Synopsis: Sixty-six years after the events of the first Wonder Woman, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a comfortable, if solitary life in Washington DC as an anthropologist for the Smithsonian. When mousy new colleague Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig) stumbles upon a magical stone that can grant wishes, it brings her and Diana in contact with megalomaniacal businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who has his own plans for the stone. To complicate matters, the stone’s powers appear to have brought back Diana’s deceased ex-lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), but at a grave cost.
1. Truth be told, I was not the biggest fan of the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. I fully understand why it was so lauded – it was a step forward for female representation in front of and behind the camera in the realm of big-budget superhero blockbusters (seemingly the only genre with any cultural impact), and was a refreshingly competent breath of fresh air in the DC Extended Universe after the terrible turd trio of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. (1) So Wonder Woman was great as a work of representation. But as a movie? It was … ok. Ironically, the best parts of Wonder Woman were all the parts that were not a superhero movie. I thoroughly enjoyed the parts on Themyscira, the fish-out-of-water comedy bits, the Dirty Dozen-esque war movie, and the easy, effervescent chemistry between Gadot and Pine. But once the boilerplate CGI-assisted punching started, my attention drifted away, only to snap back when the movie returned to the parts I did like. I just wished that Wonder Woman could be less ‘superhero movie’ and more ‘movie movie’, to focus more on the aspects of the film and the character that were unique, fresh, and interesting. A movie like that, I thought in 2017, I would very much enjoy. Maybe even love.
Wonder Woman 1984 is that movie.
2. Ok, it’s not perfect. As with the last film I reviewed, Wonder Woman 1984 (henceforth abbreviated to WW84) tries to do a lot. There are a lot of different moving parts in WW84, and the screenplay does not always do the best job in explaining them, often resorting to glossing over them with a dismissive handwave. I am a firm believer that the popularity of nitpicking ‘plot holes’ heralds the death of criticism, but there were story decisions here that had me puzzled. See the footnote for some of them if you don’t mind mild spoilers. (2) Some scenes are also slightly creaky and bloated, and while the film itself never feels overlong (quite the opposite), there are moments (particularly in the climax) where I thought its point could have been made more powerfully if the scene was just a little shorter. As with the first movie, I am also not enamoured with the final expected ‘superhero movie’ fight, which is made worse by the fact that it takes place at night and in obscuring elements like vegetation and water (no doubt to hide the CGI seams). Also, while the action scenes are generally competently filmed and there is a laudable attempt at using practical stunt work and effects (plus director Patty Jenkins has an eye for choosing interesting and dynamic camera angles), they suffer from the usual Hollywood problem of editing that borders on the incoherent.
3. As for the good … well, there’s everything else. I have to start with a strain of criticism of this movie I have seen that completely misses the mark. Critics less enamoured of WW84 than me have called it overindulgent, cliched, and melodramatic. To which I would say – well yeah, that’s the point! Jenkins shows her hand early in the second scene of the movie, a fast-paced romp where Diana stops a mall robbery and literally stops to wink at the camera. Add on the 80s setting and it becomes clear that Jenkins and her team are doing an updated version of the 80s Amblin-style blockbuster, a riff on Spielberg, Dante, Zemeckis and Donner, with the latter’s work on Superman an essential component as well. This is best seen in a swooning romantic moment with Diana and Steve flying (in the invisible jet!) amidst fireworks, which hearkens back to the ‘Can You Read My Mind’ scene in Superman. The throwback quality of WW84 extends to the entire film in its blessed absence of irony, which has become so prevalent to this genre, either through MCU-style wisecracks or the DCEU’s Snyder-influenced attempts to (ugh) ‘deconstruct’ superhero movies for the seeming purpose of sucking the life out of them. WW84 has no such problem, and is a film brimming with life. It has cleverly adopted its heroine’s earnestness and generous spirit, and is the kind of movie that actually resolves its final confrontation with a straight-faced impassioned plea for love and unity rather than a protracted final battle. And yes, I can totally hear the rolling of eyes right now, but in a year that has been unrelentingly shitty and a blockbuster landscape that trends ever more towards the cynical and ironic, WW84‘s old-school heart-on-sleeve theatrics just punched right through and emotionally affected me in a way I didn’t think these types of movies could any more. (3)
4. Part of this emotional power lies in how well the script establishes its characters. WW84 consists of three superbly crafted character arcs, and even manages to have them be thematically consistent around a core idea of the gap between our wants and our needs, with the former manifesting in a desire for immediate gratification and the latter involving real, difficult emotional work. This is shockingly mature (and I mean mature in the grown-up adult way, not the edgelord teenager cosplaying at ‘grittiness’ fashion that the Snyder movies adopted) for a blockbuster movie, and great kudos must be given to Jenkins and her co-screenwriters for crafting such a narrative. Furthermore, WW84 is a tremendously generous movie, even going so far as to humanise its two villains and make them sympathetic characters. I was not that impressed by Wonder Woman’s treatment of gender politics, feeling that it strayed a little too far into facile ‘you go girl’ territory. WW84 on the other hand, is much more nuanced about gender. Witness, for instance, the constant presence of leering men, particularly in Diana’s direction, which Jenkins cleverly opts to portray in POV to give the viewer an understanding of what her protagonist’s daily lived experience is like. Or consider how both villains’ motivations stem from their respective gender expectations, with Wiig’s Cheetah and Pascal’s Lord desiring beauty and success respectively. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that WW84 is the second coming of Judith Butler or anything, but there is a depth and subtlety in its treatment of gender that few (if any) of its ilk have ever even come close to.
