movie review

The Empty Spectacle of Wonder Woman 1984

The disappointing sequel highlights not only the dire state of the live-action superhero genre, but the dire state of Hollywood filmmaking as a whole. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This review originally ran earlier this month. We are republishing it on the occasion of Wonder Woman 1984’s Christmas Day premiere on HBO Max.

Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, is one of the most dynamic of DC’s mainstay comic characters, but you’d never know it watching Wonder Woman 1984. 

This sequel had almost everything going for it. Its empathetic predecessor is likely the most beloved and critically successful of the slate of beleaguered DC Comics films. Its time-skipping story offered a way to expand the superhero genre’s usual plot beats — which was desperately needed — and arrived buoyed by an excellent cast. Perhaps its lopsided universe was not perfect; there were lackluster villains and a noticeable absence of racial diversity and sensuality, and the sequel had to contend with a significant jump from WWI-era Europe into early 1980s Washington, D.C. But these issues were surmountable. Sadly, all that glittered in the franchise’s first outing is gone in Wonder Woman 1984. The disappointing sequel highlights not only the dire state of the live-action superhero genre in film, but the dire state of Hollywood filmmaking as a whole.  

In Patty Jenkins’s candy-colored rendition of the 80s, 1984’s Diana (Gal Gadot) finds herself lonely and isolated — both by choice and circumstance. As she begins to develop a friendship with a co-worker named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), Diana’s life as both a museum curator and undercover superhero is disrupted by the arrival of what is best described as a magic rock. At first, it unknowingly grants Diana her great desire: to see Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) returned to life (sort of). The easily frazzled and comically clumsy Barbara gets some fringe benefits, too — she wishes upon the rock to be like Diana, suddenly achieving a power and confidence beyond her wildest dreams. But things take a turn when wannabe oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (an over-the-top and preening Pedro Pascal) strolls into the story with a rank ego and daddy issues. Barbara — whose story as Cheetah is well told in Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp’s run on the character that kicked off in 2016 — transforms from nascent friend to villain all too quickly. Meanwhile, the magic rock ends up setting the stage for major global unrest (and a genuinely weird accounting of Middle East politics).

What has attracted me to this character over the years — the femininity of her mythos and how it emphasizes the maternal, how her strength is conveyed in both fight scenes and more emotional exchanges — feels poorly developed in this utter mess of a plot. Superhero films too often rely on mystical items to fuel their narratives, but a magic rock that grants wishes like a gleaming monkey’s paw? It’s hackneyed, as is the stilted dialogue that unravels the story to begin with, starting with Diana’s voiceover outlining a thinly drawn exploration of her Amazon race. It is so stilted that when Diana finally vaults into action against a darkened sky, using her glowing lasso to ride lightning bolts, I felt not an ounce of awe.

Sure, Gadot and Pine once again have a charming chemistry, but his character’s return from the dead — in which he, basically, takes over some poor guy’s body — sparks more questions about the gaps in logic. And then there’s their utter sexlessness, an especially damning reminder of the way this genre fails to take into account one of the most beautiful aspects of being human. Instead, in 1984, Diana’s non-erotic yearning for Steve has become the entirety of her identity. Why? She doesn’t miss her Amazon sisters, whom she can never see again, more? It’s been about 70 years and she still hasn’t moved on from Steve? There’s something deeply sad and predictable about a female superhero so tied to a single man she’s willing to lose her powers for him. Romance has the potential to be heartwarming and expansive in superhero stories, but here it just feels claustrophobic. (I won’t even expand on a turn at the end ripped from a Hallmark movie, Christmas visuals and all, that was so galling I’m still not sure it happened.)

Jenkins, who brought a fresh eye to the fight choreography and stylings in the original Wonder Woman, seems now almost disenchanted with the world she’s helped bring to life. It’s cheerfully lit, as the 80s period demands, but it’s neither visually intriguing nor beautiful. Wonder Woman 1984 overwhelms the senses, confusing largess with wonder. The action is hobbled by poor blocking; a strange spatial dynamic makes it so that you’re never exactly sure where characters are in the space of the scene. Especially egregious is an underwater sequence involving Barbara and Diana, in which Cheetah — who should feel fearsome — is undercut by uneven practical effects and chintzy CGI. In close-ups throughout the movie, Cheetah’s face and body feel poorly thought out, conjuring not even a sliver of the feral prowess of the character. In medium and long shots, particularly during a closing fight between the women, there’s a profound weightlessness to the blows owing to how Cheetah’s body is framed. There are a few cool touches to Jenkins’s filmmaking aesthetic — an intriguing spin on the invisible jet, Diana’s increased reliance on her lasso, her new ability to fly — but, overall, the promise of action sequence thrills feels unfulfilled.

In the end, the actors can’t save the story. Wiig really, really tries, too. She vamps it up with Pascal, each of them going for arch performances the script can’t match. The plot grows more tangled and confusing by the minute, as the film’s central relationships are overshadowed by unnecessary globetrotting, flashy role reversals, and poor world building (which mines the time setting for visual and sonic cues but little else. The story does nothing to explain exactly what Diana has been doing in the years since WWI or why she decided to ignore intervening global horrors she might have otherwise dismantled.) In the comics, Diana forms a curious bond with Barbara, whose work as an archaeologist and obsession with the Amazons adds an intriguing layer to their friendship. Little of that transfers to the film; the sequel continues the franchise’s earnest streak, but without a stronger narrative it feels unearned and, worse yet, calculated. Gal Gadot admittedly remains a warm presence in the franchise, and Chris Pine does his best with the story. It makes sense that Steve and Diana would become positioned against Barbara and Maxwell, with his murkily defined goals of domination. But why not lean into the best aspect of the preceding story: the Amazons? Why bring Robin Wright back if you’re not going to give her another juicy action scene? Blessedly, the movie is free of empty “girl power” slogans and mortifying needle drops, but is that enough? I want intrigue! I want grace! With the full might of the modern Hollywood apparatus and an ungodly amount of money, is this really the best we can get? The movie insults by offering scraps and making us pretend it’s a meal.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a turning point in the history of Hollywood’s business, what with Warner Bros. banking big on the hope that the film’s Christmas Day release will be the push its (admittedly good) streaming service, HBO Max, needs (in the U.S., at least). But the film is indicative of the larger pitfalls of an aging superhero genre. Watching Wonder Woman 1984, I couldn’t help but think of the utter hollowness of representation and how corporations have adopted the language and posture of political movements in order to sell back to us a vacant rendition of the change we actually want. In many ways, studios have trained audiences to view the bombast of their blockbusters as possessing inherent worth — especially when they place reflections of us on the big screen. This isn’t good filmmaking. And as more and more exciting directors get caught up in the gears of this mammoth genre, I can’t help but reflect on how their talents would be better utilized elsewhere. If only Hollywood gave them real control over stories, rather than treating their work as mere conduits for content the studio can replicate and sell.

*A version of this article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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The Empty Spectacle of Wonder Woman 1984