Compared to the highly-lauded original film in its franchise, “Wonder Woman 1984” was a disappointment. Originally slated for theaters in June 2020, the high-flying sequel wasn’t released until Dec. 25, 2020, one of 17 films scheduled to launch on HBO Max after WarnerMedia’s risky decision to unveil their latest films simultaneously online and in theaters for the entirety of 2021.
In a desolate year for fresh entertainment, WarnerMedia has readily capitalized on the drought. Where films such as “Tenet” and “The New Mutants” fell flat in the latter half of fall 2020, “Wonder Woman 1984” has been endlessly promoted by Warner Bros. as a “new era for Wonder Woman,” hailing a possible new age of blockbuster film for these pandemic times. At least in my eyes, the previews for “Wonder Woman 1984” looked like a return to the thrilling, action-packed films you’d watch with friends at a movie theater on a Saturday night. Teasers for the film regularly appeared in the advertisements for my YouTube videos and television shows, featuring Gal Gadot as the no-nonsense protagonist, Diana Prince, we met in the first film — bulldozing through villains, swinging from lightning bolts with her lasso of truth and skirting danger at every turn.
And yet, despite the gaudy special effects and high-budget trailers, the movie, like many other DC Extended Universe (DCEU) superhero films, was a letdown. The 2017 “Wonder Woman” film emerged as a standout amongst its other less-revered colleagues (“Aquaman”); more on par with the quality of Marvel films, but from a distinctly female perspective. It’s therefore very disappointing to see what was once a shining emblem for DCEU films fall from grace with a predictable superhero storyline.
“Wonder Woman 1984” kicks off with a callback to Diana’s childhood in the lovely Amazonian city of Themyscira, where young Princess Diana gears up to compete against seasoned warriors in an Olympic-style tournament. Packed with archery, horse-racing and javelin-throwing events spanning many dangerous terrains, Diana starts the competition off ahead of the pack, excelling at every stage until a low-hanging branch knocks her off her horse, putting her notably behind the rest. Acting quickly, Diana finds a shortcut through a hidden tunnel, placing her unexpectedly in the lead. Now at the finish line, Diana runs to throw the winning javelin when Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana’s aunt, storms in to block the shot. In what becomes the resounding message for the film, Antiope states that taking the short path is not an honest victory. “No true hero is born from lies,” she says. “And greatness is not what you think.”
Most of the movie unfolds more than 60 years after the events of the previous film, with Diana now working as an antiquities researcher at the Smithsonian Museum in 1984, Washington, D.C. When not working at her day job, Diana reprises her role as Wonder Woman, notably stopping a gang of robbers in a cheesy, ’80s-style mall chase scene. Back at the Smithsonian, a mousey archaeologist named Barbara Minvera (Kristen Wiig) arrives, befriending Diana as they work together to solve the mystery behind a strange artifact, the Dreamstone. Unbeknownst to them both, this artifact grants wishes that come with a terrible price.
This segues us to our newest villain: a corrupt businessman. Whereas in the last film, Ares (David Thewlis), the Greek embodiment of war and chaos, is the lead antagonist, “Wonder Woman 1984” focuses on the simple story of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a dispirited entrepreneur whose bankrupt company has left him with slews of rejections, empty promises and bad luck. Hoping to achieve the greatness he believes he is destined for, Maxwell steals the Dreamstone and wreaks havoc across the globe, using his wishes to threaten the safety and free will of all human beings (his little son, Alistair (Lucian Perez), included).
With this peculiar villain and the retro feel of the film, “Wonder Woman 1984” should have been a creative step-up from its predecessor, but the film’s narrow and intense focus on the villains has a disastrous effect on the development of its star heroine and the movie as a whole.
While Diana has her moments in the spotlight, it is Maxwell’s character arc that takes up the most screen time. The film gives precedence to the father-son relationship between Maxwell and Alistair, while Diana becomes something of an afterthought. Even Antiope’s earlier message to young Diana applies more to Maxwell, who cheats his way to greatness, while Diana unrelatedly learns how to accept tragedy and move on. The hampering of Diana’s character growth can more or less be blamed on the film’s unnecessary decision to bring her dead boyfriend, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), back to life with the Dreamstone. This time around, however, Chris Pine and Gal Gadot’s in-film chemistry is off, which is noticeably reflected in the stiff interactions between Steve and Diana. In comparison, Maxwell’s complicated troubles with his son have a more touching and compelling quality, while Diana’s personal journey sadly becomes a subplot.
“Wonder Woman 1984” consequently did not feel like a film about Wonder Woman. Instead, Maxwell emerges as the real protagonist, with Wonder Woman simply featuring as a side character.
There is also Barbara, who escapes her role as a peripheral character by becoming a full-fledged antagonist. After mindlessly wishing to be like Diana using the Dreamstone, Barbara coincidentally inherits her superpowers and, in typical minor villain fashion, refuses to give up her newly acquired powers, situating herself as an enemy of Wonder Woman. While this shift in character was predictable but understandable, Barbara’s character is truly ruined in the film’s finale, when she uses Maxwell’s wishing powers to transform into an “apex predator” named The Cheetah, a look-alike to the green-screen felines from the 2019 musical film, “Cats.”
This final form, so to speak, was an unexpected detour, as Barbara never outright expresses a desire to be a monstrous beast until this moment. Earlier in the film, Barbara’s only goal was to be more confident, so this jump to wanting to be an “apex predator” seemed to overshoot her character resolution.
With the choices for antagonists, however, I will say the film takes an interesting venture into exploring greed and its many forms, a theme that has carried over from the original. In the 2017 “Wonder Woman” film, greed is portrayed by Ares, who is characterized by his ubiquitous ability to spread this influence to anyone, everywhere. Instead of being a typical, Thanos-style villain (that is, until the very end), Ares appears as an average, middle-aged man throughout most of the film.
In “Wonder Woman 1984,” greed is represented by run-of-the-mill people, with Maxwell being a businessman and Barbara an archaeologist; their greed only comes into play once the Dreamstone enters their mundane lives. We can thus read the film as an imaginative what-if scenario, asking viewers to question what kind of person they would become if a Dreamstone fell into their hands.
Unfortunately though, the empowerment and charm of the first film have worn off, and “Wonder Woman 1984” does nothing to revive it. If a third installment is ever considered, I hope the directors truly put Wonder Woman and Diana back at the forefront of the story where she belongs.