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WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020)

December 24, 2020

 

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers! You may want to hold off on reading until you’ve seen the movie. If that doesn’t matter, read on…

 

written by: Geoff Johns, David Callaham and Patty Jenkins
produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot & Stephen Jones
directed by: Patty Jenkins
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)
runtime: 151 min.
U.S. release date: December 24, 2020 (in theaters & HBO Max)

 

2017’s “Wonder Woman” was the third time audiences saw Gal Gadot portray the DC Comics superhero, but the first time the character helmed her own live-action full-length feature. It was a huge hit helmed by Patty Jenkins, breaking records the summer it was released as the highest grossing movie that year and the highest grossing film ever directed by a sole woman. In no time, a sequel was announced, reuniting Jenkins and Gadot, with Warner Brothers hoping they’d have yet another hit on their hands. Despite delays due to a global pandemic, “Wonder Woman 1984” is finally released, yet it takes a risk-free approach as it employs the failures of many other superhero movies before it while attempting to repeat the strengths of the last movie.

Alas, the screenplay by Jenkins, David Callaham, and comic book writer (and DC Comics CCO) Geoff Johns tries to juggle more than it can handle and the inclusion of two villains falls into the trap of too much in a sequel that already has a bloated runtime. However, like the previous movie, Gadot remains a charismatic highlight and Jenkins confirms that she can deftly offer dynamic action sequences, but “WW84” proves a movie needs more than that to succeed.

The movie opens with a flashback to Diana’s past on the magical island of Themyscira, where we see her as a young child (an exuberant Lilly Aspell, reprising her role) competing in an athletic competition alongside older athletes. Determined to prove herself as her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) overlooks, Diana is held back by her warrior aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), just as she is about to finish first, because an improvised move she made during the course was deemed as cheating and the important lesson to be learned here is “no true hero is born from lies.”

 

 

The opening action may be impressive, capturing these seemingly impossible Greco-Roman games, it ultimately feels like an excuse to return to a location that was popular with viewers – much in the same way Zack Snyder’s (ahem, Joss Wheson’s?) “Justice League”, also from 2017, included a segment on the island populated by Amazonian warrior women – while heavily laying out a lesson of truth-telling that would obviously be revisited later on in the story.

Fast-forward to Washington D.C. circa 1984, where Jenkins and her art production team go out of their way to remind us of the setting. A female jogger runs through an intersection in bright tights and leg warmers (looking like Olivia Newton-John in her “Physical” video) and just about gets run over by a couple of bros in a speeding Camaro before a recognizable boot kicks it out of the way, sending it spinning. A newlywed bride is saved by a red and yellow blur after accidentally falling off a bridge during a photo shoot.

This introduction sequence not only establishes the titular year, it also introduces a charismatic businessman and television infomercial personality named Maxwell Lord (a hammy Pedro Pascal), who we see and hear spouting from the rows of store front televisions (it’s the 80s!), essentially delivering a promise that he can make everyone’s lives better. How? It’s not exactly clear. So, we dismiss him as a blowhard who we’ll obviously see again later on.

Diana is keeping her superhero identity a secret to all in 1984 (it’s unclear what she’s been up to since World War I), but she’s seen by many when she apprehends a quartet of jewelry thieves at a local mall (filled with nostalgic 80s stores that no longer exist) and drops them onto the roof of a squad car in the mall parking lot. This mall action sequence is quite the stunner, offering exciting action with a fun sense of humor about it as well. It also confirms what her status is with the public. Clearly, Diana’s concerned with helping those in need, defending innocents, and thwarting criminals, but why does she not come out as Wonder Woman and declare her intent to the world? Maybe World War I historians will be too curious.

 

 

Somehow she has managed to maintain a low profile as senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute (specializing in Mediterranean civilizations), indicating she’s worked there for years, possibly decades. Indeed, she supposedly had either the same or a similar position in 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, which took place in modern-day, leaving one to wonder (ahem) how someone who doesn’t age hold a job at the same place for literally decades. Has HR turned a blind eye? But, we’re not supposed to second-guess any of this stuff since it’s “a comic book movie”. It’s hard not to though and that’s just one of many things about “WW84” that will leave us scratching our heads.

