From the outside, Wonder Woman 1984’s Diana Prince seems like she has it all. She’s got a dream job as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian, respect and admiration from co-workers and pining suitors, and supermodel good looks. But at night, when she goes home to her luxurious condo, takes off her luxurious power suits, and drinks luxurious glasses of wine alone, she wants for more. Specifically, she wants for her man: Steve Trevor (or as star Gal Gadot says, “Stiv!”), the chiseled pilot who died in a fiery plane crash back in 2017's Wonder Woman.
This is the motivating force of Wonder Woman 1984, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. If this all sounds like a tired romantic drama fit for the 1980s era in which it takes place, with a respected career woman torn between her work and love, you’d be right. Because, despite the fact that Diana Price is actually the superhero Wonder Woman, and her work in this instance is, uh, saving humanity, Wonder Woman 1984 crafts a rather un-heroic narrative for its lead star. In an action film where the only real requirement is to deliver a well-articulated fantasy, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has become quite boring, placing an overwhelming focus on her romance with Steve in the scope of the film’s overly convoluted plot.
The child-viewer-friendly, finger-wagging lesson of Wonder Woman 1984 seems to be that wanting too much, and destroying lives in order to obtain what you desire, is dangerous. Diana learns this in the beginning of the film, when a flashback to her childhood reveals she once tried to cheat her way through a competition, only to be scolded by her Amazonian sisters for taking a shortcut. The film’s 1980s setting lends itself to numerous depictions of mall-driven gluttony and obsessive self-improvement, centering on the movie’s eventual supervillain Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a businessman overseeing the failing oil company Black Gold Cooperation whose infomercials are filled with sayings like “All you need is to want!” and “Are you reaping the rewards, do you have it all?”
Max crosses paths with Diana when a mysterious stolen stone wanted by the FBI ends up at her job at the Smithsonian, where it’s overseen by the dorky Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). The stone has an inscription that promises wishes and ultimately delivers, with Barbara wishing she was more like Diana (“strong, sexy, cool, special”), Diana wishing for Steve to return to her, and Max, once he steals the stone, to become the stone itself, thereby granting the wishes of everyone who touches him. Barbara gains superhuman abilities, Diana gets her dead boyfriend confusingly zombified in the body of a stranger who appears only as Steve to her, and Max’s business begins to become successful again, but not without causing hell in the process. As more and more people get their wishes granted, Barbara and Max run wild with their newfound powers to the point where it actually threatens civilization at large. And the moral lesson comes for Diana, too, who puts her heroic destiny aside to be in love again. She doesn’t want to save the world so much as she wants to make out. “I give everything I have, every day,” she says to Steve. “You’re all I’ve wanted, for so long.”
For much of Wonder Woman 1984’s slog of a two-and-a-half-hour run time, I just kept thinking, why this? Why does Kristen Wiig’s slow and steady transformation into the powerful villain Cheetah amount to a few scenes of her gaining the ability to walk in heels, fighting off a cat-caller with newfound strength, and getting some new outfits? Wiig is such a fun actress, but the totality of her evil makeover (even her creepy, animalistic metamorphosis that comes close to the movie’s end) is unfortunately relegated largely to the sidelines, and Wiig is severely underused. Was the special effects budget not big enough to warrant a transformation scene instead of Wiig simply walking out of frame and coming back an actual cheetah? Instead, we mostly get scenes of the far less interesting Max, even at one point briefly and unnecessarily trailing him to Egypt as Diana searches for the all-powerful wishing stone. It seems like Max is intended to represent an all-American, ’80s capitalist mindset that is once again in full swing, and Wonder Woman 1984 edges oh so close to a timely critique of such cartoonish greed but for some reason doesn’t follow through in its demonization.
Repeatedly Wonder Woman builds its storyline together like a shoddily built house, shoving in ridiculous plot points to serve as belated reinforcements just to keep the whole thing still standing. Conveniently, Steve can creepily come back to life in another man’s body, no reason to explain. Conveniently, the United States has the technology to help transmit Max’s wish-granting abilities through television, owing to even greater chaos beyond Washington, D.C. Conveniently, everyone can just simply “renounce” their wish to make it go away (which begs the question, if you wish that someone else’s wish was renounced, does that cancel out their wish? Help!). Every superhero movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but this movie contorts itself just to make sense of its own plot.
If Wonder Woman 1984's goal was to show that even superhero cowgirls get the blues, then I’ll give them that. But all the potential—for her character and for this sequel, her fighting abilities, the kinds of villains she could face, the action scenes—feels dulled here. In the end somehow I wanted more of Wonder Woman, or at least an ounce more of imagination for what drives her beyond her love for Steve.