Star Trek), unexpectedly reprising his role as Steve Trevor. The chemistry between these two is as palpable in WW84 as it was in the original, and Pine and Gadot definitely seem to be having a lot of fun together. This is particularly noticeable in the first few scenes following Trevor’s reappearance, where the story leans into a role reversal from the first movie and Diana works to bring Trevor up to speed on the advancements of the 21st century that he has missed. While Pine’s presence is beneficial to the performances; there are unanswered questions regarding Trevor’s return that leave some pretty gaping issues of morality in the plot. The way in which he is returned seems simple enough in the moment, but as the film went on I couldn’t help but wonder why Diana, who is supposed to be representative of a higher sense of justice and morality, didn’t take even a moment to consider the potential ramifications of how Trevor had been brought back, and how that could affect others that were not directly connected to her and her desires (this is another aspect which is difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that thought there for the moment).
On the other side, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal seem to be relishing their roles in this film and also having a lot of fun with them. This is Wiig’s first opportunity to play a villain in a larger movie (to my knowledge), and her gradual personality change as she loses the kindness and empathy we see from Barbara in her introductory scenes and evolves into an out-and-out apex predator is a highlight of the film, and probably one of the finest pieces of character work in the DCEU overall so far, for me. We haven’t really seen a villain like her before in DC’s modern output; somebody who starts off in a role where they you would expect their path leading to them becoming a sidekick to the main hero; but Barbara becomes the villainous Cheetah instead. It’s a fascinating take on both the character and the very nature of what can lead to someone becoming a villain, and Wiig works through that development perfectly. The closest comparison to me would be with Aaron Eckhart’s performance as Harvey Dent and Two Face in The Dark Knight; but even then, the scenarios are not the same and the way the Barbara/Cheetah character is handled is fascinating.
Similarly, and perhaps to a greater extent; Pascal seems to be having the time of his life with Maxwell Lord; a sleazy con-artist who manipulates his way to ever-increasing levels of wealth, power and influence, brought about by the previously-mentioned MacGuffin*. Our first glimpse of Lord is on cheesy, exaggerated TV adverts for the pyramid scheme that he manages; one that has been built on a lie and is on the edge of collapse. His reversal of fortune, generated through supernatural means; are the trigger for the main threat of the plot, and watching Pascal move Lord from oily scam artist to a power-mad despot who has been blinded to the inconceivably damaging effects of his greed is a joy. One can’t help but wonder as to whether Lord was written and played to purposefully reflect certain other figures of international prominence in the modern day, whose obsession with having a world-reaching sphere of influence could be argued to have lead the world down a dangerous and difficult path; but I am not one to presume the more subtle intentions of a filmmaker of cast member without evidence to back it up… though Lord does have a very particular hair colour…
Performances aside, Patty Jenkins visual realisation of the 1980’s on the screen is a joy to behold; with the sequence introducing us to Diana’s place in the Washington D.C of 1984 being a bright, noisy landscape of colour and action, which works well to establish the time-setting in an almost pulpy, hyper-realistic memory of what modern nostalgia for the 80’s presents it as; with the kind of bold primary colours and flashes of caricatured extras that one could perhaps expect to see on the pages of a Wonder Woman comic printed in that decade.
Jenkins’ 80’s continues to live in that world for the majority of the film, with various locations, such as Maxwell Lord’s unnecessarily gargantuan office building, gaudily decorated with black and gold, helping to solidify that tone and keep the nostalgic thoughts humming away quietly in the background. Jenkins use of colour, rightfully lauded in the first film, are seen in other areas here too; with Diana standing out from the crowd at a gala event in a beautiful white dress contrasting against the dark coloured attire of the other guests; and the shine and colours of her Amazonian armour standing out in the dust and sand of a mid-film action sequence in the Middle East. Jenkins appreciation for colour contrast, in fact, is part of what contributes to one of the most disappointing sequences in the film, and that unfortunately is essentially the entire third act.
While there are inconsistencies and unanswered questions running through the plot of WW84, most of those can be forgiven; but the final sequence is something entirely different. Here we see Barbara’s transformation completed into the villainous Cheetah; an apex predator with the strength and speed to hold her own against Diana. Wiig’s performance and characterisation up until this point deserved a much better pay-off than she is given, and absolutely none of it is her fault. The CGI used to realise the transformation is underwhelming; making Barbara look more like a lost , ghostly cast member from Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Cats than a viable opponent for the demi-god princess of Themyscira. Cheetah’s design in the comics is vibrant; usually with striking orange fur and a sleek, muscular design, but the film presents us with something more akin to a knock-off jaguar onesie that your cousin is calling a Cheetah costume because she forgot to put something together for Hallowe’en. Wiig disappears into the background and a number of points during the fight, and while that could have been used purposefully to represent an interpretation of a real cheetah’s camouflaging ability while hunting; this is no doubt that was simply a misjudgment by the special effects team. The cinematography of this fight also doesn’t match up to the bright, colourful aesthetic of the rest of the film; instead using the cover of night to present a dark, grey landscape on which the two will fight, which certainly doesn’t help with Wiig’s visibility. This may have been an intentional move in order to highlight the colour and shine of Diana’s armour in the scene, akin to the No-Man’s-Land scene in the previous film; but the intent is not obvious and the contrast not as stark. Given the critiques levelled at DC for their drab, colourless landscapes in previous DCEU instalments, and the praise Jenkins has received for her use of colour in the previous Wonder Woman film (and the efficacy she brings earlier in this one); it feels like a misjudged choice to close off a film that has otherwise used its palate so triumphantly up to this point. Add in some of the aforementioned lengthy monologues for Diana, a plot resolution that feels somewhat lacking given the build to it, and the final act of Wonder Woman 1984 really lets down what otherwise is a fun, easy-going popcorn action flick – exactly the kind of thing we’ve been missing out on during the cinema shutdown over the last year.
One benefit to those who can only access WW84 on streaming services rather a trip to the cinema is the ability to pause for a bathroom break. Clocking in at 2 hours and 31 minutes, Wonder Woman 1984 is one of the longest solo-hero movies ever released; and despite the fact that, as mentioned above, there are key story beats that deserved more time to be given to them so the characters could truly come to terms with the weight of what they have done, and what has happened around them; this film feels long by the time it hits the credits. The final confrontation between Diana and Lord in particular seems to just… keep going, and despite the effort both Gadot and Lord are putting into it, it just didn’t need to be that long.
Wonder Woman 1984 is, for the most part, an enjoyable return to the world of superheroes; with a fun, silly premise; a great setting and some excellent performances. If you can forgive or ignore some of the inconsistencies, and if you’ve got the stamina for the runtime; this is a fine popcorn movie for a cold, rainy night – but it’s not as god as Wonder Woman.
*A MacGuffin is defined as an object that is central to the plot of a movie, but is otherwise unimportant in the overall story.