Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham, and Patty Jenkins
Wonder Woman 1984—by which I mean, the online reaction to Wonder Woman 1984—is what happens when you decide, on the basis of 2017's Wonder Woman—and by that I mean Wonder Woman's landmark industrial and representational importance, not, you know, whether it was actually good—that director Patty Jenkins was some kind of unprecedented genius, who's now betrayed her potential as a filmmaker. It's also what happens when you give a female director $200 million and a beloved piece of pop culture—see also Mulan—and she gets held to a standard of moral perfection no man in the industry has ever been held to, and would rarely survive if he were. For example: on behalf of Tenet, Christopher Nolan encouraged people to literally fucking die. On behalf of her Wonder Woman sequel, Patty Jenkins made a movie that does not adequately reproduce the belief system of an ideal leftist onscreen. So, I don't know. Have some perspective. Adults use it all the time.
Which isn't to say they're all wrong, though due to so much bandwidth being occupied by its various controversies rather than its form or, really, even its (fairly flimsy) substance, what managed to take me by complete surprise about WW84 is how ragingly incoherent and downright goofy it is—reading reviews that spend too much time on its problematic elements without satisfactorily, um, reviewing the movie, I had to wonder how it even managed to do all this stuff within a single story—but it's incoherent and goofy in a way that winds up being fairly exciting, at least for a superhero movie made in 2020. Anyway, sure: WW84 can be modestly evil, but mostly in ways that reflect its stupidity rather than its malice. After all, more than anything else, Wonder Woman 1984 is what happens when you let Geoff Johns actually co-write your screenplay (alongside Dave Callaham and Jenkins herself), rather than soothing his ego by letting him have a "story by" credit, which is how I expect James Wan got around him on Aquaman, still the reigning champion of the DC movies. (Though, really, doesn't Aquaman promote authoritarianism, and isn't it essentially reactionary for equating ecological concerns with fascism, and isn't it a literal act of violence for it to ask its biracial hero to forgive his persecutor? Oh wait, these weren't the talking points for the movie by the dude.) Perhaps, then, WW84 may serve as the eye-opening moment that DC comic book readers arrived at a decade ago, which is that Geoff Johns has some neat ideas (mostly about how to reposition other people's old ideas), but he's also barely competent, and his idea of a cool comic book, for better or worse, is 1992 meets 1958, and as juvenile as that encounter could possibly be. Comic fans will know what I mean. I will not, like many, call him a hack. He's one of the most earnest superhero writers who ever plied the trade. It's just that he might be a magical being conjured by Grant Morrison in the late 90s to annoy Alan Moore.
Johns's more decadent instincts have, of course, been neutered by the requirements of a PG-13 film, and that leaves us almost exclusively with the Silver Age fanboy, which is how I come to WW84 as possibly the only person on planet Earth to like it more than its predecessor. Wonder Woman always felt to me like an uncertain attempt to bridge a perceived gap between the operatic dirges of Zack Snyder's DCEU films and whatever it was that audiences actually wanted out of DC superheroes. WW84 feels so much more like its own thing, despite a tendency to steal from or reference everything else, from the "why don't you just stop the truck?" vehicle chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark to a scene of a hero soaking up the bewildering bright lights of a new world that is almost exactly the same as the one we saw in Aquaman just two years ago. It recognizes that in its star, Gal Gadot, it has a kindred performing spirit to Christopher Reeve, and so, whether it was the result of an executive decision to use WW84 to scrape the last bits of 1980s nostalgia out of the barrel, or if its setting was chosen deliberately because that would put them closer to the source, WW84 goes hard as it possibly could for the tone and temperament of 1978's Superman and 1980's Superman II—or, more aptly still, 1983's Superman III and 1987's Superman IV—to the extent that those movies, including Superman IV, actually deploy more convincing special effects in order to depict "flying."
Freely conceding that Wonder Woman's beloved "No Man's Land" sequence appears to be much more beloved by everybody else, to my eye, WW84 manages to be more exhilarating than anything its predecessor got up to before it even arrives at its opening credits, giving us a fun Amazonian Ninja Warrior flashback to Diana's childhood right off the bat that, just for giggles, also achieves the evidently previously-impossible goal of giving us a Themyscira that looks like a magical Mediterranean island instead of a Goddamn golf course. It keeps up the high energy pretty much throughout its whole 150 minutes—not the most agreeable runtime, and not one that it gets through without stumbling—diving straight into another action sequence in 1984 that gives us a morning in the life of a Wonder Woman secretly doing superhero chores in Washington, D.C., culminating in her intervention in a mall robbery (again, 1984; again, this is a lark) that Diana foils with downright comedic efficiency and good humor. No, I don't know why she drops the guys on a cop car and does like $4000 worth of damage. Yes, in another movie, they'd have broken their necks. It's almost like superheroes are not real.
