Wonder Woman 1984 Has Set the Bar Even Lower for Superhero Films

The big-budget Wonder Woman sequel is an ugly, tedious, bloated, badly CGI-ed mess and a wretchedly directed film. And yet critics keep making excuses for it because of its supposed social relevance.

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in Wonder Woman 1984. (Photo: Warner Brothers)

It seems even more ridiculous now, after the Donald Trump–backed right-wing violence on Capitol Hill and ongoing threats to US democracy, to bother writing a review of Wonder Woman 1984, telling you it’s a terrible movie — which it is.

It’s only the popularity of WW84 that makes it worth talking about. It’s done such good business with its simultaneous release on both HBO Max and the few megaplexes still open under lockdown that it boosted the stock prices of various theater chains, raising hopes for the ultimate survival of theatrical exhibition. WW84, it’s hoped, points the way forward for big, dumb superhero cinema.

That fact, along with some of the glowing reviews about how supposedly timely and topical the film is, are the areas of grim fascination for me. Though WW84 got, at best, “mixed” reviews overall, there are raves from critics at major magazines like David Sims at the Atlantic, who argues that the film has an important message:

In setting Wonder Woman 1984 in a decade defined by greed, [director Patty] Jenkins makes the point that evil can often arise from collective apathy and selfishness rather than one costumed supervillain. Faced with present-day calamities such as wealth inequality and climate change, Jenkins is swinging the camera back to an era she sees as the root of many of these problems.

It’s pure delusion. WW84 is an ugly, tedious, bloated, badly CGI-ed mess, wretchedly directed by Jenkins, and mindlessly set in 1984. Not George Orwell’s fictional 1984 or Ronald Reagan’s historical 1984 — a scene with a sitting American president who is pointedly not Reagan makes that clear. It’s a shopping-mall-loving, shoulder-pad-and-leg-warmer-wearing 1984 designed to make you believe it was really an age of innocence for America.

There’s a vaguely young-Trumpish villain on the rise, though, named Maxwell Lord, played by Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian. Lord is presented as a crude, clownish TV personality with orangey hair flopping into his face. When we meet him, Lord is building up a big corporation that’s already falling into bankruptcy. That fits nicely into the current mainstream sense of Trump as the aberrational fount of all America’s problems. Now that he’s on his way out, I’m sure things will be dandy.

Lord gets ahold of a citrine statuette that has the godly ability to grant wishes, and soon he’s a ranting megalomaniac powered by the crazy wishes he encourages the world’s population to make, tapping into the sin of greed that presumably motivates everyone. In the climax — spoiler alert! — if everyone in the world doesn’t renounce their selfish wishes, the world will end for some convoluted reason that’s never entirely clear in the movie.

See, it’s the “collective apathy and selfishness” of the 99 percent that will doom us — not the “supervillain” actions of an out-of-control elite. Which comes as news to anyone who knows anything about what actually went down in the 1980s. It’s the damned unwashed rabble once again!

Shhh, they don’t want to admit how bad this movie is. (Photo: Warner Brothers)

Gal Gadot is, of course, back as Diana Prince the Amazonian goddess. Even the unfavorable reviews of WW84 tend to lament that it can hardly be expected to live up to the greatness and feminist significance achieved by Gadot in the 2017 original. As Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post puts it:

It’s not often that a movie is a genuine game-changer. In 2017, “Wonder Woman” became just that, as a superhero movie featuring a female protagonist that went on to become a huge hit — proving that little boys are just as interested in seeing a woman save the day as little girls.

Reading this, my head swimming, I try to remember what was so terrific about the first Wonder Woman, whether in terms of cinematic thrills or feminist progress. But all I can remember is the lame scene in which Chris Pine’s Steve character takes Wonder Woman shopping and shows her how to wear a skirt.

That’s an entirely familiar narrative move in Hollywood movies, going back decades, by the way. If the main female character is too powerful a figure, then her weakness or incompetence at some ordinary task will have to be comically demonstrated by the male lead so she can be “brought down to earth.” Check out Katharine Hepburn’s romantic comedies of the 1940s if you don’t believe me.

Gal Gadot’s Diana spends the first part of WW84 depressed. We see her pining by herself at an outdoor café. “Is anyone else joining you?” asks the waiter. When she says no, he hurries to remove the other place settings and scurry away, as if the sight of a woman dining alone is just too pitiful to bear. Diana sighs deeply, for without her long-deceased true love, dashing WWI pilot Steve (Chris Pine), what’s a goddess to do on Earth in 1984 but pass the time at the Smithsonian?

Her fellow pitiful woman and coworker at the museum is Barbara (Kristen Wiig), an archeologist who, despite her professional expertise, is routinely overlooked by everyone due to her glasses, ill-fitting clothing, and inability to walk properly in high heels. What do you think will happen in Barbara’s case? Well, if you’ve ever seen popular movies in any era, going back to silent films, you know she’ll ditch those glasses, slip into some tight clothes and high heels, then strut into a party where all the men ogle her newly acquired hotitude. (See, isn’t it great when a writer-director like Patty Jenkins steps up with better roles for women?)

Wonder Woman in her Golden Eagle armor. (Photo: Warner Brothers)

Anyway, Barbara wishes to be “powerful” (read: gorgeous and sexy in high heels) like Diana, but such arrogance eventually turns her into a totally CGI-ed version of the villain Cheetah. And, of course, lonely Diana wishes for Steve to come back to life, which he does — problem solved, hotties saved. Now, in an inspired burst of feminist filmmaking, Diana gets to monitor Steve’s embarrassing clothing choices and teach him how to work ordinary things like escalators. (Which were actually invented in 1892 and fairly ubiquitous by the First World War. But what’s a glaring anachronism among friends?)

Anyway, is there any point in going on? The bar that was set low with the original Wonder Woman is now set even lower, as hordes of people happily limbo underneath it, shouting “You go, girl” to the image of Gal Gadot cavorting across the screen, dressed up like a golden eagle.