Dir. Patty Jenkins; Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig
[1.5 out of 4 stars]
Before I dig into Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), I have a wrong I need to right; I blew it a little with my review of Wonder Woman (2017). It was my second piece for Portland Film Review, and I revisited it this weekend after rewatching Wonder Woman to prepare for the sequel. I criticized the movie for being “too derivative of its precursors” in the superhero genre, and pointed out what I saw as “bloated second and third acts.” While I still hold to these criticisms, rewatching it I found that they did not bother me now nearly as much as they did when I was watching it to write that review. The easy charm between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve (Chris Pine), the sheer rush of Diana’s climb into No Man’s Land, and the majesty of the first act on Themyscira are more than enough to recommend the movie. Looking back, it seems safe to say I brought too much expectation into what I thought the movie would be, and did not take enough time to appreciate it for what it actually was. There is plenty about Wonder Woman that I think could have been executed in better fashion, but if you will allow me, I do wish to officially correct the record and assign the movie the 3 stars I now see it deserved from the beginning, as opposed to the 2 stars I gave it at the time. With that out of the way, we get to Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84), a stunningly ill-conceived sequel if there ever was one.
As the title suggests, we catch up with Diana Prince in 1984, where she works at the National Museum of Natural History, and crime fights during off-hours. When she foils an attempted robbery of a black-market goods ring operating out of a jewelry shop, the FBI confiscates the items and brings them to the museum where gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is set to figure out what exactly they are. It isn’t long before devious businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) drops in under the guise of making a large donation to get his hands on one of the items that he was initially set to purchase: a stone that has the power to grant wishes. Lord wants it to gain money and influence as his current Black Gold oil venture is failing spectacularly, but before he manages to get his hands on it, both Barbara and Diana have made wishes of their own, not knowing the stone has any actual powers. The timid and overly dismissed Barabara wishes to be like Diana, strong, beautiful, and noticed, while Diana wishes that Steve, who died back in the finale of Wonder Woman, could come back to her. When both wishes come true, it sets in motion a plot that sees Diana try to stop Lord as he wreaks havoc granting wishes and taking what he wants in return, dropping the world into chaos as he does, for every wish has terrible consequences. It is up to Diana, the newly returned Steve, and the conflicted Barbara to stop Lord before he ends civilization.
WW84 plays out as if no fewer than three movies were crunched down into one product, rather like what you get when you crumple up all the pages of a bad draft so you can toss it into the trash. The movie is conceivably the continuation of Diana’s story, but with the amount of time given to Barbara and Lord, there are stretches of the movie where Wonder Woman seems like a supporting character in her own story. There are two villain origin stories competing with the hero’s continued development, and so none can flourish even though on their own I am drawn to each. The melancholic life that we see Diana living until Steve pops back into her life gestures at a grand tragic romance of the Classical Hollywood variety, but we only really get the spark notes on it. Diana is sad and misses Steve, then he comes back, but they never reckon with what that means, so the relationship is limited to a plot device. It also means that Diana’s story here is zapped down to be almost entirely about how much she misses Steve and how hard life is without him. That could be dramatically compelling, but we do not get enough of it to elevate it beyond trite. I wish the movie made room for thoughtful consideration of what Diana has suffered because of losing Steve, and why he is so special to her. It has been decades, and the movie just asks us to imagine what that has been like for Diana without considering the emotional wounds she carries as a result. The plotline starts with promise, but fizzles into plot mechanics.
Similarly, the two antagonists, Barabara and Lord, have compelling set-ups that simply do not have the space to grow into anything worthwhile. Barbara is not evil, and her story imagines what happens when a woman whose only meaningful attention from the world has come in the form of sexual harassment suddenly has the power to exact revenge, but Jenkins does not develop this in the scenes allotted to her. Lord is a slightly different beast, which I will return to shortly, but the basic idea is that he is a greedy man who must realize that there are more important things than wealth and power. It is cliché upon cliché that never has room to go anywhere else. All of this is to say that screenwriters Patty Jenkins, who also returned to direct, and Geoff Johns desperately needed editors to tell them to focus their story, because they obviously did not. The result is a script that strikes me as somewhat of a paradox. It is so dense and overwritten in terms of plot and pacing, but vacant and underwritten when you consider the emotional heft or worth of all the chaos thrown into it. WW84 is chock full of plot, but so little of it stands apart as anything more than saturated and loud pandemonium. A lush 1980s setting and plenty of explosions cannot cover up the writing sins present here.
