Wonder Woman 1984 review: A superhero epic crammed into a time capsule

When Wonder Woman hit theaters in 2017, it not only proved DC Comics’ iconic superheroine could win at the box office, but made a strong case for her as the most important character in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), both critically and commercially. The success of that film made a sequel inevitable, and despite all of the Hollywood schedule shuffling caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Wonder Woman 1984 still arrives in theaters (where they are open) this year.

Given how groundbreaking the first film was — it still ranks as the best-reviewed and highest-grossing DCEU film domestically, as well as one of its most profitable worldwide — it seems fitting that Wonder Woman 1984 continues that trend with an industry-shaking, same-day streaming premiere on HBO Max.

And although the sequel to Wonder Woman raises the bar for spectacle and delivers a story with plenty of heart, it might be the effort to fill it with as many groundbreaking elements as possible that leads to some of its biggest problems.

Back to the future

As the title suggests, Wonder Woman 1984 unfolds more than six decades after the events of the first film. The story finds Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., while doing her part to stop crime and make the world a better place in her spare time. After foiling a robbery of black market antiquities, her actions end up putting a powerful artifact in the hands of two people whose lust for power threatens not just Diana, but the entire world. In order to stop them, Diana must confront her own grief stemming from  the events of the 2017 film, and also find a way to be a hero when former friends and innocent lives are both turned against her.

In the early days of the Wonder Woman 1984 promotional campaign, much attention was paid to the film’s 1980s aesthetic, from early shots of Gadot and actor Chris Pine strolling through a wonderfully ’80s-esque mall clad in sharp-shouldered jackets and fanny packs, to the blast-from-the-past color palette and stylized branding for the film’s marketing materials. The term “period piece” isn’t typically applied to film’s set within the last 50 years, but the extent to which the Wonder Woman 1984 creative team goes all-in on the era makes the film deserving of the label.

The lengths to which the film’s art team and production designers go to re-create the year 1984 is impressive, and makes Wonder Woman 1984 feel like a superhero story enclosed in a time capsule. The end result is a unique tone that makes it distinct not only from the other DCEU films, but also the larger catalog of recent superhero movies.

Familiar faces, fresh faces

Along with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins returning behind the camera, Wonder Woman 1984 brings back Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons and Diana’s mother, and Robin Wright as Antiope, Hippolyta’s sister. The film also brings back Pine as World War I pilot Steve Trevor, who fought alongside Diana and fell in love with her during the events of the first film.

Pine’s return is no surprise, given his prominent presence in the film’s marketing materials from the very start, and the story device responsible for his character’s return is put to good use. The Star Trek actor performs well in a fish-out-of-water role, and offers the audience an opportunity to see both the ’80s era and the solitary life Diana has made for herself through his eyes.

Among the DCEU newcomers in Wonder Woman 1984 are Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva, a socially awkward gemologist who desperately craves the attention and confidence she sees in Diana, and The Mandalorian actor Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, a slick businessman hoping to turn a profit from consumers’ hopes and dreams.

Both actors’ performances are top-notch, but Wiig is particularly memorable as Minerva, who transforms from a timid tagalong to a surprisingly intimidating antagonist. Wiig handles the action- and effects-heavy scenes as comfortably as the dialogue-driven moments, and holds your attention in the scenes she shares with Gadot — no easy task, given the latter’s featured role and superhero charisma.

Unlike the villains of many prior DCEU films, Wiig’s surprisingly deep character is one that the franchise would do well to bring back for future projects.

Going bigger …

The first Wonder Woman featured some truly remarkable action sequences, from the battle on Themyscira to Diana’s hero-defining charge through No Man’s Land. Wonder Woman 1984  offers plenty of similarly epic moments, relying again on speed-shifting camera techniques and imperceptible wire work that make Gadot appear every bit the superhero as she takes down crowds of armed foes while effortlessly leaping from one fight to the next.

The set pieces in Wonder Woman 1984 are noticeably bigger than anything in Wonder Woman, covering a lot more ground and involving more explosions, slow-motion moments, and physics-defying action. There’s also significantly more of the magic behind Wonder Woman’s abilities at play in the film, which has her lassoing lightning bolts and passenger jets without a second thought, along with a few other, never-mentioned-before abilities that manifest.

Where 2017’s Wonder Woman managed to feel a bit more grounded with Diana still learning to use her superhuman strength, speed, and invulnerability, Wonder Woman 1984 dispenses with the training wheels entirely, making her feel exponentially more powerful — and leading to exponentially greater moments of spectacle.

Maybe too big?

All of those visual treats come at a price, though, and Wonder Woman 1984 occasionally feels a bit too overstuffed in its effort to pack as many new, bigger, and flashier elements into its lengthy, 151-minute (two and a half hours) runtime.

Over the course of the film, Diana’s list of superpowers is expanded in ways that — in hindsight — feel superfluous at best and like unnecessary, gratuitous fan service at worst. In many cases, certain scenes seem to only exist for the sake of looking cool rather than serving the story in any discernible way. Normally, that wouldn’t be so bad, but in such a long-running film that doesn’t have any difficulty looking good, these extra, just-for-looks moments are the sort of potential cuts that could’ve made Wonder Woman 1984 feel a bit more streamlined in the end (while leaving plenty of material for the inevitable extended edition of the film).

While Wonder Woman 1984 never quite drags, it does feel conspicuously longer than it needs to be — an issue that’s common to many of the DCEU films, which all seem to spend a bit too much time reveling in their own dramatic imagery. It’s felt less acutely in Wonder Woman 1984, but it’s there all the same.

The right balance

Fortunately, the tendency to do too much or preen a little too long never outweighs the things Wonder Woman 1984 does right. In her second solo outing as Diana, Gal Gadot continues to solidify Wonder Woman’s status as the most interesting hero in this iteration of live-action DC Comics films, and makes a strong case for herself as the best casting decision Warner Bros. Pictures has made since launching the DCEU.

Although it doesn’t seem as fresh or new as its predecessor, Wonder Woman 1984 feels like the natural evolution of the character’s big-screen adventures, and maybe more importantly, like one of the character’s comic-book stories brought to life. The stakes feel high without feeling too scary or angsty, and the performances of the film’s talented cast sell the small moments as well as the big ones.

While it remains to be seen whether the decision to give Wonder Woman 1984 a same-day streaming release pays off, the choices made by Jenkins, Gadot, and the rest of the film’s creative team have given the character a sophomore adventure that meets the high bar set by the first film.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ Wonder Woman 1984 will premiere December 25 in theaters (where they are open) and on streaming service HBO Max.

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