Wonder Woman 1984 shrinks history, stretches patience

Letting the glibness of its conceits loom large on the small screen, Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins’s retro superhero sequel takes its audience for a dim ride.

Gal Gadot as the star of Wonder Woman 1984

▶︎ Wonder Woman 1984 is available to rent from Amazon and Sky Store.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a double throwback: an I-♥-the-80s period piece that also belongs – incidentally but profoundly – to the last possible moment prefiguring the recent paradigm shift in film production and distribution. Originally slated for late 2019, Patty Jenkins’ film arrives one year – and several subsequent, much-publicised, COVID-related delays – later as the herald of a new (and only possibly temporary) era in which even the most expensive blockbusters have by necessity been reconfigured as multi-platform releases, peddling spectacle to a primarily housebound viewership.

Whether or not WW84’s clean, bright, overwhelmingly digitised action scenes would actually have been more impressive on a big screen, it’s odd to encounter a movie made with such obviously massive resources that’s been shrunk down for mass consumption, especially after a decade-plus of superhero movies dominating mainstream exhibition to the point of marginalising nearly every other commercial genre; the circumstances around its global rollout will guarantee its place in early 21st-century film history.

Kristen Wiig as Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva in Wonder Woman 1984

This is the only posterity awaiting Wonder Woman 1984, which is otherwise an eminently forgettable movie, to the point that it can’t seem to keep its mind on what’s going on (or already happened) during its punishing running time. A prologue flashing back to our heroine’s childhood in scenic, seaside Themyscira sets the tone by parcelling out a moralising lesson about not utilising shortcuts in order to succeed – one that is unfortunately literalised by the filmmakers as they stretch their scenario thin over two-and-a-half hours.

While it’s theoretically nice to see a movie of this scale take its time and explore its characters, the new additions are both easily pegged upon entrance and unworthy of prolonged psychological development: Kristen Wiig’s tragically nerdy “crypto-archaeologist” Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva and Pedro Pascal’s pathologically dishonest businessman Maxwell Lord – who seduces the former to gain access to an ancient artefact granting endless wishes – are sketchily written and over-acted.

Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984

As for Gal Gadot, her best quality in the original Wonder Woman was a slightly bewildered stridency – half over-bearing, half endearing – which has mutated over time into the controlled image-consciousness of star with a producer credit. Here, the actress radiates a kind of luminous sanctimony – the same vibe as that unfortunate early-pandemic Imagine sing-along video. “You’re patronising me,” Barbara Ann growls at Diana late in the film, after the good doctor has been transformed (for some reason) into the furry DC comics carry-over Cheetah, who duplicates Wonder Woman’s powers minus truth, justice and American way. It’s the best and truest line in the movie.

Clearly feeling the pressure to edify as well as entertain (grossing a billion dollars will do that to you), Jenkins lays it on thick beginning with a set piece in a Washington shopping mall where Gadot toys with a group of stick-up artists. The choreography is fluid and even funny, but the reaction shots of young pre-teen girls grinning and winking at their heroine as she kicks ass and scores ideological points (“I hate guns”) are like an instruction manual for viewer responses. It’s annoying.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

The things in WW84 that work, like the fish-out-of-water comedy scenes featuring Chris Pine’s resurrected Great War hero Steve Trevor navigating a brave new world of Pop Tarts and parachute pants, are easy (and borrowed from the first movie, where they worked better).

The things that don’t – like Maxwell’s transparently Trumpian initiative to weaponise wish fulfilment as a tool for amassing power – suggest problems with the story as well as the telling. Maxwell is supposed to be a symbol of insecurity and anger swollen to apocalyptic dimensions, but he’s sentimentalised in a way that takes the edge off whatever threat he poses. Diana’s dilemma about whether to suppress her own happiness for the good of humanity is too obvious to be agonising.

It’s never good to feel like you’re waiting a movie out, especially one that means to be a big, broad, goofy pleasure machine; Wonder Woman 1984 accidentally fulfils its title’s pointlessly Orwellian allusion by hitting its marks with heavy, joyless, routinised aplomb. If you want a vision of the present – and maybe the future – imagine a thigh-high boot stamping on the audience’s face – forever.

Further reading

Review: Wonder Woman defies the warring bores

Gal Gadot's empathic anti-warrior puts the hero back in 'superhero', and a chink of likeability in the Warners/DC cinematic universe, says Kim Newman.

By Kim Newman

Review: Wonder Woman defies the warring bores