Wonder Woman 1984 has a Steve Trevor problem.
At the end of Wonder Woman, Steve sacrificed himself to help her save the world from Ares’ plot against humanity. It was a heroic and deeply emotional death that, in most cases, would represent the end of his character arc and help further advance Diana’s superhero path. But then Chris Pine proved to be a wildly charismatic presence with potent chemistry with Gal Gadot, making him an instant fan favorite in a way other superhero love interests don’t become. Once a sequel became inevitable after Wonder Woman’s critical and commercial success, the expectation was that Pine would figure into the story somehow.
So, how do you solve a problem like Steve Trevor?
If you’re Wonder Woman 1984, you craft a ludicrous plot around a millennia-old MacGuffin that also folds in global calamity, Gordon Gekko bromides, and more fanny packs than you’ll find at Disney World.
Picking up over a half-century from the first film, our titular superhero (Gal Gadot), is working at the Smithsonian in D.C. While she occasionally whips out the golden lasso and tiara to fight off thieves in a mall, she has effectively retreated from a life of her own, still grieving Steve’s death. Her solitary life is interrupted when she encounters a magical stone at the museum that ostensibly grants the wish of anyone who encounters it. Diana’s wish is granted and she gets Steve back, but she isn’t the only one: Diana’s new colleague and friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig) gets to be more like her and ends up becoming the villain Cheetah in the process, and Ponzi scheme leader Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) gets to mask his own failures by becoming an all-powerful being.
Beyond first glance, Wonder Woman 1984 feels like a laborious exercise in justifying the return of Steve Trevor. There were several ways to bring him back, and almost all would defy logic (to be fair, superhero films typically aren’t bound by logic). However, the magical stone device that facilitates his revival, and the rest of the plot, is patently ridiculous and a bit infuriating. Considering how director Patty Jenkins frames Steve’s first appearance, with a sweeping circular camera reveal, the moment is supposed to inspire awe. Instead, it makes you roll your eyes. Steve and Diana are charming together, but their encounters carry an undercurrent of irritation from the circumstances (there are also really thorny consent issues that the film never addresses or reconciles).
Worse than the circumstances of Steve’s return is what it means for Diana as a character. Wonder Woman 1984 expands upon Justice League’s insistence that Diana has been paralyzed by grief for decades over losing Steve. The film does suggest that Diana is also grieving her other friends from the first film, but Steve is the primary focus. The optimistic, spirited Diana of the first film is replaced with a guarded, almost-cold shell of her former self in this sequel (were it not for Gal Gadot, Diana would be Clark from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). Only when Steve returns does Diana start to come back to life, albeit with her somber longing transmuted to desperation to keep him, no matter what she has to sacrifice in the process. For a female-led superhero film, Diana’s characterization – almost wholly centered on Steve’s existence – feels reductive.
If bringing Steve back were the only purpose of that magic stone, Wonder Woman 1984’s plot would still be a mess. What elevates it to hot mess is how much else that stone is responsible for, and how unwieldy it all becomes in the span of two and a half hours. Somehow, the film also fosters two villain origin stories, commentary on the evils of the personality cult and capitalism, Middle East and Cold War politics, and the near-destruction of civilization by way of human greed. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but none of the threads tidily come together, their thematic ties shaky at best. The film takes way too long to get to the main plot, and the latter half is a tangled slog that relies on ham-fisted dialogue to drive its points about selflessness home, points that, given everything we’ve gone through this year, feel simplistic and hollow instead of profound.
And yet, as narratively muddled and frustrating as it is, Wonder Woman 1984 does work as a spectacle and in individual moments. Steve and Diana are hands down the film’s bright spot. They are absolutely precious together; the scenes where she introduces him to the new world are a lovely flip on the “fish out of water” dynamic they shared in the first film (Steve trying on different 80’s outfits – fanny packs and all – is an all-time great DCEU moment). Although the CGI can be wonky, the action and battle set pieces are entertaining, even impressive. Jenkins knows her way around a blockbuster at this point, and what she commits to film is strongly crafted, but it doesn’t thematically or emotionally resonate as strongly as her first go at Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman 1984 might’ve been a disaster were it not for its cast, led by Gal Gadot. Even when the writing fails her, Gadot has such a strong grasp of Diana’s character that she overcomes the script’s shortcomings. She is especially impressive in the film’s heavier moments, where her penchant to wear her heart on her sleeve allows her to convey just how broken Diana is and has been. Chris Pine is as charismatic as ever, drawing you in with his blue eyes staring in wonder at the world around him, and of course Diana. Gadot and Pine have even more chemistry than they did before, giving their scenes a sparkle and emotional heft that the script nearly robs them of. In an alternate universe, Jenkins would’ve excised the Max Lord plot altogether and just went all-in on the action-comedy-romance that makes this film actually work.
Were the producers more daring, Kristen Wiig would’ve been a great romantic foil, considering her own chemistry with Gadot. She does make for a compelling friend-turned-foe in her own right, evolving from awkward bumbler to swaggering badass with startling ease. Pedro Pascal’s performance as Max Lord is hit-or-miss. There’s no denying his range, and he’s definitely locked in to Max’s petulant qualities, but sometimes he leans a little too close to caricature to be taken seriously as a threat to a demigoddess.
Steve and Diana are such a delightful presence on screen that you want to forgive Wonder Woman 1984 for its mental gymnastics, odd characterization of its lead character, bizarre politics, and bloated narrative and thematic structure. No matter how much goodwill that Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, and Patty Jenkins built with their first film, there is no denying that its followup is a mess. Enjoyable in parts, sure, but a mess nonetheless.
For what it’s worth, Wonder Woman 1984 is still a better film than a significant portion of the DC Universe.