REVIEW: 'Wonder Woman 1984' is the pick-me-up 2020 needed
It’s about damn time
I am many things, some good and some bad, but one thing I am definitely not, is patient. Sure, a little suspense can heighten excitement for an experience but the Wonder Woman 1984 release rollercoaster took building suspense to a whole new level.
The sequel to the 2017 smash- hit (which I can quote in my sleep) was originally slated to be released in November 2019, but Warner Brothers decided to move its release to June 5th 2020 to give director Patty Jenkins more time to complete the film’s extensive edit (in Patty we trust). When a little thing called the global pandemic happened, the movie’s release was moved to August, then October, and then finally the studio gave in and settled on a Christmas Day release, coupled with a launch on streaming platform HBO Max (for American viewers only).
While South Africa may be a while off from getting a Covid-19 vaccine, we did surprisingly get the movie a full nine days before the United States, so you know, small victories.
So here we are, more than a year after the first full official trailer was released, and we can finally say whether the sequel is worth the hype. In a bid to appease those who have seen it and those who haven’t, we’ve decided to break this review up into a spoiler free and spoiler rife section.
Spoiler free zone
(Within reason, I mean surely you’ve at least seen the trailer?)
What it’s all about
66 years after the gloomy colour palette and World War I setting of the first film, we find Princess Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) in the vibrant colour and unitard-filled world of 1980s America. She’s still going by her alter ego name, Diana Prince, somehow looking even more beautiful than in the first film, and quietly working as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, while living a fairly solitary and lonely life (all of her comrades from the first film are seemingly long gone). It’s here that she meets gemologist Dr Barbara Minerva, expertly played by SNL alum and my hero, Kristen Wiig.
The two lonely gals strike up a quick friendship, with Barbara completely mesmerised by Diana’s poise, confidence and ability to walk in stiletto heels (it sounds awkward but high heel references are galore in this film).
Without giving too much away, via some magical means (remember Diana is a literal demi-god so this isn’t that off brand) both women accidentally make wishes they never believe will actually come true, but do.
Barbara wishes to be more like Diana, effectively giving her her own set of superhuman powers, and Diana wishes for the return of her deceased one true love (and super hotty) World War I pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), something I can honestly say I’ve wished for as well…
Thrown into the mix is the film’s second villain, media entrepreneur and self-proclaimed oil millionaire Maxwell Lord, expertly played by Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian fame, who has plans to make some wishes of his own, with predictably disastrous, near world-ending consequences.
Is it as good as the first film?
To be fair to WW84, it had huge expectations to live up to. Not only is its predecessor one of the highest critically received DCEU (DC Extended Universe) films to date, WW84 also essentially had an entire extra year of hype built up around it. In fact, the initial teaser footage and the announcement of Pine’s return took place all the way back in 2018.
It’s not that the film isn’t good, in fact it’s actually one of my favourite superhero movies to date, it just lacked some of the key elements that made the first one shine, particularly when it comes to the character herself.
We’ve definitely graduated from the doe-eyed, naive “Diana trying ice-cream for the first time” character we came to love in the first film (I mean this is a full 66 years later) but the more confident, somewhat world-weary Diana somehow feels less nuanced than her earlier version.
As K. Austin Collins writes in Rolling Stone, “Diana Prince herself, as resumed by Gal Gadot, feels a little less complicated, her personality even more razor-focused, more straightforwardly virtuous, than before. It makes all the excitement that arises in the movie’s button-busting two-and-half-hour runtime feel somehow narrow, too, even as the premise expands.” The only times you really get to see some complexity in her character is when it comes to her miraculously resurrected forever bae Steve, but we are now straying into spoiler territory so you’ll have to read on below if you want to know more about the romantic subplot.
Another aspect that slightly falls short is a lot of the film’s large action sequences, which generally fail to live up to the stunning, fluid and frankly goose-bumps inducing sequences from number one (the scene of Diana coming over the trench into No Man’s Land should be inducted into a hall of fame somewhere). They’re not bad necessarily, in fact one flashback sequence on Diana’s homeland of Themyscira had me on the edge of my seat, but other than that they all felt a bit flat and been-there-done-that, probably as a result of the marketing team having to cut way more trailers than they initially expected and giving us more sneak peeks than we should have had i.e. incredible scenes of her literally lassoing lightening and wearing the stunning golden armour. As for the film’s final act and climatic action-sequence, I’m afraid it falls flat in the same way Diana’s battle with Aries, God of War did in number one, but more on that below.
