Set 66 years after its predecessor, Wonder Woman 84 sees Diana Prince (Gal Gaddot) living a secluded life as a senior anthropologist in 1980s Washington DC. The film begins when Diana befriends an insecure woman named Barbara Ann Minerva (Kirstin Wiig), who has been asked to identify a collection of artifacts acquired from a robbery. Amongst the stolen antiquities is an object known as the “Dreamstone”; an ancient relic that grants its holder one wish. Meanwhile, failed oil tycoon Maxwell “Max Lord” Lorenzano (Pedro Pascal) discovers the whereabouts of the Dreamstone and masquerades as a wealthy donor in a bid to snatch it away.
When promotional footage for Wonder Woman 84 first aired, it appeared as though this was going to be another one of those films that rode the all too common nostalgia train Hollywood has been venturing on for the past four or five years. The debut trailer featured a rather glorious orchestral cover of New Order’s Blue Monday, juxtaposed with glossy neon colours that are often associated with 80s pop culture. Many were expecting a jazzed up, synth-heavy, hyper neon flick that romanticized a recently faded era that fascinates so many in today’s world. While the finished product does nod to a particular corner of this decade, it isn’t necessarily going to be in the way many expected. Wonder Woman isn’t a case of “DC comics does Stranger Things”, but more of a “DC pays homage to campy 80s superhero flicks”.
After the pre-title, Themyscira flashback sequence, we are thrown straight into the film’s “present” day, and the tone for the rest of the film is quickly established. We see Diana Prince as Wonder Woman, charging through an overly vibrant shopping mall, apprehending a group of goofy criminals attempting to rob a bank in broad daylight. The scene is hammed up to the nines, littered with slapstick and perhaps the most cartoonish of sequences we’ve had in one of these DCEU films since this universe was first conjured into being. This is light years away from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman (2016) and far closer to Superman III (1984). While such a comparison is enough to make even some of the more forgiving DC fans groan, I don’t mean this comparison to be an insult. While Superman III was a slaphappy shambles, seeing a director as competent as Patty Jenkins reuse the film’s tone in such a loving and adulating manner works pretty well here. It’s an unusual direction for a sequel following on from the grey, World War One predecessor it follows on from, yet it’s a creative decision that certainly feels refreshing.
Wonder Woman 84 is a much more colorful and light-footed take on the popular DC character this time around, and it’s a decision that feels fitting to the DCEU’s more recent attempts at moving forward with their interconnected universe. While the grittier and more adult themed features are now getting assigned to their own alternative realities, the shared timeline established by Snyder several years prior has gradually been shifting toward a more fantastical interpretation of these characters. We saw this first take place in James Wan’s bizarrely mercurial Aquaman (2018), followed by David F. Sandberg’s zany 90’s-esque comedy Shazam (2019). I’ve always preferred this approach than the DCEU’s initial attempts at establishing a shared universe, not because of my dislike toward the Zack Snyder films, but because I think a fantastical angle is much more fitting when it comes to the nature of these stories. These are tales full of gods, wizards and intergalactic wars. I know Marvel does this also, but DC’s feels a little more other-world. The Gods are never depicted as advanced extraterrestrials, but as actual Gods. Likewise, the magic isn’t shown to be some advanced alien tech, but outright sorcery. Therefore, I have always been okay with these projects opting to function as high-budget cartoon features as opposed to gritty, angsty blockbusters. I mean Aquaman had an octopus playing the drums for crying out loud! Much more fitting for this reality than Superman and Zod causing 30 9/11s in Metropolis.
A lot of people are probably going to be disappointed with Wonder Woman 84’s decision to lean into the kookier era of superhero films, particular when it has a habit of feeling more like Supergirl (1984) and Superman III. While I picked up on these comparisons within less than a few minutes of watching the film, however, I felt the decision to do this worked. The overall quality wasn’t diminished because of this creative choice. It is a tone that invades pretty much every angle of the film, however, and if you’re not a fan of this style, then the film really isn’t going to work for you.
For one thing, this approach ventures into the film’s villains also. First you have Barbara Minerva, who falls into the 80s cliche of being the “dork” caricature that everyone hates for seemingly no reason other than she’s a tad clumsy. We’ve seen this character a thousand times before – and not just in whacky 80s superhero films. She’s the perfectly attractive looking girl who’s considered “ugly” because she wears oversized glasses, is a little clumsy and wears poorly-fitted clothes; only she’s miraculously transformed into an absolute bad-ass when she takes those glasses off, pops on a pair of stilettos and discovers that she looks all kinds of alright in a body-hugging dress. Wonder Woman 84 takes this caricature and goes all out with it. While it’s quite clearly intended to be a homage, there will be many who will no doubt roll their eyes at the film’s decision to frame an entire villain around this.
There is another dimension to Barbara Minerva though. Not only is she set up as a nerdy-girl-gone-bad, but she’s also depicted as a victim of the era she finds herself living in. Throughout the film, Barbara is made invisible, used by men with ulterior motives, sexually assaulted and objectified. She’s not simply a caricature of the 80s, she’s a victim of it too. Alongside its tongue-in-cheek flare, the film also shows a darker side to the decade everyone seems to be infatuated with; it show us a world full of zany plots and daft-as-bins crooks, yet it also gives us tragic stories of women who are ignored, abused, objectified and mocked based on how they appear in the eyes of society. Isn’t that what the “dork” caricature essentially is after all? A woman who’s ridiculed and rendered invisible by society for not adhering to its strict beauty standards?