It's a messy narrative that follows, but it goes a little something like this: in the years since stranding herself in Man's World in 1918, Diana Prince has reinvented herself as an archaeologist who's spent the last fraction of her immortal life working at the Smithsonian Institute. There's another scholar, new to the Institute, named Barbara Minerva (noted total nerd, uggo, and not-beautiful-at-all lady, Kristen Wiig). Geeking up the place, Barbara somehow manages to get bullied by museum employees, which, while possibly not deliberately funny, is still very amusing. At least Diana is reasonably nice to her. Barbara is tapped by the FBI to identify a curious piece that those mall robbers almost got away with. This turns out to be the very thing that striving grifter Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) desires, for he knows what it is already—an artifact of a god, a Dreamstone that can make all your wishes come true, for a price to be determined later—and with the donation of a lot of his investors' money to the Smithsonian, Max puts himself in a position to snatch that Dreamstone right off Barbara's desk, but not before she's made a wish, which, in her desperate jealousy, is to be like Diana. This will have the expected effects soon enough, but in the meantime, Max has wished to become the Dreamstone itself, effectively making him a genie—Aladdin wouldn't come out for eight more years—granting wishes, and able to exact the price of his choosing. Barbara shouldn't have let Diana hold it, either, for what she silently wished for was for the only man she ever loved, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), to return to her arms, which is a big problem since he blew up sixty-six years earlier.
This is obviously WW84's biggest unforced error and I promise you, it annoys me too: just to begin with, if the movie wanted Diana to have a recognizably human grieving process, maybe this movie ought to have been Wonder Woman 1924. That's an underexploited era. Still: I presume because the Dreamstone is evil, Steve's resurrection is accomplished by way of his soul reincarnating inside some random guy who also happens to live in D.C., and literally not one single line is expended wondering what happened to this guy, and to make matters worse it has no bearing on the plot. At all. Ever. For a movie this invested in 1984—and Steve's return to life is the occasion for, inevitably, a lot of jokes at a cartoon version of 1984's expense—it's weird that WW84 never saw The Terminator, because Steve Trevor falling out of heaven naked and running around the park with his butt out until Diana bails him out of jail is, like, such an obvious source of potential joy that it's astonishing this movie goes this other way instead. On the other hand, it's also the exact premise (with the exact same amorality) of Atlantics, and as far I know, I am the only person who made a peep.
There are other observations I could make: I like Pascal's rendition of Max Lord a lot, and I adore what a charismatic send-up of 80s-style arbitrary avarice and toxic optimism he conjures out of the character, without wholly loving the reconceptualization of the shady shithead WASP who approached heroism obliquely and reluctantly back in Justice League International. Still, I can also recognize the unpalatability of doing an 80s yuppie stereotype as a good guy at any point past 2016, so I won't bemoan the loss (hey, let's just be thankful that it's not Countdown to Infinite Crisis's Max Lord), and I'll merely note that dumping a tragic underprivileged backstory into the middle of the climax doesn't do any emotional work that the existence of his young son (Lucian Perez, looking extremely lost and confused, and well he might) hasn't already. Likewise, Barbara's ultimate transformation into the Cheetah feels like something that had to happen because the comics say Barbara Minerva is the Cheetah, and not because anything sensible happened to make this so.
But then, nothing about WW84 is sensible, and it fights against logic so strenuously that it almost rises to the level of a theme—moreso than its actual theme, which is practically a placeholder, "be careful what you wish for," or, with the utmost charity, "what you wish for reveals what you are"—and this is the exciting part, as the film whirls through its scenario with the cavalier gusto of an actual twelve-page Silver Age story. But as this has been grounded at least a little bit in live-action, feature-length (beyond feature-length) filmmaking, even filmmaking as consummately cartoonish as this—and I unhesitatingly admire how cartoonish: every time a wish is made, an unmotivated wind tousles the wisher's hair—WW84 takes on the hallucinatory cast of a movie that more than anything wants to show what a world invaded by magic would feel like, and that world feels fucking insane.
So: WW84 does its darnedest to recapture the frothy superheroics of the Reeve Supermans, and it's largely successful, from its attempt at bright, pleasantly-overlit 80s cinematography, its frankly cheesy special effects (there is no reason for Diana to run like that, except to wallow in the silly appeal of the visual), and a spectacular, ever-present score by Hans Zimmer that isn't stereotypically "80s" but does feel like an attempt by the composer to try his hand at something more classical, like John Williams and Alan Silvestri would have done around that period. In the film's efforts, it hearkens back even further, to a frivolous age that I sometimes think is my favorite era of superheroes; even its shot design and editing rhythms kind of feel like they're working off a six-panel grid.
In this narrow way, it may be more successful than the Reeve Supermans. Gadot herself is not quite living up to Reeve—not the way I thought she might, in Wonder Woman—with a certain hesitancy about her performance that's hard to place. She mostly gets there, regardless; I believed in Diana's love for Steve more in this movie than I did in the last one, for what that's worth, and WW84 positions Wonder Woman herself as an inspiration, a calm voice that has the opportunity to ask the whole world to give up hollow happiness for the sake of everyone else. That's not so bad, nor is a superhero film that can't rely on the hero punching the villain into mush, so must instead rely on her being a symbol of something greater. It's not deep, and it's very dumb; it is, unfortunately, much too dumb to love, especially because so many of the ways it's dumb aren't requisite. But it has enough moments that are loveable anyway.