2020 began with a number of exciting blockbusters scheduled for release. But then COVID-19 hit leading to one disappointing postponement after another. Warner Bros. was bold enough to test the big screen waters in early September with Christopher Nolan’s big budget mindbender “Tenet”. But its sagging box office numbers showed other studios that many anxious moviegoers simply weren’t comfortable returning to the theaters. That proved to be the final nail in the coffin for 2020 Hollywood tent-poles.
Well, it was ‘almost’ the final nail. “Wonder Woman 1984” was still slated for a Christmas Day release but in this crazy year nothing is for certain. And then came the earth-shaking announcement that Warner Bros. would be releasing its entire lineup of delayed 2020 movies throughout 2021 in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming platform on the same day. They went on to say the move was kicking off with “WW84” on December 25th. And just like that one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters was only a few weeks away.
Making a sequel to 2017’s “Wonder Woman” was never going to be easy. Minus its bombastic CGI-heavy finale, the first film is easily in the top-tier of the superhero genre. It was a movie that entertained and inspired; one that felt remarkably fresh yet captured the essence of its comic book source material. It was wonderfully directed by Patty Jenkins who became the first woman to direct a major American superhero flick. And of course it starred the impeccably cast Gal Gadot who instantly became Wonder Woman, not just for a new generation but for old die-hards as well.
All of that brings me to the long-awaited sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984”. Most of the key ingredients for a fun and exhilarating follow-up are back. It again sees Patty Jenkins directing and co-writing. It sees Gal Gadot returning as the film’s titular character. It still inspires and in its own unique way still feels fresh. But sadly this time around too many things don’t click. Too many good ideas simply don’t come together. And it can’t quite reach its own lofty ambitions. In the end “WW84” left me fascinated yet baffled; entertained but ultimately disappointed.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is a strange movie. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s strange in terms of story, in terms of structure, in terms of tone. It tries to do so much but it struggles to balance it all. So we end up getting its ideas in segmented chunks. First we get a lengthy prologue set in Themyscira. Next it spends time having fun with its main story’s 1980’s setting. Then it reintroduces Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor who does the ‘fish out of water’ thing. Then it takes its serious turn leading to its inevitable action-packed finish. The nostalgic 80’s playfulness and quirky sense of humor is pretty much restricted to the first half and then all but vanishes in the film’s more serious second leg.
After the prologue which is basically there to lay out the story’s main theme, the timeline shifts to 1984. Diana Prince (Gadot) now works as a head anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. She still fights crime on the side as Wonder Woman but keeps a low profile (somehow no one has noticed her? No one?). Some of the film’s more moving moments are when it emphasizes Diana’s loneliness. Despite her prominent position at the museum and a beauty untouched by age that grabs the attention of countless men (crappy ones included), Diana remains isolated and heartbroken, still feeling the loss of her boyfriend Steve from decades earlier.
Diana sympathetically befriends a sheepish new co-worker named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Her character is a fairly familiar one for people who have watched superhero movies. She’s awkward and insecure; a bit nerdy and basically overlooked by everyone other than Diana. Think Jamie Foxx’s Electro or Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. While discussing a believed-to-be worthless rock, Diana and Barbara unwittingly trigger the stone’s wish-granting properties. Diana wishes that Steve was alive while Barbara wishes she had Diana’s beauty and strength, not knowing that Diana was actually a super-powered Amazon.
One person who does know the stone’s power is failing businessman and television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). He manipulates Barbara and is able to secure the stone for himself. He then wishes to be the very embodiment of the stone giving him the power to grant people’s wishes and taking whatever he wants as payment. Pascal makes for a deliciously campy megalomaniac especially in his early scenes. Unfortunately he loses some of his appeal once the film tosses aside its sense of humor.
Wiig is really good channeling the two sides of Barbara. She delivers several good laughs as the timid yet slyly charming outcast and then has a blast as the super confident “apex predator” who grows more and more enamored with her new self. Meanwhile Diana’s wish comes true when Steve’s soul returns in another man’s body. Visually we basically see what Diana sees in her heart which means we see Chris Pine. There are so many obvious questions about this that the movie avoids. Basically Pine is here for comic relief and only in the later scenes does he become something more than a punchline. Ultimately his value as a character is seen in how he changes Diana. How his very presence brings her the joy and happiness she’s been missing. And how the thought of losing him is more than she can bear. So while Pine is clowning it’s Gadot who gives us our emotional connection.
The story takes its serious turn as Lord becomes obsessed with gaining (of course) more power. “Why not more? Why not wish for more?” He begins targeting world leaders, granting their wishes then broadsiding them with his demands (the film has some fun dabbling in the world politics of 1984). And the further he pushes his lust for control the closer society comes to a full-on collapse. Sadly Wiig gets back-burned during most of this with Barbara basically reserved for action scene duty and not much more. And then there is the ending. Absolutely no spoilers here, but let’s just say it leaves glaring questions that seem like oversights rather than narrative choices.
In one sense I absolutely love the look of the film. Some of the DC movies have been criticized for their dark and gloomy palettes. Not this one. “WW84” is bright and vibrant. Its colors pop off the screen in ways fitting of its neon-loving 80’s setting. But then you get to the special effects, a head-scratching mixed bag of bad character design (sorry Cheetah) to jarringly obvious CGI. It stands out most when Diana is running at super high speeds. Her motions are strangely out of whack, as if she were running in place on a stage and then digitally added to the scene. While there isn’t a ton of action in “WW84”, we do get a couple of exciting scenes, one in a shopping mall and one in the White House, that helps overlook the rougher stuff.
To be clear I did like “WW84”. I like its big-hearted and hopeful message. I still love Patty Jenkins. I still think Gal Gadot is some of the best casting in the entire superhero genre.￼ She carries the movie with an effortless grace. It’s some of the moving parts and the shaky structure around her that unavoidably leaves this feeling like a letdown. Still, there is real entertainment value in breezy big-budget escapism especially after a year like 2020. “WW84” certainly supplies that. But after the greatness of the first film, don’t blame us for expecting more. “Wonder Woman 1984” premieres Christmas day in theaters and on HBO Max.
VERDICT – 3 STARS