There are two sides to the DC Extended Universe. There’s Zack Snyder proudly bragging that Batman will say “fuck,” and then there’s a giant octopus who plays drums. Snyder imposed his dreary, edgelord ethos on the early stages of the DCEU, which, while satisfying an intense fan base, left the emerging superhero franchise in a distant second to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (It’s only fitting that Snyder’s Justice League swan song seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.) Conversely, Aquaman was an unapologetically silly underwater epic in which Julie Andrews voiced a mythical leviathan, Pitbull covered Toto’s “Africa,” and the visual palette looked like if the Star Wars prequels and Tron: Legacy were swirled together in bath water. James Wan’s movie wasn’t much for quiet moments, but its pure sensory overload worked: The movie is the only entry in the DCEU to gross more than $1 billion at the box office.
And yet the consensus is that the DCEU’s finest film to date is Wonder Woman. There’s no reason to begrudge anyone who loves Wonder Woman, but for the film’s (comparatively minor) detractors, Patty Jenkins’s movie lands in an unsatisfying middle between the grimmer tone and cinematic universe table-setting during the Snyder era and Aquaman’s wackier sensibilities. For all there is to enjoy about Wonder Woman’s vibrant opening in Themyscira and Chris Pine gamely playing a charming love interest, this is still a film with a legitimately embarrassing third act, highlighted by David Thewlis shouting “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” through shoddy CGI armor. Even in the more niche category of “superhero movies set during a World War featuring a guy named Steve,” Captain America: The First Avenger has Wonder Woman beat.
But the great thing about a heroine like Wonder Woman is that she can hop between different periods of history while barely aging a day, and for her sequel, Jenkins brought the action to the ’80s. True to the spirit of the decade, Wonder Woman 1984 is full of glorious excess: a colorful, supremely weird, overstuffed sequel that goes down like a heaping helping of sugar. (Or, if we wanted to really stick to the ’80s, well, cocaine.) The movie makes a full tilt toward Aquaman’s levels of zaniness, and it’s all the more chaotic—and better—for it.
Decades after her World War I heroics, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) lives in Washington, D.C., working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. Between her day job and moonlighting as Wonder Woman—as seen when she easily dispatches some robbers who apparently convened at the Stranger Things mall—Diana keeps to herself, still mourning her beloved Steve Trevor (Pine). The plot of Wonder Woman 1984 really kicks into gear with the introduction of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a slimy oil tycoon who gets close to Diana’s meek coworker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) so he can get his hands on something called the Dreamstone, which is being kept at the museum.
The extremely spoiler-averse should stop right here, as getting into all the wild details of the way the Dreamstone drives the plot will explain how Steve returns in the sequel from beyond the grave. (Also, the movie is already out on HBO Max, what’s wrong with you?) The Dreamstone is a Monkey’s Paw, in that it grants anyone a wish that comes with a price—you can tell because everyone says “Monkey’s Paw” a lot. For Diana, she inadvertently wishes she could reunite with Steve again, and so she does—her World War I pilot boyfriend shows up at a fancy Smithsonian gala. Somehow, that’s not the weirdest part: Steve’s consciousness is seemingly placed in the body of some regular schmuck living in D.C., and when Steve looks into the mirror, he sees the face of the other guy looking back at him. Did the other guy get sent to purgatory? Is Diana the only person who sees Steve when she looks at this man? Is that actually Steve, or just the Dreamstone’s interpretation of her dead boyfriend?
Well, there’s no time to think about the mechanics of a magical gem reviving Chris Pine—a lawful good for the audience—as Lord uses his wish to become the Dreamstone. That sets off a chaotic sequence of events in which Lord starts asking people what they wish for most in the world in order to maximize his retributions. Lord manipulates these people to do his bidding, for things like clearing up traffic in D.C. and slowly amassing all the oil on the planet. Freed from his helmeted existence on The Mandalorian, Pascal gives one of the most delightfully unhinged performances I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie—shuffling from scene to scene drenched in sweat shouting “WHAT DO YOU WISH FOR?!” in a wig strikingly similar to another unctuous, narcissistic businessman who grifted his way into power. Pascal says that he channeled Nicolas Cage for Lord; the best thing I can say about his work is that Cage would need to bring his A game to one-up Pascal’s showmanship.