On the upside, there were some aspects to the new film that blew the first one out of the water, namely, the villains. Kristen Wiig, while a surprising addition to the cast, shines as Barbara Minerva while she descends into darkness, but the truth is that it’s Pedro Pascal’s movie from his very first scene. The actor’s layered, charismatic and sometimes outright wacky portrayal of Maxwell Lord gives Wonder Woman the best superhero villain since, um, maybe ever? In fact, I’ll go so far as to say his complex and sometimes emotional storyline outshines Steve and Diana’s story at times, there I said it, no take backs! (More on his perfectly messed up character below).
As for the setting, Jenkins’ decision to set the film in Reagan’s 1984 America was an excellent choice to help further the story with the aid of Cold War-era suspicions and the overall greed of the time, “the answer is always more,” says Lord in one trailer. The film’s colourful pallet and sometimes downright goofy approach (like literal winks to its audience) look very 80s and make it feel like Jenkins is giving the middle finger to the rest of the overly-serious and literally dark DCEU.
This sequel feels like a natural and unique addition to the character’s story, but at the same time it’s the kind of blockbuster you could walk into and enjoy without having seen the previous one, a rarity in the age of meticulously planned out film series like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t have to be on the lookout for a hundred subtle easter eggs (though it is a pity if you don’t understand just how delightful a certain invisible jet or special cameo performance from a former Wonder Woman icon are).
So, do I think it’s better than the first one? No, but it’s not worse and that seems to be a pretty big achievement for the genre and especially the DCEU, so I can confirm that I will definitely give it a rewatch, or ten!
Spoiler-rife analysis, you know you love it
Let’s breakdown what makes this movie tick
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
The movie’s action picks up when the FBI asks Barbara and Diana (employees at the Smithsonian) to examine an unknown (frankly phallic looking) stone relic recovered from a mall raid that Diana coincidentally helped bust in the beginning of the film. The stone has an ancient latin inscription on it saying that it is able to grant wishes and the two actually make wishes, with no expectation of them coming true. Diana wordlessly wishes for Steve, whose pictures litter her apartment and who she longs for everytime she sees a plane flying by, and mousy, bespectacled, painfully awkward Barbara wishes to be “special” like Diana after developing a fascination with her new friend. Unbeknownst to the pair, their wishes are granted, complete with hair-blowing wind and whooshing sound a la Freaky Friday.
Badabing badabong, wishes granted! Steve is back (see below) and Barbara has a very Peter Parker like transformation, suddenly developing super strength, ripping her fridge door off by accident, mastering skyscraper heels and no longer needing to wear glasses. Side note: what is it with superhero movies and their obsession with glasses?? Sadly it isn’t long before the power drives her to the dark side and she becomes one of Wonder Woman’s most iconic villains, Cheetah.
While Barbara and Diana are oblivious to the real power of the stone, oil company fraud Max Lord knows all too well about its appearances throughout history in places like ancient Rome and the Mayan Empire (notably places where civilisation largely collapsed, red flag alert) and aims to use it to help him achieve success and power. He does this by posing as a benefactor to the museum and seducing Barbara rather awkwardly in her office before stealing the stone. He then uses it to wish that he himself is the stone, destroying the actual relic in the process and allowing him the power to grant the wish of anyone touches him, after which he takes what he wants in return. I don’t really understand this part of the plan but it’s best to not overthink it…
Steve is back!
I’m a sucker for a good love story (and a good ol’ dose of Steve Trevor) so the announcement that Chris Pine was returning for the sequel despite having sacrificed himself and dying in the first film was fantastic news for me. While theories over how he could be back were rife over the last two years (I for one am glad that the “it’s Steve’s identical great grandson” theory wasn’t true), the magic-stone-wish route is a pretty neat way to get around the whole him being dead thing.
Technically, Steve himself isn’t back, but rather his spirit has taken over the body of another man already living in Washington. Thankfully Diana is so in love that she (and we) only see Chris Pine and not the weird new body Steve. WW84 then cleverly reverses the characters’ roles from the first film, and instead of Steve teaching a naive Diana about the world and war in 1918, this time Diana helps fish out of water Steve adjust to the 80s. While he seems to get over the fact that he’s been reincarnated really quickly, he instead freaks out over escalators, punk hairstyles and fanny packs (though his reaction to “modern” planes and space travel is truly heartwarming).
