Back in 2017, when Wonder Woman first hit the big screen, it seemingly carried the endless possibilities for its titular hero. With the spotlight fully on her, she shined as a powerful and charming figure, and even when the movie was teasing fun with her outsider nature it took the character, her mighty lasso and cultural significance, seriously. The film also drew some gravitas from its WWI setting, opening dramatic possibilities as Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) — a.k.a. Diana Prince, the half-goddess, half-Amazon princess of a tribe of immortal female warriors — was exposed to the cruelty and selfishness of humanity. Patty Jenkins returns behind the camera and takes its sequel ahead more than six decades, and if the title didn’t give away the year, all the styles would, as all the film really does with its setting is use it as an excuse to pile on joggers in leg warmers, fanny packs and parachute pants. Wonder Woman 1984 transitions into the eye-popping aesthetics and Richard Donner-esque tone after an opening scene that involves an athletic competition back on Themyscira. But it’s in ’84 where a high-flying heist at a shopping mall is taking place and where Diana takes down a gang of bad guys robbing a jewelry store with an improbable side gig in rare antiquities.
That first sequence is one of only three major action sequences in a superhero film that’s surprisingly light on superheroics. The rest of Wonder Woman 1984 is largely comedic, reversing the roles Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) occupied in the first movie, as now Steve reacts in wide-eyed wonder at the futuristic world of the ’80s. (How has he returned, you ask? It’s so far-fetched that it’s barely even worth divulging in to.) There’s some enjoyment to be found here, like a montage where Steve tries on a variety of oversized fashions. And there’s also some of it that’s annoyingly anachronistic, like the scene where he’s borderline terrified riding an escalator. (Escalators were invented in the 1890s.) All of it distracts from the overarching plot, which pits Diana against an unethical business tycoon named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) who’s hijacked an ancient artifact that grants anyone who touches it their dearest wish; he’s a character who Pascal delights in chewing the scenery, but on the page and in execution is muddled in broad motivations and convenient plot machinations.
On an ideological level, superhero movies are all about maintaining the status quo, arguing that power can only be responsibly held by an elite few who are “capable” of handling it. And while Wonder Woman 1984‘s message is partially a warning about greed — a suitable theme for a movie set in the excess-filled Wall Street-era — it also argues that the masses don’t know what’s best for them, and if you give the people what they want, the world will descend into chaos. But that’s not until later. At two-hours-thirty-one minutes, Wonder Woman 1984 takes its time getting to where it’s going, at one point pausing to watch a fireworks show from Wonder Woman’s famous invisible plane before heading off for a Middle East-set chase scene that has seemingly become fashionable in contemporary action movies.
This leisurely screen time allows Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham to insert some secondary commentary as well. Which involves a recurring theme of leering, predatory men, even as they’re ultimately fleeting moments and mostly involve Kristen Wiig’s newly superpowered and utterly cliché introvert-turned-sexy-supervillain Barbara Minerva, a.k.a. Cheetah. But that kind of speaks to a larger issue with Wonder Woman 1984, namely that, in many ways, it’s not really Diana’s story. It’s the Diana and Steve show, first of all — not only because he tags along for most of the action, but also because he’s the driving factor behind much of Diana’s decision-making in the film. It’s not her Amazonian duty or really her protecting of humanity. Just fanny-packed Steve, and, no, it’s not pleasurably intimate and small-scaled as it might sound.
None of this is Chris Pine’s fault, as he delivers an amusingly dizzy performance. It possibly might reflect Gadot’s limitations as an actor — a plot with less action means fewer chances to show off her physical prowess, and more chances to run into a wall during a tender emotional moment. The film’s overall focus isn’t entirely there either: The film starts off promisingly in this regard — as Barbara and Diana strike up a cautious friendship — but the narrative is so overstuffed that by the end, Gadot’s character and her performance are being outdone by those around her. Combined with the script’s tendency to try and distract you whenever a plot point strains credulity, the movie is pulpy in consistency, too.
2017’s Wonder Woman charged forward with singular purpose until its last act, when it devolved into the murky CGI soup that seems to be inevitable in these DCEU movies. Its sequel isn’t exempt, either; presumably(?) to hide flaws in its visual effects, the final showdown between Wiig and Gadot is cast into a murky, rocky staged set piece. Up to that point, Wonder Woman 1984 is lively and bright and at times passable enough that it only occasionally feels like it’s going to go one forever. But it’s hard to get past what seems like a lack of consideration — or perhaps concern — for what motivates Diana Prince, why she’s even back in action beyond the obvious commercial imperatives. In 2017, when Wonder Woman was done saving saving the world, her horizons seemed limitless. Who knew her next adult battle would be at the mall? Hackneyed and a rather scattered, messily plotted affair, Wonder Woman 1984 squanders its big aspirations under the sinking weight of a janky, unwieldy control.
Wonder Woman 1984 is available to stream on HBO Max