by Philip Price
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine & Kristen Wiig
Runtime: 2 hours & 31 minutes
“Wonder Woman 1984” is not a good movie. Unfortunately. It's not that it's soul-crushingly bad, but it's just not good and it for one reason or another feels like it's completely mistaken silly for entertaining. Absurdity for ambition. There is a wealth of good intent imbued on the project as writer/director Patty Jenkins returns to continue crafting the titular character into more of a beacon of hope than ever but come the end of this bloated two and half hour epic it's nearly impossible to see how anyone associated with the project could have mistaken it for quality rather than recognizing the bizarre (and often times extremely cheesy) choices that were made, not to mention the incredibly preposterous nature of it all. It's almost as if the film actively goes out of its way not to necessarily make its message more convoluted, but rather like it's trying to do or say more than what is actually on its mind. In other words, it's trying to make the simple idea at its center feel more complex and therefore more sophisticated when in reality said execution simply feels perplexing. The oddity that is this Wonder Woman sequel is difficult to describe as it's still somewhat mind-blowing that Jenkins along with co-writers Geoff Johns (a former executive at DC Entertainment and a prolific writer and producer) and Dave Callaham (seasoned franchise screenwriter) submitted this screenplay to Warner Brothers with the confidence not only that it would be approved, but that it was good while it's even more confounding that Warner greenlit this $200 million experiment. All of this is difficult to come to terms with as I very much am in the bag for excessively bombastic superhero films that have a distinct point of view and while “Wonder Woman 1984” is most certainly excessive and most definitely carves out where it wants to stand in the pantheon of the genre none of what transpires on screen ever feels satisfying despite the virtue of what the film is trying to convey. It’s a baffling misfire, an ill-conceived attempt at looking to the past in order to enlighten us about our future, but most of all it's disappointing. With the first “Wonder Woman” film three years ago Jenkins crafted an equally ambitious, but more balanced film that homed in on the titular character’s optimism and slight naivety while utilizing the tangible and rather terrible world she entered as a way of highlighting those qualities. 2017's “Wonder Woman” found the right avenues to take in order to balance the many ambitions it hoped to accomplish with its story and characters whereas “Wonder Woman 1984” crams in so many disparate ideas and goes so far out of its way in such ludicrous fashion in order to say what it wants to say that hardly any of it resonates.
As decadent as the decade in which it is set, “Wonder Woman 1984” does everything it wants to the extreme - from its opening, Themyscira-set take on Quidditch that overtly channels the main idea of the movie to the entire facade that Pedro Pascal's character of Maxwell Lord embodies - the film is extravagant to the hilt. Yes, the grandiosity of it all does work in terms of Jenkins shifting the aesthetic and tone to match that of the new era Gal Gadot's Diana Prince now exists in, but while the script takes into consideration these contextual details what it doesn't give as much of - and what is most critically missing - is how Diana herself has adapted to not only the current decade, but it having been 66 years since she began functioning as part of an ever-evolving society outside of Themyscira. Gadot remains wholly endearing in the role and the character's principles continue to be clearly defined; how Wonder Woman chooses to deal with henchmen as well as her attitude toward guns serves as a sliver of insight that is simultaneously missing throughout much of the movie but is also so openly communicated when brought up that there will inevitably be a "whole thing" made about it online after the fact. Of course, Batman has refused to use guns or kill since day one - some of his defining vigilante traits - yet his choices will undoubtedly be seen as being made in terms of refusing to take the easy way out whereas Wonder Woman's will most certainly be viewed as the character patronizing a whole sect of the American population. I digress. There is a line early in the film where Diana mentions to Kristen Wiig's Barbara Minerva, a new friend with all the trappings of a budding super villain, that her life hasn't been what she probably thinks it has based only on outward appearance. This conversation, which takes place within the first half hour of the film, is again one of the few moments that provide some idea of the headspace Diana has inhabited since losing the love of her life in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and dealing with the fact she's unable to return home to Themyscira. So, while Jenkins, Johns, and Callaham tend to glaze over our protagonist's development despite being an exception of a character in terms of opportunity for growth, most of the conversation around the story of “Wonder Woman 1984” seems to have come out of trying to create something meaningful and relevant while offering that aforementioned hope to our fractured world, but all of that meaning was seemingly lost in the translation of applying such intentions to an acceptable superhero template. The only purpose that Themyscira-set epilogue serves is allowing Robin Wright's Antiope to wax poetic about how, "No true hero is born from lies." Antiope's mantra is immediately followed by Pascal's Lord bombastically playing up his TV-personality to preach the rewards of instant-gratification; Jenkins effectively contradicting the ideals of those who invest in hard work from those who believe themselves inherently entitled. There's a kernel of sincerity in this idea of coming to terms with one's own truth as it pertains to the betterment of the world rather than for the betterment of us, but the hoops the screenplay jumps through in order to convey these simple and honest ideas is absolutely bonkers. I knew from the moment Jenkins' camera slowly moved in on an ancient gem in the back room of a mall jewelry store as Hans Zimmer's fun, but completely on-the-nose score swelled that we were in trouble.
