Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenwriters: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal
Equally exhilarating as it was historic, Wonder Woman’s arrival onto the big screen in 2017 marked a significant change for the future of the male-dominated superhero universe. As a female-led project, with director Patty Jenkins at the helm, Diana’s first stand-alone cinematic outing in the DC Extended Universe leaned into the feminist ethos of the character’s origins, becoming the first major triumph for gender inclusivity in a comic-book franchise film, both on and off the screen. With success under her belt, alongside heaps of Wonder Woman source material to work with, there was palpable suspense in the air to see what Jenkins would do next with the limitless potential of Diana’s story.
A new direction for Wonder Woman seemed bright; impossibly colourful neon posters and a mass of pop culture references promised another incredible on-screen turn for Gal Gadot, with Diana set to return in the thick of 1984. In two short opening sequences, inspired ideas play out on an unparalleled scale as Jenkins outlines the moral conundrums Diana will attempt to grapple with within her second adventure. Firstly, on Themyscira, where a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in a magnificent, Olympics-style games against several significantly older competitors. Diana storms the competition, demonstrating unparalleled strength and precision before she falls from her horse and fails to cross the finish line – tasting failure for the very first time. Secondly, in a ‘Stranger Things’ style Star Mall, where we catch up with a ‘present-day’ Diana (Gal Gadot) as she exquisitely foils a jewellery robbery while making conscious efforts to conceal her identity. In these opening pieces, Jenkins demonstrates the new proportions of space in which Diana can now navigate; all the brakes are off this time around.
Bubbling to the brim with big hair, bright colours, shoulder pads and parachute pants, we arrive in 1980s Washington DC, where Diana now works at the Smithsonian museum as an archaeologist. Although just as powerful, stunning and stylish, there is an undeniable change in Diana, felt most when we see her sitting alone in a cafe, looking longingly for human connection. She finds an unlikely kindred spirit in her clumsy colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), whom seeks her help regarding an unusual, ancient stone. Thought to have the power to grant any wish, the stone’s legend attracts a failed business/ oilman, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who uses his charisma and charm on Barbara to gain access to the stone and the limitless power it promises.
While it appears that Lord, through years of research, is privy to the exact rules and limitations of the stone, Barbara and Diana are less versed in the dire repercussions that come with wish making. After Diana saves her from a drunken stranger’s late-night harassment, Barbara begins to feel envious not only of the effortless way Diana can handle herself but her irrefutable beauty and noticeable effect on those around her. In desperation, she wishes to be more like Diana, unaware that such a wish comes with a dose of her powers. Likewise, Diana sees her greatest desire arrive in the form of her lost love, World War One pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), ignorant of the price she must pay in return for their reunion. Ignoring their situation’s pressing reality, Diana and Steve cross oceans and conquer 80s fashion trends, attempting to reclaim the stone and stop Maxwell Lord before his plan can bring about mass scale global devastation.
There’s nerve in Jenkins’ attempt to choose a heavy morality narrative for Diana’s second on-screen adventure. However, sadly, Jenkins and fellow scriptwriters David Callaham and Geoff Johns bite off a lot more than they can chew. With two complex villain origin stories on show, it isn’t long before Diana begins to fade into the background of her own film. ‘Maxwell Lord 1984’ would have made for a more apropos title, as Pedro Pascal steals not only scenes but the entire plot away from our lasso wielding Supergirl; as a pyramid scheme crazed, power-obsessed con-man, Pascal finds his groove. Wiig also manages to steal her share of the action, delivering Barbara with her reliable, high energy kookiness alongside a refreshingly powerful embrace of her sexuality. As Barbara, Wiig is the prime alpha predator.
Snuggled up in bed with Steve, Diana decides they should probably get up and look into that whole annoying stone debacle, not because there’s any pressing reason for her to do so, but because she doesn’t have that much else on. Once up and about, Steve’s introduction into the 1980s works well. Pine hits those reliable ‘coming to terms with modern-day advancements’ jokes out of the park, but his baffled fashion show is nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before. While it’s moving to see Diana and Steve make up for lost time, Steve’s presence in the narrative is stunting to Diana’s growth as a character, and despite Pine and Gadot’s compelling chemistry, it’s challenging to accept Diana’s fixation on a brief, 70-year-old romance. Of Themyscira, Diana’s mother and her Amazonian sisters, we hear nothing.
The film’s key themes are tired and overdone. Diana’s stone directly parallels W.W Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”, an allegorical tale about a tricky animal paw with the power to fulfil any wish. The story, which outlines the repercussions of greed and desire, has been reworked and remodelled repeatedly, appearing in such classic and mainstream television as a ‘Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror’ episode. Jenkins fails to add anything fresh to the ‘be careful what you wish for’ lesson: here she uses the story for scale, forcing the entire world into a patronising morality tale, which, even with superpowers considered, fails to feel believable in Diana’s reality. Other parts of the story are exasperatingly functional: Diana can suddenly make objects invisible when trying to avoid capture during an aeroplane getaway. Really?
As perplexing as they are, Wonder Woman 1984 does manage to get away with most of its suspicious, eyebrow-raising scenes. However, other areas of the lazy storytelling are significantly more unforgivable: in an Egyptian sub-plot with no real importance, West African and Middle-Eastern characters become reduced to oil-hungry and villainous stereotypes, and the ludicrous decision to have Gadot – a former Israeli soldier – swoop in to save helpless, middle eastern children from danger is unfathomable. Yet, politics aside, the film continues to come undone with messy plot points and a dire overuse of ugly CGI spectacle. As we slog towards a sloppy finish, neither Pascal’s maniacal intensity, Wiig’s bewitching Barbara, nor Gadot and Pine’s grief-stricken chemistry, has the power to save the day.
Diana makes unblinking eye contact with her audience during the sluggish grand finale in a strange fourth wall break. As she asks everyone to be selfless and kinder to one another, Wonder Woman 1984 proves that, if nothing else, it has achieved the same out-of-touch, cringe-inducing vigour as Gadot’s own, celebrity-studded “Imagine” sing-a-long.