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Review: Wonder Woman 1984 Is a Sadly Disappointing End to 2020

2 out of 5 fanny packs.

Wonder Woman 1984

It is with great regret that I must report that I did not love Wonder Woman 1984, which makes its HBO Max debut on Christmas. I’m sitting here struggling to remember things that I liked about it.

The film is a neon ’80s nostalgia trip that also highlights some of the awful politics of the ’80s, but with strange, broad, messy strokes. It’s impossible to determine the geopolitical or moral message here, if there is one, in a movie packed with nuclear weapons, Ponzi schemes, brain-melting takes on Middle Eastern relations, bizarre sexism, empty platitudes, and a cameo from a spacey Ronald Reagan-esque president.

At one point, after yet another one of the movie’s segues into Dr. Strangelove imagery, I wondered if we might see Diana riding a giant bomb. At least that might’ve been fun, an element that’s sorely lacking here.

Because the most unfortunate thing about Wonder Woman 1984—beyond an extended sequence in Egypt that I am aghast made it into the script, let alone the final cut of the movie—is that it’s not very much fun. Everyone in this over-long, over-stuffed film is unhappy, and they seem worn down by the world and lonely in it. We have enough of that going around right now that it’s unnerving to watch miserable people onscreen when I signed up for over-the-top action sequences featuring heroes with fanny packs.

Maybe the characters’ isolation is meant to be an accurate representation of the me-me, money-grubbing ’80s, but this is a superhero movie that’s also aimed at appealing to a young audience. There should be many bright flashes of humor and camaraderie, a thing Marvel accomplished even in the grim, nonsense-plot Endgame, and DC has had more luck with via recent movies like Aquaman and Shazam!

While WW84 has a few moments that made me smile, that was it—a few moments in an unneeded two-and-half-hour runtime. Most emerge from the chemistry between star Gal Gadot and Chris Pine (as her resurrected-or-something beau, Steve Trevor), and Trevor’s fish-out-of-water leap into the 1980s from the limbo of death, or whatever the hell is happening to him metaphysically here.

I loved the first Wonder Woman. I went in with no expectations and discovered a rousing movie about coming into your own, defeating evil, and falling in love in a way that felt earned. I adored the Amazons on Themyscira and Diana’s new friends Sameer, Charlie, and Chief Napi, and found the WWI setting almost refreshing compared to our endless cinematic retreads of WWII. It was empowering and groundbreaking to see our first massive female-led superhero film directed by a female director. There were some truly astonishing fight scenes that showcased Diana’s power, even if the final battle with Ares was universally derided as a silly CGI muddle. There was enough that made the movie distinct and special. I wept when Steve Trevor died.

Maybe it was that my expectations were so much higher this time around, but I find myself emerging from WW84 with none of the fuzzy feelings I felt before. In fact, my anger over how much of a let down this movie is has only grown after sleeping on it. Since I enjoyed the first film so much, writing this review is not a happy task for me.

What’s good? Well, the cast does its level best with a script full of so many bonkers plot holes, ever-changing rules of “magic,” and hand-wavey exposition that you could drive a series of Egyptian tanks through them. The fantastic sets and costumes are whimsically ’80s, showcasing both the garish and the chic. As the bad guys, Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig both seem to be enjoying themselves (I’m glad someone was) and deliver convincing performances.

Pascal chews a lot of scenery as a sort of knock-off Donald Trump conman who gains the power of granting wishes, but he makes some of that scenery-chewing delicious. Pine is a delight as the supportive Steve, and whenever she’s with him, Gadot, as our Wonder Woman, lights up. Their romance is once again one of the stronger aspects of these films, which is nice to see but shouldn’t be the best thing I can say about the most iconic female superhero that we have on the silver screen.

Further complicating messages to the kids and adults watching is the movie’s extremely strange takes when it comes to female empowerment this time around. Wiig’s Dr. Barbara Minerva/Cheetah suffers from what I’d like to call She’s All That syndrome, as a socially awkward brilliant academic who seems to turn against mankind because no one thinks she’s pretty. That’s until she acquires superpowers, takes off her glasses, and can walk around with catlike grace in sky-high heels. When she does gain strength and “beauty” in the eyes of outside beholders, she loses her moral center, which … okay. Ladies can’t be having it all, I guess! Then she shows up to a big fight looking like an extra who wandered in bedraggled from the set of Cats.

There are also several instances of ’80s-heavy sexual harassment and catcalling as though to say No! Stop that!, but then Dr. Minerva is ready to risk it all for male attention as her primary motivator. Meanwhile, Diana, one of the most beautiful women on Earth and depicted as such, sits pouting alone into her wine because her boyfriend died sixty-plus years ago and she’s lonely and miserable without him. She doesn’t seem to have any friends or any life, really, beyond her job at the Smithsonian and sometimes stopping crimes at the local mall. It’s a sad and narrow view of what’s possible for the most powerful woman on the planet without a man on her arm.

