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Josh Reviews Wonder Woman 1984

December 28th, 2020
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Wonder Woman 1984 picks up the story of Diana/Wonder Woman many decades after her first film (which was set in 1918).  Diana is living a solitary, lonely life, helping people when she can while keeping her existence as a superhuman among mortals a secret.  Joy returns to her world when Steve Trevor, her true love who sacrificed himself at the end of the first film, mysteriously returns to life.  His resurrection appears to be tied to the powerful dream-stone which failed oil tycoon Max Lord uncovers.  Max wants to use the powers of the stone to grant himself the life of fame and fortune he’s always wanted, but the wish-granting powers of the stone, once unleashed, begin to wreak havoc upon the world.  Also tied up in this story is Barbara Minerva, whose wish allows her to become the confident, powerful woman she’s always wanted to be; and who does not want to allow Diana to undo anything the stone has done.

Wonder Woman 1984 is an entertaining sequel to 2017’s first Wonder Woman film.  I found a lot to enjoy in the film.  But it’s uneven, and the unsuccessful Barbara Minerva aspect of the story — which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment — serves as an anchor that keeps the movie from greatness.  Wonder Woman 1984 is nowhere near the greatness of most of the Marvel Studios films we’ve been lucky to have been enjoying for the past several years, though it’s far stronger than most of the DCU films from the past several years.  If the goal of this film was to tell an entertaining story that would allow you to spend more enjoyable time with Diana and Steve, two characters you liked from the first film, then Wonder Woman 1984 succeeds.  But this is certainly not a sequel that goes beyond the original film, adding complexities and depth to the characters and the world (the way truly great sequels do).

Most of the best aspects of Wonder Woman 1984 come down to my two favorite elements of the first Wonder Woman film: Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.  Ms. Gadot proves that her strong performance in the first Wonder Woman was not a fluke.  She is, once again, absolutely spectacular as Wonder Woman.  She has the physicality that the character needs — strong and beautiful — but more importantly she’s able to embody all of the critical qualities of Diana from the comics.  She shows us Diana’s kindness and her soulfulness.  She is able to play Diana as an innocent and yet also as someone with a spine of absolute steel when it comes to what she knows is right.  The film’s best choice is that it lets the audience — and Diana — know right away that Steve Trevor’s resurrection is tied to the evil powers of the villain.  And so we get to see Diana’s difficult internal struggle, as what she so desperately wants (for Steve to live again) wrestles against what she knows in her heart is the right thing for her to do (to renounce her wish for Steve in order to undo the evil of the stone).  This is a great story for Wonder Woman, and Ms. Gadot plays Diana’s internal conflict extremely well.

Chris Pine was terrific in the first film, and while I liked that film’s somber ending, I was sad that meant he wouldn’t be in the sequels!  The filmmakers (the script is credited to director Patty Jenkins, talented DC comics scribe Geoff Johns, and David Callaham) found a pretty good way around that in order to bring Mr. Pine back for this film.  Is it a cheat?  Well, yes, of course!  But it’s done reasonably well in the story, and the value of having Mr. Pine back for the film outweighs, in my opinion, the silliness of the necessary story permutations needed in order to bring him back.  I love Mr. Pine’s chemistry with Ms. Gadot.  All the best scenes in the movie are the scenes of the two of them together.  I particularly enjoyed the way the film allowed Mr. Pine’s tremendous comedic chops to step into the forefront.  All the scenes of him being in giddy joy at the world of 1984 were very funny and joyous.

Pedro Pascal (who plays the titular main character in The Mandalorian) is very strong as Max Lord.  Mr. Pascal is so stoic and somber in The Mandalorian, it’s fun to see him play this very bombastic, very flawed character.  I love that this villain has a very human scale.  Max doesn’t want world domination.  His goals are mostly personal and selfish.  (Yes, his scheme escalates into world-wide mayhem, but that is wisely kept grounded in his small-scale personal desires — in this case, preserving his own health.)  One of my favorite moments in the film was the brief montage, at the very end, showing us vignettes from Max’s life that gave context to the flawed man he grew up to me.  I loved the depth that added to his characters, on top of all of the levels that Mr. Pascal’s wonderful performance had already brought.  (My only regret with this character is that it has little to no resemblance to Max Lord from the comics.  I like the Max Lord of this film, but the Max Lord from the comics is also a wonderful character who I’d have loved to have seen depicted on screen more faithfully.)

