Warner Bros. Pictures’ Wonder Woman 1984, much like that period in pop culture, is bright, fun, campy and optimistic. I’m a child of the ’80s, and many of us who grew up in that era look back at pictures, shows and film from that period with a mix of delight and embarrassment. Pop culture in the ’80s was defined by bright neon colors and big personalities. It’s the era that gave us Mr. T, MC Hammer, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
I would have watched and enjoyed Wonder Woman 1984 in the year 1984 even moreso than I did in 2020. The film fully embraces not only the ’80s aesthetic, but also its personality. To be clear, I quite enjoyed the film (I also remember the ’80s quite fondly). It improves upon the original with better character development across the board, strong performances by the film’s stars and a more interesting overall storyline. Much like the ’80s, Wonder Woman 1984 is not without its flaws. The script is messy, including some extremely questionable depictions of people of color, overall theme of the film is confusing, and there are several easily avoidable plot holes.
Wonder Woman 1984 is directed by Patty Jenkins, with screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callaham, and story by Jenkins and Johns. The film is set to open in domestic theaters on December 25, 2020 in 2D and 3D in select theaters and IMAX, and in a historic move, will also premiere on HBO Max in the U.S. on the same day. Spoilers below!
First and foremost, this film is the opposite of “grimdark.” From the first scene that takes place in 1984, to the final shot, and even the mid-credits scene (yes there is one), the aesthetic is bright and fun. I loved that. I go into comic book films to be excited, entertained and in some ways, inspired, and Wonder Woman 1984 accomplished all three of those goals. It seems clear that director Patty Jenkins wanted to make a film that is generally accessible for all ages, and in that, she succeeded.
Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are back as Diana Prince and Steve Trevor, and the pair are a joy throughout the film. While I felt that the development of their relationship in the first film was forced and somewhat awkward, there are no such lingering issues this time around. You can see how much both Gadot and Pine have grown into their respective roles, and their familiarity and comfort with each other. As a result, the chemistry between the two stars is electric and they make both a great on screen couple and crime-fighting duo.
The interesting thing about this film is that a majority of it is focused on Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, rather than as Wonder Woman. Gadot is fantastic as Diana. She is, at the same time, stunningly glamorous, yet surprisingly warm. For most of the first film, Wonder Woman was an action hero, displaying awe inspiring feats of physical strength to defeat her enemies. This time around, we get to know Diana Prince more as a person; someone who suffered the crushing loss of her first love, and has had to live with that loss over almost 40 years while acclimating to a strange new world.
Prince is doing well for herself as a respected scientist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. However, there’s an understandable loneliness without Trevor, and when he is suddenly resurrected in the body of another man, her emotional joy is palpable. Later, when it becomes clear that in order to save the world, Prince must again lose Trevor, she refuses. She’s already sacrificed so much, saved countless lives and lost Trevor once before. Prince asks the question that I think any hero would naturally ask, why can’t she have just this one thing for herself? It was refreshing to see Prince struggle with the prospect of again losing the most important person in her life and humanized her in a way that many superhero films fail to do with their characters. Of course, in the end she makes the sacrifice, and in that moment Gadot does a fantastic job expressing Prince’s sorrow and fury at her enemies.
Chris Pine plays a man out of time with sincerity and joy. Trevor being resurrected from the 1940s to the 1980s is a huge culture shock, but one that he enjoys. It’s reminiscent of another Steve superhero story, but here we get to share more moments of Trevor discovering modern society. It’s a lot of fun to see Trevor marvel at things like fireworks or escalators.
The costume department deserves all the accolades for Prince’s and Trevor’s incredible ’80s fits. They captured the look and style of the era perfectly, with just enough modern flair. I’m not generally one who notices fashion, but both Prince and Trevor look amazing in the film. We even get a welcome twist on the rom-com trope of having the female lead try on multiple outfits with Chris Pine as the one testing out various looks.
Kristen Wiig, who plays Barbara Minerva/Cheetah, and Pedro Pascal, who plays Maxwell
Lorenzano Lord, are fun-house mirror contrasts to our two heroes. While Prince and Trevor are sophisticated, attractive and heroic, Minerva and Lord are goofy, overlooked and self-serving. It’s worth noting that neither Minerva nor Lord are inherently evil characters. I appreciated the more layered portrayal of the “villains” in the story, as both are given time and material enough to develop as more fully fleshed out characters than most villains.
Minerva, also a scientist at the Smithsonian, is awkward and forgettable but good hearted. Indeed, the head of the Smithsonian who hired her doesn’t even recognize her. Despite that, for much of the film, Minerva isn’t a villain at all. Instead, she develops a budding friendship with Prince, born out of their shared social awkwardness. Minerva actually helps Prince and Trevor, acting as a researcher and information gatherer to help figure out the source of Maxwell Lord’s power.
Originally, I was skeptical when Wiig was announced as playing the Cheetah. Wiig, of course, is best known as a comedian, with hilarious roles on Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids, among many others. She had not played a significant action role and it seemed an odd choice. Watching the film, Wiig makes a lot of sense. She fits perfectly as the jester to Prince’s royalty. Minerva is easy to empathize with, as she’s awkward but funny and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She’s also kind. It’s not until she innocently makes a wish that she could be more like Prince (who can blame her?) that her humanity dissipates in exchange for newfound powers.
This version of the Cheetah is very different from the comics. In comics, Minerva turns into the Cheetah due to an ancient curse, and blames Wonder Woman for not saving her. In the film, the only real consistency with the character’s comic origin is the friendship with Prince. Beyond that, Minerva’s powers and eventual transformation is directly connected to Lord.
Pedro Pascal’s Lord reflects the dark side of the ’80s. As much as the bright colors and fun personalities dominated media during that time, the era is also defined by rampant self-indulgence and excess. We first see Lord on TV in a bombastic ad. It’s not even clear what he’s selling beyond greed, as he tells viewers, “You deserve to have it all. You don’t even have to work hard. You just have to want it!” If you ever wonder how we got into the societal mess we’re in today, that fictional ad is a good window into our past. Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is intentionally a caricature of a human, selling lies in order to enrich himself. He’s charismatic yet off-putting, he works in a garish office building that’s empty and ragged inside, and he promises wealth to others when he has none himself.
I hope that people won’t discount Pascal’s performance as too over-the-top because I’m certain that was the intent. Again, everything in the ’80s was over-the-top, and Lord personifies that culture. Further, Lord is a deeply insecure man, desperately chasing success, power and wealth to validate himself in his own eyes. Like his office building, his blustering is intentional, hiding the brokenness within. While we don’t get a lot of Lord’s backstory, he has a son that he genuinely cares for, and towards the end, we see that he’s a victim of an abusive past. Like Minerva, Lord is warrants at least some empathy. It’s not too hard to see how he fell to his moral depths.
Between Prince, Trevor, Minerva and Lord, the film gives its main characters room to breath and develop, and is carried by the performances of its stars and their shared chemistry,
As mentioned above, Diana Prince is a wonderful character in the film. However, her alter ego, Wonder Woman, is a mixed bag. One lingering issue is her costume. Wonder Woman was created in 1941, and frankly, her costume design looks it. It’s never made much sense to me why an Amazon warrior would fight battles dressed in what’s essentially a bikini. That dissonance is even more stark in live-action. In the first film, it was more forgivable because the Amazons on Themyscira are a culture that’s stuck in the past. They’re still using arrows while the rest of society has discovered guns. So sure, it makes some sense that their battle armor looks like it’s from ancient Greece. But by this film, Prince has presumably lived in modern society for around 40 years. It’s not as if she’s invulnerable like Superman either, so her costume just doesn’t make sense. Of course, we all know that Wonder Woman’s look is iconic and that’s the biggest hurdle towards any change. But I had hoped that after a full movie with her conventional costume, we would get something more modern and practical this time around. For what it’s worth, the awkwardness of Wonder Woman’s costume is negated by the fact that she’s in regular clothing for much of the film as Diana Prince, and she does don a golden full-body armor towards the climax.
The action scenes are also uneven. To be sure, there are moments that will make you wish you were watching the film on IMAX. There’s a car chase in Cairo that culminates in a pulse-pounding sequence that’s probably the most heroic scene in the film. The fight choreography has some highlights, including some innovative and creative uses of Diana’s golden lasso and a solid final fight with the Cheetah. But overall, the action doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t carry the weight and impact that’s necessary to ground a superhero film. When Wonder Woman is tossing people around with her lasso, it feels like the actors are just floating around the screen and you almost look for the wires carrying them. Even with Wonder Woman, when she’s jumping or flying, there’s a realism that’s lacking.
Finally, the script is messy, including a plot that’s at times unnecessarily confusing, and overly convenient. The story revolves around an artifact that grants wishes while taking the wisher’s most prized possession. At least that’s what we’re told. We don’t even fully find out about the mechanics of this wish granting stone until halfway through the film. To that point, wishes are granted and possessions are taken seemingly at random. Even after the parameters of the wish granting are outlined, the story doesn’t adhere to them consistently. As with stories about time travel, it’s often challenging for a film about magical wishes to juggle all the potential discrepancies and conflicts, but the plot issues are bothersome. It’s even more frustrating given that the issues could have been easily avoided if the rules of the artifact were more narrowly defined and fully thought out. The story also resolves in a way that shares a nice message, but frankly, is far too optimistic about humankind to be believable.
The biggest diversity related change from comics canon is the race-bending of Maxwell Lord as Maxwell Lorenzano, a Latinx character played by Pedro Pascal, who is Chilean-American. Although some might object to a person of color being the villain, Lord is an interesting character, and more than just a one-note villain. More Pedro Pascal is always a good thing.
Beyond the main cast, there was a noticeable effort to include diverse background characters throughout. In the opening sequence, we see Black and brown Amazonians taking part in an Olympics style competition, which is won by a Black participant. The head of the Smithsonian science department is a Black woman. There are multiple Asian and other POC background characters with speaking roles, and of course Max Lord’s son is Latinx as well.
Wonder Woman 1984, like most films, especially superhero films, can do a lot. better in the area of diversity. I’d like to see Diana’s inner-circle expanded to include several diverse characters, including a diverse Amazonian (Nubia?), a diverse love interest and some diverse friendships as well. These can easily be accomplished using existing comic characters (again, Nubia) or simply creating more of a supportive cast.
UPDATE (12/25/20): Since publishing my review, I’ve had a chance to more fully evaluate the film and there are some troubling areas that I wish I had done a better job covering in my initial review. First and foremost, there’s a completely unnecessary and extremely problematic storyline that involves Lord traveling to Cairo intent on stealing from an oil maven, Emir Said Bin Abdyos (Amr Waked). Of course, to do so, he has to trick Bin Abdyos into making a wish, and his wish is to rid his ancestral land of all the heathens and make sure they can’t return. That results in a giant wall suddenly appearing around the area. Lord takes Bin Abdyos’ security forces in exchange for the granted wish and eventually Wonder Woman and Trevor take on the generic Arab military to get to Lord.
Much like Avengers: Endgame, where we travel to international countries only so the “hero” can take down stereotypical Mexican drug lords (off screen) and Japanese Yakuza (on-screen), this is another unfortunate example of POC characters existing only to serve as punching bags for the protagonists. We need and deserve better Arab and MENA (Middle-Eastern and North African) representation in media.
RATING – 3/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.