5. Part of the strength of the character arcs also comes from how well they are performed. Wiig received the most buzz prior to the movie’s release, largely because of how far outside her comfort zone this role was perceived to be. The movie cleverly (4) riffs on Wiig’s established persona as one of the most gifted comic actors of her generation. Since her SNL days, Wiig has always shined brightest playing psychologically damaged, socially awkward characters, and Barbara Ann Minerva falls nicely in that wheelhouse initially. WW84 takes its time to set up a nice little friendship between Barbara and Diana, and really sells the idea that someone like Barbara would be both in awe and more than a little envious of everything that Diana has, which makes Wiig’s gradual transformation from dorky outcast to ‘apex predator’ highly believable. If I have one small complaint, it’s that Barbara/Cheetah gets sidelined at the final act, and I was hoping for a final scene between her and Diana to nicely wrap up that arc. No such problem exists for the movie’s other villain, who quite frankly is given far more characterisation than the protagonists of most other blockbusters. Pedro Pascal absolutely tears it up as Maxwell Lord, giving a bombastic, scenery-chewing performance on par with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor or Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The most mindboggling part of the whole thing is that both Pascal and Jenkins imbue him with humanity by seeding the movie throughout with understandable motivations behind his lust for power, culminating in a crackerjack montage sequence that includes, of all things, a compressed take on the struggles of being an immigrant and a child of abuse. This is particularly potent considering that Lord is very, very, very clearly (5) based on the outgoing president of the United States. I mean – brash exhibitionist 80s businessman who describes himself as a TV personality, has no money beneath all the bravado, using people’s basest desires to con his way into high office, and whose selfish lust for more leads to a destabilisation of global politics? He literally builds a wall, for Zeus’ sake. That element of topicality does make WW84‘s message of togetherness and love all the more poignant, and a very welcome salve for the troubled times it arrives in. (6) The fact this hopefulness about the goodness of mankind applies to everyone, even its villains, is to WW84‘s immense credit.
6. But of course, as great as the villains and their actors are, the movie is titled Wonder Woman, and I think I can safely say now that Gal Gadot’s performance in the first one was no fluke. I must admit that I had my doubts about whether she could act in 2017, or whether it was just a brilliant piece of casting to find someone with the charismatic screen presence, statuesque build, and general air of regal foreignness to convey the surface level aspects of the character. WW84 confirms not only that yes, Gadot can act, but she will probably (and deservingly) be indelibly associated with the character for a long time to come, much like how Robert Downey Jr. will always be considered the ‘real’ Iron Man. A clever (there’s that word again) thing this movie does is to invert the fish-out-of-water comedy that played so well in the first movie, this time with Pine’s Steve Trevor being the man out of time while Diana is the experienced head guiding him through. It also gives Gadot many more beats to hit aside from ‘charmingly bewildered’, and by Hera does she convey Diana’s loneliness and solitude, not just in the big showy scenes, but even in the tiny gestures like the way she looks at Barbara or even the way she walks in the early scenes. The time jump from the last movie allows her to play a very different side to the character, one who is jaded and world-weary, even if her essential goodness has not dimmed. In a movie that also pushes into melodrama more than once, it is also imperative for Gadot to sell those heightened emotions, which she achieves with aplomb. Of the four principals, Chris Pine has the least to do, but seems to be having a lot of fun with some shameless mugging for the camera (appropriate for the film’s tone). There is little development for Steve, who exists as more of a plot device for Diana’s growth, but the last movie did such a good job at establishing his character, and Pine’s performance (along with his dynamite chemistry with Gadot) is so charismatic, that his presence in this movie is still a very welcome one.
7. All in all, Wonder Woman 1984 is an absolute delight. It takes the strong foundations from the first movie and improves upon them, while jettisoning most of what bogged it down in favour of a more throwback aesthetic and tone. Like those 80s and 90s blockbusters, WW84 plays to the very last row, aiming for grandiosity in emotion instead of just empty action spectacle, and leaning on the unique aspects of its protagonist – her heart and her strength. It is a bright, fun, candy coated confection that is unafraid of dealing with weighty themes and emotions, and, unlike so many in its genre, does not shy away from the melodramatic and the flamboyant in a misguided attempt to achieve ‘realism’. Yet in its empathy and big-heartedness, along with its keen understanding of humanity’s potential and foibles, WW84 is far more real than any of the scowling, smirking superhero movies that have come by recently. There have been better movies based on comic books, and better movies starring superheroes, and on the whole, I think WW84 is probably just a little too flawed to be in that Dark Knight / Logan pantheon. But as a ‘superhero comic book movie’, as an adaptation that attempts to capture that childlike thrill, verve, and high emotion of those cheap and colourful sheets of paper, it cannot be beaten. It is a bold statement, and I might be proven wrong in the future, but I have to say it. Alongside the very first Superman movie, Wonder Woman 1984 might be the best superhero comic book movie of them all.
- Next to those three, any movie that didn’t contain a jar of piss or Jared Leto saying ‘hunka hunka’ would look like a masterpiece in comparison.
- Why does Steve Trevor have to inhabit another man’s body when he returns? How exactly does the ‘monkey’s paw’ aspect of the stone work? Why does Max Lord’s health deteriorate when he uses the stone’s power? These are just some of the key questions that are never adequately explicated by the script.
- Another factor allowing the movie to reach those heady emotional heights is Hans Zimmer’s amazing score, which comes close to 1980s John Williams in its soaring strings.
- I realised I have used this word to describe WW84 a lot, and that’s because it bloody well earns it.
- The filmmakers have denied it, but come on. There’s no way this was a coincidence.
- I have to add this. Maxwell Lord, as played by Pedro Pascal, is a sympathetic character who I was glad to see redeemed at the end. Donald Trump, as played by racism wearing an ill-fitting fat suit, is human scum who I am glad to see slither away in disgrace.