As a follow-up to 2017’s Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman 1984 is undeniably ambitious. It seeks to expand the mythos of Themyscria, the home of the Amazons; continue the story of Diana Prince as a continuation of her prior chronological adventure; and exist within the larger backstory established within Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that’s carried forward in Justice League (2017). Mostly, Jenkins and company stick the landing as 1984 weaves itself within the confirmed framework while creating something all of its own. This new thing is likely to prove divisive among general audiences, if the critical reception is any kind of true harbinger, due to the fact that, similar to the first solo outing, 1984 battles abstracts more than proper villainy. With Jenkins at the helm once more and a reduced portion of her original cast, 1984 is less an explosive superhero outing and more a viewing glass of an alternative past with direct ties to our realized present. Much like Diana Prince, warrior poet of the Amazonians, audiences are more than ready to tackle such an ethereal foe.
It’s been 66 years since World War I ended and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) continues to work in the shadows, working to save as many people as she can without making her presence in humanity more than rumor and whisper. When not out saving the day, she works at the Washington, D.C.,-based Smithsonian Museum assisting with anthropological matters, but keeps largely to herself, still hurting from the loss of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and the friends she first made upon leaving Themyscria. Even with her near-daily exploits saving pedestrians from rogue drivers and stopping jewel thieves, Diane is not quite ready for what’s coming: a force which feeds on wishes, leaving the destruction of entire civilizations in its wake.
First things first, you’re going to end up feeling every bit of the 2.5 hours of 1984’s runtime. I’m sorry, but you’re gonna. It’s not that the film is dull, it’s just that the film isn’t as interested in being popcorn-chomping, soda-slurping fun, so much as it takes it’s time to develop it’s emotional stakes by way of focusing more on smaller moments than the large ones. Put simply: there is no “No Man’s Land” moment and there shouldn’t be. To offer up another moment like that in 1984 would be too self-aggrandizing for the type of character Jenkins and Gadot are crafting in their partnership to develop modern adventures for Diana. “No Man’s Land” served a higher purpose than simply sending chills down the audience’s spine, it functioned as a moment when Diana and Steve’s ragtag group came together as a team. It was a moment signifying that being feminine didn’t mean impotent or infirm and there is no need for that moment in 1984. By this point in the story, Diana is acutely aware of her power and, while still imperfect, the 1980s had far more women’s liberation than the 1910s. With this in place, 1984 is free to explore Diana as she exists emotionally versus how she exists in the world. So while the action set pieces are fine (the two earliest ones being the absolute best), 1984 is not inclined to satisfy your bloodlust for entertainment and, instead, encourage you to pause to think about your own role in society.
The first segment is the best example of this as it opens in a similar manner as Wonder Woman wherein a voiceover from Diana plays over a swooping aerial shot of land. In Wonder Woman, that land was France, setting up Diana’s current life post-Batman v Superman before jumping backward in time to her childhood on Themyscria. This time, the voiceover leads the audience to the island first, setting up young Diana (returning actor Lilly Aspell) competing in their Olympic games. The scene pulls us in immediately as we’re granted another peek at the absolute badassery of women in a realm without the terror of man. If the whole film were to take place on Themyscria, I doubt anyone would mind as the sequence succeeds in highlighting the strength and acumen of Diana, while pointing out where she needs to grow. It’s in this sequence that Jenkins not so subtly presents the theme that the rest of 1984 explores: when all you care for is success, when all you desire is personal gain, there is no true glory in the victory. With this lesson laid bare for the audience and young Diana, it becomes the foundation from which Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns (Aquaman) and Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap) build the rest of the narrative. Because 1984 is ultimately about learning this lesson, the film rarely feels like a direct sequel to Wonder Woman, but as a progression of growth requiring new emotional beats and challenges. We, the audience, know that Diana is a demigod in the DCEU and there is no force on Earth which can truly stop her, which forced Jenkins and her co-writers to decide “how do you bring down a god”: patience and time. Gloriously, Jenkins and company also manage to craft a story that ultimately frees Diana from the chains of all the other stories, empowering the character to find its own way, tread its own path, in future stories rather than be beholden to the rules and restrictions of others.
