Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Once again helmed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor/sorta, respectively, along with additions Pedro Pascal (as Maxwell Lord) and Kristen Wiig (as Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah), sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (stylized as WW84) has hit the big screens and small screens at the same time. Like many people who spent their Christmas apart from their family this year, and also have HBO Max, my Christmas morning involved watching WW84. As a Christmas present, it was like the gag candy that looks like coal and you get in your stocking, where for a moment you think that you’ve been punished before realizing it’s a sweet, except in reverse, where what seems like sugary fun at first turns out to be kind of a piece of coal. Wonder Woman 1984 is … pretty bad. And not in the way that the first one was considered “bad” by a lot of people who (understandably) lost the thread somewhere in that muddy finale or who just have a mental block that makes them hate the Wonder Woman character. This movie is a mess, with a few true gems in the narrative, but also with some troubling philosophical underpinnings. But what WW84 is, at its core, is something that Diana of Themyscira never would be: cowardly. 

It’s 1984, and Diana is working at the Smithsonian in her civilian identity, where she has access to artifacts recently recovered from a black market jewelry shop front that was revealed during a botched robbery that Diana foiled as Wonder Woman. She meets colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva, who establishes the value of everything save for one object: a citrine sculpture with an inscription that Diana translates to, essentially, “you get one wish.” She absently reminisces about Steve, and there’s magic little tinkly sounds and an air machine, and I can admit that I loved that bit. Barbara, for her part, wishes she could be more like Diana: effortlessly confident, eternally alluring, and tirelessly kind. Diana discovers that the wishing stone was actually en route to Maxwell Lord, a televised Ponzi schemer selling the idea of a socialistic communally owned oil reserve (I don’t get it either) when the FBI confiscated the artifacts, but she fails to stop him before he obtains and then acquires the power of the artifact. Steve comes back to life and although the two are happy to be reunited, the method of his resurrection reveals that the artifact operates on Monkey’s Paw rules (explicitly; it’s invoked, and it’s an admittedly nice touch that it’s Steve who calls it by name, as it would be a recent reference for him), and Lord’s using the granting of wishes to increase his personal power even as his body and society start to fall apart. Will Diana be able to stop him in blah blah blah?

If you’re completely removed from The Discourse or are Very Offline to the point that you’re in a bubble vis-a-vis politics, both contemporary and of the 1980s, then it might be possible for you to just turn your brain off and enjoy a nostalgic throwback about Wonder Woman fighting a Ponzi schemer in 1984. It’s certainly what the film wants you to do, and to that end, there are a lot of elements that are super fun.

Everything to do with Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, is great from a performance standpoint. Wiig is once again playing a character similar to her previous role in Ghostbusters: a woman of high academic achievement who is nerdy, Hollywood Homely, and largely ignored/disdained by her peers to exaggerated comic effect (none of her male colleagues help her collect her dropped documents, only Diana does). Her own boss doesn’t even remember meeting her previously, which was funny in Office Space but just feels painful and awkward here, especially as it comes so early in the film that the tone hasn’t really been set yet (more on that in a moment). Her immediate interest in Diana is adorable, as she sees in the literally divine Amazon a reflection of what she wishes she could be, in more ways than one, and her friendship with Diana is fun and likable, before it inevitably goes sour. Wiig is having a lot of fun playing “frumpy” and excitable, and while that’s definitely within her wheelhouse, it’s also fun seeing her stretch those muscles playing some of Minerva’s more subdued moments. Unfortunately, the material she’s working with plays against her talents, especially once she’s turned into a clawing, snarling CGI abomination (seriously, the practical effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1996 are better than how this looks). 

The film’s length works both for and against it. When you’ve got a movie like this that’s premiering in people’s homes, it’s not like a theater in which the audience’s attention is captivated and captive; at home, there’s a lot more to distract you, and if you’re not drawn in by the opening, you’ve already lost a lot of people to their phones. As for how it works in its favor, I’m not opposed to a 2.5 hour movie (if anything, mine and Brandon’s recent discussion of Doctor Sleep proves that I thrive on them), and the film’s decompression allows for some of the film’s best elements to have sufficient breathing room. We get to see Diana reignite her love with Steve Trevor, who is brought back to life* via the magic of the film’s MacGuffin, and start to develop a friendship with Barbara that’s warm and kind. There’s an awful lot of complaining that this film is too light on thrills and that the length of time between action sequences is to the film’s detriment, but the same complaints were made about Spider-Man 2 when it was first released, and even after 15 years in which the prevalence of superhero media has done nothing but grow at an exponential rate, that’s still considered one of the most triumphant examples of the genre. It’s what doesn’t move the plot along that makes the film work when it does work; although this film has a different resolution than a big blue laser beam (and one that’s a novel choice, if nothing else), it still follows the rote and prescriptive stations of the plot outline for all of these movies.