I am a huge Kristen Wiig fan.  She’s an enormous comedic talent, and I rejoiced at seeing her conquer the big screen with Bridesmaids.  I have also long been impressed with her dramatic abilities as well.  If you haven’t ever seen 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, go watch that immediately.  (You’re welcome.)  And yet, Ms. Wiig’s character of Barbara Minerva doesn’t work, and it drags the entire film down.  The first half-hour or so of her character is the worst.  It’s 2020, why are we still using the dumb movie cliche of taking a beautiful movie-star and putting them in glasses and making them look frumpy, as a way to show the “before” version of a female character’s transformation into a swan?  Why did Ms. Wiig and Patty Jenkins think it was a good idea to mimic the over-the-top depiction of a mousy, lonely female before her transformation into a super-villain that was already lame way back in 1992 when Michelle Pfeiffer and Tim Burton made those same choices for Batman Returns?  I found all of those pre-transformation scenes of Barbara Minerva to be eye-rolling.  They lay it on so thick that Barbara is lonely and socially awkward and always ignored or looked down on by her co-workers.  Wouldn’t Barbara’s story have worked better if, instead of making her such an over-the-top cliche, she had been more of a normal, every-person character, who might still be painfully envious of Diana’s beauty and power?  Even more critically, wouldn’t her story — and the entire film — have worked better if Barbara and Diana had an actual friendship?  I wouldn’t call their relationship in the first half of the film a friendship; it feels like kind Diana takes pity on Barbara.  I’d have preferred had Barbara started as a more normal, likable character, and if the film had shown us a true bond between her and Diana.  Then, when Barbara’s jealousy of Diana comes into play — and, really, who wouldn’t be jealous of Diana?? — and starts to curdle her soul, and break her relationship with Diana, all of the events of the film’s second half would have had so much more resonance.

Because while I really disliked the way Kristen Wiig played the pre-transformation Barbara, I thought she was a lot of fun as the more confident, tough, angry Barbara.  I thought that version of Barbara, in the middle of the film, was compelling.  I liked her fight with Wonder Woman in the White House.  I’d been wondering how the film would depict the character of the Cheetah from the comics, and I liked that the film chose to sidestep some of the character’s sillier depictions from the comics and to keep her looking human, but as a sort of evil, anti-Wonder Woman.  I thought that was great.  But then, of course, they did decide to physically transform Barbara into the Cheetah at the end of the movie, and once again I thought the character slipped into eye-rolling territory.  I am not at all a fan of the character’s furry look in the action climax.  I recognize the challenges inherent in making this potentially very silly character look good on screen.  Maybe there was no possible good solution.  (Though is the Cheetah inherently any more ridiculous than, say, Rocket Racoon or Groot were from the comics?  And yet James Gunn & co. made them both completely believable in Guardians of the Galaxy.)  I found the furry Cats-like look given to Barbara for the final fight to be silly.  That Wonder-Woman versus CGI-enhanced villain was just as deflating for me as her fight with Ares was at the end of the first Wonder Woman film.

It’s a shame, because the Barbara Minerva character drags down a lot of other things I liked about the film.  I thought Patty Jenkins did a strong job at the helm.  The film is visually beautiful.  It’s well-paced and well-structured, moving at a brisk but never too-fast clip from sequence to sequence as the story expands and unfolds.  I liked the balance of action and character drama.  I liked the way the stakes of the story slowly built and built until we arrived at the global chaos of the climax.

I loved the opening flashback with young Diana on Themyscira.  That was visually stunning, and I loved seeing Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright back (as Hippolyta and her sister Antiope).  And I enjoyed the introductory 1984-era montage that followed, introducing us to the world of 1984 and seeing Wonder Woman in action.  That battle in the mall was terrific; exhilaratingly staged and a fun, exciting re-introduction to Wonder Woman.

My favorite action sequence was the truck convoy battle in Egypt.  That was a spectacular sequence, filled with dazzling stunts and visual effects.  It was fun to get such a strong sense of Wonder Woman’s power and heroism.

The film certainly mined a lot of fun and humor out of its 1984 setting.  The opening fight in the mall gave me a strong Stranger Things vibe (season three also had a big fight in an eighties mall), which I enjoyed.  The film had a lot of playful fun with the costumes and hairstyles and yet, at the same time, I never felt the film’s period setting was overwhelming or a drag on the story.

