The drumbeat of Wonder Woman 1984 is how our greed takes hold of us, and it has no shortage of spins on the topic, but it’s a message that lands flat, not (as you might expect) by repetition, but by a lack of character to deliver it. The effort places the film in a forgettable pile as simply the latest among comic/superhero adventures that don’t seem to like the genre, and don’t especially care why people do.
The film kicks off showing a young Diana, on her island home among the Amazons, competing in a triathalon of sorts against those much older than she, and she is forced to learn that cheaters cannot win. This apparently to cleanse the audience’s palate of the information that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) literally can’t be killed, so as to leave things open for some of the shenanigans about to get underway.
Things settle in with a robbery at a mall, mostly so that we can show off a mall, and though the piece feels at home in the ’80s, both in “comic as cartoon” action and the sense that we might easily be watching Knight Rider, we at least set the stage for the discovery of an ancient artifact which will find its way to Diana at The Smithsonian. Enter Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a laughably mousy gemologist who is new to The Smithsonian and introduced by way of running gags about how forgettable she is, and won’t stop talking about being unpopular. Where one-dimensional veers away from the visible spectrum toward singularity, she begins.
The artifact turns out to be the creation of one of the Gods, and grants wishes. Now in the hands of Barbara, she wishes to be like Diana, which turns out to have some lovely bonuses. Meanwhile, Diana makes a wish of her own, which lets Steve Trevor back into the picture.
Enter Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). A con artist, sort of, with delusions of grandeur, he has been searching for this “Dreamstone” for a long time… apparently because it says so in the script, and he’s not going to let it slip through his fingers now. His current con revolves around oil, because it’s the ’80s and that means money, so with a seemingly limitless amount of “wish power” at his disposal, he gets himself a lot of oil. Once that pans out, for reasons that seem based on shooting availability and a desire to steal a jet, he goes on a worldwide mission to get more oil. But, why? Here’s a guy maneuvering toward this eventually, however utterly ridiculous that is, for quite some time, surely he’s thought through what he would do with this ability. It doesn’t matter, the movie runs along.
Once it turns out that wishes come with a cost, a hitch that Maxwell Lord somehow knew about, our struggle becomes getting people to give up their newfound boons, and no one is particularly interested in putting the needs of others above their own desires. Barbara, channeling ’80s teen dramas in which Pygmalion isn’t giving up her popularity, certainly isn’t going back to… not having superpowers. Even Diana, despite literally an immortal’s amount of time solidifying her psyche and character, isn’t going to give up her wish, even if it’s the only way to save the entire world. No, a man obviously has to make that decision for her. Still, Chris Pine steals the show whenever given half a chance, but only within small moments distracting from the plot instead of as part of it.
The action comes by way of a few run-ins Wonder Woman has with Barbara and/or while trying to get Lord to stop passing out wishes like candy, but they are few and far between in this bloated mess that’s more interested in whip-slinging and extended fireworks displays. Worse, the acrobatic battles that do show up make little sense and seem aimed at serving up a dizzying experience as opposed to actual action.
You might think, especially if you’re actually a fan of comic books, that a story tearing apart a moral dilemma, with several different actors facing their own version, might be a far more fascinating exploration of character than the norm, but Wonder Woman 84 leads us in the opposite direction. Barbara exists only as her moral dilemma, and the cheap setup that “sells” her difficulty. Diana, who kicks things off by casually accepting the appearance of her long-dead love, is largely stripped of any broader characteristics, and Pedro Pascal is utterly wasted as a “villain” who may as well cackle his lines from the beginning. Any effort at nuance or definition, or emotion at all frankly, amounts to nothing more than dramatically whipping one’s hide to the side to look away from whoever you may be talking to at the time, no matter the emotion, or who’s talking to who.
It’s a film with fun moments, but the plot is lazy and doesn’t care about what it’s saying. People largely do whatever they do because… well, magic, as opposed to any effort at delivering motivation, and once we finally run out of time, things resolve because… well, magic, as opposed to any actual strength of character or growth.
Bizarrely, the film’s opening shows us Diana unable to finish the race because while she might have gotten herself to the finish line, she didn’t do what she had to along the way to actually earn the win, and that’s exactly the movie that follows.