When Petty Jenkins’ original Wonder Woman film debuted in the Summer of 2017, it was a welcome change from the rest of the DC Extended Universe films produced by Zach Snyder. That film’s unabashed take on superheroes wasn’t cynical or edgy. It was heartfelt and inspiring. Though the film’s final act fell into the same troupes as the rest of the Synder-controlled universe, its positives far outshined any negatives. The No-Man’s Land sequence stands as one of the most fantastic single scenes in the genre’s now-extensive history. High expectations for the sequel, combined with a shifting release date due to the Covid-19 pandemic, made Wonder Woman 84 one of the year’s most anticipated films.
With its big-budget, dynamic cast, and high hopes, the film is positioned as the beleaguered HBO Max service jewel. Despite its wondrous visuals and stellar performances, the movie is a bloated, aimless mess.
The film opens in Themyscira, the homeland of the Amazons. Young Diana is engaged in an elaborate contest featuring obstacle courses, horse riding, and archery. The audience isn’t told why this is happening, but we do see that Diana is winning. Despite taking a short cut during the race, she’s poised to defeat the other competitors, who are all significantly older than her. As Diana is about to cross the finish line, she is tackled by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), who blasts her for cheating. The sequence is more than five minutes long, looks impressive but completely lacks a narrative other than a moral of “tell the truth.”
This is immediately followed by a band of inept jewel thieves robbing a mall jewelry store that is secretly a front for some sort of black market antiquity dealer in 1984. When caught, one of the criminals decides his only way out is to toss a young girl over the railing and letting her tumble to her death (why?). Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shows up and takes out the bad guys. The scene a fun look at mid-80s mall culture but seems to only exist for that reason. We’re now twelve minutes into the film with two beautiful action sequences that haven’t established the two-and-a-half-hour movie’s actual story.
This aimless direction dominates the film. Diana Prince has no real reason to be in the story other than just so happening to work at the Smithsonian when a magic stone with the power to grant wishes at a cost happens to show up. Diana is continuously reacting to what’s happening around her rather than driving the story herself. It isn’t until the film’s third act where Diana’s hero journey begins. We’re an hour forty-five minutes into the movie at that point.
Instead of the main character driving the story, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) is the movie’s real protagonist. He’s a con artist who’s bilked countless investors in his failed oil scheme. Lord is tired of faking it until he makes it and steals the magic rock. What the stone exactly is, how it was created or why it was here in 1984, Washington DC isn’t important enough to the film’s focus. Nor are the rules established by the wishing stone. We’re told but not shown much of this maguffin. Things happen, and we figure them out as the movie goes along.
Lord’s wish is to become the stone itself. He turns into a twisted version of Aladdin’s genie, granting wishes while manipulating them to his benefit. While he enjoys the power and prestige until the monkey’s paw turns on him, he wants a better life for his son. This mission to make himself a man his son would be proud of twists his perception of reality until the film’s climax, where he pushes Earth to the brink of nuclear war.
Meanwhile, Diana is following Lord around the globe, trying to figure out what’s happening. A major issue of many superhero films, particularly sequels, is creators tend to focus on telling the villain’s story and often overwhelming the hero. Such is the case here with both Diana and the underutilized Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). The frumpy gemologist makes a wish to be more like Diana and becomes super-powered herself. A second wish turns her into the animalistic Cheetah. The CGI is disappointing and looks like something out of a movie from fifteen years ago, rather than what Marvel was able to create for their Endgame film. Minerva’s character could have held the entire film on her own as the antagonist. Unfortunately, her arch is identical to Jim Carry’s Riddler, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, or Jamie Foxx as Max Dillion. A nerdy caricature in glasses who admires the hero before becoming the enemy. So much more could have been done with Wiig, but the movie wants to focus on Lord.
The film’s final battle climaxes with Lord commandeering an underground bunker and its emergency broadcast network to reach out to the world so he can grant all of their wishes and suck in all of their collective life-force. Diana pleads for the world to renounce their desires, like bringing Tinkerbell back to life. Lord eventually rescinds his own wish, turning him back to normal and delivering a final scene with his son that is genuinely heart-wrenching.
The movie ends with Diana watching happy people play as Christmas approaches. The story gives us no conclusion to Lord or Minerva’s stories. The world comes back together in harmony a little too quickly, so we’re left to assume there are no consequences for either villain’s actions.
That’s not to say the film is terrible. The performances by all are well done. Pascal, in particular, enjoys himself as an over-the-top villain. Gadot and Chris Pine, who magically returns as Steve Trevor, have amazing chemistry. Pine again is the film’s heart and moral center. His decision to sacrifice himself to save the world (again) jump-starts a middling second act. The cinematography is stunning, and while the VFX fail Cheetah, they marvel as Diana discovers her ability to fly.
There is much to like about this film, but the overall narrative hurt the viewing experience. Diana, in her golden-winged Amazonian armor, looks a little like Icarus. Wonder Woman 84, while trying to become an epic, falls under its own lofty goals.