Max Lord is the film’s second villain, and one who receives the same kind of cliched/product of the 80s treatment we see in Barbara, albeit in a somewhat different manner. Max is depicted as a grubby, greedy salesman who lies, cheats and cares for no one but himself. For much of the film, he’s a stereotype who ticks all the boxes for the sorts of corporate snakes you’d find both in 80s films and in the actual culture of that period. Except as the film progresses, another angle to Max Lord starts to surface. Beneath his self-centered exterior lies a pathetic and broken man; one who’s desperate to appear successful in the eyes of society and his son. Max Lord is essentially a product of the greed culture which was birthed during the 1980s; an individual obsessed with “having it all” for the sake of having it all. He wants everything, even if he doesn’t have a logical reason for wanting it. He’d happy tear the planet to pieces just to have power and wealth; all in the name of chasing the twisted dream of accumulating infinite wealth. It isn’t until he end of the film, when he discovers the authentic love of his son is more enriching than the image or status, that he abandons his goal of obtaining unlimited power. It’s a pretty corny subplot on the surface, sure, but it’s one that adds another dimension to a one-dimensional badguy.
Barbara and Max are both a homage to villains from a previous era of Hollywood, however Jenkins has juxtaposed these individuals against a more tragic side to these sorts of individuals; a side that wasn’t necessarily explored in the films they are paying homage to.
Although this approach works well with the film’s antagonists, I’m not so sure the same can be said for the reintroduction of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); who seems to take on the role of that odd body-swap trope various 80s films had a habit of incorporating. Steve and Diane’s relationship was the heart and soul of the first movie; a love story that worked extremely well due to how organic its development felt. I was happy to see they were bringing Trevor back for the sequel, both because I wanted to see Gal Gadot’s and Chris Pine’s chemistry once again, and because I was intrigued to see how they’d go about reintroducing a character 66 years after his death. The end result was something of a disappointment, largely because I found the whole affair to be considerably disturbing. It’s at this point in which the whole 80s cliche throwback takes a creepy and frankly unnecessary turn. Steve Trevor is resurrected in Wonder Woman 84 after Diana wishes him back to life while holding the Dreamstone. Shortly thereafter, a stranger approaches Diana, who it’s soon revealed is possessed by the consciousness of Steve Trevor. As the story progresses, it soon becomes apparent that Diana’s wish has resulted in a total stranger becoming an unwilling passenger to Trevor’s mind. You’d think Diana would be horrified and conflicted by the Dreamstone’s twisted means of granting her wish. Afterall, Steve may be in there, but the body he’s piloting belongs to someone who hasn’t been able to consent to such an invasion of privacy. Except she isn’t horrified. In fact, she appears totally fine with the whole set up, right from the minute she realises it’s Steve’s conscious operating the stranger. She even completely deny’s acknowledging that there’s another man speaking Steve’s words. After all, she responds by saying “I only see you”, at which point she’s perfectly happy to sleep with the guy and crash at his apartment.
Perhaps I’m missing a larger point to this decision, but at the time of writing, this entire decision grosses me out. She sleeps with and puts a complete stranger’s life in danger on several occasions because her dead ex-boyfriend has taken over his body? As much as I’m trying to wrap my head around why this decision was made, I’m seriously struggling to assign a logical reason to it. It’s creepy, messed up and I can’t quite settle into the whole decision. Couldn’t the Dreamstone not just resurrect Steve in his own body? Afterall, the film clearly establishes the catch to Diana’s wish being granted is the fact she’s losing her powers. The crux of her problems doesn’t seem to be centered around a stranger being possessed, so if they aren’t going to use it for her to confront the ethical ugliness of this situation, why not just put him in his standard body and do away with the whole body possession malark? It literally wouldn’t change the plot in the slightest. She’d still have to let him go to retain her powers, so why bother?
Also, I’m not so sure I fully get the message of her having to give up the love of her life to retain her powers. Isn’t the whole point of Diana’s story in the first film about her learning that her powers aren’t what make her special? That it doesn’t matter how strong she is, she can’t save anyone in an imperfect world? All she can do is try to make it a better place for those she helps? Isn’t it her kindness and love that makes her a hero, not how strong she is? I’m all for film’s expanding or subverting themes and character development in sequels, but doesn’t the idea that she has to abandon the love of her life so she can remain invincible feel a little out of place for a character who had to learn to accept the limits of her powers? Or am I just nitpicking? Maybe I am, but something just feels really off here.
For the strangeness of the whole Diana/Steve love plot in Wonder Woman 84, Gadot and Pine’s chemistry is as natural and electrifying as it was the first time around, which just about saves the whole romance subplot. It doesn’t eradicate the issues that come along with it, but it’s charming enough to at least smoothen its edges. I love seeing these two on screen together, and there were numerous moments in which I forgot about the whole body swap and found myself welling up. I hope we get to see Steve Trevor in some form in the third and final Wonder Woman film; I just hope that next time round, we get him back in a more interesting and less unpleasant way.
Body-swap issues aside, I really enjoyed this film. The casting is great, Patty Jenkins proves to be a perfect choice for this series, and my love for Diana Prince continues to go from strength to strength the more I see her on screen. This one may not be as thrilling or memorable as its predecessor, but it’s still ticking so many boxes for me. The villains had a sympathetic edge to them which I liked, the action didn’t go too overboard, Pine and Gadot dazzled when they were on screen together, and I must say, I really liked the whole Superman III vibe (something I never thought I’d say in earnestness). The film is getting a lot of stick online since its release, and it looks as though this one isn’t going to go down as one of DC’s more popular installments. Nonetheless I can’t help but walk away from this one with an appreciation for it. I liked it alot, even if there were some decisions that alienated me along the way.
Wonder Woman 84 certainly doesn’t reach the same heights that its 2017 predecessor did, but it doesn’t fail either. Fun, heartfelt and nostalgic in ways no one predicted during its marketing stage. Despite its flaws, the Amazonian warrior strikes again.