Wonder Woman 1984 Lassoed by Sprawling Plot and Confused History

It’s not a promising sign when I have to re-read a movie review of an original film to check my priors or expectations about its sequel. But that’s what I found myself doing after watching Wonder Woman 1984 (WW 1984). While enjoyable and watchable, WW 1984 simply fails to rise to the same level of movie making excellence as the first movie. The movie’s sprawling plot and confused storyline subverts the consistency and focus that allowed the 2017 movie to rise above most other superhero action films.

Few movies in 2020 were as anticipated as WW 1984. These expectations were fueled in large part by the first movie. The 2017 movies is a tightly directed, well acted, blockbuster that is also coherent in its plot and antiwar message. WW 1984 had $50 million more to work with. But these added dollars didn’t seem to add much value. Despite director Patty Jenkins’ obvious talent, the movie gets lost in its plot, poor understanding of the issues that defined its era (1980s), and weaves in too much social consciousness to anchor a compelling story.

WW 1984 is a Stand-Alone Movie

According to Jenkins, who also co-wrote the screenplay, WW 1984 is intended to be a stand alone film. In this respect, the movie works. It has a defined and wholly contained beginning, middle, and end. The only character other than Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) who makes the time transfer into the mid-1980s is her World War I-era lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Star Trek reboot film series, Hell Or High Water, A Wrinkle in Time). Moreover, the re-emergence of Trevor is seamlessly integrated into the story.

In 1984, Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, is a cultural anthropologist who now works for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She befriends an awkward but intelligent Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristin Wiig, Bridesmaids, Where’d You Go Bernadette, Despicable Me), a gemologist. The FBI asks Minerva to analyze stolen artifacts recovered from a clandestine antiquities dealer. These artifacts include a “Dreamstone,” which Diana eventually remembers carries a dark power.

Meanwhile, the ne’er-do-well, television business tycoon Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Equalizer 2, The Mandalorian) is also searching for the Dreamstone. He has discovered its powers. But he fails to recognize its true power and uses it to manipulate people in order to literally monopolize control over resources. As Lord seizes control of more resources, he becomes, predictably, increasingly megalomaniacal.

Sprawling Plot Subverts Focus

The general plot is fairly straightforward and in keeping with a wide range of action movies and franchises. WW 1984 breaks down when it begins to conflate problems and issues and pigeon hole them. The movie’s story grapples with at least three separate ethical messages: appreciate what you have and where you are; live in the moment not in the future or past; and recognize your decisions have consequences which you may not fully understand or anticipate. On top of these is subthemes like redemption, loyalty, desire, etc.

Sound complicated? It is.

WW 1984 doesn’t give each of these ideas enough time to develop, or weave them together coherently. For example, when viewed from 2020, WW 1984 appears to be making a statement about greed or Trumpian ethics: More for the sake of having more is virtuous. Yet images and references to nuclear war conflate an intentional and strategic defense strategy and doctrine – mutually assured destruction – with the impulsive narcissism of Wall Street excesses in the 1980s.

WW 1984 also establishes Max Lord’s villainy through his fixation on developing oil as an energy resource. This is a culturally plausible 21st century villain, but he is strikingly out of context in the 20th century. Oil was broadly recognized as critical to the smooth functioning of economies and climate change had yet to emerge as a salient public concern. The idea that whoever controls oil controls the world was largely discredited by the 1980s as simplistic and naive. (Indeed, this is implied in the implicit commentary on nuclear annihilation.)

Millennials can be excused for this contextual confusion. GenXers like Patty Jenkins and her co-writers George Johns and David Callaham, however, should have known better. They should have also done more research to establish the plausibility of the plot line. More importantly, they should have seen how the sprawling plot resulted in a less coherent, less comprehensible, and more confused movie. Even by the low standards of a superhero action movie, WW 1984 plot falters.

WW 1984 Remains Entertaining

Unfortunately, the confused story structure hides the good parts of the WW 1984. The special effects are well done and don’t overwhelm the acting or plot. The movie includes excellent performances by Wiig, Pine, and Pascal. Ironically, while Gal Gadot shines in the small moments of the movie, her performance is uneven. Her acting seems flat and one-dimensional in the most dramatic and pivotal scenes.

Yet, despite its weaknesses, WW 1984 is entertaining. If it had been released as intended, on a very large screen in theaters (where I was one of six movie goers in an IMAX theater), the special effects and action sequences alone could hold an audience. Kristin Wiig’s performance is outstanding. She shows her range and adds layer to a character that could easily become cartoonish. Many viewers, especially younger Millennial and GenZ viewers, will safely ignore the historical and contextual confusions and enjoy the movie.

Others will have to wait for Wonder Woman 3 to see if Patty Jenkins can repeat the cinematic craftsmanship she showed in the first movie.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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