Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
It’s commonly stated that villains are more interesting than heroes, but in truth audiences can’t get enough of heroes. We cheer when they succeed, we wear them on our shirts and we have them on our coffee mugs. If we didn’t love heroes, audiences wouldn’t flock to the cinema to see them fight the good fight. It’s no wonder the current age of superhero films is still going strong. It may be juvenile and silly, but a good superhero story can inspire us. No recent superhero film has achieved that goal quite like Wonder Woman (2017). There was a lot riding on its success, which made it especially satisfying to see it succeed like it did. Acclaim from critics, over $800 million worldwide and adoration from fans made Wonder Woman an instant superhero classic. Three years later, Director Patty Jenkins is back with the highly anticipated sequel, Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).
Set in Washington DC circa 1984 (nearly 67 years after the original), Amazon Warrior Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is still playing the superhero game while also working as an anthropologist for the Smithsonian. She may be a powerful and beloved hero, but she is haunted by the memory of her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed himself to save the world during World War I. Meanwhile, she is befriended by an insecure co-worker, Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig) who idolises Diana and wants to be more like her. As luck would have it, an ancient magical stone that can grant wishes has been discovered, which immediately gives both Barbara and Diana what they want. The slimy business man, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) is also after the stone for his own nefarious purposes. Consequently, there are horrendous side effects which threaten the entire world.
Right out of the gate, it’s clear that writer/director Patty Jenkins doesn’t want to tread the same ground as the first film. The original Wonder Woman was an inspiring heroes journey wrapped in a Dirty Dozen style war drama, but Wonder Woman 1984 is a colourful family friendly and romp. It’s quite a jarring tone change from the first film’s emotive drama, but Jenkins isn’t shying away from it. Jenkins wastes no time establishing the unashamed cheesy tone, immediately telegraphing WW84 to be a direct pastiche of 1980s popcorn films. The direction has far more in common with Richard Donner and Sam Raimi than it does with Christopher Nolan or the Russo Brothers. From the word go, viewers have to quickly decide if they’re going to be on board with this tonal choice or not, as the film doesn’t let up once the un-ironic cheese is laid down. If you let it wash over you, you’re sure to be thoroughly entertained and grin uncontrollably during the big moments.
To be clear, the original Wonder Woman wasn’t devoid of cheese, but it worked due to the narrative’s unabashed earnestness. Jenkins’ desire for emotional sincerity still shines through, as there’s a notable effort made to tug on our heartstrings. The main emotional payoff come close to matching the equivalent story point in the original film, but this time the journey there isn’t as focused or engaging. Following a jaw dropping opening sequence, almost the entire first half of the film isn’t going anywhere in a hurry and is spinning many plates, which will probably bore many viewers. To be fair, the extra breathing room is there to clearly establish who’s doing what and why, but it takes a bit too long for the pieces to fall into place considering how simple the motivations are. Once everything is in place, the second half thankfully picks up the slack.
With that in mind, Jenkins’ action direction is a revelation. Granted, none of the set pieces match the goosebump inducing ‘No Man’s Land’ sequence from the first film, but that doesn’t stop Jenkins from pulling out all the stops whenever Diana suits up. WW84 may be available to stream on HBO Max, but the various punch ups, chases and battles deserve to be seen on the big screen. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen brilliantly imbues the bombastic spectacle with extremely vibrant colours, while Jenkins’ imaginative staging keeps the action enjoyably inventive. This is actually one area where WW84 supersedes the original, as the action scenes are nicely varied and build on each other. This escalation of spectacle also puts a bandaid over many of the storytelling flaws.
WW84’s narrative thematics provides just as many pros as it does cons. The most impressive achievement of the original film was how it gave the seemingly perfect hero a relatable and emotionally engaging arc, which Jenkins attempts to replicate here. While it mostly succeeds in being emotionally engaging, it’s harder to relate to Diana’s struggle this time around. The audience is clearly supposed to connect to Diana’s journey, but certain story elements are in place which unintentionally prevent us from connecting. This is due to the film’s analysis of wish fulfilment, which is well intentioned but doesn’t fully coalesce as a powerful obstacle for Diana. Happily, Gal Gadot is so perfect in the role that she is able to sell the imperfect storytelling through her charming and sensitive performance.
Additionally, the story complications extend to Pedro Pascal as Max Lord, and Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva. The main criticism lobbied at the original film was that it had simplistic villains, which Jenkins is clearly addressing this time around. While Barbara is given a lot of development and Kristen Wiig gives it her all, her transition from a bookish nerd to an intimidating alpha is ultimately only here to give Diana a superhuman to fight. Barbara should really have been saved for a third film so that Max Lord could get more attention. On that note, Pedro Pascal makes Lord an enjoyably fascinating antagonist who most appropriately progresses the narrative themes. His characterisation is very clearly inspired by certain real life public figures, which also reinforces the film’s cleverly resonant nods to current societal anxieties.
This sequel had the unenviable task of following up one of the most inspiring superhero films of recent years, so it was always going to be tough to live up to that. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, so it makes sense why Jenkins has taken a bold chance and gone for something completely different. It’s hardly the achievement that its predecessor was, but if you approach WW84 without any cynicism, it’s a highly enjoyable piece of escapism on an epic scale.
Best way to watch it: With all the popcorn, chocolate and lollies from the candy bar.