2017’s “Wonder Woman” is a film filled with compassion, empathy, and the message that only love can save the world—all qualities you would think you’d find more often in superhero movies, but that actually made “Wonder Woman” stand out amongst the other movies in the genre that often place action above all else. Its sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” tries to drive home an equally important message, but it gets lost in the muddle of a bloated plot and confusing character motivations.
“WW84” is set over 60 years after its predecessor. Amazon warrior Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., while fighting crime as Wonder Woman on the side. She investigates a seemingly cheap stone recovered from a group of stolen antiquities with Barbara (Kristen Wiig), an insecure coworker, but it turns out that the stone can grant its user their wish—for a price. Diana’s wish is for the return of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the pilot she fell in love with during World War I and who sacrificed himself to help save the world at the end of the first movie. Barbara wishes to become like Diana, but that wish comes with some unexpected consequences. Meanwhile, businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wants the stone for himself to save his failing oil company, quickly throwing the entire world into chaos.
Patty Jenkins returned to direct this sequel, while also co-writing the screenplay along with David Callaham and DC’s Geoff Johns. Throughout “WW84,” there are scenes that feel like flashes of what made the first film so fantastic. The opening scene transports us back to Diana’s home of Themyscira, where we see the return of Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, and young Diana (played again by Lilly Aspell) learns a lesson about cheating and taking the easy way out that obviously sets up the main message of the film. The reunion of Diana and Steve is unabashedly romantic, the camera spinning around them as the rest of the world fades away in a shot that’s reminiscent of the climactic moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” And there is something to the idea of the dangers of instant gratification, and that the world is beautiful just as it is.
But overall, “WW84” is too messy and weird for its more poignant scenes to feel as moving as they should. The plot is overindulgent, sacrificing story for spectacle—but even the spectacle isn’t that dazzling, and the story is slow and plodding to the point of downright boredom. The naiveté and sense of wonder that was present in Diana in the first film is naturally gone and she is more worldly after having lived among humans for several decades now, but there is still a warmth to her presence. When we first see Diana in the movie, she is flying through the city, saving distracted citizens from getting hit by cars and thwarting a robbery at a mall (the same robbery that leads her to the dream stone). A news announcer’s voiceover informs us that no one knows who Wonder Woman is, where she came from, and that she apparently has only recently appeared. So what made Diana show herself as Wonder Woman after all this time, outside of this sequence merely acting as a device to let her show off? After all, “WW84” has appallingly few scenes with Diana as Wonder Woman, a testament to just how full the story is of other elements. In the first film, her romance with Steve proved to her that even an ugly, war-torn world is filled with good people who are worth saving. Here, it feels like he is holding her back. The two are still a fun pair to watch together, and Steve takes the place the woman typically does in this scenario, right down to having his own fashion show. But instead of his love saving the world, it is now literally preventing Diana from saving it.
The villains in “WW84” are also a mixed bag, although Wiig and Pascal do what they can with what they’ve got and really lean into the silliness. Barbara, who later becomes Cheetah, makes the transition to full on bad guy pretty quickly. As a businessman who makes the transition to politics for his own nefarious means, comparisons between Lord and Donald Trump can certainly be made, but there’s something a bit campy and non-threatening about Lord’s personality that makes him hard to take seriously (I will say, I really liked a montage detailing his backstory toward the end of the movie, and the presence of his young son Alistair as the only thing grounding him).
And for a film set in the 1980s—a decade so much media has gravitated to in recent years thanks to the element of fun and nostalgia that accompanies it—“WW84” is a pretty ugly movie. The film does open strong, and one of the early scenes meant to establish the time period this story is set in is filled with bright colors and fun outfits. But that barely extends to the rest of the film following it; even the soundtrack strangely doesn’t have any 80s songs on it. The visuals are drab, especially in the climatic fight scene between Wonder Woman and Cheetah that is so poorly lit it’s almost hard to see the action. Perhaps the most 80s things about the film are the over-the-top performances from Pascal and Wiig, and the ridiculous plot, but the latter feels less like a homage to older films in the genre and more just like poor filmmaking.
There really are some nice things to be found in “Wonder Woman 1984,” and for all the negative things I have to say about it, I still rank it higher than almost any other movie in DC’s cinematic universe. Not that those movies have a lot going for them, but it is nice that “WW84,” even more so than its predecessor, stands as its own story. Maybe, because I love the first “Wonder Woman” so much, my expectations for a sequel were just too high. But why shouldn’t we be able to hold sequels to the same standards as original works? I’ve seen sequels and franchise installments that are great. Sequels can be great. “Wonder Woman 1984” could have—and should have—been great. Instead, its creators took on too much, and lost what makes “Wonder Woman” so special in the process. I don’t know if I trust them to rein it back in for the next film in the series, but I have to hope that they will.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Runtime: 131 minutes. Rated PG-13.