I really wanted to love the new Wonder Woman movie. After all, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is a fun and engaging character, particularly in her super-powered Wonder Woman guise. She’s a superhero with heart and compassion, quick to stop the bad guys but just as likely to help a child regain their lost soccer ball or favorite toy. The first film, 2017’s Wonder Woman, was mostly great fun with General Ludendorff (Danny Houston) a suitably epic antagonist that made for a dramatic showdown and goofy but lovable Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) as her love interest.
It’s no longer World War I, however, it’s 1984 and the tail end of the Cold War. In Wonder Woman 1984 Diana is an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute when she’s not donning her trademark outfit and zipping about DC rescuing women from being hit by speeding cars or tossed off bridges. Her new colleague Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is envious of Diana’s presence, self-confidence and beauty; she’s a bit of a clumsy goof that people tend to ignore.
A shipment of antiques arrives from the FBI with the request that the Smithsonian help identify the individual pieces. Chief among them is a crystal known as the Dreamstone which grants people a single wish, but extracts a price from the recipient of the wish. TV personality Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) really wants that Dreamstone and offers a major grant to the Smithsonian so he can ingratiate himself, find and steal the stone from the anthropology department. Meanwhile, Barbara and Diana have both wished upon the Dreamstone without realizing it could actually grant their desires.
Chaos ensues, and when Lord does acquire the Dreamstone, his own dreams of power and control promptly explode out of control, leaving a massive wave of chaos and destruction behind. When he figures out how to have anyone on Earth have their own wish fulfilled, it’s complete mayhem. It’s also the Cold War era, so the hawkish military predictably wish for military superiority against “the other side”. The consequences are most definitely not good.
One of the highlights of Wonder Woman 1984 is the opening sequence, a sporting competition on Diana’s home island of Themyscira where teen Diana competes with older adult athletes. Think Wipeout for superheroes and you’ll get the idea. Diana is disqualified at the end of the competition for taking a shortcut. Through her tears she’s told by her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) and Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) that there are no shortcuts in life, that you must earn your wins when you are ready to do so.
That is the moral of the overall film; you can’t attain your dreams by wishing, you have to work to better yourself and earn them. It’s a moral that’s hard to disagree with, but writer and director Patty Jenkins has such a dismal view of humanity – and particularly men – that it’s hard not to be disappointed by the endless negativity. Not one person wishes for “peace on Earth”, everyone wishes for power, money, fame, etc. And be warned, there’s an endless parade of miserable male secondary characters who attack and abuse women, to the point that one guy gets beaten seemingly to death as a consequence for his creepy behavior. A scene that I imagine people will cheer in a movie theater.
Unfortunately, the film is also really confusing, to the point where I can’t help wonder if there’s a longer edit somewhere that explains key plot elements – like how the Dreamstone actually works – so that later story developments make more sense. There’s also the puzzle of why everyone on Earth is granted their most base wishes except for Max Lord’s little son Alistair (Lucian Perez), who keeps wishing for his Dad to be with him, but somehow doesn’t budge dad from his secret bunker. It’s also difficult to understand the logic of how the presumably awkward relationship between Trevor and “Handsome Man” (Kristoffer Polaha) works, but that’s too big a spoiler to explore further. Suffice to say, Jenkins missed an opportunity to do something far more visually interesting with this aspect of the movie.
There’s also too little action in the film and an hour in you might well be wondering when we get to see Wonder Woman rather than Diana the detective and generally gorgeous woman about town. Honestly, how do the other people in this film not just gawk at how stunning Gadot is as Diana? The opening portion includes a great scene shot at a typical 80’s shopping mall – a highlight of the film that offers the tough but self-aware Wonder Woman that made the first film such a success – but not many more heroic sequences until a fun Egyptian car chase.
Instead we get a film about the base immorality of humanity, complete with a cliché montage of dismal news events highlighting how horrible people can be to other people. There’s even a flashback that highlights an abusive father and terrible childhood, which is ultimately portrayed as a challenge for that particular character to overcome on their path to redemption. As my daughters agreed after we watched it “well, that was depressing.”
Perhaps you will enjoy one of the few superhero movies with a female lead who manages to be drop-dead gorgeous, tough and heroic. If you seek entertainment, there’s a lot to be found in Wonder Woman 1984. But there are lots of problems too, from an overabundance of introspection to an overly pessimistic view of humanity to a pivotal and banal monologue about human perseverance that’s so dull that even the other characters in the scene ignore it. Still, it’s probably worth watching Wonder Woman 1984 just because we’ve had such a dismal year for epic cinema. Just don’t expect too much from this sequel to the far superior 2017’s Wonder Woman.