Critics have described Wonder Woman 1984 as "a film with a heart full of hope and love" and a reminder "that a cinematic superpower can transport us away from the doldrums of reality and save the day," with a heroine who serves as "a moral and muscular counterweight to ego-driven male misdirections."
But as I watched this movie from the comfort of my couch on Christmas evening, searching for those transporting signs of love, hope, and affirming feminist counterweights, I found something far less inspired. Wonder Woman 1984 is a risk aversion strategy in movie form. It is not a particularly good movie, because it was not designed to be a particularly good movie. It was designed to avoid being notably bad.
So it offers a bland rehash of the last Wonder Woman movie in a new setting, with somewhat less effective character bits, somewhat less amusing comic moments, and action scenes that seem to gesture at the original film's high points without quite hitting them. It's an aggressively cautious production that manages not to make any big mistakes, but in the process forecloses on the possibility of doing anything all that well.
I will not describe the plot of this movie, except to say that it involves an ancient stone that grants wishes, which is fitting for a movie that traffics in ho-hum wish fulfillment.
The story, such that it is, is mostly a vehicle for loosely connected scenes in which Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and her alter ego Diana Prince do the sort of things you might want to see Wonder Woman do. Here is Wonder Woman stopping jewel thieves in a brightly colored 1980s mall! Here is Diana Prince hanging out in Washington, D.C., with Steve Trevor (played once again by Chris Pine), her dead boyfriend who has magically returned via a gift from the Convenient Plot Device Fairy! Here is Wonder Woman fighting a supervillain-ized version of herself—Cheetah (Kristen Wiig), in strangely cheap-looking CGI!
Some of the actors do fine work: Wiig in particular brings a loopy menace to an underwritten role, and Pine continues to demonstrate an endearing willingness to look goofy on screen. Gadot, however, is largely wasted. She has a strong screen presence, but her Wonder Woman is vague and undefined, except as an avatar of generic goodness and virtue, whatever you think that might be. And as Prince, she has all the personality of a supporting character in a teaser trailer. The movie picks up decades after its predecessor with no sense of what happened in between. What has she been doing all these years? What does she want out of life? Out of the world?
The movie is set largely in Washington, D.C., and there are are interlocking subplots about Ronald Reagan's nuclear ambitions and conflict in the Middle East, but they have been stripped of all real-world specifics. I suppose you could read a Trumpy mania into Pedro Pascal's Maxwell Lord, a scammy real-estate developer who becomes one of the film's two villains, but any connection seems more stylistic than specific; the movie might allude to Donald Trump, but it doesn't say much of anything about him.
Like so many of today's biggest movies, Wonder Woman 1984 exists in a strangely depoliticized and decontextualized fantasy world, one with governments and wars but no politics or ideology to speak of—a virtual construct designed to summon the sensation of political relevance without any sense of what anyone might believe, or why.
The story, similarly, isn't really a story. It's an excuse for a series of trailer-ready bits, a collection of loosely ordered scenes that you might have found in a movie you might actually have wanted to see. (And, it turns out, an unexpected number of jokes about fannypacks. See, it was the 1980s, and they're so funny, because you wear them on your…never mind.)
Anyway, maybe Wonder Woman 1984 is a movie you did want to see, if only because 2020 has provided so few opportunities for this sort of megabudget, studio-made franchise entertainment. Until this year, superhero films with foreign-aid-program-sized budgets were a near weekly occurrence, and it's been strange to suddenly go without. There is something intrinsically pleasurable about watching this sort of top-shelf production after going so long without one, even on a small screen at home.
But there is also something disappointing in the fact that this one is so aggressively mediocre, so devoid of grander aspirations. Wonder Woman 1984 delivers on the promise of a perfectly average superhero movie experience, and not a cent more. It is neither over- nor underwhelming—you will leave the theater, or your living room, simply whelmed. It's fine, I suppose, but it's certainly not a wonder.