You may suspect that all of the above implies a certain sense of grandiose or earnestness, but Jenkins and her co-writers find plenty to have fun with, the best of these being the role-reversal between Diana and Steve as she becomes his guide into modernity. Remember Diana getting ice cream for the first time? Stuff like that, just a bit more frequent at first. While this is a charming bit of nostalgia, bittersweet in the truest sense, these moments serve to create the emotional stakes that make the conclusion of 1984 satisfying and the future gloriously uncertain. The mystery of Steve’s miraculous return is directly tied to the story’s newcomers, Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) and Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), and the world-ending stakes which most superhero stories lean on. The difference between those other stories and 1984 is that the resolution comes down to emotional intelligence, not physical strength. In the promotion for Wonder Woman, Jenkins proudly proclaimed her appreciation for director Richard Donner’s Superman films and I don’t think it’s been much of an accident that Gadot’s Wonder Woman has more in common with the DC Comics version of Superman (seeing the best in others, a preference for talking over violence, an outsider with a wish to belong) than of her comic counterpart (fierce warrior and military strategist). That’s not the only character difference fans of the comics will recognize as this version of Maxwell Lord is far from the amoral businessman and villain they know. Rather, he’s a man of the Latinx community striving to fit in with the affluent Whites by dying his hair and changing his name. This version of Lord, like this version of Minerva, are not inherently evil, but are unable to relinquish that which appears to remove their weaknesses. With these changes, Jenkins and her co-writers create a trinity of selfishness, using the narrative to explore (by way of the excess of the 1980s) how shortcuts might grant what you want but the cost always comes due. To their credit, Pascal and Wiig are a lot of fun to watch. We’ve seen Pascal play the villain before (2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle), but not with this kind of nuance and sympathy. Even when Pascal gets a bit hammy, Lord never loses that performative aspect that makes the character seem like a pretender to the throne-type. For her part, Wiig isn’t given as meaty material, but she makes good work of it so that the choices aren’t so much mustache-twirling villainy as anchored in deep personal need. This matters — both for Wiig and Pascal’s performance — so that the big showdown contains more stakes that what’s visible.
Because sometimes it’s handy to have, if I were to compare 1984 to any other superhero story, it would be a mix of Batman Returns (1992) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Returns for the way it makes its villains empathic (Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Barbara Minerva views herself as a disrespected target and Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a pretender desperate to make something of himself) and Superman IV for the message of global destruction and the need for unity. Both of these films are atypical within the superhero genre of stories, eschewing the usual fisticuffs for something smaller. The stakes in Superman IV are certainly huge (the film finds Lex Luthor creating a nuclear man to destroy Superman amid a tale of nuclear disarmament), but the motivations are innate to who Superman is: protect all others, even if it means forsaking oneself. If you’re familiar with either of these films, you can see very clearly the influence present in 1984. Take that as you will.
If you’ve made it this far, here’s your reward: stick around for two end credit sequences. Only one was available at the time of this review (arriving midcredits), while the other is reported to be added to the end when the film officially releases. Additionally, should you watch the film at home, be advised that HBO Max subscribers will have the ability to screen the film in 4K UHD and that the ratio will change to accommodate for the way Jenkins shot certain scenes for IMAX. It didn’t appear as those 4K UHD was available when I screened the film, but there’s evidence to suggest UHD will make for a grand improvement over standard HD viewing.
Writer’s Note: As of 12/25, there does not appear to be an additional end credits scene, only the midcredit. Thus far, have found no confirmation of one with the theatrical, either.
All in all, what makes Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984 ambitious is that it’s more interested in character than knockdown drag-outs. There are several prerequisites fights and they’re ok, but they rarely serve the story as much as the Indiana Jones-style mystery solving and character interactions. Does that make for frivolous entertainment the average DCEU or general audience goer is looking for? Probably not. But it feels like a big swing from Jenkins and makes me excited for what could come in a third outing.
In select theaters December 25th, 2020.
Available for streaming on HBO Max for 31 days beginning 12pm ET December 25th, 2020.
Head to the official Wonder Woman 1984 website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming
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