When Wonder Woman arrived in movie houses three and a half years ago, there was a lot riding on the amazing Amazon’s shoulders. Although superheroes were solidly established as the dominant building blocks for Hollywood blockbusters, the various films efforts out by the Marvel and DC movie machines were exclusively the province of male protagonists. If moviegoers were averse to snapping up tickets for an adventure centered on Wonder Woman — a character with preceding fame that rivaled that of Superman and Batman and far exceeded that of most of the do-gooders given their initial screen showcases in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — then the executives with preset biases against female-led movies would be certain to point to the soft box office as proof that only boys could put on costumes and throw punches at bad guys.
Of course, Wonder Woman was a smash, buoyed by Gal Gadot’s star-power charisma in the title role and Patty Jenkins’s bright verve as a cinematic storyteller. A follow-up installment was a given, and so the sequel arrives burdened by a wholly different and arguably more formidable test. In the year of COVID-19, Diana of Themyscira is now called upon to save all of movies and maybe HBO Max, too, while she’s at it.
All that preamble is my way of acknowledging that it’s mighty strange to watch Wonder Woman 1984, realizing it was built to make its first impression in theaters and instead is largely entering the public consciousness by way of screens and sound systems several degrees smaller. Directed again by Jenkins (who is also co-credited on the screenplay this time out), the movie is a messy romp of aspirational crowd pleasing. The film is bigger and brighter than its predecessor (The latter quality presumably because Jenkins has been freed from approximating the glum palette and stagnant action aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s abominations adapted from the pages of DC comics), and the filmmakers load in treats like a candy store proprietor on their going-out-of-business day. As with any other type of overindulgence, the whole endeavor is less likely to lead to satisfaction than an aching head and belly.
As the title implies, the sequel in set in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, decades after the World War I setting of the first film. Our hero spends her days working at the Smithsonian, in her guise as mild-mannered Diana Prince, and her off-hours secretly fighting crime, urging those she helps to preserve her anonymity. When an ancient artifact with the power to grant any wish gets passed around to a few wrong hands, Wonder Woman is pressed into duty beyond the usual petty criminals she bats about easily. As is often the case — too often — the stakes are nothing less that fate of all of humanity, and the screenwriters orchestrate the scenario so that Diana has to walk away from her own happiness to save the world.
I’m more inclined than most, I suspect, to admire the goofiest aspects of the plot, the wild imaginings that mirror the why-not era of comic book storytelling from the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies. Hinge the whole story on a magic wishing stone? You bet. Cast Pedro Pascal as a desperate wannabe-mogul and let the actor cut loose as the character embraces his inner megalomaniac? Works for me. I want these movies to be zippy and freewheeling, striving for fun above all while occasionally indulging in the florid emotions of classic soap operas. It suits the fictional universes in which they reside. But there should also be coherence and purpose, and that’s where Wonder Woman 84 trips on its own golden lasso.
Jenkins obviously has some big themes in mind, and the film’s core argument that the big problems faced by the global community could be solved if individuals would put their selfish concerns aside for the betterment of all is notably relevant at a time when the repeated refrain of “wear a damn mask” is more familiar than the biggest pop hit. But nothing really comes together, in part because most of the ideas are introduced without any indication that they’ve been thought through and intellectually explored to figure out what could be interesting about them. They’re just there, no more or less meaningful than the props and extras scattered about the set-piece fight scenes.
Maybe Wonder Woman 84 would have worked better for me if the usual schemes of moviegoing hadn’t been blasted into oblivion by a brutal disease and the inept political leadership that worsened the outcomes to truly devastating levels. The doors close, the lights dim, and a barrage of preceding trailers reinforces the feeling that blaring diversion is what’s truly being sought. I doubt it, though. Empty spectacle always feels hollow, whether projected or streamed.