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Wondering about the ’80s in ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

For Gen X viewers, it’s a superhero movie that summons some not-so-super memories.

Gal Gadot, left, and Kristen Wiig looking pretty '80s in "Wonder Woman 1984."
Gal Gadot, left, and Kristen Wiig looking pretty '80s in "Wonder Woman 1984."Clay Enos/Associated Press

Warning: This story contains spoilers.

After seeing “Wonder Woman 1984,” my high school friend Dan took to Facebook and wrote, “I don’t remember 1984 being so 1984.” This is a man who grew up in the 1980s with a poster of Lynda Carter in full Wonder Woman regalia on his bedroom wall. It stayed up long after the TV show went off the air. If anyone was qualified to weigh in on Wonder Woman, it was Dan.

I had yet to see the movie, but already had a sense of what he meant. Several critics complained that “WW 1984″ was short on cohesive story, but long on 1980s cliches such as parachute pants, leg warmers, and side ponytails. The movie served up a silly “Monkey’s Paw”-like story line about the consequences of wishes that come true, plus Kristen Wiig dressed like an extra from the ill-fated film adaptation of “Cats.”

Still, I watched, primarily because I ran out of other things to watch over the holidays (the movie is currently streaming on HBO Max), and because as a card-carrying member of Gen X I was curious to see the “WW 1984″ interpretation of the year in its title. And here’s the rub: This movie is so 1984, but in a much deeper way than I was expecting. Buried beneath the superhero cliches is a film that almost captures the ethos of the 1980s. The movie delivers the “You can have it all” message of the decade, coursing with an undercurrent of impending nuclear annihilation.

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If that doesn’t say 1984, I don’t know what does.

The nuclear war portion of “WW 1984″ is somewhat minor, and gets resolved by people wishing it away (insert eye roll here). But the short, chaotic scenes in the film where people scurry for cover as a nuclear attack signal wails will resonate with those who grew up during an era when talk of Star Wars (the satellite anti-missile program, not the film) dominated the evening news.

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A scene from "The Day After."
A scene from "The Day After."Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Members of Gen X, which covers those born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, might recall the significance of 1984. It was the year that something bad was destined to happen, not necessarily in the Orwellian sense, but probably worse. The pump was primed in late 1983 when ABC broadcast the made-for-TV movie “The Day After,” the foretelling of a disastrous nuclear strike on the United States. Its blood-and-rubble scenes looked like a realistic depiction of a small-scale nuclear attack, particularly to those of us who had just entered our freshman year of high school and were taking a class on current events.

“The Day After” wasn’t just a TV movie, it was an event. More than 100 million people in the United States watched. After decades of building tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, “The Day After” seemed more fact than fiction. For Gen X, there was none of the quaint “duck and cover” of yore. “The Day After” was just a sliver of pop culture that year showing how the world as we knew it was so precariously close to ending.

The 1984 film “Red Dawn” found the United States at the beginning of World War III, invaded by Russia and its allies. In England, the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood spent nine weeks on the top of the charts with “Two Tribes,” an antiwar anthem, complete with video that showed actors portraying Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in a bloody brawl.

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Frankie Goes to Hollywood during the filming of the music video for "Two Tribes."
Frankie Goes to Hollywood during the filming of the music video for "Two Tribes."Towner/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“When two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score,” FGTH lead singer Holly Johnson growls over an aggressive, throbbing bass line. Either deliberately or by accident, “WW 1984″ includes a FGTH song during a key scene, although it’s “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” and, sadly, not “Two Tribes.”

Even Culture Club weighed in with the slightly less erudite “The War Song.” The video featured bombs exploding at a post-apocalyptic fashion show, a mushroom cloud, and a parade of skeletons. The Cold War caught up with Boy George in 1984 and since there was nothing else we could do, Gen X danced along.

Not only did Britain produce “Two Tribes” in 1984, it gave the same terrified generation “Threads,” another made-for-TV movie about nuclear war. The grimy realism of “Threads” made “The Day After” look like “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the first film to portray nuclear winter. This was our inevitable future.

In that sense “WW 1984,” although parchment-thin in plot, is not “The Wedding Singer” or “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Even the first big 1984 action scene of the movie, predictably set in a mall (hello “Stranger Things”), rings true. If you were a 1980s teen, the mall was the center of your universe. While the Silent Generation and the boomers seemed hell-bent on blowing up the world, those of us in Gen X were intent to escape to the multiplex and the food court. If the world was going to end in 1984, what better place to spend your final moments than trying on parachute pants at Chess King?

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Anytime “WW 1984″ gets close to capturing the zeitgeist of the year, Wiig’s character emerges looking like an extra from a Whitesnake video, and you’re once again grabbed by Wonder Woman’s disjointed golden lasso. But if you grew up in the shadow of “The Day After” and “Two Tribes,” the movie, for all of its faults, will give you a sense of nostalgia. It just may not be the nostalgia you were looking for.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.