Not everyone will agree with me, I know, but to my mind, 2017's Wonder Woman sets up a pretty high bar to clear, as one of the few superhero movies of the 2010s to successfully thread the needle between "superhero comics are modern mythology, with all the gravity that entails" and "popcorn movies need to be energetic and fun" and "the lady in the colorful outfit punches and guns go BOOM". It is, along with Logan from a few months earlier, just about the only comic book adaptation of the last five years that I'd argue deserves to be saved for future generations, and in its scene of Wonder Woman, AKA Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), pushing her way through a WWI No Man's Land, it has one of the only two great action setpieces in a live-action superhero movie from the entire decade.* It also made a pretty tremendous sum of money, on the back of giving the most iconic superhero who hadn't gotten a solo movie yet her glorious moment in the sun.

The pressure to match that all in the film's sequence must have been enormous, and returning director Patty Jenkins (who also wrote the screenplay, with Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham - none of them had a writing credit on the original) had the very good sense to deal with that pressure by simply making a hard turn off the road. Wonder Woman 1984, whatever else we want to say about it for good or for bad, is an extremely different movie than Wonder Woman. Visually, sonically, narratively, even in how Gadot approaches the character, this is making a clean enough break from the last movie that if not for a major plotline that draws directly on the character relationships established there, I'd almost be tempted to say this is a movie specifically designed for people who hadn't seen it. Or any other superhero movie made since the 1990s, even. The film's throwback energy is strong; not really all the way back to 1984, the year it's set, though you can tell from Lindy Hemming's delightfully gaudy-looking costume design, Hans Zimmer's score, and at least some of the sets (especially a spot-on recreation of a period-correct shopping mall) that the filmmakers really did plan to go there.

In practice, it feels more like a '90s movie or maybe even an early '00s movie, from the very first years of the superhero boom: back in the days when we all agreed that supeheroes were a bit cheesy and goofy, though whereas for most '90s superhero movies, that translated into "so why bother giving a shit?", WW84 is absolutely delighted by the cheesiness and goofiness. It treats the matter of superheroes with the joyous abandon of children hammering their action figures together. I am struck that the last comic book movie (and maybe the only other one from the last decade) that tapped so successfully into this "superheroes are pretty dumb, and that's great" energy was 2018's Aquaman, from the same studio and at least notionally, from the same narrative continuity. And if the lesson here is that the future of the DC movie franchise is going to include regular visits to this kind of unabashedly silly, bubble-weight enthusiasm for superheroes as larger-than-life camp, I might even allow myself a slender thread of optimism for the future of comic book movies. It occurs to me that maybe it's actually a throwback to the 1970s, when the Silver Age of comics was still going strong and superheroes where all just weightless fun (put it this way: this film has specific echoes of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series, which would have felt simply bizarre in the 2017 film).

So anyways, that's the difference between Wonder Woman and WW84, in a nutshell: seriousness versus playfulness. Pretty much every other difference between the two films is downstream from that one. Matthew Jensen's cinematography is much sunnier and attentive to making colors pop, compared to the steely grey tone that he used for much of the original film; Richard Pearson's editing rhythms allow for somewhat longer takes to show up every now and then (including in one moment, late in the film - it is after Diana has made the Consequential Choice that kickstarts the final act - where the temptation to use a cutaway or a reverse shot must have been enormous, and it makes the moment so much better that they didn't); Zimmer's new orchestrations of the main Wonder Woman theme back off on the aggressive rock that has been used thus far in the franchise, embracing more triumphant Korngold-style brass and strings to make the music feel adventurous rather than violent.

Most readily, it's the story and the tone adopted for it. It can be summed up pretty simply: a horrible '80s businessman named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who presents himself as a whiz kid oil tycoon but is in fact running what amounts to a long con on his increasingly impatient investors, has his eyes on a magical wishing stone. The stone ends up in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, where Diana works, following an attempted jewelry store heist that she herself stopped, in in her other guise. Diana's meek co-worker, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) starts studying the stone and inadvertently makes a wish to adopt Wonder Woman-like powers, while Diana inadvertently wishes to resurrect her dead WWI pilot boyfriend, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); Lord manages to steal the stone and use its power to make himself wishmaster over all of humanity, and he does not do it inadvertently.

