Goodness is important to 2017’s Wonder Woman. It is a hard concept to depict convincingly, but director Patty Jenkins finds multiple ways to pull it off. As we watch our hero wander early twentieth century Europe, her guileless warmth disarms many people she encounters. When she stands up to the enemy in No Man’s Land, it is because of her unwavering goodness. Wonder Woman 1984 has marked disinterest in its hero, and her nature. Director Patty Jenkins opts for greater focus on the villains, in a story that does not withstand much scrutiny. Only a fool would require airtight plotting from a superhero sequel, yet there are moments here that strain toward disbelief. I’ve seen segments from The Treehouse of Horror that make more sense than this.
It is the 1980s – probably 1984, but never confirmed for certain – and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lives in a condo at the Watergate. She works at an unspecified Smithsonian museum, and quietly performs random acts of heroism. A strange artifact upends the harmony of her daily life, one that seemingly grants wishes to whoever holds it. Diana wants nothing more than to be reunited with Steve (Chris Pine), who heroically perished in the first film, and moments after she says so he somehow possesses a nearby stranger. Diana’s mousy colleague Barbara (Kristen Wiig) wants to be “just like [Diana],” which gives her glamor and strength she does not expect. Still, the biggest wish is from Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a flailing tycoon who literally internalizes the artifact, making him into a corrupt yuppie genie. All these figures clash in predictable ways, and all these wishes leave the planet in turmoil.
Energy and action are the two most important qualities to any superhero film, and Wonder Woman 1984 is sorely lacking in both. After a perfunctory flashback and goofy action scene in a shopping mall, we do not see Diana as Wonder Woman for nearly an hour and a half. It can be fun to watch a superhero attempt normal life, except Gal Gadot’s limited acting ability drains this stretch of any charm. The one exception is the montage where she and Steve check out famous DC landmarks (I’m also pretty sure there is B-roll of my old apartment building). This works because Pine, who is still the “Best Chris,” is a natural physical comedian. During this stretch, there are also two concurrent origin stories, both of which do not deserve the attention they are given. Wiig reverts into caricature mode, while Pascal’s character is so thin he barely registers as an antagonist. Both of them are more obstacle than adversary.
When the action starts, Jenkins and her co-screenwriters borrow from familiar sources without honoring them. The first big set piece involves Diana and Steve stopping a convoy of military vehicles in Cairo. Fans of movie history will recall this is a riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark, minus Spielberg’s shrewd editing or Harrison Ford’s everyman antics. There is another big fight in the halls of The White House, recalling X2, except it has no sense of urgency (the Secret Service is nowhere to be found). Between this and a dim climax, Wonder Woman 1984 is both rushed and haphazard. It is possible that the rush to HBO Max denied these sequences of their power, as the canvas of a big screen is better suited to this material. But I’ve also watched good action scenes at home, and they have a momentum that eludes this film.
Unlike the milieu of WWI, the 80s time period mostly serves as opportunity for sight gags, like a montage where Steve tries on a series of outfits. There is a lazy connection between Max Lord and other Gordon Gekko types, so the choices are mostly aesthetic, an uneasy mix of analog and digital technology. Occasionally Jenkins mixes tech with comic book magic, like the origin story of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, although its power leaves more questions than answers. The leads to the suggestion that Wonder Woman can fit into any time period, a depressing thought because she will never be challenged. The flimsy plot only reinforces that notion: a lazy “monkey’s paw” cliche is repeated theme throughout the film, to the point where I wonder what Jenkins must think of her audience.
Wonder Woman 1984 is a squandered opportunity, a chance to have a loose comic sequel that instead devolves to familiar mediocrity. Jenkins does not even have the wherewithal to go after low-hanging fruit. Goofy fashion and shopping malls practically scream for eighties pop music, except somehow this movie makes no room for any. The only familiar cue is the song “Adagio in D Minor,” a piece of overdone movie music that is used whenever something dim strains for additional significance. If the No Man’s Land sequence is the DCEU at its finest, this film reverts closer to Justice League: hammy, portentous, and oddly unfinished.