At the same time, though, I’m not sure I understand why the film was set in 1984 as opposed to present day.  Max Lord’s “greed is good” philosophy is, of course, a great fit with the eighties setting.  But sadly that would have played just as well had the film been set in our present day, right?  For me, there were continuity problems with setting this film before the events of Batman v. Superman and Justice League, two present-day-set films in which Wonder Woman has already appeared.  Those films suggested that Diana had kept her existence in man’s world pretty much a secret since World War I.  Now, I guess Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t directly contradict that.  The film takes the time to repeatedly show us how Wonder Woman took efforts to keep her existence a secret; destroying the cameras in the mall, telling the Egyptian girls that her saving them would be their secret, etc.  But it’s hard to believe that after the film’s climax — in which Wonder Woman basically communed with the entire planet — that her existence could remain a secret!  And the film’s emotional climax — in which Diana seems to finally get closure regarding Steve Trevor’s tragic death — makes it weird to think that she would continue to live alone and in hiding for several more decades until meeting Batman and helping form the Justice League.  I could understand keeping this sequel set in the past as a way to bring back the rest of the supporting characters from the first Wonder Woman film.  But this film doesn’t do that — it’s set in 1984, when all of those characters are dead!  The only character who is back is Steve, and his resurrection could have happened in 2020 just as it did in 1984.  So I’m left wondering why they didn’t choose to set this sequel AFTER the events of Justice League, so that none of these continuity questions would have been an issue, and they could have had complete freedom to move Wonder Woman’s story forward, beyond the events of that film?  I don’t understand this choice.

I liked the idea of Steve being the inspiration for Wonder Woman to gain the ability of flight (a power she usually has in the comics), though that idea doesn’t really actually make any sort of sense.  Also, again, we have a continuity problem, as Diana was not depicted as being able to fly in Batman v. Superman or Justice League.

There are lots of other areas where I think the film is enjoyable on the surface level, but things start to fall apart — both on a plot level and a thematic level — once you dig deeper.

I like the idea of incorporating Wonder Woman’s iconic invisible jet into the film, and the idea that the jet is cloaked by the same magic that renders Themyscira invisible is clever.  But how the heck did Diana and Steve actually get their hands on a jet???  The film glosses right over that.

Why does the film make a point of repeatedly establishing that the reincarnated Steve has taken over another man’s body, and then not do anything with the terrifying implications of that?  What happened to that poor person’s actual consciousness while Steve was in his body?  Why do neither Diana nor Steve give a second’s thought to what’s happened to this dude whose life they have taken over?

Why set your film in 1984 and make the president an important character, and yet have that president be an unnamed generic president as opposed to Ronald Reagan?  (X-Men: Days of Future Past, set in 1973, had an actor playing Nixon; I’d have liked to have seen a similar approach here.)  Also, how can you have Wonder Woman and Barbara Minerva have an epic super-powered smack-down in the middle of the White House, and then not have any character ever mention that again or show any repercussions from those events?  (Remember, Diana’s existence is supposed to be a secret in this era, so the President would have no way of knowing she’s a hero.)

In 2020, why do we still have to connect a happy, good will towards all ending with the holiday of Christmas?  Not everyone who’s going to watch this film is Christian, you know.

Speaking of non-Christians, I’m forced to question why the makers of this film thought it was a good idea for one of the film’s major action set-pieces to be one in which Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, is fighting Egyptian soldiers.  I don’t love the optics on that.  Wouldn’t it it have been a more positive message had the film instead found a way for Wonder Woman to be fighting alongside Egyptian soldiers, together against a common (perhaps supernatural/super-powered) enemy?  It just strikes me as a very weird choice that, for the one major sequence that takes place out of DC, they decided to have Wonder Woman fighting Egyptian soldiers…

The film has one mid-credits stinger, so when you’re watching, hang around for that.  (Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid SPOILERS!!)

Still here?  OK, It’s fun to see Lynda Carter in the film, and a clever idea to cast her as another Amazon.  But plot-wise I don’t understand this character’s place in the film’s story.  I guess she survived after all the other Amazons went into hiding centuries ago; but what has she been doing and why has she been living in secret??  Is this something the next film will address?  I’d love for Ms. Carter to have a major role in the next Wonder Woman film!  But here, it plays like a wink-wink joke that is nice but doesn’t really make much sense.

In conclusion: Wonder Woman 1984 is an entertaining film.  I wish it was better, but it’s fun to watch and it’s miles better than, say Aquaman or Suicide Squad or the theatrical cut of Batman v. Superman.  I’m glad to have seen it.  I am thankful that Warner Brothers chose to release this film on streaming.  I’m sad, of course, not to have gotten the opportunity to see this film on the big screen, where it belongs.  I wish I could have seen that opening sequence — shot in IMAX — on a huge IMAX screen.  I’d love for them to rerelease this for a limited run, sometime in the future when the pandemic is under control.  For now, though, I am glad this film wasn’t delayed for another year, but that they allowed fans to watch and enjoy it in the comfort and safety of our own homes.

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