Wonder Woman 1984 is a mess. Caught between a whole bunch of masters, the movie ends up serving none of them, as it awkwardly lurches from one plot point to another. The protagonist ends up in a narrative dead end with her ex, the main plot (involving a wishing stone) takes all of 10 minutes to examine the many ramifications of having wishes granted, and the arc of villain Cheetah (Kristen Wiig) is horribly truncated.
Yet I kind of liked the movie, in spite of myself. It’s so gloriously messy and weird that I couldn’t help but be fascinated by its choices, even as I found myself actively rejecting them. Watching the film, I even had an unusual thought, the opposite of one I’ve had often while watching sprawling, bloated TV shows: I wish Wonder Woman 1984 had more time to tell its story. If something like The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-hour movie, then Wonder Woman 1984 is a two-and-a-half-hour television season. The movie even breaks down into episodic chunks.
The potential reasons Wonder Woman 1984 crams so much stuff into its story (to its detriment) are many, and we can’t always know why those choices were made. Was Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s boyfriend from the first movie, brought back across the oceans of space and time because all involved in the movie really wanted Chris Pine back? Or was he brought back because of a studio note, and then everyone involved in the movie played up the company line of just really wanting Chris Pine back? You can make arguments in either direction, but a definitive “answer” will remain elusive.
So consider another explanation: In a more focused movie, the story of Steve’s resurrection and Wonder Woman (a.k.a. Diana Prince) realizing she must sacrifice him to save the world would have resonated, in similar fashion to Superman giving up his powers to have a normal life with Lois Lane, only to reluctantly realize domestic bliss is impossible for him to achieve in 1981’s Superman II. But a more focused movie likely would have had to shunt a bunch of the movie’s other ideas to the sidelines.
What if that idealized version of WW84 were a single, hour-long episode about Diana and Steve reconnecting, then realizing the weight of that reconnection? What if at this moment, when plenty of TV critics bemoan the degree to which TV seems to want to be the movies, the movies are all too often becoming TV?
TV-like films are increasingly common, even outside of cinematic universes
I first wrote about this most obvious example of serialized television’s influence on the blockbuster industry in 2014: The rise of interconnected cinematic universes has created a number of what are effectively gigantic-budget TV shows that people watch new “episodes” of in theaters. Indeed, at the time, various film franchises were hiring writers rooms to help plot out their next steps, something that had long been used in TV but rarely in film.
This approach has shifted somewhat, as fewer and fewer “cinematic universes” exist, outside of the deeply interconnected Marvel universe and the loosely interconnected DC universe. Now, blockbuster filmmaking is dependent on making sure viewers get their money’s worth — and thus go to see these films in theaters — and on the hype cycle of casting announcements and plot teases. Movies often end up crammed full of more plot lines than they know what to do with as a result. They, in essence, become tiny TV seasons, not oversize, one-off episodes.
Such a fate befalls Wonder Woman 1984. Any one of its plot threads might be interesting on its own, and two or three of them in the same movie, weighted properly, could have worked too. But Wonder Woman 1984 slams every single idea its writers have into one movie, resulting in Wonder Woman getting sidelined in her own movie for much of its runtime. By the time Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally face off, two hours have passed in a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
But if you extrapolate the movie’s plot arcs across, say, 10 episodes of television, it’s not hard to see Cheetah’s turn from a Wonder Woman ally to a villain in episode seven or so hitting as a big, exciting story turn. Similarly, Diana realizing that her responsibilities to the world are greater than her longing to see Steve again would land with more heft if we had time to actually live in that relationship, instead of relying on shorthand from the first movie and/or ’80s movie tropes.
Wonder Woman 1984 mostly forces you to guess its character arcs from the limited information it presents, which makes those characters so paper thin that they’re hard to latch onto. All of these arcs are theoretically interesting, but they’re handled with the subtlety of a hammer to the face. And this is in spite of how skillful the first film was at telling a very basic superhero origin story, with clearly articulated goals and character arcs.
There is no one way to tell a story in a movie, even in a blockbuster. A carefully crafted three-act structure can feel dreadfully boring, because we’re so used to it. But Wonder Woman 1984’s storytelling ends up in a weird netherworld between the three-act structure and something more episodic. A larger canvas to play on might have also given the story more room to contextualize its most horrifying story elements.
But you know what medium lives in that netherworld and has a larger canvas to paint on right there? That’s right. Television.
What’s driving this weird shift in storytelling across film and television?
In the world of television, the idea of a season being “really more of a 10-hour movie” has become a cliché in the way people who make TV shows talk about the shows they make. Sometimes it’s just marketing-speak. But too often, “a 10-hour movie” means “we had enough story for a two-hour movie, and we stretched it across 10 hours.” Bland, incident-free TV seasons that load all of their plot developments into the last couple of episodes are a dime a dozen on TV, particularly on streaming platforms.
Believe it or not, the movie-fication of TV and the TV-fication of film have the same root cause: It’s much harder to get a mid-budget movie made in the modern film industry than it’s ever been.
Now, with the film industry increasingly unlikely to greenlight projects like The Queen’s Gambit (which spent nearly two decades in the works as a movie before evolving into a miniseries), because films of that scope rarely turn into the $1 billion grossing behemoths that dominate the industry, those projects turn to streaming services hungry for content. But those streaming services also want longer versions of those stories, to better optimize the amount of time you spend watching them. As such, The Queen’s Gambit — a show I liked but thought could probably stand to be a bit shorter — sprawls over seven hours instead of over two, as it would have as a film.
This pressure applies in an opposite direction in the world of blockbuster filmmaking, because those films are too big to fail. Wonder Woman 1984 needs to be a big hit, because it has a studio’s fortunes riding on both it and the larger superhero universe it is connected to. As such, it needs to appeal to as many people across the globe as possible. And even though a compelling story, well told, remains a powerful way to get people from every country invested in a film, it’s all too tempting to try to gild that story with every possible add-on you can think of, to ensure every possible fan is accounted for in the end. It’s an approach that tries to serve everyone but too often ends up pleasing no one.
What’s frustrating about these changes is that, in general, TV can abide more story — whether in the form of an endless number of episodes based on basically the same story format, or lots of episodes telling a long story full of twists — whereas a movie tends to benefit from less story. For the most part, movies work as short stories or novellas, and TV shows resemble sprawling novels. (Even a single-season limited series has far more narrative space than a film.) Obviously, there are several exceptions, but if you think about your favorite movies or TV shows of all time, you’ll likely find the former to be more stripped down, story-wise, while the latter have more room for character complications and plot turns.
In a world where stories are shunted to different media based largely on the budgetary outlay necessary to make them happen, however, there’s a tendency to assume a good story is well suited to any medium. And that can be true! A skilled writer and director will find a way to adapt any story for whatever medium they’re working in. But the one-size-fits-all approach that suggests a story is exactly as long as the studio has budgeted for is leading to movies and TV shows that seem to avoid what makes them good, in favor of making everything feel either way too long or far too short. Too often, this results in work like Wonder Woman 1984 — weird and unfocused and all over the place.