There are many reasons to be disappointed in Wonder Woman 1984:
The rules of the no-good-very-bad wishing stone are, shall we say, fluid, and seem to change scene by scene. Starbucks-style coffee sleeves and full-color CRT monitors show up when none would actually have existed. The day players in the action scenes seems straight out of a 1984 over-acting playbook. The villain looks better in a suit of armor, but they don’t give him one. The hero does not and they do. And almost worst of all: someone at DC saw “Cats” and thought “Perfect! We must put one in our next blockbuster!”
All of these are good reasons to be disappointed—but none of them would have mattered nearly as much if the movie didn’t cut the legs out under its hero at the most important moment of the movie, leaving a giant structural hole no amount of ’80s art direction can fix.
The Hero’s decisions power a well-told story. If Bruce Willis (to stay in a Christmas motif) does not decide to climb the Nakatomi towers, there is no Die Hard. If he doesn’t decide to walk over broken glass to get to the top, we don’t feel his struggle. If he doesn’t decide to risk his life and use every ounce of his remaining strength to power his way through the climactic battle, we won’t care if he kills Alan Rickman.
The ride that we, the audience, sign up for is to watch how the hero gets themselves into trouble and then, through torturous, super-human struggle, back out of trouble. We live the story with them, and we need to know how it turns out. Whether they screw up or succeed. Live or die. The bigger the trouble and the harder they struggle, the more we care how they do. If they struggle and succeed, we feel great. If they struggle and fail, we are destroyed (in a very good way—that’s tragedy.)
But if the struggle is taken away from them, then we don’t care. We don’t empathize with the pain or feel the triumph. Instead, we feel like we wasted two and a half hours we’ll never get back. Which is exactly how you will feel after watching Wonder Woman 1984.
As clunky as the film is, at its heart is a very compelling dilemma: what if your biggest, deepest, most heartfelt wish came true– but the only way to save the world was to undo it? Worse, what if undoing it meant the death of someone you loved? That’s a really huge question, built for struggle and angst. Perfect for story. We very much care how our hero gets through this one.
But when we get to the moment in the film where Wonder Woman realizes that the only way she can save the world will kill (again) the man she loves and wants to– no deserves to– be with, the writers whiff the ball. Faced with this wrenching dilemma, we want to see our hero take action. She needs to decide what to do next, and her choice has to hurt. But it doesn’t, as the writers commit the cardinal story sin of taking the decision away from their hero.
In that big, emotional turning point of the film, Chris Pine’s not-the-title-character turns to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and tells her he’s going. She whines. Then he tells her again. They kiss and she walks away. We don’t see her make the decision because she doesn’t. We don’t see her struggle. We don’t even see him die in this, what should be the most breathtaking, emotionally pitched moment of the film. She nods and walks away and he’s—presumably– gone. And just like that all the air hisses out of this movie.
The filmmakers have taken a female icon, a SUPERhero, who in the first film single-handedly jumped out of a foxhole during a firefight, crossed no-man’s land and saved a French town—and let her boyfriend mansplain to her what she “has to do.” And she does it. This disempowers the hero, makes the decision struggle-free and means we don’t care at all what happens next.
This is not only a structural error, but a monumental, culturally tone-deaf structural error for a film about a female superhero. In the living room I watched in, everyone was angry– but especially the women who loved the first movie because it showed a just, powerful woman kicking serious ass on screen.
This isn’t the only film to undercut its female action hero in the climactic scene. My favorite example before this was 1994’s River Wild, in which Meryl Streep spends the film being tortured by Kevin Bacon, only to have David Straithairn pop up magically at the end to kill him for her. But of course that was 26 years ago.
And it’s not the only superhero movie to undercut it’s lead and weaken the film. When the big-money sequel pressure is on, it’s hard to stay the course and make a great movie.
But this is a story 101 mistake that experienced writers (and executives) shouldn’t make. It takes what would otherwise be a merely mediocre sequel and elevates it to a stunning example of bad storytelling we can all hopefully learn from.