Finally, a female imperialist.
Finally, a female imperialist. Wonder Woman/HBO Max

The year is 2017. The first Wonder Woman featuring Gal Gadot releases to a vastly different landscape. It feels charming, even though it raises some eyebrows by painting with what is, at best, a rather broad brush.

Fast forward to 2020. New entries into the superhero genre have fundamentally challenged it, but Wonder Woman 1984 would rather pretend nothing has changed and plays it safe with a familiar story about good versus evil.

After shows like Watchmen and The Boys challenged the superhero story and raised our collective expectations, Wonder Woman 1984's approach comes across as superficial, a universe away from what a superhero story can and should be. It's a film centered around a magic wish-granting rock that tries and fails to grapple with Middle East politics.

The umbrella term of the "Middle East" applies to various cultures and peoples with unique histories, but you wouldn't know that watching Wonder Woman 1984, which positions its hero as the region's savior. She feels she must intervene, even as the conflict originates from her hubris.

The recent series The Boys and Watchmen raised respective questions about how Americans use superhero mythologies to prop up the ideological underpinnings of American imperialism. Where those shows asked essential questions, Wonder Woman 1984 provides a sanitizing answer of "yes, and these things are good."

It's not only disappointing—it's bad storytelling. In a two-and-a-half-hour film, a length it already had no business being, there's not nearly enough oxygen given to plotlines that required time to breathe. When Diana makes a trip to Egypt, which sets the film's central conflict in motion, it doesn't feel remotely like an actual place.

The film relegates the location to be a battleground for Wonder Woman to fight the bad guys. The only person given anything resembling characterization is Egyptian actor Amr Waked who plays Emir Abydos. Regrettably, the narrative quickly leaves him behind. Waked is an acclaimed actor whose previous work in the series Ramy makes it disappointing to see him so underutilized.

Yet that is endemic to what makes Wonder Woman 1984 so misguided. The real-world conflicts it engages with exist only as a backdrop. Considering who is playing Wonder Woman only adds to the feeling that this film plays into the worst types of superhero myth-making.

Director Patty Jenkins' debut feature Monster from 2003 still remains a beacon of what compelling cinema can be. Still, her recent blockbuster fare is not among the director's best work. It seems to be the safe path that will take up the next several years of her career. Jenkins will make a film again with Gadot, who inexplicably will be Cleopatra, followed by a new Star Wars movie that already features a promotional video reliant on military nostalgia.

Wonder Woman 1984 looks to be the beginning of that safe storytelling descent. It's a familiar story you've seen before, and when the music swells, it's almost easy to forget the troubling path it takes.

You can watch Wonder Woman 1984 in select drive-in theaters and via HBO Max starting Friday, December 25.