Diana Prince is unfortunately turned into a wet blanket that’s always raining on everyone’s parade—for the greater good, I guess, but part of the appeal of Wonder Woman was Diana’s joyful, wide-eyed appreciation for the human world and everything in it. Now she just seems tired and closed-off, and she hates going to parties. I wouldn’t invite her to one with that attitude.

Still, all of this could just be your typical run-of-the-mill superhero sequel movie with a subpar script and too-heavy reliance on goodwill garnered in earlier properties, of which I have seen many, but there’s a long sequence of WW84 that is beyond incomprehensible to me. I’m going to relay it here because while these are spoilers, it’s not actually important to the plot. At all.

For some reason, they decide to have Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord go to Cairo in order to seize the oil rights from a powerful man, Emir Said Bin Abydos, whose magical wish is to regain his ancestral lands and cast out the heathens. Wait, there’s more. Diana and Steve go to stop him, but not before Lord causes a giant wall to rise through Cairo and cut off the poorest people from their water supply, sparking sectarian violence. Then, there’s a huge, drawn-out, stunningly unexciting road chase scene where Diana and Steve fight a private Egyptian security force that’s defending Lord.

This means that Diana messes up a bunch of Egyptians while vehicles marked with Arabic blaze by and/or explode. She also saves a couple of kids, speaking Arabic to them, who gaze upon her worshipfully before being returned to their mother, who is clothed head to toe in black in contrast to Diana’s skin-baring red, blue, and gold ensemble. Whatever they’re trying to say here is nothing good.

My jaw was dropped for however many head-scratching, mind-boggling minutes this mess took, and it was a lot. To have Gadot, an Israeli actress who is already subject to online trolling, debate, and scrutiny for that fact, beating up a bunch of faceless but clearly Arab men in a film that’s meant to take place two years after Israel invaded Lebanon (where Wonder Woman was banned because of Gadot’s nationality) is just astounding to me. Quite frankly, it shocked me so much that it’s going to be my major takeaway from this film.

The optics of causing an actual wall to arise through a country engaged in conflict in the Middle East, cutting off supplies, SPECIFICALLY WATER, to already disenfranchised people, and only our Israeli action star is here to save the day as a savior to the children? How could hundreds of people be involved in this filmmaking decision and still approve it?

Is this meant to call attention to Israel’s wall-building apartheid state and their cutting off of Palestinian water supplies? If not, what are they doing? If so, what does it mean to also have an Israeli star as the hero here? Is Diana meant to be symbolically healing the divide? If this was the intent, it’s done so sloppily as to be insulting. Just as I felt like I was slowly becoming unhinged watching this last night and yelling at my TV screen, I feel unhinged typing out the circumstances of the Egypt Detour here.

Gadot’s involvement and those staggering optics aside, the sequences are just completely unnecessary, the sort of stereotypical BS depictions of “Arabs” that we saw a lot of in the post-9/11 film world. Adding nothing to the plot while serving to be seriously jarring, it’s just baffling that any of this made it to the final cut. They couldn’t have shifted this to something concerning a Soviet oil baron like every other ’80s film, and avoided any kind of controversy? What was returning director Patty Jenkins, who wrote the script with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, possibly thinking?

Further, the Egypt sequence is far from the movie’s only issue with race and stereotyping. The whole film serves up only a few characters of color beyond Max Lord, almost all of whom only have a line or two, and most of whom have stereotypes of their own writ large. I’d expect this from a movie made in the ’80s, not this trip back to the past. And don’t even get me started with what we discover about Max Lord’s backstory. That’s an essay for another day. The movie seems to think that simply flashing to reaction shots from people of color and including them in the background serves for a diverse film. It doesn’t.

Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Wonder Woman 1984 is how devoid of hope and draining it is. The main message at the end of the day appears to be that shortcuts are bad and aspirations are dangerous to have. “There’s a good message in ‘the truth matters,’ but they bungled it,” our Chelsea Steiner wrote me last night, as we shouted about our disappointment via text. She summarized the film as, “Wonder Woman: Fuck Your Dreams.”

Our Princess Weekes concurred, as we also shouted in text: “This movie has been very boring,” she said. “It’s so Ugh. I can’t believe it.”

Wonder Woman 1984 is not the much-needed escapism from this terrible year that so many of us hoped for and longed to see on HBO Max come Christmas Day. It’s one more kick from 2020, delivered while we’re down, by a foot wearing tottering high heels.

(image: Warner Bros.)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.