It’s easy to see why Patty Jenkinson found a loophole to bring him back, Pine and Gadot have the best romantic chemistry I’ve seen and any scene with them is a delight, which is maybe why I felt that I was left wanting more… Some of the reviews I’ve read said that the running time of 151 minutes could have been cut short, including scenes of the reunited couple, but I disagree and would gladly have sat through more scenes of the pair getting to enjoy their extra time together. Sadly there isn’t a tender moment between the two in this film to rival the gorgeous dancing-in-the-snow-turned-hookup scene from the first film (in fact the closest we get is seeing the lovers lying in bed talking about pop tarts) and that’s kind of upsetting because it means the hottest scene we get is Maxwell and Barbara’s awkward office hookup… but I digress.
As expected Diana and Steve’s storyline is the heart and soul of the film and largely the driving force for Diana’s character development, especially when the pair realise Diana’s wish came at a cost. She’s losing her superhuman abilities and humanity’s last defense as a result. In the first film Steve’s sacrifice of his life and declaration of love inspired Diana to accept humanity’s flaws and fight for its survival, and in WW84 it’s Diana’s turn to make a sacrifice, having to choose between her own happiness (Steve) and the greater good (her powers).
The choice might seem pretty obvious (um humankind?) but relinquishing her wish and losing the love of her life for a second time almost proves too much for the Amazonian, “I give everything, every day, and I’m happy to do it, but this is the only thing I ask for,” she tells Steve in one heartbreaking scene.
Obviously I wanted the couple to have a happy ending, but realistically rewriting the end of the last film, which was such a formative moment for the character, would have been disingenuous. Losing Steve again was clearly the right move, and packs a pretty emotional punch (I’m not crying you’re crying).
The cat’s out the bag
As stated above the film’s villains are really excellent. Wiig as Barbara Minerva goes from goofy and likeable to sleek and scary without skipping a beat, but sadly the wheels come off a bit in the film’s final act. When Barbara realises what her wish has granted her, and that Diana’s efforts to destroy the stone (Lord) will take her newfound power away, she decides to team up with Maxwell Lord instead. That’s all fine and dandy but then for whatever reason she makes a second wish to become… a literal cheetah person?
Frankly I think Jenkins could have used some artistic license and just had Barbara stay human and take on Diana in like a cheetah print leotard or something (Carol Baskin style), but I suppose that might have set off the die-hard comic fans.
Much like the first film, the climactic battle scene feels to fall flat a bit, odd considering how much teasing went into Cheetah’s final form over the last year. Frankly, the CGI rendering of Cheetah was a little lame for me, and totally throws off the final fight scene (it’s like watching Cats all over again). It feels like the editors themselves doubted their rendering of Cheetah, suddenly plunging the characters into literal darkness for their unnecessarily spinny fight scene, and then even submerging them underwater. Anyway just hang tight it does eventually end.
A villain for the ages
And by ages I mean the 80s and now. After a pretty politically turbulent year for America, you can’t help but note some similarities between Lord and a certain outgoing President…“I am not a con man! I am a television personality and a respected businessman!,” he screams at one point, as well as freaking out anytime dares to call him a “loser”.
I could be overthinking it though because that is where the similarities end, and Lord’s story actually tugs on your heart strings a bit. While he is happy to destroy the world with his super convoluted and somewhat confusing plan (using imaginary satellite technology to grant millions of people’s literal wishes and starting nuclear war globally as a result), Diana learns his main goal is proving himself to be successful after a life spent with an abusive father, mercilessly being bullied for being poor, and a real burning desire to be successful and make his own young son proud of him.
In a really refreshing ending, Diana realises Lord is too powerful and she can’t actually stop him, even after regaining her powers. Instead, she shows him images of his son and trusts Lord will do the right thing, which he does, and he relinquishes his wish and powers.
There’s no running from the truth
While the first movie’s theme was without a doubt love, the second one is definitely truth. As Diana’s beloved aunt Antiope tells her in the film’s opening scene, “nothing good is born from lies”, effectively setting up the overall theme of the film. It’s about the value of truth, the courage it takes to face it, and the peace that can come with accepting it. As all of the characters learn after making their respective wishes, there are downfalls to excess, instant gratification and getting what you’ve always wanted. There is always a price to be paid.
In the end, Wonder Woman 1984 is a colourful, fun and inspiring cinematic superhero experience, and a great way to cap off a year that’s been pretty awful. It succeeds in being what superhero movies are supposed to be, pure escapism, and who doesn’t need that in 2020?
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