But, as if the film is trying to broadcast its laid-back priorities, Diana herself essentially presses pause on stopping Lord to spend some time with Steve and just vibe for a bit. There’s a nice chunk of Wonder Woman 1984 that plays like a bizarro romantic comedy—date night, in this case, being Diana and Steve breaking into the National Air and Space Museum to steal a fighter jet, which is an actual crime. Introducing Steve to the ’80s is a clever inversion of the original Wonder Woman playing into Diana’s fish-out-of-water experience leaving Themyscira; there’s even a changing montage in which Steve shows a fondness for parachute pants. The trade-off for Diana, though, is that the more time she spends with Steve, the more the Dreamstone drains her of her powers. The opening sequence of the movie returned to Diana’s childhood on Themyscira—when she competes in the Amazonian equivalent of the Olympics and gets disqualified for taking a shortcut—which weaves nicely into Steve coming back into her life with plenty of asterisks. (Personally, I’d have started asking questions the minute it was clear Steve possessed, like, another human being.)
It’s funny to think of Wonder Woman 1984 in the context of the rest of the DCEU—in that nobody’s ever addressed that time in the ’80s when a literal wish-granting businessman nearly sent the world into nuclear Armageddon. But much like Aquaman, what’s so enjoyable about Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t just its gleeful absurdity, but how you can appreciate its weird energy in a vacuum. This film isn’t trying to set up another Justice League or tying itself to the larger DCEU; this is all about Wonder Woman vibing her way through a chaotic, nostalgic period of history and stopping a magic rock that fused itself with campier Daniel Plainview. (Anyone complaining about the Dreamstone as a silly plot device better look back at the last decade of the MCU.)
There is a lot going on in this two-and-a-half-hour-long movie—from Diana and Steve getting sidetracked into a rom-com to Lord twitching his way into being granted an audience at the Oval Office to Barbara using her newfound powers to beat the shit out of a drunk pervert on Capitol Hill. But while the overstuffed nature of a sequel is a frequent offense for superhero movies in particular, in a year when blockbusters were few and far between, Wonder Woman 1984 deserves a pass for being this overzealous. The noticeable flaws of Jenkins’s sequel are not new to superhero movies, but the discourse around Wonder Woman 1984 feels heightened by circumstance; it’s much harder to get sucked into such a ridiculous spectacle when nothing prevents you from picking up your phone—or clicking over to something better on HBO Max. But this is exactly the kind of film that would make for a perfect holiday trip to the theater—seeing something as grand and boisterous as Wonder Woman 1984 on a laptop, especially when Pascal is hamming it up in that ridiculous wig, only underscores how much the theatrical experience is sorely missed. (What I would give to be in a theater with hundreds of people when Lord refers to himself as a “pretty messed-up loser guy” to his son.)
The tragic irony of Wonder Woman 1984 filling the Christmastime blockbuster void in 2020 is that the film might set a new precedent. A couple of weeks after announcing that the movie would be simultaneously released in theaters and on HBO Max, Warner Bros. confirmed that the studio will do the same for all the films on its 2021 slate, including The Matrix 4, In the Heights, and The Suicide Squad. (Disney will implement a similar strategy for some of its films on Disney+, but so far, the Marvel movies won’t be skipping theaters.) How multiplexes recuperate once people get accustomed to seeing some of the biggest blockbusters of the year from the comfort of their living rooms could be a legitimate inflection point for the industry, and Wonder Woman 1984 may be one of the first dominoes to upend the theatrical experience as we know it.
It would be a strange legacy to carry for Wonder Woman 1984—a messy and flawed but endearing movie with a level of earnestness recalling Richard Donner’s Superman. But Wonder Woman 1984 is also the best (and certainly the most chaotic) DCEU entry since Aquaman. So instead of zeroing in on the very real possibility that this movie could harm theaters in the long run, I’ll channel Diana gazing upon the hapless man whose body Steve Trevor is somehow inhabiting, and focus on the thing that kept me extremely entertained at the end of a god-awful year.