[Editor’s Note: This review contains no spoilers.]
Whenever a film uses a narrator I imagine the same scenes played without the voice, and if I still understand everything that’s happening then the narrator is unnecessary. In many ways, the same could be said for setting a film in a previous time period. One of the things that made 2017’s Wonder Woman the best of the post-Nolan era DC films was using World War I, a time underrepresented in cinema, to place the world’s most powerful woman into a world that gave no power to women. Further, by rooting Diana Prince in a previous era, DC was then free to strategically use her involvement in any number of other conflicts throughout human history (assuming of course that she either stayed unknown to the public, or the events of Batman v Superman are no longer considered canon). Rather than use World War II, the most obvious and most represented time in film, the 1960s civil rights era, or the political turmoil of the 1970s, director Patty Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and David Callaham decided to jump over 70 years of potential storytelling for Wonder Woman 1984, beginning with a narration that lasts three lines and is never heard from again. Although it doesn’t disappear as quickly, the use of 1984 as a background is sadly just as unnecessary.
To the film’s credit, and unlike the pre-release material, WW84 doesn’t use its time period as an excuse for empty nostalgia. As good as “Blue Monday” is, there isn’t a single note of synth-pop through the entire film and the world is better for that. However, other than a short montage of then-current fashion and some out-of-time humor which flips the dynamic of the first film, nothing is used of the time period that couldn’t have been used of any other time period. Placing a story in a specific time, and especially putting that time directly into the title, implies that this particular story could only happen during the circumstances, climate, and zeitgeist of that time. Other than aesthetics, Wonder Woman could have participated in these exact same events in 1964, 1974, or 1994, and there would have been absolutely no difference. There are in fact third act aspects of the film that could have actually been better developed if they’d taken place in 2014, one hundred years after the first film. Again, it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t wallow in pointless references and rose-tinted memories of a glorious era that never was, but it’s to the film’s great fault that it doesn’t utilize the period’s unique tensions as neatly as the first film did. Granted, an argument could be made that, as with the best period pieces, 1984 is meant as a commentary on our present era, what with its conniving power-hungry villain and international tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, except that there have always been conniving power-hungry villains and the United States is always in tension with someone, so even these parallels aren’t unique to the period chosen for the film.
The most obvious apparent parallel comes in the form of Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord, the aforementioned conniving power-hungry villain whose television presence, conman tactics, philosophy of appearance over performance, and floppy dyed-yellow hair mark him as a stand-in for 1980s Donald Tr*mp, except that Pascal is actually handsome, charming, and cares about his son. As Lord, Pascal continues his recent streak of nearly disappearing into strong performances, bringing both pathos and terror to a character that could have easily become as cheesy as a typical 80s villain. Similarly, Kristen Wiig brings a warmth and longing to the character of Barbara Minerva, making her journey into the cold all the more tragic. A tragedy compounded by her entire character arc from introduction to conclusion basically being that of Jamie Foxx’s Electro, which in himself was a grab bag of lazy scientist clichés.
Interesting as the setting was, the truest strength of Wonder Woman came from Gal Gadot as the title character, aided by her chemistry with Chris Pine. Thankfully this is one aspect that 1984 retains from the previous film. Although Gadot can at times be a little too cute for the circumstances, throwing winks during what should be life or death situations, her performance brings a charm and genuine humanity that’s been entirely absent from the rest of DC’s recent film offerings. While it strains credulity that Diana Prince would spend seventy years pining for the man she knew for all of a few months, the comfort between Diana and Steve makes their connection more believable than it should be. The return of Diana’s lost love is the most essential point of the story yet even that is sadly dulled as instead of using Steve’s return, and the sacrifice that comes with it, to illustrate what makes Diana a hero, or what separates her from the half dozen other powerful women in the film’s introduction, the film focuses on the easiest method of invoking an emotional response from its audience. It’s a touching moment, but it could have been more than just one moment. That is one example of Wonder Woman 1984‘s greatest weakness.
All superhero films – all films in general but especially superhero films – demand a level of willing suspension of disbelief. The best films use their own internal logic and our investment in the characters to make us forget that we are holding our doubt. The worst films break their logic and the audience’s immersion by making us ask why a character doesn’t do the same thing that they’d established before. Wonder Woman 1984 has several such moments where our belief in this world, in these characters, is broken by its own lack of logic. Well-choreographed fight scenes are ruined by questions of why Diana didn’t simply do something she’d done in the last fight scene, or why something that didn’t work before suddenly works now. An entire section of the film, for example, rests on the audience accepting that flying a Cold War-era fighter jet is basically the same as flying a single-prop monoplane, or that Trevor, being such a great pilot, would hop behind the wheel of a car and not jolt around like every 16-year-old on their first day of driver’s ed. Far too often Wonder Woman 1984‘s best, prettiest, or most memorable images come by halting all narrative momentum. The film mortgages its own future, and its overall quality, for a moment of fun. In that sense I suppose Wonder Woman 1984 could be the quintessential 80s film.
What is perhaps most baffling about WW84 is that all of these problems, the immersion breaking, the clichés, the overall laziness of its storytelling, could have been fixed during the months-long delay caused by the coronavirus. Reshoots obviously would have been limited but other, lesser supported productions have managed to film. During the same pandemic Pedro Pascal, a puppet, and a room of LED screens revived fan love for Star Wars. Yet here, again, rather than make an effort to craft a cohesive, emotionally resonant film that both provides and condemns wish fulfillment, Wonder Woman 1984 settles into a handful of pretty moments held together by strong performers and a lot of goodwill. The film may not have relied on 80s music and clothes, but it sure made use of the decade’s delusion and decadence.