REVIEW – ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ falls under the weight of its overstuffed screenplay

Back in 2017, the DC Extended Universe was in shambles after the critically-maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad left a bitter taste of disappointment in many mouths. Expectations were far from high for the next chapter in the franchise. Yet, Wonder Woman proved to be the breath of fresh air the DCEU desperately needed. Tremendously entertaining and overflowing with a surprising amount of heart, Wonder Woman was a total game-changer in numerous ways.

Unsurprisingly, a sequel was greenlit within a year. But superhero sequels are a tricky beast to conquer, particularly if their predecessors were a surprise smash. Wonder Woman flew under the radar and arrived with very little expectations, allowing it to easily blow audiences and critics away. The long-awaited follow-up, Wonder Woman 1984, does not have this luxury, especially after numerous pandemic-related release date changes have only elevated the hype. Can it possibly meet the staggeringly high hopes of both fans and critics?

An old-school popcorn blockbuster we simply haven’t seen this year (for obvious reasons), Wonder Woman 1984 is certainly bigger, longer, and more ambitious than its predecessor. But, as we know, bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better, and there’s as much to love about this bombastic sequel as there is to loath. Blessed with an infectiously corny, campy spirit that’s hard to resist and a spirited ensemble cast, Wonder Woman 1984 falls under the weight of its overstuffed screenplay that simply tries to cram too much into one film, even with a runtime of over two-and-a-half hours.

Wonder Woman 1984 kicks off with a thrilling extended prologue that takes us back to the gorgeous paradise island of Themyscria, where we find young Diana Prince (Lilly Aspell) competing with her adult contemporaries in the Amazon Games. A gruelling mix of strength and skill, the games highlight Diana’s impressive abilities but also expose how the young goddess still has much to learn from her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) and her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen).

Flashing forward to Washington D.C. circa 1984, a lonely Diana (Gal Gadot) is still pining for her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) while occasionally donning her Wonder Woman suit to fight small-time local crooks. Keeping a low profile by working in the anthropology department of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Diana befriends bookish, socially-inept geologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who’s just been tapped by the FBI to assist with identifying a bevy of recovered stolen artifacts.

While Barbara dismisses an ordinary-looking citrine crystal, its untapped magical properties attract the attention of smooth-talking oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who’s desperate to get his hands on this item known as the Dreamstone. It seems the mystical ancient object grants wishes to whoever wields it and Maxwell views the crystal as the answer to saving his collapsing Ponzi scheme. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, and Maxwell’s scheme will have extreme consequences on Diana, Barbara, and society as a whole.

There’s a whole lot going on in this sequel (too much, in fact) and director Patty Jenkins‘ screenplay (co-written with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham) simply can’t bring it all together. The original succeeded by honing its focus solely on Diana’s journey from idyllic shores of Themysicra to the corrupted world of mortal men. With a trio of concurrently running storylines, the sequel feels like three movies rolled into one, which merely creates one terribly jumbled mess.

With the re-emergence of Steve (thankfully, his back-from-the-dead existence organically fits into the mystical narrative), Diana’s romantic reunion with her beloved forms the true heart of Wonder Woman 1984. Their roles are humorously reversed, with Steve now the fish-out-of-water in a new world he doesn’t understand. While Steve’s bewilderment at modern technological advances is charming (and it’s brilliant to see an 80s outfit fashion montage centred on a male character), it doesn’t quite hit the same as similar moments from the first film like the scene of a delighted Dianna discovering ice cream for the first time. And it mostly feels like Jenkins reaching for beats she’s already covered previously.

The chemistry between Gadot and Pine remains effortlessly electric and it’s impressive Jenkins, Johns, and Callaham found a path for Steve’s return that doesn’t cheapen his sacrificial farewell in the predecessor. It’s fabulous to continue to watch Steve still completely comfortable with his status as Wonder Woman’s sidekick and stand as a great example of a male character who’s unthreatened by a strong female protagonist. Everything involving Dianna and Steve plays more like a giddy romantic comedy, which is entirely refreshing and perfectly executed.