"Magical wishing stone" really is where we're at, and kudos to WW84 for not bothering with anything fancier. And, despite the final act attempting (laboriously) to make the stakes The Entire World, it really does feel, from start to finish, like this never amounts to more than Wonder Woman having to put down a particularly tenacious shitty '80s businessman. I perhaps speak for myself alone, but I really miss when superheroes could fight simple, even inconsequential threats, back before the genre addicted itself to civilisation-level threats in every damn movie. Even though WW84 has such a threat, it's really not until the last act, which is muddled enough that it wouldn't have worked anyway, that it tries to muscle its way through what really has, until that point, felt like a movie with about a dozen people in it.

And so, up until that pivot, we get a movie that's basically content to be a character comedy, centered on Gadot beaming happily at Pine as he goes through the usual "time traveling fish out of water" routine. The entire middle of the film is basically just hanging out, if not with the pair of them, then with Barbara, who gets increasingly nasty-minded as she discovers more magically-granted strength and self-confidence, or with the blustering Lord, played terrifically as an enthusiastically selfish little boy by Pascal. There's an action scene in here, a pretty swell desert chase that all but brags that it's pilfering ideas from Raiders of the Lost Ark, though for the most part, WW84 doesn't have much interest in action. It has much more interest in just being genial - not even funny, genial - and in this respect if not necessarily in any other, it feels like its truest aesthetic forebear is the 1978 Superman, which is, I think, an altogether worthwhile model. It even has it's own version of the Superman flight scene, in which Diana and Steve fly an invisible jet through fireworks (and I think the fact that this is the Wonder Woman movie to very happily embrace such absurd Silver Age nonsense as Wonder Woman's invisible jet - and also her ability to fly by throwing her rope very hard - tells us everything about what mode it wishes to operate in); a go-nowhere, do-nothing moment that wants nothing but to throw some razzle-dazzle at us while the actors gawk at a greenscreen and the music pleasantly keens along, and through these things somehow ends up being the pleasantest part of the whole movie.

The whole thing is charming enough that I watched the whole thing with what I imagine to have been a pretty loopy smile on my face, even despite its extremely obvious problems. One of these is a deadening 152-minute running time, which just ends up making everything feel stretched-out and languorous; it reminds me of DC's last attempt at a fun, lightweight throwback in the form of Shazam!, which also turned something frothy into pure exhaustion by the end of its brutal length, and that was 20 minutes shorter than this is. It might not have been as big of a problem if the movie didn't clatter to an end on almost all of its worst scenes, notably a hideous fight between Diana and a godawful CGI effect playing Barbara, who has now become the human-cat monstrosity Cheetah. Barbara is a problem herself; Wiig is obviously having a fine time showing how the panicky nobody turns into a confident, haughty predator, but the motivation for actually giving the character this arc towards villainy is completely opaque, except for a vague line of dialogue that the wishing rock has stolen her kindness and generous spirit. She's pretty obviously doing all of this because Cheetah is the closest thing Wonder Woman has to an A-list supervillain, and the filmmakers didn't want to keep putting her off.

At any rate, the clumsy third act - and it's, like, all clumsy - is certainly enough to keep WW84 from reaching its predecessor's height of quality, though I don't know if it would do that anyway; the warm embrace of the cheesiest elements of superhero stories means that it can't work as an iconic tale of a godlike human walking among us, which has been consistently what's most interesting and distinctive about the DC movies of the last several years. On the other hand, we already got that version of Wonder Woman, and Jenkins and crew clearly wanted to avoid repeating themselves. Thus we get this version of Wonder Woman, the upbeat, energetic, 1970s kind, and I, for one, am very happy to have made her acquaintence.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)

*The portal battle at the start of X-Men: Days of Future Past is the other.