Therefore, it is a minor miracle that I can honestly say I enjoyed every major performance in the movie The chemistry between Gadot and Pine is incredible. The early scenes when Steve has just returned to the world have a screwball energy that I would watch a whole movie of. In one, he and Diana try to dress him to go out, and the way Gadot and Pine mine humor from the various outfits Pine tries on is a standout moment of the film. Pine sells Steve’s curious obsession with fanny packs in a way that Jean Arthur would approve of. The dramatic moments are less successful because, as outlined above, they never connect to a well-developed thematic base or thoughtful character arc. Pine and Gadot do the best with what they have, and Gadot herself is never less than entirely believable as Diana. She is a top-notch action star with the chops for comedy and drama, and it is utterly disappointing how much she is wasted in this movie, which should do nothing short of bend over backwards to show off what she is capable of. The waste does not end there, though, because WW84 commits one of the great film sins: it squanders Kristen Wiig. Wiig’s awkward schtick that she cultivated so fabulously on SNL is a perfect match for Barbara, who stumbles in heels and mumbles to herself. When Wiig is asked to do more dramatic work, such as taking revenge on a man who harassed her once she has her powers, she rises to that as well. But instead of recognizing her ability and letting us bask in it, the movie shoehorns her into a clichéd allegory that amounts to ‘be careful what you wish for,’ and makes her bound around underneath a head-scratchingly terrible layer of CG in the final act.
The only part of WW84 that rises above the schlock in any meaningful way is Pascal’s work as Lord, which begs the question: how many franchises can Pascal carry before we use up our pop culture capital? Lord is a scene-chewing villain at his finest. This is not thanks to the script or Jenkins’ direction, both of which seem to be straining to position Lord as a Trump stand-in, a con-man making promises and fulfilling wishes while taking away those things that his followers actually need to survive. In that regard it is heavy-handed, including a late shot of Lord addressing the world in front of a White House backdrop. This all makes Pascal’s performance all the more impressive. He dials it up right to the edge of camp without crossing over. He turns this cliché-ridden antagonist into a tragic, King Midas-esque figure of greed. He starts the journey as a slicked up rogue who seduces Barbara to get to the stone, and pleads with investors who have gotten wise of his scheme, but he evolves into a crazy-eyed madman whose health fails as he desperately pursues endless power. The storyline may be predictable and trite, but Pascal proves that he can both be an integral part of something great [I.E. The Mandalorian (2019-)], and the best part of something awful, as is the case here. Regardless, his performance as Lord solidifies for me that directors and studios the world over should be scrambling to work this man because he only seems to be able to make projects better.
I would like to think that the abject creative failure of WW84 can be chalked up more to Warner Bros’ continued inability to make quality movies out of DC Comics properties [excluding Wonder Woman and the criminally underrated Shazam! (2019)] than to Jenkins’ directorial efforts. Maybe this is folly and Jenkins’ masterful work on Monster (2003) and great work on Wonder Woman are the exceptions to the rule, but I feel like that is not the case. Jenkins’ press tour for WW84 has included a number of interesting interviews, but my favorite nugget is when she revealed, quite openly, that Warner Bros. forced her to change the ending of Wonder Woman into a widely panned CGI monstrosity as opposed to the less spectacle-driven conclusion she initially wanted. Studio interference on superhero movies is de rigueur at this point, but it makes me wonder what Warner Bros. may have changed about WW84, what intrusions resulted in the utter lack of compelling filmmaking. There is none of the spine-tingling goodness of the “No Man’s Land” moment, nor the stretches of inventive camerawork or cinematography that led to a handful of memorable images in the first movie. The directorial work here is plodding, uninspired, and boring at almost every turn. My belief, and hope, is that this is the result of a director struggling to simply finish a film while a studio desperately tried to take it over. My fingers are crossed that Jenkins can return to form when she hops over to Disney to direct the upcoming Star Wars movie Rogue Squadron (2023).
WW84 is a crowning example of lowest common denominator studio folly, when executives apparently decide that intellectual property is a proper stand-in for compelling storytelling. Those involved with this movie seem to believe that audiences will sit down and find charm and excitement in it. What I see instead is an exceptionally underbaked movie that pisses away an incredible amount of potential and bright spots in favor of an end result that should be tossed onto whatever metaphorical rubbish pile we have compiled for the doldrums of cinema misfires in 2020.