Filmmakers transcend genre by making sure their voice remains at the forefront, regardless of whatever limitations might be artificially imposed.
This is especially true in the superhero genre, which can often feel stagnant and cookie-cutter as directors come to heel at the whims of a studio bent on franchise making and spectacle.
Wonder Woman 1984, director Patty Jenkins’ follow-up to her critically and commercially acclaimed 2017 film based on the DC Comics heroine, isn’t a typical superhero film by any stretch of the imagination, largely bucking the trend of explosions and brutality.
What makes it click are the themes, politics and humanity of its characters, who just happen to be in a comic book tale rather than have that define who they are and become.
While there are certainly shades of classic 80s movies and Richard Donner era Superman tales, 1984 most feels like a cross between Marvel’s best solo movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Tim Burton’s twisted take on comics with Batman Returns.
Set nearly seven decades after the events of the first film, 1984 finds the heroine in disguise as museum curator Diana Prince, wandering through life alone battling crime while trying to keep her identity a secret. When a colleague comes into contact with a stone that grants the holder any one wish they desire, events unravel and force a vulnerable Wonder Woman out into the open.
Gal Gadot continues to make the title character an unforgettable on screen persona, infusing her warmth and genuine heart into Diana Prince in a performance that’s hard to rival in terms of creating an empathic superhero.
Though at times her line delivery may feel a bit rigid, Gadot offers a forthrightness that carries over well from the 2017 original and layers in a sadness left by the void of Diana’s fallen beau, Steve. How this impacts her performance is remarkable as Gadot rightly struggles to connect with those around her until the Steve character makes his way back into the narrative.
As was true of the first film, Gadot’s best moments are opposite Chris Pine as Steve Trevor as the pair have a natural chemistry that powers large segments of the plot.
Pine’s Trevor is narratively the fish-out-of-water and brings a sense of wide-eyed wonder to scenes, balancing a Big-like naivety with the bravado Pine developed in the original.
Much of the politics of 1984 will center around Pedro Pascal’s relentless businessman Max Lord – evoking an “Art of the Deal” era entrepreneur who’s part television personality, part swindler and part distant father. Pascal channels his best Gordon Gekko impersonation, but pads Lord with far more charisma.
When Lord begins to see his plan come to fruition, Pascal does an admirable job of removing the blindfold from the audience’s eyes and revealing the inner madness within.
Kristen Wiig’s quirky, yet charming turn as introverted gemologist Barbara Minerva evokes Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns with a strange yet mesmerizing look at a woman driven out of her shell by happenstance who comes to relish the notoriety that befalls her.
As is evident in Pascal’s work, how power changes and comes to define Minerva forces Wiig to radically alter her performance in the film’s latter moments, although this does push the talented comedienne into somewhat of a corner to serve the narrative’s comic book origins.
1984 is a comic book movie sequel that only concerns itself with superhero lore in terms of how characters are affected emotionally. It’s not about the action or the gimmicks. Jenkins grounds her tale in the drama of the humanity outside of the superpowers.
Even in traditional adventure sequences or crime-fighting moments, there’s a lot of care taken to ensure the purity of Diana’s motivations. The way Wonder Woman fights and protects those around her is a result of her humanity rather than simply a comic book plot device.
Because Jenkins relies less on blockbuster action that one would expect from the gaudy genre of superhero films, 1984 doesn’t need to be seen on the big screen in order to be enjoyed, something that works incredibly well with the decision by Warner Brothers to release the film in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service simultaneously.
The film’s climatic ending leaves a somewhat bitter taste as 1984 gives way to the overly dark fight sequences that have become canon for the DC Comics Extended Universe. As its light dims, 1984 loses some of the character-based drama that Jenkins tries so hard to infuse her film with.
Better as a film than as spectacle, Wonder Woman 1984 is something made to last beyond the big screen with layers revealing themselves on multiple viewings as audiences interpret meaning and nuance in Jenkins’ film, making it an ideal feature for home screening on HBO Max before it leaves the service temporarily on January 24.