Ok, cards on the table, I liked Wonder Woman (2017). Setting it in World War II and having our hero face off against Nazis felt an exciting way to introduce the character. After she leaves her home of Themyscira we got all the fish out of water stuff as Diana tried to adapt to the world.
The story unfolded nicely and Gal Gadot’s chemistry with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor seemed on point. The action was good. I admit, the film’s finale strayed into DC smashy territory – something I’ve heard director Patty Jenkins talk about, in terms of how it wasn’t what she wanted to do, but the studio pressured her. Whatever the situation surrounding the making of this first movie, in general, it was fun. Its heart was in the right place.
And so we get to the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984. Sigh.
(Note: before we go further there are mild spoilers below. Although I doubt anyone will read this review without having seen the movie, but thought I would warn you.)
Patty, Patty, where did it all go wrong?
This movie is set, if you didn’t guess from the title, in 1984. Diana now works at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Within a scene or two we meet both her shy colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) and charlatan businessman, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal). Turns out he’s after a magical rock which the Smithsonian just so happen to have in their possession, which is handy.
The rock grants wishes, so obviously Max Lord wants it. It also just so happens that Barbara and Diana have things they wish for. I mean, don’t we all? Here’s where you need to pay attention, because being careful what you wish for is the theme of the movie.
So Barbara wants to be strong and sexy like Diana, and Diana just wants good old Steve back. Put aside the fact that he died four decades ago and she must have surely moved on. Apparently he was the love of her life (although I really didn’t get that burning chemistry from the first movie. I think Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and Chris Evans’ Steve Rodgers did the whole WWII romance where the man dies in a plane at the end thing better. But let’s not get into DC versus Marvel or we’ll be here all day).
So Max Lord, in a rare moment of bad guy intelligence, wishes he was the magical rock. Then he gets endless wishes. Get it? Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We know where this is going to go. Max gets badder and can’t stop himself. So does Barbara, although at least she’s a bit more conflicted about it, albeit barely.
Diana runs around here and there in a relatively ineffective way. She uses her lasso and halfheartedly punches a few ‘bad’ guys in a sequence in Egypt, which barely moved the story along or added character, and in fact was quite problematic. Steve is with her throughout, although Chris Pine just looked bored, like he wanted to be somewhere else (like filming another Hell or High Water), but was fulfilling a contractual obligation. Oh, and Diana learns to fly at one point, did I mention that? Patty clearly wanted to pay homage to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) I guess, and take us back to simpler times. Ah, the 80s (the cold war, AIDS… fond memories!).
Here’s the thing…. as you might guess, many aspects of this movie left me deeply unimpressed.
Let’s break them down.
Not embracing the ’80s
The ’80s. If you’re going to do this decade, do it properly. Stranger Things used this moment in time well. Yes, the decade was all about excess, yet some of the best parts of that excess were the music, fashion and even the fledgling technology. They could have had a lot of fun with it, but all we got were a couple of jokes and a ‘Steve getting dressed’ montage. It felt light.
Yes, there’s a mall scene at the start, though it didn’t give us anything we hadn’t seen before. Diana leaps around a bit and spends way too long catching some basic bad guys. This does not bode well.
Ok, you’ve got Chris Pine. He’s handsome, people like him. Let’s bring him back. Wait, didn’t he die in the first movie? Yeah, but these are superhero movies, we can do what we want. Ok, fine. So… we’re going to bring him back, but have him inhabit the body of some random guy.
Wait, what? That’s weird. Does the other guy die? Is this like a Quantum Leap thing? Is Diana the only one that sees Steve in this stranger’s body? If so, does this guy have friends or family? What do they think about him suddenly dating some impossibly beautiful woman that wasn’t in his life yesterday but is today? There’s also consent. Diana has sex with him. Is this Steve or the other guy?
I have so many questions about this body possession element of the story. It’s needlessly complicated and just weird. Turns out I’m not the only one who thought so.
Wasting Barbara Minerva/Cheetah
She’s a nerd and has no confidence. Something happens which tranforms her into a sexy femme fatale with powers. Wait, haven’t we seen this from DC before, like a bunch of times? Michelle Pfieffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) is hands down the best. But there’s a case to be made for Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy. She was fun to watch and felt more integral to Batman & Robin (1997) than Barbara to WW84.
I’m not saying Kristen Wiig is a bad actor, far from it. I just think she didn’t have enough backstory or motivation in terms of her arc from downtrodden nerd to crazy cat lady. She had plenty of scenes, but most didn’t feel essential to the story. Her journey was, at once, slow to develop then rushed at the end. As a result the final showdown between her and Diana carried little emotional weight.
Muddled theme and story
Be careful what you wish for/greed is good versus we can’t always have what we want…. these themes suit the ’80s, for sure. And I’ll admit, Pedro Pascal channelling Gordon Gekko, Donald Trump and Lex Luthor was fun to watch. It looked like he was having a good time and knew the sort of movie he was in.
It’s just that throughout the movie there was a disconnect with a lot of the characters and the theme. Which is odd, considering the film’s lengthy run time you’d have thought they could’ve weaved in more character moments which made narrative sense.
Gal Gadot struggled
I’m sorry, but Gal Gadot just isn’t a great actor. She’s fine, passable even. But in a blockbuster movie passable just doesn’t cut it these days. It puts me in mind of Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix (2019), in that it doesn’t matter if you surround your weak lead with talent (Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain), it simply doesn’t distract us from her performance, or lack thereof. I get that some of the shortcomings in WW84 lie in the writing and Gadot really needed more to work with (as did Pine), but my point stands.
I guess, ultimately, I felt frustrated with this movie. It was close to being good, great even. It could’ve really built upon the first one and surpassed it. Yet it felt like a more ambitious and muddled movie overall. It goes to show that making films is all about marginal gains. The little details and inconsistencies matter. You have to get them right as the audience will only forgive so many of them, and then you’ve lost them.
And I get that movies are not just down to one person, so the blame cannot be entirely laid at the feet of Patty Jenkins, yet she did steer the ship. Moreover, now she’s moved to Disney to direct Star Wars: Rogue Squadron I’m very interested to see how she gets on, and whether it was the experience of working with Warner Brothers that got in her way. That said, she’ll be back with Warners to direct Wonder Woman 3, so who the hell knows.
If I had to rate Wonder Woman 1984 I’d give it 3/5 stars.