Wonder Woman 1984, the follow-up to Wonder Woman (2017) that was everything its sequel is not, is a befuddling and oftentimes infuriating film to watch for all of its hollow, performative gestures of feminism. It’s somber where it should have been vibrant, mean-spirited when it should have inspired hope. It utilizes feminism as a means of branding and not as a way to direct our collective moral compass in a direction toward improvement. Here, with a film that leaves a bitter aftertaste, the term is used as an empty vessel through which the filmmaker can create visual placements — typically young girls in awe of Wonder Woman’s powers — to dust something this shallow with the idea of something special, while failing to inject it with any substance that would ultimately make it worthwhile. Wonder Woman 1984 is, unfortunately, a mess from start to finish; a bloated and empty sequel that by the end credits convinces us the first film should have been left as a standalone.
We meet Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) decades after the events of the first film. She’s still mourning the loss of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) as well as the festering loneliness that comes with outliving all of her friends, noted by memorabilia littered around her apartment. Before the world is yet again thrown into chaos, meeting Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a small gracenote; Barbara is a mousy woman looking to have an ounce of the confidence Diana possesses. She’s given that chance with the mcguffin of the film, a stone that grants the wish of anyone who holds it, something that TV and wannabe oil mogul Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who dreams of having it all, is chasing after. As you might suspect, it is the stone that returns Steve to Diana’s life and what sets the entirety of the plot into motion—nearly 40 minutes into the film.
To the film’s credit, it sets its own tone and our expectations within the second sequence of the film, which shows Wonder Woman beating up a bunch of thieves in a mall’s center plaza. Clumsy and poorly edited, it’s one of the first instances of a bizarre approach to Wonder Woman’s fight scenes, which relies so heavily on the grace and weightlessness of her fighting style that it becomes devoid of any power or impact in her movement. This scene, like the rest of the film, possesses a lot of style but little more beyond it, believing that an image of Wonder Woman saving a young girl from her death as another stares adoringly is enough to impart wisdom on viewers, rather than boiling the character down to her most basic characteristics.
The innate silliness hinted at here and there suggests hope for a film that is unabashedly doused in technicolor and breezy in a way worthy of celebration—if only they’d leaned into it. Look at Birds of Prey or look further back to Batman Returns; they both understood how an understanding of the source material can elevate it on screen without sacrificing what makes it cinematic. Silliness doesn’t have to be confused with being cheap or hokey—it’s just understanding that the worlds these characters are living in are inherently heightened, and it honors the characters to live up to those realizations. Wonder Woman was a success because it understood the fish-out-of-water narrative for Diana and exalted her ability to stand out in a crowd. Wonder Woman 1984 argues the opposite and pushes the narrative that people are better off blending in, accepting the status quo and not asking for more in fear of what will be taken from you.
It’s this element that makes you sympathize with the “villains” of the film. Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is more over the top and initially shrewd in a way that makes for an easy enemy. However, there’s always something desperate and sad about the man, briefly hinted at in sequences with his son and hammered home very late in the film through flashbacks that bring to light what set him on this path. Barbara’s character is thrown under the bus and serves as little more than an empty foil for Diana by the end. She is transformed by terrible CGI, where instead she could have been utilized to greater effect had the filmmakers allowed her the same degree of nuance they offered Maxwell. It’s deeply unpleasant to watch this character have her “turning bad” moment happen as she turns the tides on her would-be assaulter and beats the shit out of him—who isn’t rooting for her at this point? What message is being sent when she is thrust fully into the villain territory when she enacts revenge against her would-be abuser?
The brightest part of the film, as it was in the first, is the relationship between Diana and Steve. Gadot and Pine continue to share a palpable chemistry that kind of makes you understand why she still pines after him decades after she met him. There’s a warmth in their actions, a familiarity that brings forth Gadot’s most vulnerable moments as this seemingly impenetrable character. They make Diana human. These moments are so effective that they manage to momentarily make us forget the mess surrounding it. Pine, of course, is superb, though this time there’s a desire for him to be given more opportunities to weaponize his easy, affable charm in greater projects.
Wonder Woman 1984 had all the makings for a strong and empowering sequel, where its heroine lassos bolts of lightning and shares romantic moments above the clouds lit with fireworks. All that potential is squandered so immediately and with such chaotic tonality that we’re left with clumsy and dated effects in fight sequences, a hero whose moral compass aligns with the bullies of the world while the disenfranchised are called villains, and real moments of growth and substance that are substituted by trivial, “girl power” platitudes. The worth of the film could fill a bumper sticker, and, luckily for them, that seems to be what they were striving for with this sequel.