[Ed. note: This review contains basic plot points from early in the film that some may read as spoilers.]
It’s just about impossible to describe Wonder Woman 1984 to someone who doesn’t already know the greater DC movie universe. The problem isn’t that it’s a sequel. The new film neatly sets up many of the interior conflicts for Diana Prince, played again by Gal Gadot. She’s an Amazon in Man’s World, and she doesn’t seem to age, so of course the friends she had in Patty Jenkins’ 2017 hit Wonder Woman, set during World War I, have grown old and died in the decades since she first met them.
She’s also lost her love interest, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who is quickly established as the only man she ever loved. More than 60 years after his death, she’s still in deep mourning for him. This version of Diana is very alone, by choice. But she’s still Wonder Woman, with powers beyond those of normal humans, and the attendant responsibility and feeling of duty. Setting this film in 1984 places the action before any of the other big DC movie heroes are active, so there’s plenty of work for her to do. (The movies have left it unclear whether she’s slow-aging, à la the comics, or actually immortal.)
For a film that focuses on a superhero living in the past, and judges her for her separation from the world around her, the narrative of Wonder Woman 1984 is suspiciously in love with that same past. It opens centuries ago on Diana’s home island of Themyscira, both to deliver a moral that the movie never fully pays off, and because the filmmakers understood that much of their potential audience would be furious if they didn’t get to see the island again. By setting this sequence during Diana’s training, they establish her character, let us gaze in joyful awe upon the majestic, leather-clad Amazons, and satisfy the need for spectacle in a film that’s otherwise surprisingly visually restrained.
The Amazons are competing in a form of athletic challenge about honoring a golden warrior. Diana is still pre-pubescent, but she’s winning until she gets cocky, sabotages herself, and has to find an alternate path to victory. Her combat mentor, General Antiope (the ever-fabulous Robin Wright, in a role this movie never bothers to identify by name), tells her she cheated and can’t be counted as the winner, which might have landed better if we’d been told any of the rules of the competition. But it’s still worthwhile spectacle, and it accidentally introduces what may be the movie’s actual narrative core: the idea that women are continually expected to compete against one another.
Even as Wonder Woman 1984 sets up this potentially accidental thesis, it remains a sequel — it has to play within the confines of a previously established modern world where the writers want superhumans to be a relatively new concept. They also want Wonder Woman to have appeared in the public eye after Batman and Superman made their debuts. Which means the movie also has to commit to a relatively new concept: Wonder Woman is effectively framed as an urban legend — or a cryptid.
The first present-day sequence visualizes this in an excellent but bewildering way, as Diana, in quick succession, saves a jogger, rescues a plummeting bride, intercedes in a jewelry heist, protects two little girls, and kills a bunch of innocent security cameras before running away. In the grand tradition of superhero movies everywhere, a person in a brightly colored costume making a “shush” gesture is assumed to somehow be enough to keep children from talking about the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. Gadot remains fabulous in the role, embodying Diana’s weight and presence with an effortless skill that demonstrates a lot of effort we don’t get to see. She’s a swan, gliding serenely while paddling as hard as she can, and she carries this film.
But she doesn’t necessarily justify the film’s leaps of illogic. Director Patty Jenkins and her co-writers, Dave Callaham and Geoff Johns, don’t slow down long enough for viewers to really consider the implications of Diana performing her duties as Wonder Woman for more than six decades without being believably documented. Apparently, they hope no one will notice the plot hole this creates.
When Diana isn’t running around saving people, she’s playing museum curator and living a solitary life. She doesn’t want love after losing Steve, after all, and the film has already told us that women exist only to compete with one another. When the camera scrolls through Diana’s modern apartment, it focuses on pictures of her departed friends, including Steve’s broken watch, which she’s kept as a memento of their time together. It comes off as more of a museum tour than a home tour, which fits well with Diana’s frozen place in her emotional arc.
When the present becomes relevant, it’s in the form of Professor Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who’s introduced somewhat as the “anti-Diana”: not perfect, overlooked, largely ignored, and inexplicably trying to walk in heels she doesn’t know how to balance in. This is a quick way to introduce the idea that she feels inferior to Diana, since she almost immediately trips and drops all her belongings. The shoes come across as a cry for help. Maybe they are: When she meets Diana for the first time, she tries to bond with her by saying, “We’re scientists; we’re not like other girls.”
Even so, she’s awed by Diana’s elegance in her leopard-print heels, and also clearly intimidated by a scientist who is somehow “like other girls.” Minerva’s “animal print, nice” comment about those shoes calls forward to the fact that we all know she’s going to become Cheetah, and Wiig’s comedic chops really lend an air of pathos to Minerva’s character, otherwise the frazzled, socially inept academic we’ve seen so many times before in film.
