So real talk time: I’m sure this won’t make me very popular, but I’m not a fan of 2017’s Wonder Woman. I think it’s a movie with a lot of really good ideas, some really terrible villains, a lot of bad acting (the terrible, cartoony “Boris and Natasha Show” that is Danny Huston and Dr. Poison, along with Mortal Kombat Lupin at the end), and a terrible final act that invalidates some of the best themes introduced in the first two-thirds of the movie (Steve explains to Diana that wars don’t just end because one person dies, then 20 minutes later she kills Ares and the war ends). So for me to go into Wonder Woman 1984 expecting more of the same, but coming out, not just surprised, but actually quite happy should be a testament to how much I think the film improves on its predecessor. As a film, I think it’s not only going to make the millions of fans of the first happy, but also make believers out of the skeptical, like myself. And that, I think, all comes from the incredible storyteller that is Patty Jenkins (with a great assist from Geoff Johns).
**Please note, it’s a bit difficult to get into the intricacies of what I liked about the movie without diving into some spoilers, so please be warned, and feel free to skip ahead to the final verdict if you don’t want details spoiled for you! (Then come back and read this after you see it.)**
This time around, Jenkins came up with the story with Johns, and co-wrote the screenplay with him and David Callaham. We catch up with Diana in the eponymous year of 1984. She’s been fighting the good fight and protecting the innocent for decades — museum curator by day, superhero by night (or stealthily during the day, such as the opening mall-sequence). One day an artifact comes into a museum — a pretty worthless gem from a financial value standpoint — that lead geologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is assigned to study. Diana and Barbara discover, however, that the rock has caught the eye of the museum’s latest benefactor, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who knows the rock is really secretly an ancient wishing stone, capable of granting anyone who holds it their greatest desires for a price. Inadvertently, mousy, overlooked Barbara wishes to be just like Diana, while Diana silently wishes for Steve. And from there, the power of the rock, in the hands of megalomaniac, Lord, brings about a series of chaotic events that threatens the world, forcing Wonder Woman to spring into action and save the day by undoing the chaos.
The one thing they absolutely nail with the script is who Diana is as a character, and where she needs to evolve to by the end of the film. Jenkins as a director and writer firmly and beautifully understands that what sets Diana apart from most superheroes is her capacity for boundless compassion and love. Understanding is her ultimate weapon; not a tiara, bracelets, or a magical lasso. Diana wants people to understand and empathize with one another. She wants them to question whether selfish intentions are worth it if it causes us to harm others. Diana, a god from Themyscira, is showing us how to be human, and how to embrace that humanity. But she doesn’t get there fully without her own internal struggles.
From a story perspective, it’s easy to take the “be careful what you wish for” plotline and dismiss it as cliched, or overdone, and even easier to write it as such, but here, it is absolutely necessary for Jenkins, Johns, and Callaham to build on Diana’s character from the previous movie, and show that they have way more to say about who Wonder Woman is, and ultimately needs to be. She still has temptations, flaws, and desires. And for the Diana we see in Wonder Woman 1984, the trio paint a much more worldly (and she should be after 70-80 years among humans), more damaged version of the character when compared to when she first arrived in London with Steve during World War I. She’s lived a life in the shadows, ensuring she doesn’t get close to others — a watchful protector from afar — yet somewhat unfulfilled. And that sense of sadness and desire for fulfillment is the catalyst that prompts her arc in the story, quite beautifully I might add. And you can’t blame her for feeling that way, because after decades of protecting humanity, why shouldn’t she be entitled to some good? By the end of the movie, though, the decisions or sacrifices she has to make, and the lessons she learns and how they need to be also learned by others, don’t just save the world, but also save and shape her character. It’s truly beautiful.
All of the writing, of course, would be in vain if you didn’t have the right actress to bring it to life, and I’m pleased to report that Gal Gadot is working her hardest to pull it off. Diana’s arc and evolution in this film allow her to give it her all to generate a tender performance, yet also allow Gadot to solidify her status as an action star in the same league as Arnold or Keanu. While I admittedly found her performance really lacking in the previous installment, Gadot has found a nice footing here, making a genuine effort to bring as much emotion to the role when the dramatic situations merit it, while balancing a natural rom-com charm during her lighter moments with Chris Pine.
Speaking of which, you’ll be happy to know their chemistry from the previous movie is still very much in tact. And what gave me a lot more pleasure watching them this time around was how much of the movie comprised of Diana and Steve going around investigating this mystery. Their whole mission reminded me of an episode of the ‘70s Wonder Woman show with Lynda Carter, which is exactly what I want to see in a Wonder Woman movie. It also doesn’t hurt that the humor that comes with the reverse fish out of water storyline, with Steve now being the noob in modern society, lands most of the time.
However, the greatest thing about their relationship in this chapter is that it ultimately leads to a place of peace for Diana. And that was one of the most troubling complaints I had about the first film, and her overall character through to Justice League. Diana’s character choices at the end of the first film are defined by her love and relationship with Steve. And from there she sort of just moped along for centuries because she lost him. To me that’s sort of the opposite of female empowerment, to be frank. And I realize I’m not qualified to speak to that as a subject, but I loved that in this film, the choices she makes in this relationship during the story are fully defined by her and her duties as a hero, not solely by her love for one man she knew for two weeks. That meant a great deal to me, and another reason why I found her arc so brilliant in this story.
I realize overall, I’m not saying much about Chris Pine, and that’s intentional. Pine is as charming and charismatic as you’d expect him to be. But to really get into detail about how Steve factors into the film, and how he comes back, would sort of spoil things for you. Suffice it to say, it’s something akin to an out-of-body experience. I’ll leave it at that. It’s a little weird, and I logistically get why they did what they did, but still weird.
