“Be careful what you wish for” is both the theme of Wonder Woman 1984 and what it represents in the comic book canon. It’s not dark and gritty. It’s not an extended teaser for a future movie. It’s not a jumbled collection of tie-ins. In fact, it embodies none of the many tired comic movie tropes we’ve come to recognize on sight. In their place it seems to lack any guiding aesthetic principle at all.
The plot of Patty Jenkins’ sequel — originally scheduled for this past summer, but bumped to a streaming release on HBO Max because of the pandemic — concerns a citrine wishing stone. Wishing on the stone grants the user whatever he or she wants, but with a catch (naturally). Here again the be-careful-for-what-you-wish-for rule is illustrated most acutely: WW84 has granted our wish for its plot not to hinge on heroes having to close a giant portal or battle a madman with a doomsday machine, but what we get instead feels like the plot of a Brady Bunch vacation episode, or a holiday-themed TGIF sitcom. One of those one-off magical realist episodes sitcoms loved to do in the eighties.
Oddly enough for a movie conspicuously set in 1984, the high-concept, Weekend At Bernies-esque plot is probably the most eighties thing about it. Here again, it’s great that WB didn’t spend two hours on intense, Stranger Things-esque nostalgia pimping or do a rehash of all the same jokes from Hot Tub Time Machine, but it does leave open the question of why it bothered with the eighties at all.
Wonder Woman 1984 maintains this perfect balance of refreshing / disappointing for the entirety of the film. I suppose setting it in 1984 did allow for Kirsten Wiig to wear a bad perm. Wiig plays “Barb Minerva,” your classic klutzy rom-com ditz, who sputters awkwardly when spoken to, seems inexplicably invisible to men, and can’t walk well in heels. Basically, the first act of a Mentos ad. But fresh goes better when Barb, who works in antiquities with Gal Godot’s Diana at the Smithsonian, happens upon the wishing stone one day at work. How this comes to be isn’t worth explaining, but suffice it to say, like all plot points in WW84, it’s yadda yadda’d through at light speed, too fast to explain its significance or allow us to get invested.
Anyway, Barb does the natural thing one does with a wishing stone, and wishes she could be more like Diana — strong, beautiful, cool, and sturdy in heels (Barb’s wish wisely doesn’t extend to Diana’s Dracula accent). Barb’s arc is the most compelling of the film, but even Barb’s story feels more like something WW84 is itching to get though rather than savoring. Diana, meanwhile, wishes to be reunited with her old flame Steve Trevor, the man who died ending WWI and for whom she’s apparently been pining away chastely since he Charleston’d off the mortal coil at the end of the first movie. Again, you’d think they’d try a little harder to justify 66 years of celibacy over Chris Pine but the movie just blows right past it.
Steve Trevor then shows up, his soul inhabiting another man’s body, Ghost-style, and he and Diana pick up where they left off. Another classic rom-com scene ensues, where Steve emerges from this man’s closet in different outfits (a la 27 Dresses) that Diana rates with either a head shake or a nod. Makeover time! I guess this counts as utilizing the setting? Hey, remember blazers with rolled up sleeves??
The bad guy in all of this is Maxwell Lord, played by Pedro Pascal, a fast-talking businessman who sells shares in his “Black Gold” oil cooperative via infomercial. Lord, naturally, covets the wishing stone. Why? Because he wants to “have it all.” Lord longs to prove to his young son Alistair that he can indeed “be number one.”
A greedy scam artist who wants to be number one at all costs fits the eighties theme while offering only the most toothless, surface-level critique of eighties culture (and by extension, 2020 culture). Pedro Pascal is a fun actor to watch but there’s no distance at all between what Maxwell Lord represents in the story and who he is as a person. Ideally, we’d understand him as a chess piece and be interested in him as a human, someone with a personality and unique idiosyncrasies, but as with everything else, WW84 doesn’t have time for all of that. He wants to have it all, get it? Okay, moving on.
Wonder Woman herself suffers from this same implosion of symbol and personality. In her way, she too wants to “have it all” against all logic, risking world peace so that she can canoodle with her dead doughboy boyfriend*. Gal Godot, great at evincing power and determination all while looking flawless, doesn’t seem to have the emotional range to make us believe that she’d spend two-thirds of a century Pine-ing for this guy (see what I did there?). Maybe that’s too big of an ask, that an actor simply embody a desire the script does nothing to flesh out. Get it? She loves him, okay, onto the next scene…
That WW84 offers only the broadest of broad strokes extends also to the action sequences. Never really explaining the rules and scope of Wonder Woman’s powers becomes a problem in a movie where the plot hinges on her losing them. It’s not as if we need to write up a detailed report every time Wonder Woman wrecks a henchman with her magic lasso, it’s just that it’s easier to be invested when we understand beforehand what’s at stake. In Wonder Woman 1984, we only know what is and isn’t dangerous to Wonder Woman after the fact (including… electricity? sure okay). This turns us into entirely passive observers.
And Wonder Woman 1984 is a perfectly fine movie to passively observe. It’s neither as aggressively dull as Justice League, as aggressively commercial or militaristic as most Marvel movies, or as aggressively nü metal as Suicide Squad. In fact, it doesn’t seem to inspire much of anything either way.
*As in Wonder Woman 1, Steve Trevor seems only too happy to throw himself into the thresher to stop the machine. The “happy martyr” is lazy writing, and I would’ve loved to see a version of Wonder Woman 1984 where Steve Trevor comes back to life with the knowledge that the great beyond is a hall of horrors and desperate to avoid being dead again at all costs. I will kill everyone on Earth if it means avoiding the slimy tentacles of Cthulhu for even five more seconds!