Well, that’s one way to tackle superhero movie fatigue. Thanks to COVID-19, Wonder Woman 1984 lands as just the year’s fourth big screen release in the genre. And, no offense to Bloodshot and New Mutants, it’s functionally just the second after February’s Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. That means that, while Patty Jenkins’ anticipated sequel to the first DC extended universe (DCEU) success story has the usual challenges of pacing, plot and character development every director must solve, an audience over-saturated by costumed antics isn’t one of them.
Set 66 years after the previous film, Wonder Woman 1984 has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor. Fortunately, the exact mix and proportion of those strengths and weaknesses has shifted for the better.
Casting and character development remain a core pillar of the franchise. As pure casting alchemy, Gal Gadot’s turn as everybody’s favorite Amazonian princess is matched only by Chris Evan’s as everybody’s favorite super soldier. (Respectful nod to Hemsworth’s Thor and Robbie’s Harley Quinn.) With the return of Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, the simple, affable chemistry between the two is also back. The way in which Pine returns is one of several “Hm … nicely done” moments in the film (invisible jet!).
As crucially, when it comes to presenting viewers with her particular corner of the DCEU, Jenkins does so many of the little things well. That may seem like faint praise, but failure to handle the small moments well, or at all, has been a huge, hobbling issue for the DCEU even as it’s been a cornerstone of the MCU’s success. In part, moments like totally avoidable tornadic-assisted suicides, blasé infliction of collateral damage and straight up murder land so wrongly because they reveal fundamental misunderstandings of the characters involved. The success of the MCU’s Captain America is due in large part because, as much attention as is given to Cap during the action set pieces, as much or more is paid to Steve Rogers during the smaller moments. The same is true here.
At two hours, 31 minutes, Wonder Woman 1984 will inevitably draw some criticism for being slow in stretches, but it’s in these moments that Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham allow Gadot’s Diana and the other characters in the film to breathe and develop. It’s the kind of patience that may frustrate viewers looking for wall-to-wall action—or even just wall-to-wall Wonder Woman—even as it deepens the portrait of what it might be like to be a near-immortal force for justice whose true love perished decades ago. (The film also takes so much time transforming Kriten Wiig’s Barbra Minerva into a villain that the film feels like it’s setting up a Cheetah franchise.)
As for the action, despite devolving a bit into CGI messiness at the end, it’s still pretty exhilarating thanks in part to an unexpected star—the lasso of Hestia. Much as Thor: Ragnarok let trusty Mjolnir have center stage before its crushing demise in the hands of Hela, pretty much every action scene in Wonder Woman 1984 puts Diana’s magic lasso to work. It’s another good choice—lariat use lends itself to far more creative action choreography than those “block a bullet, make a bang” bracelets of submission.
As for weaknesses, Wonder Woman 1984 has a bit of a villain problem, but, to be fair, it’s one inherited from the source materials. The first film had Ares (eh, but undeniably a main foe of Diana) and Dr. Poison (oy). Now we get Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, having a good year) and Cheetah, the latter of whom is the classic, go-to arch for Wonder Woman. And that’s … pretty weak, to be honest. Batman (Joker, Riddler, Bane, etc.), Superman (Lex Luthor, Doomsday, Brainiac, etc.), the Flash (Reverse Flash, Gorilla Grodd, Captain Cold, etc.)—hell, even Green Lantern (Sinestro, Star Sapphire)—have immediate, iconic enemies that not only populate their rogues galleries but serve as obvious foils and antitheses. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman, one of the Big Three, gets … Cheetah. I’m not sure exactly what it says that this is the case, but it sure seems like gender inequity in storytelling over decades may be to blame.
Just as Wonder Woman’s dark, stormy scuffle with a mostly transformed Ares (hold on to that Victorian ’stache Greek god of war!) was much less impressive than the No Man’s Land battle scenes, Diana’s dark, stormy meow-mix-up with the finally fully transformed Cheetah lacks the impact or fun of the earlier convoy and White House scenes. (Now that I think of it, between Thewlis’ confusingly untransformed face and Wiig’s confusingly transformed one, “facial CGI” seems like a dependable stumbling block in this franchise.)
Fortunately, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t so much about flexing some Infinity War muscle. Like Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3, this movie is focused as much on the emotional journey and intangibles that lie beneath the heroism. To that extent, it feels more like the introspective first half of Superman Returns even as, thankfully, its second half isn’t near the mess the retread of “Lex Luthor, real estate magnate” proved in the former.
It’s no secret the DCEU remains a universe behind the MCU is establishing its characters and franchises—not to mention box office muscle—but thanks to Momoa’s Aquaman and Levi’s Shazam, it feels like it could be on the verge of moving forward instead of stepping on more rakes. Part of that process calls for nailing down the character in the audience’s imagination so you can then play with it. Will Pattinson’s Batman work? How about the Rock’s Black Adam? Are we still supposed to bond with Ezra Miller’s Flash? Who will the next Superman be? Among all those unknowns, at least we have our Wonder Woman.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns (story and screenplay); Dave Callaham (screenplay); William Moulton Marston (based on character created)
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (theaters and HBO Max)
Michael Burgin is Movies Editor for Paste. He has never complained of superhero movie fatigue and is likely immune.