Wonder Woman 1984 is just one of those superhero blockbuster sequels that looked like it would have been derivative of any charms or originality that made its predecessor so special. That would be the case had it stuck with its original theatrical release format. But because these are trying times, and studio decided to release the sequel in theaters and on HBOMax, audiences have the chance to see the blockbuster from the safety and comfort of their choice. As such the film’s message of hope and optimism are conveyed with sincerity, it is the kind of superhero sequel that we could use to lift our spirits and precisely the relief needed to ease the pains of the situation that we are living with today.
It all opens with a sprawling shot of a beautiful Themyscira where an adolescent Diana is about to compete in a high-stakes and physically demanding race. The obstacles are dangerous, and the competitors will do anything to be in the lead as they leap from pillar to pillar and dodge battering rams. The young Diana holds her own against the much more competent and older rivals by using her wit and cunning to skim through the obstacle course. She even manages to use a shortcut to make up for the lost time when she loses her horse during the competition’s equestrian portion. And as she is about to cross the finish line, she is held off by the wise and powerful Antiope (Robin Wright), who teaches her a valuable lesson about truth and that there are no shortcuts to winning.
That lesson about who we are, what we deserve, and living in excess serves as the groundwork for Wonder Woman 1984’s story. And that will be repeated repeatedly during the film and be juxtaposed against the backdrop of some pretty electric action sequences that are either charmingly childish or rehashed material. We then flash forward to Washing DC 1984, where Diana is performing showstopping acts of heroism while also keeping a very low profile – Hey, it’s the 1980s. There are no social media platforms to catch her heroism on video for the internet to see. – But one of the more significant moments comes when she stops a jewelry heist while also saving innocent lives caught in the crossfire.
Diana returns to her new place of work at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. There she meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a shy and reclusive gemologist who is the very image of being a social wallflower. There, they learn that one of the gems from the heist requires further research. Though Barbara sees it as nothing more than just a rock, Diana discovers the gem has Latin markings, which tell that the person holding it can have their wish come true. Though the two don’t make much of it, they see that the rock may have powers as each one makes their wishes, and they both come true.
For Barbara she wishes to be just like Diana, who she sees as beautiful, confident, and strong. But for our selfless titular hero, she wishes for something more than to have power and be recognized by her peers. Diana wants nothing more than to be reunited with her long-lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Meanwhile, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a failed oil tycoon, learns that Diana and Barbara have the stone. He uses that television persona to con others to invest in his business. While his company is on the verge of collapsing, Max hatches a scheme to charm Barbara into giving him the stone so he can have the power to grant wishes.
While Diana, Barbara, and Max’s wishes come true, it’s not without its consequences. And the truth of the price of these wishes becomes the central theme for this film. In a way, it’s a different kind of “monkey’s paw,” which is symbolic of how its power can be alluring to anyone, even the unselfish, like Diana. It’s not merely a case of getting what we deserve or wanting more but being able to accept the penalties of these wishes no matter how altruistic or selfish it is.
For Diana, she wants nothing more than to be with Steve again. When that comes true, she is completely enamored and shocked by his return. He is even mystified by it. But neither question it because both are in each other’s arms once again. And though time may have separated the two, it’s like they were never apart. One particular scene captures the romance between the two as they fly in a jet across DC as fireworks ignite the sky during the Fourth of July. But now that he is here, she is the one who has to teach Steve about the modern way of life, which includes trying to stand still while on an escalator, the differences between art and trash, radar, and what’s fashionable.
As lovely as this reunion is, and the Diana and Steve relationship is the beating heart of this franchise, it comes at a cost. Diana is losing her superhuman strength and invulnerability. In a way, Steve’s revival is a test for Diana to see if her wish is worth the sacrifice, even when the world is falling into chaos.
It is the same for Barbara, who is kind but full of self-doubt. She believes that she deserves the same success as Diana because she set aside her social life and tirelessly worked to where she is now. Tired of being unseen by her colleagues and harassed by drunken misogynists, Barbara uses the stone to wish to be more like Diana, who she sees as strong and sexy. The wish gives her the confidence boost she needed. But like all wishes, it comes at a price as she slowly loses that warmth and kindness and transforms into her villainous Cheetah moniker. In a way, this is reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman from “Batman Returns” who takes the wrong path to become stronger.
The stone ends up being in another pair of wrong hands when it ends up in Max’s possession. He uses the stone’s power to be an all-mighty wish-granting being. Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a riff off the Trump image, where a man relies on media to deliver empty promises to make a desperate person wealthy. Although he isn’t an utterly detestable character as it is revealed that he is also a father who simply wants to give his son the things he never had. Of course, this makes him more sympathetic and allows us to see the businessman as someone who isn’t morally bankrupt, but just someone who has lost their way.
It’s clear what kind of story director Patty Jenkins wants to tell her audience. Right from the get-go, we learn that there are no shortcuts to life and that we don’t always get what we deserve. The film uses these wishes as a test for all of the characters to ramp up Jenkins’s message about excess and honesty, and how to stay optimistic in the face of self-doubt and great struggle. Ultimately, it serves as significant test for Diana, who must decide if her wish to keep Steve alive is worth keeping or if she should sacrifice her wish to save the world. This gives the film some much-needed stakes for the titular character as it takes far too much time to establish what Max and Barbara’s goals are.
Though these are villains in their own right the “Wonder Woman” isn’t sure how to handle its villains in a way for us to care. Sure, Barbara’s slow descent into bestial villainy is scary as she loses herself to the power and confidence she never had. And the same could be said for Max. But all this does really is reduce the impact of the villain, especially for Barbara. Wiig’s performance is fine, especially when we are introduced to her as the shy and awkward gemologist. The irony is that as scary as that transformation is, the closer she gets to becoming Cheetah, the duller the character gets.
As such, “Wonder Woman 1984” needs to split its time with Max, who is becoming more enamored by the power of the stone. Throughout the film, he is asking people for their wish so that he could grant them. It’s a repetitive beat that seems to go on and on as Max trades wishes without thinking about the repercussions it would have on the world. And Max and Barabara’s eventual alliance feels forced into the story rather than an organic piece.
Still, “Wonder Woman 1984” brings a profound sense of relief to what has been an excruciating year for many of us. Though its story may be a bit cheesy and its execution a bit muddled, there is no doubt that it conveys its message about hope and optimism with sincerity. Above all, it proves that even the greatest heroes have their flaws and weaknesses, just like any human. And that we can rise above the struggle with enough willpower and a strong moral compass.
Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and stream exclusively on HBO Max on December 25th.
Wonder Woman 1984 score: 8/10