Watching Diana and Minerva interact is a high point for both Gadot and Wiig. It’s easy to see both how Diana’s dialogue is entirely honest and sincere, and why Minerva might interpret it as sarcasm and sly bullying. They don’t need more tragedy stacked atop what they already have. Diana has lost everyone she ever loved; Minerva has never been able to make human connection long enough to be loved in the first place.
But of course they’re going to get more tragedy, as the plot crashes down on the narrative. One of the items stolen from the jewelry store in the present-day opening is a stone that supposedly grants everyone who touches it “one good wish.” Diana’s wish is obvious, even though she doesn’t voice it aloud (a small plot glitch, given that we’re later told, “Just say your wish out loud, and you’ll get it”). Back in her apartment, Steve’s watch starts ticking again. Minerva’s wish is more complicated: She wants to be like Diana, a request that inevitably comes with more side effects than she expects.
Ambitious businessman (and long-running DC villain) Maxwell Lord, here reimagined as a slick television huckster in a classic ’80s mode (and played to perfection by The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal), knows exactly what the stone is, and as soon as he gets his hands on it, he makes his own wish: to become the stone, the one who grants the wishes. This somehow works without turning him into a rock, proving that the stone isn’t a malevolent genie. That’s a good thing, since in the interim, Diana’s wish has been answered.
Here’s where the movie gets squishy. The particular way Steve Trevor returns to the story raises massive questions of ethics and consent, which the movie barely addresses — and only enough to confirm that Steve himself understands the issues, and has decided not to face them. The script puts Diana and Steve in a position where they have to be selfish and callous in order to be together again, and their obliviousness to what they might be costing someone else makes them both less heroic, and less likable.
It’s a surprising choice in a film otherwise focused on the costs of getting what you wish for. As Minerva’s wish continues to assert itself, she becomes a dark-mirror glimpse at a Wonder Woman steeped in the rhetoric and beliefs of Man’s World: She sees her new strength and power as more important than anything else, even compassion. Giving someone power without the training and philosophy to avoid using it abusively creates a moral void, and the film handles this beautifully, even as the change in Minerva’s status poisons her growing relationship with Diana. Due to the influence of the wishing stone, the stronger Minerva becomes, the more Diana’s strength wanes, leeched away by Diana’s own somewhat selfish wish.
It’s a concrete manifestation of something many women seem to experience in their relationships, where the power dynamic society presents as normal demands that one individual be the “apex predator” who calls the shots, while the other takes a less dominant position. By using magic to externalize this internal struggle, Jenkins and her team get into issues that are easier to discuss metaphorically, without forcing their audience to confront the ways internalized misogyny can influence relationships between women. That willingness to focus on the relationship dynamic, and the way two people can both be fully sincere yet hurt each other in the process, forms one of the film’s stronger points.
Wonder Woman 1984’s fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, though infrequent, and there are some amazingly striking visuals and quirky nods to the comics, not all of which have been spoiled by the trailers. Once Minerva finishes her evolution (devolution?) into Cheetah, her glorious smackdowns with Diana are absolutely worth the price of admission (an HBO Max subscription?), while continuing the movie’s somewhat underdeveloped theme of “strong women will always inevitably fight each other.”
What does it cost to save the world? For Diana, who lost nearly everything in the previous movie, it costs even more this time around. That would be easier to take if she had learned to love Man’s World at all during the interim, or developed any major ties to the place she’s chosen as her home. Even as the film is pushing America to the brink of nuclear war brought on by careless wishing (in a sequence that feels, in a very real way, like the entire reason for the movie’s time period, which could otherwise have been set basically anywhere between the invention of Pop-Tarts and the rise of the internet), there’s no real sense that she has anything left to lose by the end of the story.
Diana’s lack of investment in her surroundings makes this film a sadder, darker take on Wonder Woman. Compassion is her strength, but it’s hard to feel like she cares about a world she’s completely disconnected from. It’s still not enough to steal the joy from the few moments where we get to see her really let loose with her powers, but a Wonder Woman story in 2020 could be uplifting and inspiring, and this film is neither.
Wonder Woman is a heroine who lifts us up, who brings her compassion and light to every fight she faces, who was once willing to lose the Lasso of Truth in the comics for the sake of saving a single Amazon warrior. This version of Diana is more selfish, curdled by her own grief, and limited by her own choices. She mirrors Minerva, who has been limited by society, in all things save one: she still loves the world enough to be capable of sacrifice. The current DC movie universe is always dark, but it seems that with a movie drenched in the neon aesthetic of the ’80s, they’ve finally found a way to dim even Wonder Woman’s light.
Wonder Woman 1984 will be released in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on Dec. 25. It will debut in international release in some markets on Dec. 16.