Wonder Woman 1984 (USA/UK/Spain, 2020)December 21, 2020
The ability of superhero movies to maintain momentum from installment-to-installment has proven over the years to be difficult, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the sequel to 2017’s well-received Wonder Woman fails to live up to the standard set by its predecessor. Wonder Woman 1984 is overlong, tonally inconsistent, and poorly paced. Although it raises the bar during its final hour, the viewer has to navigate about 90 minutes of action-deficient, sometimes nonsensical narrative to get to the point where the title character (again played to perfection by Gal Gadot) does something other than moon over her lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Wonder Woman 1984 so often recalls the Christopher Reeve Superman films of the late 1970s/early 1980s that it can’t be a coincidence. The callbacks start with the first scenes set in 1984 – the manner of their presentation stirs memories of the title sequence from Superman III. One of the two villains appears to have been modeled at least in part after Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and the concept of the main character losing her powers references Superman II. The climax relies on an almost-magical occurrence that recalls the turn-back-time deux ex machina of the original Superman. The last shot is an exact recreation of a memorable image from Superman. If nothing else, director Patty Jenkins is displaying a detailed knowledge of the first (and arguably still the most beloved) DC movie franchise.
Although the movie gets started on a high note – a prologue set during the childhood of Diana Prince (where she’s again played by Lilly Aspell, reprising her role from Wonder Woman) that allows cameos from Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen. The action then transitions to 1984, a setting that surely excited the costume designers, set designers, and hair and makeup artists. This time period permits the series to jump forward in time to a “semi-modern” era without going too far and interfering with other DCEU stories. It also pre-dates the Internet and cell phones (things that can complicate superhero movies, which work better in a simpler, less technologically sophisticated universe).
The first half of Wonder Woman 1984 is slow-going. In addition to bringing on board two new characters, re-introducing Diana and showing her coming-out party as Wonder Woman, and setting up the narrative, it has the unenviable task of recreating the geopolitical era when the Cold War was still in high gear (although the President, played by Stuart Milligan, is evidently not intended to be Ronald Reagan). The movie goes for more than an hour without a meaningful action sequence, which is too long, and the “character building” isn’t as strong or effective as it was during the first film. The crutch used to bring back Steve (I don’t think this is a spoiler since no attempt is being made to hide Chris Pine’s involvement) strains credulity even in the almost-anything-goes superhero genre and the character ultimately seems rather superfluous. Pine’s chemistry with Gadot is as strong as ever but, with the first bloom of their romance having faded, the emotional intensity is diminished.
My chief complaint is reserved for the villains. There are two, both of whom come from the comic books. The first, Max Lord, is portrayed by an over-the-top Pedro Pascal (who, in addition to playing the title character in The Mandalorian, had a memorable stint in Game of Thrones as Oberyn Martell) who often seems more loud than frightening. Even though evidently inspired by Hackman’s Luthor, he at best seems like a pale copy whose scattershot motivations never develop beyond those of a conventional megalomaniac. Then there’s The Cheetah, a.k.a. Barbara Minerva, who’s played by a miscast Kristin Wiig. Wiig is fine in her early scenes, when she’s required to be comically nerdy and socially awkward, but fails to generate menace after a CGI-enhanced transformation. In fact, she seems more like she got lost on the way to an audition for Cats.
The film’s salvation comes during the last hour when Wonder Woman 1984 finds its groove. The narrative still doesn’t hold together but at least there’s enough adrenaline to make it not matter so much and many of the beats are, for lack of a better description, “comic book-y.” There’s a little pathos, a little humor, and a fair amount of (admittedly generic) action. The climax offers something a little different that the usual superhero trope of the hero and the villain relentlessly pounding on each other.
There are some fun moments involving Steve’s “fish out of water” reactions to the 1980s. (Keeping in mind that he died more than 60 years earlier.) These keep the tone light, although Jenkins isn’t afraid to go dark when circumstances demand it. Steve’s reactions to “modern” technology (especially the sight of a jet airliner streaking across the sky) are a mirror of what happened in Wonder Woman when Diana, raised in the hermetically-sealed environment of Themyscira, came with Steve to “Man’s World.”
In general, Wonder Woman 1984 tries to avoid acting as a direct commentary about the events of 2019 (when it was made) but the film doesn’t entirely sidestep allegory. “The truth is beautiful” becomes Diana’s mantra and her philosophy contradicts the falsehoods peddled by Max as reality. No one says the words “fake news” but the reference isn’t subtle.
The special effects are disappointingly uneven. There are a few instances when it’s apparent that a computer is involved – this is evident during the fight scene with the Cheetah and when Wonder Woman is flying. (Although I suppose one could argue that the cheesiness of those scenes represents another Superman homage.) In large part due to the technical exactness of the MCU movies, we have come to expect perfect (or nearly so) visual effects in superhero movies so it can be jarring when something breaks the illusion. It doesn’t happen often in Wonder Woman 1984 but that it happens at all is unfortunate.
It would be difficult to discuss the movie without mentioning the manner in which it has been released. After trying for six months to find a suitable theatrical release date, Warner Brothers made the risky and unexpected decision to make it available on HBOMax on the same day/date as its theatrical opening. Since so many people will have their initial exposure to Wonder Woman 1984 on a TV or a phone/tablet, it’s worth asking whether this would-be blockbuster will “lose” anything on a smaller screen. The impact would seem to be minimal; there are some shots designed with “awe” in mind but, for the most part, the spectacle aspect rarely becomes the sole reason to watch. (I wonder, however, whether some of the story-related issues might have seemed less important in a theatrical setting.)
Although it’s impossible to predict how Wonder Woman 1984 would have fared with a traditional release, the film falls short of its predecessor on a number of levels and suffers from many of the problems that plague superhero sequels including an inability to achieve the same level of freshness. There will undoubtedly be a Wonder Woman 3 (an element of which is hinted at during the obligatory mid-credits sequence) and the onus will be on that future production to return the Wonder Woman franchise to the level where it was in 2017.
Wonder Woman 1984 (USA/UK/Spain, 2020)
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell
Home Release Date: 2021-03-30
Screenplay: Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham
Cinematography: Matthew Jensen
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers