Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman trashed all the DC Comics movies of recent years at the box office, exceeding the earnings of its nearest rival Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice by almost a quarter. This might be because of its less sombre tone, because the world was ready for a female superhero, or simply that it was a much better film (or more likely, a combination of all three). With this in mind, Jenkins could have easily crafted a sequel that was more of the same and the studio probably would have been happy for her to do so… but where’s the fun in that? If you’ve got a lead character that is to all intents and purposes immortal, you can place her in all kinds of interesting times and places – which is exactly what the director has done in the second outing for everyone’s favourite Amazon, Wonder Woman 1984.
Now, 1984 might not be everybody’s idea of one of the most fascinating periods in modern history, but there’s a lot of warm nostalgia going around for the period, with everything from The Goldbergs to Stranger Things to Ready Player One painting a warm and fuzzy image of the decade typified by greed and impending nuclear Armageddon. Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t pull any punches in that respect though; as well having a plot that involves both of those elements, it also doesn’t forget to remind us that sexism and workplace harassment were commonplace. A lot of media these days likes to perpetuate a modern myth that the 80s were terribly progressive, moving forward from the nicotine-stained 70s to a more equalitarian society, but it’s at best a part-truth and this is a film that accepts that dichotomy.
It’s not all snoods and sexism though; this is a film that embraces the colour, the vibrancy and the sense of fun that pervaded the 80s. It’s a very bright and colourful film, a million miles away from the washed-out darkness of Zack Snyder’s DC films. The main story opens with a sequence that owes a lot to Dick Lester’s undervalued Superman III (made in 1983) with a busy collection of physical comedy vignettes, as Wonder Woman swoops in to foil a heist in a shopping mall. Delightfully, the robbers are a bunch of incompetent boobs rather than the sort of hackneyed ‘shoot first, shoot more later’ criminals that appear to be a mainstay of modern cinema. Wonder Woman 1984 sets out its stall very early on as a much more jovial affair than some of the previous DC movies, which seem to be inescapably hung up on the ‘dark’ ethic of Batman.
The Superman III comparisons don’t end there. The 1983 film starred comedian Richard Prior as a lovable loser who suffers through his dealings with a power-obsessed businessman; Wonder Woman 1984 stars comedian Kristen Wiig as a lovable loser who suffers through her dealings with Pedro Pascal as power-obsessed businessman (and thinly-veiled Trump metaphor) Maxwell Lord. The twist here is that Max Lord is also a loser and can only achieve the wealth and power he so desperately craves by using a powerful ancient crystal that fulfils wishes. The crystal is being examined at the Smithsonian Institute where Diana Prince, played of course by Gal Gadot, and Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva work and both have unwittingly had wishes granted by the crystal before Lord snaffles it; Barbara to be strong and confident like Diana, and Diana to have back her one true love…
Re-enter Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Diana’s beloved from World War I, back from the undiscovered country and extracting great comedy value from being a fish out of water in the futuristic 1980s. As Steve Trevor is the love interest and essentially plays the role that a female lead would play in a male-led adventure film, it’s refreshing to see that the Wonder Woman films don’t feel the need to hammer home a point about his subservient position in the way that some female-led movies have in recent years (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters). He’s not the hero, but he takes a proactive role where necessary and a back seat when required; it’s a very mature attitude to dealing with what could have been quite a problematic character.
After her initial appearance in the iconic outfit, Gal Gadot doesn’t get decked out in her Wonder Woman finery again for a good hour (at 150 minutes, this is a long film – but never really feels over-long) and this is a good thing, because Wonder Woman 1984 never feels like it’s gratuitously adding action sequences for the sake of it. But when the action sequences do appear, they’re pretty damn spectacular; the armoured vehicle chase in Egypt is one of my favourite action sequences in any superhero film and although it is undoubtedly greatly enhanced by CGI, it doesn’t look like it is and brings to mind the pre-digital stunt sequences of the Indiana Jones films. Not once do you look at it thinking, ‘Yeah, this is great, but it’d be much better if it were a man’… or at least, I didn’t. I shouldn’t underestimate the level of some people’s prejudice.
The Wonder Woman costume is similar to her previous appearances, though it does change to a golden armoured affair towards the end of the film. It’s very nicely designed, because although it does show a fair degree of flesh, it’s never fetishized or shown to be impractical; it’s fairly representative of what an ancient Greek warrior – male or female – would wear. From the way in which the costume was represented in the early comics, all hot pants and halter top, it’s difficult to imagine a way in which the costume could be done with any sense of gravitas, but by returning to the character’s Amazonian roots, they’ve achieved the near impossible and created an effective Wonder Woman costume for the 21st century.
As the film nears its climax and Max Lord begins a descent into madness, the entire population of the earth are granted their greatest wish and the world sinks into chaos. Whereas this could have been a cue foe cinematic excess, Patty Jenkins wisely keeps it relatively light, but hints that some people’s greatest wishes may be to the detriment of mankind. Although terrorism and depravity are hinted at, they are not thrust in your face in the way that some lesser directors would have done. The audience are treated with a degree of respect that is rare in Hollywood these days; it is assumed that they will be able to imagine the level of chaos that would arise from such a situation, without being spoon-fed every gory detail.
Wonder Woman 1984 is a great movie – although very different from its predecessor – and if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, I could see it shooting to the top of the box office list for DC Comics movies. Some decry the collapse of the DC ‘extended universe’, but if concentrating instead on individual outings for the company’s best characters means that they can eschew cookie-cutter superhero movies in favour of unique movies like this, I’m all for it. This is a movie with a lot of nostalgia value for anyone who was around in the 80s, but it’s also very modern; I can’t see Wonder Woman putting up with some of the nonsense that Supergirl had to put up with in her 1984 movie! A brief and cheeky cameo from 70s Wonder Woman Lynda Carter suggests that this wonderful mixture of nostalgia and modernity is not over yet – and I, for one, can’t wait for the next instalment!