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How 'Wonder Woman 1984' took over an empty mall to create a rad '80s experience

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Pick your favorite 1980s slang term - awesome, bodacious, excellent, outrageous - but none quite does justice to the sight of Wonder Woman swinging down on her magic lasso over a bunch of Jazzercisers in neon tights.

The superhero sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” (in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Dec. 25) takes audiences back to the Reagan era with a new adventure starring Gal Gadot. To do that with an impressive measure of authenticity, two years ago, filmmakers took over Landmark Mall, a still-functional, mostly empty suburban shopping center, and turned it into a retro paradise outfitted with old-school stores like Waldenbooks, a Time-Out arcade, a Tape World record store, a Chess King men’s clothier and many more. 

On a hot July Friday USA TODAY had a set visit for the new film, which returns Wonder Woman’s beloved pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and pits the DC Comics superheroine against antagonistic businessman Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) and feral villainess Cheetah (Kristen Wiig).

Review:'Wonder Woman 1984' is a rousing, retro throwback to Christopher Reeve's 'Superman'

'The time has come':'Wonder Woman 1984' heads to HBO Max and some theaters on Dec. 25

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) takes out a crew of bad guys and foils a jewelry heist at a mall in "Wonder Woman 1984."

The mall is the setting for an early heist scene, where Wonder Woman – whose day job is now at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in nearby Washington, D.C. – swings up and around three levels to take down a crew of jewelry-store robbers (whose plunder is no ordinary gem) and save a little girl.

“It’s just such a perfect location,” director Patty Jenkins says of Landmark, built in 1965 and operational until 2017. “And the fact that it was empty and we wouldn't be negotiating shutting down for hours, etc., we were blown away that we found it.”

Walking into the ground floor of what used to be a Macy’s, one soon encountered extras in teased hair and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts making their way into the mall proper for the big action scene.

Even in a mall, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) swoops down to save the day during a heist sequence in "Wonder Woman 1984."

Below the food court, aerobics extras and other onlookers watched in awe as Gadot and her stunt team worked on perfecting and then executing the actress’ airborne approach. (Proving she might actually be Wonder Woman, Gadot would later this same day stop by a local children’s hospital and visit sick kids in character.)

“The mall sequence was super fun,” Gadot recalls today. “It's all real stuff. We're literally being wired, then being pulled up and down and to the sides all over the mall, which was crazy!”

Gadot remembers at one point being hung up in her harness, having to wait for the camera to roll and realizing the height of her situation.

“All of a sudden I had a minute by myself, I can’t go anywhere. I was looking down and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m three stories up.’ And I'm just like, ‘OK.’ And then they go, ‘OK, rolling!’ And I'm like (exhales), ‘Be Wonder Woman.’ It was intense.”

The filmmakers of "Wonder Woman 1984" took over an empty  Northern Virginia mall and re-created a three-level retro shopping center.

The level of attention paid to capture the '80s essence was extraordinary. Around the corner from all the action was a Foot Locker, with an actor playing an employee in full referee garb and the store built out like the real thing – even though a camera doesn’t even come near it. Jenkins remarks that the extreme detail was part of production designer Aline Bonetto's master plan to fill out 65 stores with period merchandise and fixtures: “Things do change, and so you don't want to get on a set like that and say, ‘Oh no, we can't look at that slight angle because it's not done.’ So she just did everything so beautifully.”

The mall set was “just radical,” says Pine, who dons both an ‘80s-style fanny pack and parachute pants in “1984.” “It was like walking back into time.” Wiig agrees: “To see this mall completely redone and have all the stores that you remember growing up with” brought back a lot of memories for the actress. “That's what you did as a teenager: You would go to the mall on Saturdays and you would meet your friends and you'd walk around.

“We don't do that now, for obvious reasons, but it brought me back to such a lost time.”

Director Patty Jenkins (left) and star Gal Gadot share a laugh on the set of "Wonder Woman 1984."

Jenkins, who spent much of her teenage years (including quite a few birthday parties) at mall arcades, dug the Landmark set so much that she “didn't want to leave when we were done. There was something very bittersweet about ... the carefreeness of the feeling of being here and I don't want to go, it was interesting to feel that myself.”

Today, the director admits that that feeling actually played into the decision, after several COVID-19-related delays, to release “Wonder Woman 1984” on Christmas both in theaters and on HBO's streaming service, so like-minded movie lovers wherever they are can also enjoy a needed bit of nostalgia.

“I was craving the comfort food of my own movie (and) I’ve had to watch it a thousand times,” Jenkins says. “You should seize the day when there's a moment where you think that what you made might fit other people's needs and desires.”

Contributing: Andrea Mandell