The second film in the Wonder Woman franchise isn’t quite as wonderful as the first, says Moya Crockett.
Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film starring Gal Gadot as lasso-wielding superhero Diana Prince, was weighed down with expectations. Not only was it the first female-led superhero film in more than a decade, it was the first superhero film ever to be directed by a woman – and Jenkins was only the second female director in history to work with a budget of more than $100 million.
As a result, the pressure was on. Everyone knew that if Wonder Woman flopped, it wouldn’t just be seen as a verdict on the film itself. It would become a cautionary tale, used to reinforce the narrative that women directors can’t handle big-budget action blockbusters and that female superheroes don’t sell cinema tickets. There seems to be no limit to how many lacklustre male-led comic book films Hollywood can churn out – but if Wonder Woman was unsuccessful, it could have been a very long time before another female director (or protagonist) was given a shot.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Wonder Woman was moving, funny and thrilling, a triumph that blasted through box office records to become the highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time and the biggest live-action picture directed by a woman in history.
There was nothing particularly subversive about the film, and plenty to nitpick (Diana’s total lack of body hair; the fact that she was still the only female character given a significant amount of screen time; the conventional romance with a white male hero). But I adored it, despite knowing less than nothing about comic book lore and generally finding action films quite dull. It was a shot of pure, uncomplicated serotonin, big and fresh and energetic and joyful, and it made me happy.
Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t have quite the same effect. The success of the first film meant this sequel was under a different kind of pressure: once the world saw what a thoroughly excellent job Jenkins and Gadot could do, we wanted them to do it again. Desperation for a simple, optimistic film in which good triumphs over evil is also likely to be higher than usual at the end of 2020, a uniquely miserable and morally complex year.
But somehow, Wonder Woman 1984 manages to be both more complicated and more basic than its predecessor. The sweeping storyline incorporates subjects including Egyptian politics, the collapse of Mayan civilisation and the 1980s nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union. Yet the script is often embarrassingly cliched, relying on well-trodden tropes that feel tired and predictable (exhibit A: a magic stone with the power to grant wishes). A scene in which everyone on the planet sees their wish come to fruition, creating widespread pandemonium, reminded me of nothing so much as the bit in Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey decides to auto-reply “Yes” to the world’s prayers.
It’s not all bad: some elements are downright delightful. Jenkins leans hard into the film’s 1980s setting, creating a knowingly cheesy technicolour world of neon leggings, perms and shoulder pads (an early scene in a shopping mall is particularly delicious, as Wonder Woman swoops in to rescue adorable children from villainous jewel thieves). A moment in which Wonder Woman saves her female friend from an attempted assault is moving, too. Many of us have stepped in to help other women who are being harassed on the street; there’s something powerful about seeing the superhero version of the story reflected back at us.
The decision to bring back Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Diana’s WWI fighter pilot love interest who died at the end of the first film, also turns out to have been a good one – if only because of Gadot and Pine’s undeniable chemistry. (The less said about the incomprehensible way in which Steve is resurrected, the better.) Gadot and Pine are very good at acting as though they’re deeply in love with one another, and it’s a joy to see Steve as the fish out of water who doesn’t know what escalators are. This is a neat reversal of their relationship in the first film, in which Steve taught Diana the ways of the world (a dynamic that frequently teetered on the brink of ickiness).
By far the most interesting – and frustrating – character in the film is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a nerdy archaeologist who transforms into Wonder Woman’s archenemy Cheetah. Barbara is presented as a textbook insecure geek: she wears glasses! She can’t walk in high heels! Her male colleagues openly sneer at her! It’s perhaps unsurprising that she jumps at the chance to absorb some of her friend Diana’s poise and beauty, a decision that turns out to have toxic side effects.
But Barbara’s desire to be as “strong, sexy, cool [and] special” as Wonder Woman sounds more like the longings of an adolescent girl than the ultimate ambition of an accomplished 40-something woman. Maybe this is a reflection of the age group that Wonder Woman 1984 is really aimed at – but it feels oddly off-key.
Wonder Woman 1984 is reasonably fun, reasonably upbeat and reasonably entertaining. But Jenkins and Gadot’s first foray into superhero stardom was a hard act to follow – and they haven’t quite managed it.
Wonder Woman is in cinemas now
Images: Warner Bros Pictures
Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.