Wonder Woman 1984 has been quite the lightning rod since its release. On the one hand, there’s the epic scope, complex romance, rousing score, and positive messages. It also has an incredible cast including Gal Gadot, Kirsten Wiig, Chris Pine, and Pedro Pascal. On the other hand, some have criticized the visual effects as well the film’s numerous, and often confusing, twists and turns. While all of those things are up for debate, for us, one other point stands out as the best thing the film has going for it.
What is it? It’s that Wonder Woman 1984, especially for a comic book movie, pretty much stands on its own. Somehow, writer-director Patty Jenkins figured out a way to make a movie in the DC Extended Universe that casual viewers could watch and follow with almost no knowledge of the DC Extended Universe. And that’s pretty great.
How she pulled it off isn’t some huge secret. Jenkins achieved this through smart planning and foresight. The first Wonder Woman film was set during World War I, distancing itself from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the film that introduced the character, and Justice League, the film that followed it. However, the first Wonder Woman film also had a framing device tied to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t crucial to the plot, but it reminded you that Princess Diana lived in a world where Batman also existed.
Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t have any such framing device. There’s no mention of Gotham, Metropolis, or Atlantis. Billy Batson doesn’t cameo. There are a few comic winks throughout, like the existence of Bialya and some of the Amazonian history, but none of that distracts from the overall intention. This is a story set in 1984, almost 70 years removed from the first film, and probably 40 something years before the other films. That makes all the difference. Instantly, with decades separating this movie from the others, you can turn off that part of our mind trained by franchises like Star Wars, DC, and especially Marvel, to look for connections to the wider universe. There aren’t any. No other heroes are running around, the world isn’t tuned into the overall significance. Instead, we can just try to enjoy the movie playing in front of us.
Wonder Woman 1984 is so standalone in fact, it’s almost separate from the film it’s a sequel to. The revelations in the original movie of Diana’s true destiny among the Amazons is of no real consequence to this story. Here, the film’s opening with her as a young girl besting all her fellow Amazon shows you she’s special. And while her love of Steve Trevor, who died in the first film, is a huge part of 1984, the movie explains who he is, how she felt, and why it’s a big deal to have them back together. Having a knowledge of the first movie helps, but it’s not really a necessity.
This stark separation from the rest of the DC universe can come at a detriment as well. For example, the film ends on a global, world-changing type event. Something that impacts pretty much every single person on the planet. And at this point in history, Bruce Wayne is on that planet. Ma and Pa Kent are on the planet. That the film doesn’t show that or work in these people acknowledging they have a faint memory of this super-woman is a bit of a plot hole. To be fair, to veer off into unrelated characters would have taken away from the film as a whole, plus it would’ve been impossible for movies created in the past to know what would happen in this one. Basically, we’re pretty sure Patty Jenkins had bigger concerns than tying in all of the other films.
There is, also, one other intriguing exception to all of this but it’s a big spoiler. We’ll discuss briefly then pop up another spoiler bar at the end so you know when you can pick back up if you wish.
In the film’s mid-credit sequence, we get a very special cameo by the world’s second live-action Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, as the character Asteria. Asteria is the legendary Amazon woman mentioned throughout the film for whom the gold armor was made, but it’s never explained where she went or how she lost it.
Now, this certainly is a moment referencing a universe bigger than the movie itself but as far as what we’ve seen from the DCEU so far, we can still consider it standalone for Diana’s story. For one, Asteria isn’t some big, recognizable name from DC Comics, though there have been characters with that name. The audience is supposed to know her and be surprised at her arrival due to knowledge they’ve gotten from this movie and nowhere else (well, minus the cameo aspect, but that’s just general pop culture knowledge). While Asteria’s appearance could tease something from a hypothetical sequel, it doesn’t have to—it could also just work as a nice wink and nod to the movie, and the character of Wonder Woman.
If anything, Wonder Woman 1984's end credits scene only adds to the film’s independence from stories that came before it. If you can say that about not just the movie, but the device best known to tie films into a larger universe—there’s no Shazam or Aquaman popping up here—that’s more than a little surprising.
In an era where sometimes you need to see and understand upwards of 20 movies to fully appreciate everything happening onscreen, Wonder Woman 1984's autonomy makes it unique. Sure, the immense satisfaction that comes from paying off 20 movies in one is also unique and not at all a bad thing. However, the pendulum of big-budget storytelling has swung so far in that direction, a step back to the old ways feels rather wonderful. At least, we think so.
Wonder Woman 1984 is now on HBO Max and in select theaters.
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