The 1980s, we are often told, was a decade of excess, a decade of nonstop movement centered around a push for more; for bigger, which is always better. That ethos seems to be the guiding principle of Patty Jenkins’ new Wonder Woman movie, “Wonder Woman 1984,” and only ends when it most needs to go further.
Taking Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) from the World War I era of the first film and moving her up in time nearly 70 years allows for her to have an entirely new life, surrounded by entirely new people, with an entirely new story to tell. Jenkins, who wrote the script with Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, eschews much of that opportunity. Diana may have a new life in Washington, D.C., but she spends her time alone, pining for her lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). She dines by herself and while she may have colleagues at work, she chooses to not go to the galas which accompany her job and turns down requests for work lunches as well. She is alone and alive, but not living.
Steve. She misses Steve and as anyone who has seen a trailer for the film is well aware that Pine is back as Steve for this sequel, and seemingly hasn’t really aged. How can that be? Such is the plot of the film. The sense it offers is that the entire story was written as a way to bring Steve back rather than having him come back as a logical outgrowth of the goings-on.
I wish that I could explain to you exactly what is taking place in the movie, but the chief issue with “WW84” is that it is a two-and-a-half hour movie that still manages to not have enough time to discuss plot and motivations and character. So many scenes feel truncated, as though someone went in, found the bit where people offered reasons and explanations and showed depth, and decided to lift those moments out. Presumably there’s a “Jenkins Cut” somewhere which is way longer and gives the needed elements that are missing herein.
As it stands, Pedro Pascal is baddie Maxwell Lord, a guy who has found out about a stone that grants wishes. Don’t ask how or when or why this fraud of a man came across the stone, that’s not in the movie (which can barely bother with an explanation of why the thing might exist in the first place). Just accept that he knows about, that he steals it from Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who works at the Smithsonian with Diana, and wishes to become the stone itself… or for the stone to become him. Bad things ensue. A lot of them don’t make sense, but they ensue anyway.
By way of explanation for what the stone does, the film keeps coming back to the W.W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw” – yes, you can have your wish, but your wish is undoubtedly going to be turned against you. Maxwell’s goal is to control the backlash by being the backlash and by outrunning bad things via the wishes of others. There is no endgame here, just a need to keep running. It is a bad plan, ill explained and poorly executed. Pascal nearly sells it as his gusto is palpable, but it’s too much to ask of an actor.
Barbara, not knowing the power of the stone, also makes a wish. Her wish is to be like Diana, not knowing that Diana has superpowers. So, the unseen, unremembered, unthought of, Barbara Minerva becomes beautiful and powerful and loses her humanity and kindness (this has to be due to the exact wording of the wish because Diana Prince is incredibly empathetic). Wiig does everything she can with the role, but in a film which mostly exists without moments of self-reflection (it clearly occurs, but not on screen in a meaningful way for the audience), her character may require the most of that which is not there. The filmmakers fall so flat here that they don’t even have a good way to end her story. Instead, it just kind of stops.
What is present in the movie is fashion. The majority of the characters depicted, whether they have big parts or small, feel as though they could appear in a magazine spread for ’80s fashion. These are not people who just went out and bought clothes, they all bought the most 1980s clothes they could find. Like so much in the movie, it is 1980s excess rearing its ugly head, just in the form of double polo shirts with popped collars.
Notably, there’s one moment where the fashion element works. In a great series of scenes, Diana introduces Steve to the decade and many of the things he’s missed having been elsewhere for 70 years, and that includes finding him an appropriate outfit. It is a reversal of the original film where Steve had to help update Diana and works wonderfully. Pine plays these moments with such a degree of bemusement and giddiness that one can’t help but smile.
Gadot, who was so powerful in her previous appearances as Wonder Woman, feels smaller here. Diana has a major internal struggle with her own Monkey’s Paw issue, but again, this isn’t a movie that bothers very much with the internal, even for its lead character. The advantage to the approach is we don’t end up with Snyder’s broody Superman morass, the disadvantage is that the story as presented requires it. Gadot is still a force as Diana and Wonder Woman, but the movie feels less interested in her.
A superhero film, there are a number of actions sequences in “Wonder Woman 1984” and they’re all… okay. There is no “wow” moment, but on the plus side, there’s none of the tendency of the DCEU to create CGI destruction on a massive scale or with a computer generated baddie at the core (the MCU has had this issue as well). There is some poor green screen work though that is almost comically bad. Some might argue that it’s an attempt to utilize another aspect of the 1980s, but if so, it’s a terrible choice.
Other action sequences here make little sense and feel like bad choices as well. I cannot even attempt to explain how Maxwell’s final plan might function as any bit of logic I apply works against everything we see. But, even accepting it, there are still head-scratching elements. For instance, Maxwell has to scream in order to be heard over the ambient sounds in the room during the climax, but Diana can speak softly and still be heard.
For reasons “WW84” doesn’t bother to go into, after not being Wonder Woman for a while, in recent days Diana has decided to put back on the suit and work to help the world in secret. This is an awkward attempt to retcon the story into the larger DCEU where Diana explained to Batman that after WWI she hid for decades, not doing super stuff. One of the criticisms of this statement of hers was the idea that while she was willing to fight in First World War, she decided that she could let the Nazis be in the Second. As the camera pans around her apartment at the start of the movie—naturally she lives at The Watergate—we see her in a photo that very well may feature people liberated from a concentration camp (the camera doesn’t pause long enough to be certain after a single watching of the movie). Whether this is a way to excuse criticism or simply fan service, it feels to be speaking directly to the audience in a manner that is hugely awkward.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is not a bad movie, it’s just a disappointment. The issue that Jenkins and company faced making it is one that the DCEU hasn’t actually encountered before now – they had to make a sequel to a good movie instead of to a bad one. The first “Wonder Woman” is great. They had to work out a way to build on success instead of failure. It was about taking what worked and trying to make it bigger and better and more. It is the 1980s and, like that, there’s just a lot that didn’t really work out.
Heaven help me for saying this, but this may be a DCEU movie that plays better if it runs longer. There is a firm sense here (I have no proof, just a feeling) that so many of the plot’s shortcomings have been worked out and exist in the script (either filmed or not) but not the finished product. I would love to see a version of this story that goes more into motivations and feelings. What we have instead is strictly standard superhero fare and that’s not enough after Jenkins and Gadot’s last time out.
“Wonder Woman” was magic. “Wonder Woman 1984” is meh.
photo credit: Warner Bros.