The action sequences are also nothing to scoff at (most of the time). The opening scene on Themyscira is a fun contest, if a little Quidditch-y at points and hosting the film’s most questionable CGI choices, but there’s also really gorgeous location work that makes you just yearn for the beach; it really does look like Paradise. The mall sequence that brings us to the film’s 1984 “present” is really what sets the tone for what’s to come: it’s light, pastel, a little goofy, but warm and inviting and not too threatening. As Diana runs around stopping people from being injured during a robbery gone awry, she really seems like Wonder Woman, the real deal, the friend to all living things  who loves kids and Christmas and ice cream and justice, and it’s very clear that the movie’s operating on G.I. Joe/A-Team rules: nobody dies, they always parachute out or land in water instead, etc. There’s an extended roadway set piece that’s very impressive and makes inventive use of the lasso, and the best White House-based action since X2. The battle with Barbara in her Cheetah form is less fun, but the fact that the climactic sequence is not about beating Maxwell Lord into submission and is instead about saving his soul is a nice change of pace from the third act megafight that’s become the standard. Although the film is explicitly set mostly in midsummer (there are Independence Day fireworks over Washington at one point), that the film’s major conflict comes to a head when a greedy Dickensian man renounces his need to own the world gives the whole thing more of a Christmas vibe than the tacked-on snowy holiday set piece that ends the film proper. 

That having been said, there’s a lot going on here that’s … questionable. I couldn’t put it more eloquently than Walter Chaw does here, and I won’t try to, other than to say that all of the things that WW84 brings to the table pale in comparison to its gross narrative choices. And if you’re sitting there after having gone and read Chaw’s review and you’re thinking that he’s reading too much into it, then I’d direct you to a follow-up Tweet of his, which says, succinctly and simply, “The nature of bias is that yours is invisible to you.” It’s easy to hear the siren call to overlook the hard-to-face fact that this film has a supervillainess’s face-heel-turn be her self-defense against a sexual assailant. A woman is punished for wanting to be powerful, and instead of breaking through her defenses by lifting her up, Wonder Woman (who is friend to all living things and loves ice cream, remember), gives her one chance to recant without any encouragement or warmth, and then gives her the old toaster-in-the-bathtub treatment. Chaw wrote about the implications of the Bialyan anti-colonial sentiment expressed by an oil baron, but there’s so much being implied in the margins here that even he couldn’t get them all down. How about the fact that the wish stone is tied to the fall of multiple civilizations due to the chaos that it creates, including the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and that the Mayans are explicitly stated to have been unwilling to take the actions needed to save their society? Yeah, yikes. For recommended further reading, there’s also Roxana Hadadi’s discussion of the film’s Middle Eastern stereotypes here.

At the top, I mentioned that WW84 was cowardly, and where that shines through the most to me on a personal level is in the choice of place and time without the willingness to tackle the topics of the time. The POTUS in the film is nothing like Reagan, other than in the raging hard on for nukes, and the unwillingness to attack the tarnished late-blooming legacy of a president who was despised (even within his party and even in his time) and who turned a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS pandemic with callous disregard for human life (by the end of 1984, nearly 8000 people had contracted HIV, and nearly half of that number had died). Maxwell Lord is clearly supposed to echo the soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump, with his facial bloat, unconvincing dye job, and all-consuming greed, but in a year dominated by politicized response to public health emergencies and dangerous alliances between pulpit and podium, history was lobbing a slowball straight over the plate, and WW84 not only didn’t make contact, it didn’t even swing. 

Some films we’re able to appreciate despite their flaws by recognizing that they are products of their times. Unfortunately, WW84 is the same, as its flawed technical achievements and interesting character moments take place in a narrative that’s circumscribed by peak white liberalism, blind to its own faults like a lot of capitalist products that aim to capture leftward social momentum and leverage it into profit. Maybe Wonder Woman is harder to get right than we thought when lighting was captured in a bottle in 2017. I don’t think it had to be this way, but unfortunately, this is what we got. 

*Some restrictions may apply.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

2 thoughts on “Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

  1. Pingback: The Nest (2020) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Space Sweepers (2021) | Swampflix

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