The sequel introduces us to a new colleague of Diana’s named Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), a woman who is an equal intellectually, yet is overlooked by men and women due to her socially awkward, low self-esteem demeanor. Right away, Barbara’s characterization seems familiar (Michele Pfeiffer’s role in “Batman Returns” is a superior comparison) and watching her get ignored by male co-workers and stand in awe of Diana’s confidence and beauty feels very much of the time. Such a depiction is one of a handful of reasons the movie is set in 1984, when descrimination in the workplace was more rampant.

Diana is the only one who sees her, which takes Barbara aback, and the two begin something of a workplace friendship with Diana possibly understanding (and relating to) this woman’s loneliness. Diana encourages her to think more of herself and reassures Barbara that her life hasn’t been as wonderful as it might seem. Diana has tried to stay focused on her work over the years, while balancing superhero anonymity, but her mind frequently returns to her love for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and their brief time together.

When the FBI drop off several ancient artifacts from the recent mall theft (the plot point of how a chain jewelry store secretly collects such gems is brushed aside), a mysterious object that supposedly grants wishes, dubbed a Dreamstone, becomes an object of interest for both women. Indeed, anyone who touches the curious rock (which looks like something you’d find in a Florida gift shop) will see their wish realized as indicated by the Latin inscription at its base. Diana has a moment with the rock, knowing what she would wish for, but Barbara tries to test out its powers by wishing she was as “strong, sexy, cool… special” as Diana.

 

 

It’s unclear how Maxwell Lord (head of the flailing, consumer-owned oil company Black-Gold Cooperative) knew about this object, but he soon takes interest under the guise of a generous financial backer of this particular department of the Smithsonian. Lifting the Dreamstone from an unsuspecting Barbara, Max wishes to become the rock itself and acquires the ability to grant the wishes of others, intending to take over the world with such an ability.

How exactly will that happen, since he’s granting the wishes of others? Being a charismatic manipulator, Lord is able to bend many of those wishes to his advantage (he tells a cab driver, “don’t you wish traffic would clear like the Red Sea?” and, of course, the driver agrees and wish is realized), while often taking whatever he wants for his own gain in exchange.

The movie then intercuts between Barbara and Diana’s wishes coming true. Barbara is suddenly noticed by any man she comes into contact with (a handful of which are predators) and discovers she has super-strength as well. As for Diana, she discovers that Steve Trevor has magically returned in the body of some random albeit handsome guy (Kristoffer Polaha). Others can see this guy, but Diana only sees Steve and the two reconnect in a role reversal to the first movie. Steve previously introduced Diana to the violent world of man circa World War I, and now, Diana is introducing Steve to the fanny packs, parachute pants, escalators and public trash cans of 1984. It plays like a sad attempt to replay what worked in the last movie, but here it just kind of comes across as a cute way to interject some light romantic comedy. At the same time, the enormity of Steve’s return is just…accepted.

When it was announced that Chris Pine would return for the sequel, many understandably wondered how that would happen considering Steve Trevor died heroically in the previous movie. I rolled my eyes at the prospect. The last movie established the winning chemistry and dynamic between Gadot and Pine, so it’s understandable that WB and Jenkins wanted to figure out a way to bring back Pine, but it’s also unfortunate that we would not only get a repeat that feels forced, but we cannot seem to get a Wonder Woman movie where she doesn’t either team up with a love interest or other men (“Justice League”) in order to save the day.

Not only do we have that repetition, but there’s also the gimmick of an all-powerful hero losing their power in order to create stakes and glean another aspect of humanity. Just as we learn the cost of making a wish with the Dreamstone is essentially losing one’s self – Barbara is becoming more aggressive and violent, while Max has gone from headaches to internal bleeding – Diana is gradually losing her powers. That’s what happens when writers don’t know what to do with an all-powerful character and in this movie it’s unfortunate to see a wounded and bleeding Diana (probably for the first time in her life) lean on reliable Steve Trevor, literally and figuratively.

 

 

It turns out, everyone soon learns that unless they renounce their wishes, things will inevitably just get worse, confirming the old adage, “careful what you wish for” has lasted so long for a reason. Max grants the wishes of an Egyptian oil baron (Amr Wayed) who asks that his people reclaim their homeland and obliges the President of the United States (Stuart Milligan, resembling Reagan without impersonating him) who wants the monopoly on nuclear arms. However, the repercussions of both wishes aren’t considered and soon there’s a clear and present global crisis.

