Warning: Major film spoilers ahead.
“No true hero is born from lies.”
So says Amazonian general Antiope to a young Diana, who tried to win an athletic competition by cheating. The truth is essential, Antiope teaches her early in the film. If you don’t have the truth, you have nothing. A fair lesson for the one who will one day wield the Lasso of Truth.
Fast forward, and we follow the heroic Diana into the colorful and fast-paced world of 1984, a world where greed is good and truth can be whatever you wish. Working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) meets Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Diana admires Barbara’s warmth and intelligence, Barbara admires Diana’s poise and strength, and the two strike up a friendship, bonding over their curiosity about a strange new artifact that recently arrived at the museum. The artifact turns out to be the Dreamstone, an ancient object that has the power to grant wishes.
Barbara wishes to be like Diana—strong, sexy, cool, and most of all, seen. Diana wishes to be reunited with her first love, the WWI pilot Steve Trevor, who died in 1918. Both women get what they wish for—Barbara swaps her old sweaters for trendy outfits and delights in the newfound attention of her colleagues, and Diana is overjoyed to see Steve walk back into her life, seemingly raised from the dead. From there, an adventure unfolds as big-oil con-man Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) steals the Dreamstone for his own nefarious purposes and the two women discover that their wishes come at a cost.
A colorful take on the eighties
I loved the 2017 Wonder Woman, and I was skeptical of the sequel’s ability to measure up to the original’s mix of excitement, depth, and inspiration. WW84 definitely has a different tone from the original—goofier and more colorful, with colossal (and occasionally over-the-top) performances from Pedro Pascal and Chris Pine. (Think of the difference between Marvel’s Thor and Thor: Ragnarok.)
Critics have noted the long 155-minute runtime and awkward pacing, as well as a few CGI scenes that felt cheesy and old-fashioned compared to what moviegoers are used to seeing in big-budget superhero flicks. There’s also the awkward plot point that Chris Pine’s character comes back in another man’s body, bringing up some ethical problems that Diana and Steve don’t consider, not even in their bedroom moments (yikes!).
These critiques are founded, and there were definitely some plotlines that could have been resolved more smoothly (or resolved at all). However, watching in the theater, I was glued to the screen from opening to closing credits. I enjoyed the slower pacing, which allowed touching moments and explosive battles alike room to breathe. For me, the film’s captivating aesthetic, focus on interpersonal relationships, and defense of truth makes for a refreshing watch. There’s a time and a place for fluffy entertainment with higher-reaching messages, and, for me, WW84 hit the spot.
True to its name, Wonder Woman: 1984 showcases the vibrant, futuristic 1980s aesthetic in a number of ways. In a charming sequence, Diana shows Steve around Washington, D.C., laughing in delight as he marvels at the “crazy new world” of Pop Tarts and elevators, subway trains and aerial radar, modernist art and breakdancing. As a millennial born in the 1990s, I got to marvel right along with him, seeing the eighties as they saw themselves—colorful, fast-paced, fun, and full of revolutionary technology. (My baby-boomer parents loved it too.) We follow Diana as she confronts the volatile side of the eighties as well. Middle Eastern politics, oil wars, and the nuclear arms race with Russia frame the political tensions of the Reagan era, even as the United States experiences an age of economic prosperity where it seems like no dream is too small. (Do brace yourself for an exaggerated caricature of Ronald Reagan that would leave even Walter Mondale bewildered.)
The film’s most notable aesthetic triumph, however, is its costumes. The superhero genre is infamous for objectifying women, and I was thrilled to see WW84 break from that trend. Taking modest-is-hottest to the next level, Diana sports a timeless and riveting wardrobe sure to inspire women everywhere. Her classic armor, debuted in the first film, makes a comeback and even gets a more modest upgrade. During a thrilling opening scene, Amazons compete for athletic glory on the island of Themyscira, wearing practical (and seriously awesome) outfits. (Move over, yoga pants.) In a hilarious scene improvised by Gadot and Pine, Diana helps Steve navigate the world of fanny packs and parachute pants, while Barbara learns to rock a trendy and (mostly) classy eighties wardrobe, complete with leather leggings, cheetah prints, neon colors, and artfully tousled hair. And as always, Diana’s iconic eyeliner has me scrambling for my makeup kit.
Like the first film, WW84 excels at portraying a multitude of human relationships. Superhero movies tend to be short on genuine female interactions of any kind (my favorite superhero movie series of all time, the Captain America trilogy, doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test), and so I really enjoyed the relationship that blooms between Diana and Barbara early in the film. We get to watch them grow and admire each other as they work together to solve the mystery of the Dreamstone. When Barbara’s wish begins to turn on her, Diana reacts with compassion and justice, even as she suffers her own consequences. The parent-child relationship between Max Lord and his son Alistair (played by Lucian Perez) had my whole family in tears as Alistair’s innocence and longing for his father comes in conflict with Max’s desperation to be “great.”
The chemistry between Chris Pine and Gal Gadot sparkles with romantic affection and Diana’s defining characteristic, wonder. Steve wanders wide-eyed around the modern world, and Diana in turn wonders at Steve’s piloting skills. As the world begins to fall apart and Diana struggles with the weight of the truth, it is Steve who reminds her that she lives in a world full of “so many things” worth loving. For me, this is the crux of the Wonder Woman story—Diana’s most important power is not her fabulous fighting skills, but her gift of inspiring wonder and seeing the best in everything around her. There is beauty and goodness to be found everywhere, and damaged things are worth restoring, whether they be fractured societies or broken hearts.
Taking a page out of George Orwell’s 1984, the film also tackles dark themes like greed, deception, and the corrupting influence of power on men and women alike. Max manipulates the new media technology of the age, offering his television viewers anything they want, if only they wish for it. We see people wish for nuclear bombs, divisive walls, fame, and death, with terrible consequences reminiscent of those outlined by W.W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” (which Steve references). In a particularly painful scene, the newly-powerful Barbara turns on a man who had harassed her when she was powerless, kicking him down the sidewalk until he collapses, bloodied and maybe dead, in the street. As difficult as this scene is to watch, it’s also a thought-provoking moment for considering what true female empowerment means. (In contrast, Wonder Woman’s combat scenes are mostly bloodless, and she goes out of her way to avoid seriously injuring her opponents in this film.)
A movie for the moment
Despite its technical foibles, Wonder Woman: 1984 is a great superhero movie, full of exciting battles, compelling characters, and stunning costumes. Directed by the skilled Patty Jenkins and set against the vibrant backdrop of 1980s frantic materialism and global Cold War jitters, WW84 is a tribute to the power truth has to change—and ultimately to save—the world. Even as that world sets itself on fire around her, Diana looks the audience dead in the eye and says, “You can’t have it all. You can only have the truth. But the truth is enough. And it is beautiful.”
Watching in the theater, I felt oddly comforted. The social and political struggles we see in our time are not new, and while we may grieve for lost dreams or fall prey to manipulative messages, WW84 reminded me not to despair. For me, the film was more than just a breath of fresh air after a year-long movie theater fast. It inspired me to hope. Even in an age of loneliness, fake news, and societal upheaval, truth has more power than lies. A life lived with charity and courage will be an empowered one, no matter the circumstances. And whether it’s 1984 or 2021, we all have the power to wonder.