Moving on, the other really accomplished arc of the film is Barbara’s (aka Cheetah). In my opinion, Wiig singlehandedly gives the best performance of the film. Again, the trope of nerdy, neglected individual obsessed with a hero has been overdone in superhero films, from Jim Carrey’s Riddler, to Jamie Foxx’s Electro, and Guy Pierce’s Killian from Iron Man 3. And majority of the time it’s cartoony and ridiculous — particularly in Carrey’s (intentionally so) and Foxx’s (unintentionally so) cases. However, the way Jenkins and Wiig handle it spins the trope in a way that it actually becomes 100% understandable. They manage to make Barbara sympathetic and realistic in a way we’ve never seen with the villains of this franchise, or villains with similar story arcs. Wiig’s performance is absolutely stellar, confidently breezing between timid and unconfident sidekick to menacing badass seamlessly. And what the character has to deal with, along with the downward spiral we witness as a result of the terrible behaviors of men she encounters, couldn’t be a more apt or relevant story to tell for the #MeToo era. You actually grow to care about Barbara and the friendship that develops between her and Diana, so that when things inevitably dissolve, the impact is felt. Again, it’s spectacular writing and acting.
I’d be completely remiss in not discussing the action sequences in a Wonder Woman movie. After all, the first gave us the spectacular, inspiring “No Man’s Land” sequence. Regretfully, there’s nothing in this film that quite equals the spectacle and emotion many felt during that scene, but the action sequences here are still fun, and they’ve ditched the overuse of slow motion (thank god) that the sequences were so reliant on in the first film. Everything is shot with a graceful fluidity, particularly when Diana is going lasso-crazy! In particular, the White House fight between Diana and Barbara is the big highlight of the film for me, with another desert-sequence in the middle of the film, involving trucks and tanks that calls back to Raiders of the Lost Ark being another stand out. Less successful are the final, incredibly short fight with Cheetah and the overly cheesy mall sequence at the beginning of the movie. That said, when Gadot goes nuts with a lasso, it’s as if Wonder Woman herself leaped off the pages and into real life! And there’s an incredible scene in the movie that FINALLY gives us a Wonder Woman mythology staple that we haven’t gotten yet in the films, until now. I won’t spoil it, but it made me clap and yell out loud when it happened! Very fun!
If I had to say the movie possessed any flaws, in my opinion they would all have to do with Maxwell Lord. This will most likely be a controversial opinion, because I do believe many of my peers have expressed their praises for Pedro Pascal and his performance, but it just did not work for me at all. I’m a big Pedro Pascal fan. Have been since Game of Thrones, and I love, love, love (x3000) The Mandalorian. However, he gave the most over-the-top, cheesy, cartoony performance of the film. Granted, his performance, and the Maxwell Lord character, never reach the horrendous lows of the terrible trio that was Aries, Poison, and Ludendorf, but it honestly felt like Maxwell Lord belonged to a completely different movie than Wiig’s or Gadot’s performances would lead you to believe. With all due respect, it’s all the more apparent in the scenes where he’s talking to the emotionless child actor playing Lord’s son. Instead of a relationship I’m supposed to sympathize with and invest in, all I saw on screen was an overacted Lifetime-quality performance against a sounding board that happens to be a random kid. Pascal is shouting and gesticulating wildly. He’s shaking and stuttering. There’s just zero subtlety in what he’s doing here. It absolutely doesn’t help that the crux of any sympathy we’re supposed to feel for him is relegated to the aforementioned “sounding board” father-son relationship, and information about Lord’s past that comes way too little, too late in the movie. It all leads to a conclusion for his arc that just feels so unearned.
Also the heavy handed allegories behind a crazy blonde megalomaniac building walls through countries, and exercising unearned political powers to bend countries to their will don’t add any subtlety either. And perhaps it’s all intentional. Jenkins doesn’t have to be subtle if she doesn’t want to be, especially for a cause as justified as blasting idiotic real-life politicians (“politician” should really be in quotes). But God help me, I’m just lactose intolerant when it comes to large doses of cheese in my superhero movie!
Additional petty squabbles include the pacing of the film, which at 2 hours and 30 minutes, may have a few folks squirming in their seats, eager in anticipation for the next action sequence to come when they’ve been conservatively spaced apart. And the fact that for a $200M picture, the visual effects are lacking. The previously mentioned fight with Wiig’s final form as Cheetah, for instance, leaves a lot to the imagination. There’s also the matter of many elements of the movie that have been hyped in the trailer not really going anywhere. Cheetah’s final form and the Golden Eagle armor are barely in the film. In fact, the Golden Eagle armor doesn’t really factor into the story at all. It ultimately seems to be there just for the sake of being a golden Easter Egg. But like I said, these are petty nitpicks, and don’t detract from how pleased I am with the film overall.
To conclude an already tedious-to-read review, I want to summarize that Wonder Woman 1984 is genuinely a pleasure to watch. Though, like its hero, it’s not without its flaws, this is still a movie and a script that fully understands its hero, and does justice to the spirit and core of the Wonder Woman character through hopeful, optimistic writing, and a pair of really strong female performances from Gadot and Wiig. It’s fun, inspiring, and frankly, just what we need to cure away the blues of a 2020 Christmas. But most importantly, for me, it’s a true Wonder Woman movie. And that is all I could ever wish for!
Overall Score: B
Wonder Woman 1984 debuts in theaters and HBO Max on Christmas Day, December 25, 2020!