Movie Review - Wonder Woman 1984
Even though this review is a little late…2 years to be exact…I can’t help but find it appropriate that Wonder Woman 1984 is my follow-up to my Black Adam review. Why? Well, it all has to do with comic book movie tropes, but before we go any deeper, how’s about a synopsis?
What’s the harm in a little wish? Apparently plenty as Wonder Woman is forced to emerge from the shadows for the first time since World War 1. Maxwell Lord is in pursuit of an ancient relic that can grant wishes, created long ago by a chaotic deity. On a mad quest for money and power, Max finds a way to not only grant wishes but also to inflict their Monkey’s Paw-like consequences in any way he sees fit. Even Diana cannot resist the lure, bringing back her long lost love, Steve Trevor. Can these star-crossed lovers find a way to reverse all these wishes before civilization collapses?
There’s a throughline in nearly every comic book movie arc. The first movie is the introduction and origin story, the second is the loss of powers and the third is the ‘dark mirror’ where the hero is forced to fight either their own dark side or an evil double/duplicate. Wonder Woman 1984 manages to combine both the tropes of the second and third movie into her sophomore outing, meeting with very meh results. This is why I said earlier that this is a good follow-up to Black Adam: both are heavy on tropes and formula, but where Black Adam has enough going for it where you can overlook them, the same can’t be said for WW84. Let’s see if I can pin down why.
The film opens with a gorgeous sequence on Themyscira during a contest amongst the Amazons. The point of this opening is to give us our first dose of the themes here, there are no shortcuts and the importance of the truth. But it’s the following scene that bugs me…and I never noticed it during my first viewing. You see, the film opens with Wonder Woman stealthily helping in various chaotic situations throughout Washington DC, where she’s made her home. Unfortunately, this comes off almost exactly like the opening to Superman III…perhaps not quite as slapstick as that older film, but certainly a little too close to it for comfort. This gives way to the first action sequence of the film, a theft of priceless antiques from a mall. What unfolds here has tongue planted firmly in cheek with plenty of winks and smiles. Look, I don’t want to come off as one of these GrimDark fanboys that are a dime a dozen on the web because, yes, we do need comic book movies with lighter tones. Not everything needs to be dark and grimy and raining and gravelly voices…does it, BATMAN??? Ahem…excuse me. However, when the preceding Superman III-esque scene leads into this one, it kinda feels like too much, too soon. Not helping is the fact that the mall sequence also seems to be retro for retro’s sake. Hey, look, an old-school arcade! Oh, man, do you remember Waldenbooks? Dude, Orange Julius! I’m first to admit that now that I’m in my forties, I’m in the age group that they’re pandering to and yes, usually I bite on it hook, line and sinker. Hell, I got a huge grin from the Waldenbooks sign given how many hours of my youth I spent there. Yet somehow in this instance it managed to rub me the wrong way…it felt…disingenuous, like they threw it in there not out of a shared nostalgia but instead simply because ‘hey, we heard 80s nostalgia is testing well with audiences so we’re just gonna leave this hear for you plebes to enjoy’.
As we get into the film proper, we see Diana’s interactions with a new co-worker, Barbara Minerva. Now, long time comics fans know exactly what this means and yes, we do end up getting Cheetah in this movie…but you’ll notice that she’s not in the synopsis I provided above. Why? I honestly can’t say. I mean, I get that she’s actually a great counterpoint to Diana in the film. She starts off as dorky and overlooked…easily forgotten, thus her longing to be like Diana is a great fit for the main threat that Maxwell Lord presents: the cost of wishes. When she wishes to be like Diana, even though she had no idea of Diana’s powers, as those powers develop Barbara slowly loses her humanity, finally becoming the half-woman, half-cat we know as the Cheetah just in time for the final battle. Story-wise, we’re certainly carried up to a certain point, Minerva says she wants to be unlike anyone else, an apex predator and then, when we see her next, boom…Cheetah. I guess it just feels like there’s a step missing. Like, did she have a fondness for The Island of Dr. Moreau? Was she a furry? I feel like we need just one more little shred of information here because I can’t think of anyone I’ve known, if given the chance, wishing they were a half-human half-animal hybrid. [Granted, your friends are geeks like you and have seen more than their fair share of horror and sci-fi films that have pretty consistently come to the conclusion that this is a horrible, horrible idea that never ends well. – Ed.] Huh…nearly forgot my point. Minerva here serves as that dark duplicate that we generally see in the third movie, not the second. And given how her themes tie in so well to Lord’s, she doesn’t feel forced into the film…like, say Venom in Spider-Man 3. Somehow though, that missing step in logic kind of has her character falling flat by the end of the film.