Ultimately, the writers of “Wonder Woman 1984” are like the characters who grab that rock and wish for what they think would be an ideal life improvement. The problem is they’ve wished for too much, using up all of their wishes in this sequel.

To be honest, this story did not need the return of Steve Trevor. As much fun as it is to see Pine reunite with Gadot and watch his character acclimate to the many changes in the world (not to mention fly around in an invisible jet – yeah, they did that), this is a story that could’ve easily found Diana just dealing with the threat of a manipulative power-hungry amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Donald Trump and could’ve even addressed the very real influence someone like that can have on loyal followers. Instead, two threats are developed here, which is usually the death knell for superhero movies (think “Batman Forever” and “Spider-Man 3”) and it’s too bad that the writers couldn’t see that a movie with either Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) or Maxwell Lord (a fascinating and formidable character in the comics) would’ve been sufficient.

The climatic showdown between hero and villains plays out in some familiar ways, albeit with Diana figuring a way to resolve the crisis in an inspiring way that would’ve been more impactful in a better movie. There’s an inevitable smackdown between a furry and feral Barbara (who transformed into one of Wonder Woman’s main threats from the comics and cartoons) and a winged Golden Eagle armor-wearing Diana, as well as a somewhat silly final confrontation between Diana and Max. (Don’t expect the controversial confrontation between Diana and Max from the comics played out on screen. No way WB would go for that.)

Both Pascal and Wiig are good in their roles, offering a different kind of energy for a superhero movie, but probably could’ve been better if they were each given a movie where they were the sole threat, allowing more time to offer some nuance to their characters. It’s too bad, since each character would’ve provided Diana with a different threat that could’ve been explored in greater detail. For example, the inclusion of Max’s young son Alistair (Lucian Perez) felt tacked on and a blatant way to humanize the antagonist, yet the kid only shows up when the writers want to reiterate the point that Max is losing his grasp on “what’s important in life”.

The familiar third act tropes for superhero movies are accounted for in “WW84”, but I wish more focus was spent on the sacrifice Diana makes here and the global inspirational change she inspires, rather than getting drowned out in the swirling chaos. There’s a montage over Diana’s inspiring speech, where Jenkins shoehorns images of child abuse and domestic strife, but it all winds up added to the kitchen sink approach.

While the previous movie was much like “Captain America: The First Avenger”, in that it was a superhero origin story set during a historic World War, this sequel is dealing with some of the issues Steve Rogers had to deal with in the two Captain America sequels, in which he wound up out-living all of his friends and fellow soldiers. It’s somewhat different for Diana because she is essentially an immortal demigoddess, but she nevertheless finds herself alone, longing for companionship.

“Wonder Woman 1984” isn’t as dark or surprising as the previous movie. Going for a lighter tone is understandable, but it ultimately gets bogged down by multiple subplots and two-too-many threats, none of which thread together very well. The action is lively enough, especially when we see the different uses of Diana’s iconic magic lasso, and the focus is on her evolution as a hero. Last summer’s, “The Old Guard” (based on a lesser-known comic) dealt with the weight of immortality in a more meaningful and successful manner, specifically how it pertains to immortal warriors, but there’s just too much going on here to do that here.

NOTE: An end-credit scene feels tacked on for nostalgic fan service – but, I do admit, it made me grin.

 

 

RATING: **

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. tairy greene permalink
    December 29, 2020 12:08 pm

    You are way too kind to this complete letdown of a movie. How very apropros that this was set in the 80’s: Full of substance and promise yet hollow and cheap (like the aluminum armor she wore that did nothing). Critics should be harder on this flick, the first movie was ambitious and pulled off a great antiwar message. This one was like a cheap sitcom: ‘Be careful what you wish for!’.. Cue the canned groans…

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      December 29, 2020 2:15 pm

      Gadot is still great! Wiig and Pascal were good, considering what they have to work with, but the problem all lies in the screenplay. They just tried to cram too too much. They need to get Greg Rucka on board!

  2. Tairy Greene permalink
    December 29, 2020 7:44 pm

    Pascal was wasted. He’s capable of better but I think they told him to play it hammy. If they wanted this result there are better over the top actors suited for this role.

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