Welcome to the future!” an advertisement announces early in Wonder Woman 1984, and, friends, I LOLed. Of course I did; we are meant to laugh. How cute! How quaint! Much of the audience will not even remember the year 1984, and those of us who do likely feel every bit of the 36 years between then and now, not only in the passage of time but in the many ways the world has gotten way more futuristic between then and now.
But the pastel optimism with which WW84 depicts its retro setting is ironic, not just in how it invites us to snort at parachute pants and legwarmers, but in much more complicated ways, too: This was, contrary to the chill vibe here, the height of the Cold War, a time when nuclear holocaust seemed so close you could almost feel its heat. The story here could have been set in 1983 or 1985 without making the slightest bit of difference, yet it’s 1984, and it’s tough not to get a frisson of the resonance that goes beyond the temporal one. Not that there’s much going on in this movie that’s Orwellian, per se, except perhaps in the meta reminder that ideas about what the future holds are dated, become artifacts of their time, the moment they are thought into existence… and, perhaps more pertinently, that the future becomes today and then the past with dizzying speed, in hindsight. (It’s probably just a coincidence that it was also 36 years between 1984 and 1984. We today are as precisely close to the setting of this movie as it is to the time when Eric Blair was writing his novel.)
There’s almost no reason why WW84 couldn’t be set today, except that that ineffable sense of the flow of time and history works beautifully to lend us a sense of Diana Prince’s — aka Wonder Woman’s — immortality, and of her perception of how quickly years and decades slip by. For one big thing, she’s still pining for Steve Trevor, her WWI-era lover of the previous film, and why not? Seventy years is nothing to her…
I loved the groundedness of 2017’s Wonder Woman, which in many ways barely feels like a comic-book movie at all. “There is no oversized cartoonish villain with a bloated ego threatening armageddon,” I wrote then. “There is no ticking clock to doomsday.” WW84 has both in a bold, colorful tale that is more like classic superhero movies — Christopher Reeve’s outings as Superman from this same era come to mind — than its predecessor. There’s dark stuff here, but it slips by in subtext. Like how that villain, wannabe oil magnate Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal: The Mandalorian, If Beale Street Could Talk), is a clear analog for Donald Trump. “I’m not a con man,” he smarms at one point. “I’m a television personality.” (Trump got his start in the 80s, too.) It’s too reductive to say that Trump, like Lord, must have had access to an incredibly powerful wish-granting ancient relic — there are too many mundane explanations for Trump’s success — but there’s something gratifying about just imagining that for a moment. Maybe this is all happening in a parallel universe, a nicer one in which the magic of the gods is required for a bad man to make good in the world.
There’s unspoken grimness, too, in how Diana (Gal Gadot: Justice League, Keeping Up with the Joneses) unwittingly uses that relic to summon her lost love, Steve (Chris Pine: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Star Trek Beyond), who manifests in the body of a man (Kristoffer Polaha) who has not given his consent to be taken over by the soul of a dead WWI pilot. Sure, it’s an homage to the body-swap comedies of the 80s, and if this had actually been made in the 80s, we could perhaps give it a pass. But we should expect a movie made now to address this, somehow, yet screenwriter (with Geoff Johns [Aquaman] and Dave Callaham [The Expendables 3, Godzilla]) and returning director Patty Jenkins (Monster) completely ignores it. It’s easy to overlook this while you’re in the middle of the fun here — because the movie overlooks it, too — but it’s the one real sour note that’s left once the movie starts to tick over in your head.
Mostly, though, I love how Jenkins plays with the idea of comic books as power fantasies, and the very different ideas between men and women about what constitutes power. Lord literally wants to rule the world, wants “no taxes, no rule of law, no limits”; another very powerful man believes that “what is there to wish for but more?” But then there’s mousy — well, Hollywood-mousy — academic Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, mother!), a colleague of cultural anthropologist Diana’s at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, who merely wants to be seen and heard, not all but invisible and ignored. So small, a woman’s wish, and so large, a man’s! It’s some real monkey-paw shit going on with the wishes granted by the relic, where Lord’s power-of-positive-thinking nonsense — “You can have it all, you just have to want it” — is of course quashed when it comes to ruling-the-world stuff… but also in the more specific sense of what “having it all” means to women. Nope: not even a supernaturally powerful woman can “have” that “all,” of the professional and the personal. And so WW84 becomes all about the limits of superpowers, and how they can be more myth than reality even for the superpowered, never mind how more mundane wishes are out of reach for some of us mere mortals.
Still, WW84 gives us the glorious vision of — in flashback — young Diana (Lilly Aspell) as a girl who is athletic, competitive, and capable. It again gives us a man in Steve who is perfectly content to be a sidekick to a woman, weaker and subordinate to her but still useful and happy to be decorative, without ever being cast as less manly because of any of that. It gives us a brilliant joke about Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. And, in the end, it offers us another glimpse of that nicer world, one in which people — a lot of people; like, everyone — can come together in an act of selflessness to save everything. Maybe that’s fantasy, but it’s the kind of fantasy we really, really need right now.
• Wonder Woman movie review: women’s work