It is in these early scenes such as in said mall or as Diana becomes acquainted with Wiig's Minerva that Jenkins' sequel seems to find its groove by reveling in the more outrageous and somewhat goofy elements of the eighties while moving in an engaging direction that might lend grounded reasoning to the idea Diana Prince has been able to successfully transplant herself from one cultural moment to the next within the span of only two films, but it's in the way Lord completely monopolizes the plot that any momentum or investment is ultimately diffused. It's not that Pascal is bad in the role as the guy obviously has the charisma to take even the most one dimensional of characters further than they deserve, but if you'll recall mention of that ancient gem in the back room of the mall jewelry shop and how cautious it made me, well that would be due to the fact it ultimately turns out to be a "wish-granting stone". I kid you not. Now, before getting all up in arms I realize this is a movie based on a comic book and that these types of leaps in logic are commonplace and that a certain level of unique verisimilitude is to be expected in the genre. I can and have appreciated the fact that the DC Cinematic Universe as it were has decided more to embrace the intergalactic and otherwise completely ridiculous elements of itself rather than keeping in line with Christopher Nolan's ‘Batman’ films, but what takes away from Lord's quest here - beyond the fact it is his only defining trait - is that it deals in this MacGuffin that is so hackneyed and hokey the simple fact this is what they're relying on to drive the story automatically renders it kind of...stupid. Lord is a wannabe oil barren and businessman who thrives on his famous saying of, "Life is good, but it can be better." In his goal to make this little adage a reality he seeks the previously mentioned stone that allows people to realize their deepest wishes, but in exchange also takes away their most valued possession. All of our key players come into contact with the stone whether by accident or through seeking it out as it affords Diana the opportunity to reunite with her one true love (which allows for the return of Pine as Trevor), but as a result she begins losing her powers. For Barbara, she is afforded all the luxuries of being beautiful and popular, but she loses her humility. For Lord, he fulfills his vision of becoming one of the most powerful men in the world, but he loses that which he thinks is a given and not something he has to work to earn: time and a relationship with his son. Lord's son, Alistair (Lucian Perez), functions as such a prop of a character though, one has to wonder if the writers didn't realize the irony of his purpose given the capacity in which they'd written him. Giving your big bad a child for the sole purpose of supporting a massive shift in character a la having a life-changing realization in the final act is almost as egregious a sin as waiting until the final half hour to trot out the villain you've been teasing the entire movie only to do away with them as swiftly as they show up ... and “Wonder Woman 1984” commits both of these.
"I should probably figure out how a stone brought my boyfriend back in someone else's body," is a line Gal Gadot actually says in this movie. If it weren't apparent thus far, this bit of dialogue should easily reinforce the fact that the script is the film's number one problem. It's not that the story is strong and has potential, but was just executed poorly, no, it's that the story is so intent on being this sprawling epic that it winds up a sloppy mess only held together by a few of the performances and the promise of what lies ahead for its characters. While there isn't much development for our heroine despite a two and a half hour therapy session in how and why she's going to have to move on and actually begin to start her life anew (again, after 66 years of grieving) it ends up being a double-edged sword as Pine is legitimately a savior and it's hard to imagine experiencing this film without his presence. Pine's comic timing ("I've been eating pop tarts all morning.") and ability to sell a shoe-horned backstory about Diana's new armor with actual conviction is pretty damn impressive. It was also admittedly thrilling to see Wiig in a role like this and though her arc is rather familiar it is the potential dynamic between her and Diana and Cheetah and Wonder Woman that offered the most intrigue. Of course, this is overridden by the scattered yet thematically ambitious arc of Lord serving as this Trump-like figure with Lord even going so far as to trot out a line that reads, "It's a conspiracy against my success," that feels especially fortune telling. Overall, there's just enough Pine and Wiig here for sections of the film to be entertaining, but there's also just not that much actual Wonder Woman in the movie either and when she does show up - largely for the big action sequences - those sequences (again, unfortunately) aren't all that well-conceived. I'd love to see the major mid-movie set piece on the big screen, but honestly the more people who see this film in theaters the better the odds of “Wonder Woman 1984” becoming the new “American Sniper.” Seriously, jokes aside, there's a scene here that utilizes child mannequins in a more obvious way than Clint Eastwood utilizes baby dolls and the memes are going to be killer.
"What is there to wish for but more?" Funny you should ask, Mr. President. The biggest qualm I had with the original “Wonder Woman” was that its third act devolved into a generic and derivative climactic CGI battle and while that also happens here that complaint is so far down the list of issues with this follow-up that it makes one curious if Jenkins worked so hard not to repeat herself that she ended up inverting what worked so well about the first film into a sequel where more elements are less successful than not. That said, this still covers the ground of Diana tracking down a mythological being meddling in the human realm while working to undo the chaos they intend to cause. To emphasize the quality of the writing once more, it is a Shaman or "citizen of the world" as he likes to refer to himself who owns some type of shop next to a Galaxy Video in Washington D.C. that winds upholding the key to unlocking all the secrets of this "wish-granting stone" via a family heirloom in an ancient book. There is no mention of this character before or after his single, exposition dump of a scene that conveniently delivers our heroes the clarification that Lord and his new power gem can only be stopped by destroying the stone itself or to give back what was given. This only further stresses those lengths and jumps the screenplay must keep making in order to provide some sense of coherence in its illogical world, but no matter the leaps the plot takes nothing here ever satisfies the question posed by the film in, "What are you losing in your quest for more?" It's a valid, even poignant question that leads to at least one small moment that makes some of the sum of the film's parts greater than this mess of a whole, but despite the honorable meaning and good intent “Wonder Woman 1984” lands with a resounding thud that instead of conveying the idea that the truth is bigger than all of us instead proves special effects houses still haven't figured out how to make flying through the clouds look in any way cool.
"Wonder Woman 1984" is streaming for one month only on HBO Max.