Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84)

Directed by: Patty Jenkins; Runtime: 161 minutes
Grade: C-

Gal Gadot surprised a lot of people in her first appearance as Wonder Woman, somehow managing to be the bright spot in a big-screen portrayal of the momentous battle between Batman and Superman. Those who considered it a fluke, who still thought that she might not have what it takes to embody the legendary comic book heroine, were soon proven wrong by the resonance of the historical origin story in her standalone film, Wonder Woman, which brings together her past as a demi-goddess with how she fought to put an end to World War 1. In short order, she has turned into one of the few strong, reliable aspects of DC’s floundering cinematic universe … but Gadot’s strength in the role is no longer surprising, no longer an element ready to triumph over expectations. Wonder Woman 1984 charges into the hellscape of 2020 with the weight of those expectations strapped to its back, which ends up being too much for a stereotypically over-the-top, flashy and ridiculous superhero sequel to hold up.

As the title suggests, WW84 jumps ahead roughly seven decades to the wacky, vibrant era of the ‘80s, finding the semi-immortal Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) reemerging in her Wonder Woman persona to do a few superheroic good deeds. Once a great Amazonian warrior who must hide that from the public to conceal her immortality, she finds herself sheltered and lonely as she quietly heads an archaeology department at the Smithsonian in DC, distancing herself from friends and lovers alike after the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). A unique discovery passes through the department, an ancient relic which supposedly holds the power to grant a wish to the holder, that draws attention from all manner of people: a mousy new research hire at the Smithsonian named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig); a TV businessman and huckster named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal); and Diana herself. They soon discover that the relic’s magical properties are real, yet they come at a steep price for the person who uses them.

While superhero movies inherently have some degree of outlandish whimsy to them, the idea of wishes being granted, not unlike rubbing a genie’s lamp, immediately enters hard-to-believe territory plagued by second guesses and skepticism. Would that person wish for that, why wouldn’t that character wish for that, and so on. This also makes it incredibly easy for any devious, greedy human to ask for whatever they want and position themselves in a role of mythical power, relying on very little screenwriting cleverness to make it happen. Wonder Woman 1984 immediately suffers from the pitfalls of this concept, going further to strain credibility in how the relic – those with knowledge of the comics will recognize the “Dreamstone” – effortlessly falls into the wrong hands. Director Patty Jenkins and DC mastermind Geoff Johns have dreamed up a script that’s all sloppy, overblown conceptualization and shows little regard for credibility. Pedro Pascal’s slimy, villainously disingenuous portrayal of snake-oil salesman Max Lord doesn’t help matters.

Occasionally, ideas like this can be worth the rough execution if genuine substance comes out of it, and WW84 hopes to make this happen with the reemergence of Steve Trevor in Diana’s life. Under very creepy circumstances that I’m really not sure that Diana would be okay with, her beloved from the WW1 era of the first film comes back to life, which naturally opens the door for the sequel to repeat the comedic “fish-outta-water” scenario with an early-1900s pilot experiencing ‘80s advancements in culture and technology. The chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine was an unexpected highlight in the previous film, but here it’s a rehash of what audiences already know about how well they play off one another, going through the motions of a time-jumped guy seeing breakdancers, experiencing fanny packs, and observing – and interacting with – jets both large and small. Yes, the DC universe does need more levity like this, but here it all feels uninspiringly borrowed from other, better time-travel cinema.

This marks the fourth (4th) time seeing Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, once in her own wildly successful standalone movie and two other times where she stood out as one of the best aspects of otherwise clunky, dull superhero excursions. Sure, there’s a rush in seeing her show up for the first time in the shiny red-and-blue armor, exquisite ass-kicking boots and multi-purpose metallic bracers and headband, reminding us of her adeptness as a heroine and how she transitions that sturdy persona in her street clothes as Diana Prince. In WW84, this sense of wonder is very short-lived, both due to the sensitization of the audience and by the design of the screenwriting from Jenkins and Johns that attempts the well-worn method of weakening and revitalizing Wonder Woman’s powers as a hero. Gadot turns in a performance that’s subtly wiser and more wistful than what she mustered as a Diana torn apart by human warfare, yet here she’s unable to bring something new to the table even when she’s posed with the capacity to have a selfish wish granted.

WW84 may have been sculpted around grand villainous wish-making and the resurrection of Wonder Woman’s one true love, but it seems like it was designed with Cheetah in mind, if not outright for her. Kristen Wiig’s Barbara coexists with the main storylines as a bespectacled, mildly funny yet reserved and neglected woman who undergoes a transformation alongside her admiration for Diana’s looks, demeanor, and resilience. Her aspirations slowly lead her through a metamorphosis into a formidable rival to Wonder Woman, and Wiig’s performance through each stage of the transformation into Cheetah does wonders for the film’s intentions about the hazards of desire and the significance of individuality. It’s almost worth going so far as to say that with smart modifications to the story, WW84 could’ve removed Max Lord as a villain entirely and had it focus entirely on the conflict between Wonder Woman and Cheetah, and it would’ve been a much stronger – and mercifully shorter – movie for it. Like this, it just leaves one impatiently waiting for each new glimpse at the next step in Barbara’s minxy evolution.

By design, the action remains underpowered in Wonder Woman 1984 until a point where it absolutely cannot be so anymore, resulting in marginally gripping set pieces that do everything they can to subdue Diana’s full capabilities in service of protecting a very human, very easily overcome main villain. Whatever interest one can glean from the intentions of the plotting here quickly disappears as the writing grows lazier and more careless, descending into a vague commentary on demagogues and their undeserved methods of power and persuasion, more interested in making a (good intended) point than making sense. Through all this, one can only look forward to an inevitable brawl between Wonder Woman and her storied nemesis Cheetah, and even that transpires in moonlit darkness that shrouds much of the CG-heavy fisticuffs. WW84 doesn’t suffer from being too grim, or not being comic-booky enough, or from an unseasoned heroine: it suffers from being yet another unremarkable, subpar comic-book hodgepodge from the studio machine, and we’ve come to expect more from this Wonder Woman.

Photos: Warner Bros.


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