One interesting thing WW84 tries to do is present us with an imperfect hero. In the comic book world, this is why Marvel started overtaking DC in the comics market in the 60s and 70s and many of their heroes were indeed imperfect. Wonder Woman, being a member of DC’s Trinity, has found herself in this role with varying degrees of success. And honestly, it should work here. She wishes for Steve to come back at the cost of her powers slowly fading away and even when it becomes apparent to her that the only way to reverse the process and save the world is to let him go again, she fights that prospect tooth and claw. I get that…I really do. I stayed in a relationship well past its expiration date at the expense of my mental health simply because I thought I’d never find anyone again. It’s a real thing and I totally feel for Diana as she goes through that too. But there’s something about how it’s written that feels almost…hypocritical. Now, I’m not sure it’s because our onscreen heroes are supposed to be our ideals…so, while not perfect, still come to these conclusions faster than we do and make the sacrifice, knowing full well the cost…or if it’s a failure of how the point is trying to be conveyed, but yeah, there’s a stench of hypocrisy when Diana is asking for others to let go of their wishes while she still clings tightly to hers. Perhaps a good contrast here would be Superman II. In that film, Clark brings up the same arguments to his father, Jor-El, that Diana poses here. I make sacrifices every day, don’t I deserve some shred of happiness as a reward? It’s a fair question and yes, Superman makes the same mistake that Diana does here, relinquishing powers for the chance at happiness with the person they love. Perhaps the difference here is that Clark is both stoic and determined: I screwed up so I MUST find a way to make this right. Diana on the other hand almost feels kind of whiney about it. The stoic acceptance still comes and she ultimately does the right thing…I just can’t help but feeling that the scene where this finally occurs is overwritten, wrenching all the emotion out of it as they can and, unfortunately, the side effect of doing this is that it does cast Wonder Woman in a slightly hypocritical light.
There is one last thing to talk about…and I suspect it’s why this film is given the harsh treatment that it doesn’t entirely deserve. It tries to offer up a commentary on modern society, where we find ourselves now…be it in our consumerism, our selfishness or our distinct lack of empathy and civil discourse. That being said, it’s certainly appropriate to set such a commentary in the 1980s where consumerism was just as rampant and the motto “Greed is good” issued forth and gained traction. There’s another thing linking the 80s with the current era: Donald Trump. Believe me, it takes no great stretch of the imagination that Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is based on the former president…and it pulls no punches in that regard. The question that arises from that is ‘Is it acceptable for comic book movies to do that?’ My answer kind of straddles the line. On the one hand, yes, of course. Comics have offered commentary on contemporary issues throughout their history, it’d be wrong if comic book movies didn’t do the same. Not only should it be acceptable, but it’s a necessary thing. This kind of commentary is far more likely to change minds or influence decisions more than the current news media will, as most of those are their own self-contained echo chambers. My reason against though comes two-fold. First, it dates the work. Future viewers may need to brush up on their history before seeing the point presented here which, depending on how history goes, may still be pertinent (making the film a classic) or may have already been solved (making the film a relic and easily forgotten). My second concern is, quite simply, born of fatigue. In the past 8-ish years, I’ve found myself looking for more and more escapes from the news around me. If my escape, in this instance movies, start allowing the real world to seep in…even if it's to make a good valid point, then how fulfilling is the escape? In a way, I can’t fault WW84 for the message and criticisms its trying to send…because I agree with them! Did they need to be so pointed, so very specific? Maybe…but that’s also going to trim your audience and definitely rile up the internet hate machine.
So, is Wonder Woman 1984 as bad as you’ve heard. No, definitely not. However, between its reliance on comic book movie tropes and writing that misses as much as it hits, it’s a hard one to recommend. There are certainly things to like here. Gal Gadot continues to do well in the role and her chemistry with Chris Pine is just as fantastic as it was in the first film. Both Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal portray their villains well. However the film just feels…off. Maybe it needed a couple of more drafts to the script? Who can say. Unfortunately, where Black Adam felt like tropes done well, WW84 just feels like tropes…and that’s a mixed bag. Some you don’t mind, but some are dull and boring. It’s this sophomore slump that prevents the film getting one of our higher ratings…but we can’t hate on it like everyone else has either. Thus, this film exists…the very essence of our Plain Cat rating.