But when Jenkins moves the action away from our star-crossed lovers, the film suffers by failing to realise Dianna’s romance with Steve is the strongest and most compelling storyline by far. Barbara’s narrative thread is certainly fascinating, especially with the curious casting of Wiig in a role she likely never expected to play. The nerdy geologist is so enamoured with Diana, she desperately desires to share the Amazonian’s confidence and sex appeal. Wiig proves to be an ingenious casting choice, with Jenkins taking full advantage of her impeccable comedic timing and untapped rage.

Barbara’s magical transformation almost instantly elicits unwanted male attention; something Diana has seemingly spent decades enduring. Jenkins uses this to tackle toxic masculinity and even hints at rape culture, but it’s an idea that’s briefly touched upon and never fully explored. It’s the main peril of a screenplay attempting to juggle three key narrative threads. Barbara’s character arc feels like it’s just getting started when everything is tossed aside so she can morph into an anthropomorphic cheetah that will bring back many uncomfortable memories for those who suffered through last year’s Cats.

The main reason Barbara’s journey is stunted is the inclusion of Maxwell as our key villain. The most successful superhero movies realise one villain is more than enough. Wonder Woman 1984 should have followed this formula. As a pathological liar with selfish dreams of grandeur, Maxwell certainly fits the “greed is good” 80s era. And Pascal chews every piece of scenery with his lofty performance. But his motivations are somewhat trite and his character arc feels woefully disingenuous, which Jenkins attempts to save by attempting to capture unearned pathos by virtue of a subplot involving Maxwell’s estranged young son, Alistair (Lucian Perez).

There’s no denying Wonder Woman 1984 is still richly entertaining. It’s just a rather confused piece of cinema without a clear identity. Or one that’s attempting to be too many things at once. Diana and Steve’s love story gets cobbled together with Barbara’s identity crisis and Maxwell’s lust for power and none of these threads receives the depth and exposure they need to truly work. Jenkins is tossing so many ideas at the screen (including a misguided attempt at attacking Reagan-era capitalism) and praying they all stick.

To mask the narrative flaws, there is a hefty helping of spectacular action sequences that remind us of everything we’ve been missing this year. If it’s safe to do so, this film demands to be seen on a big screen. Everything is elevated by Hans Zimmer‘s typically rousing, thundering score (including a marvellous reimagining of Wonder Woman’s now-iconic theme) that perfectly complements the film’s high-octane thrills. Taking full advantage of the 80s setting, Jenkins has infused this sequel with a pop-art colour palette that lights up the screen and an array of purposely garish retro costume choices by Lindy Hemming and meticulous production design from Aline Bonetto to effortlessly take an audience back to an era style forgot.

Jenkins injects a deliciously camp quality to many of the film’s more comedic moments and she wraps up proceedings with a tremendously emotional finale plus one hell of a mid-credits scene that you cannot miss. Gadot continues to prove she was born to play this role and cements her status as an icon of pop culture. Diana is faced with numerous impossible decisions in this sequel and Gadot showcases how intimately she understands this heroine’s inner conflict.

It was always going to be an impossible task to top the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the first film. While Jenkins and Gadot try their utmost to recapture the magic, Wonder Woman 1984 falls short of the high bar set by its predecessor. This is far from the disastrous failures of DC’s past and will surely still delight fans who’ve been patiently awaiting the return of Diana Prince. But the 80s were known as the decade of excess, and Wonder Woman 1984 falters by feeling like a glutted product of the era it’s attempting to satirise.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Polaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton
Director: Patty Jenkins
Producers: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, Stephen Jones
Screenplay: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Cinematography: Matthew Jensen
Production Design: Aline Bonetto
Costume Design: Lindy Hemming
Editor: Richard Pearson
Music: Hans Zimmer

Running Time: 150 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2020 (Australia)