REVIEW: “Wrath of Man” (2021)

When it comes to action stars Jason Statham just has “it”. I can’t clearly define what “it” is, but you know it when you see it. It’s a healthy mix of charisma, grit, and physicality. Since Statham’s leading man breakthrough in 2002’s “The Transporter”, he has shown over and over that his anti-hero brand is more than enough to carry an action flick. Even more, he often brings a sharp wit and a surprisingly disarming charm to his usually hard-nosed characters.

That being said, you won’t see a glimmer of that sly humor or charm in his new film “Wrath of Man”. This action thriller directed, co-written, and co-produced by Guy Ritchie is darker and edgier than any of Statham’s lighter, albeit violent affairs. The film (a remake of 2004 French film “Le Convoyeur”) marks the fourth collaboration between Statham and Ritchie, their first since 2005’s “Revolver”. And it seems they already have another movie in the can that we’ll probably see sometimes in 2022.

If you break it down “Wrath of Man” is part revenge film, part heist flick, part hard-boiled crime thriller. Its time-hopping narrative is built around two interwoven stories with Statham’s character being the connecting tissue. He plays the cold, stone-faced Harry “H” Hill who we first meet as he’s interviewing for a position with Fortico Securities, an armored truck company who transports money for banks and businesses all across Los Angeles. It’s a dangerous line of work as evident by a recent robbery that resulted in two company drivers and one civilian being gunned down. Here’s the catch, the dead civilian was H’s son and now the vengeful father is determined to find out who pulled the trigger.

H gets the job and is immediately put under the wing of Bullet (Holt McCallany), a chatty seasoned driver who shows him the ropes. Later H is paired with the big-talking Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) and immediately proves his value by single-handedly thwarting an armed robbery, killing all six of the thieves. Just like that, the other drivers learn H can carry his own weight and he’s not somebody you mess with. At the same time he’s still a mystery both to them and to us. So Ritchie jumps back in time, dedicating a chapter to unpacking H’s backstory. And then you get more time-jumping as Ritchie tells a second story about a group of disgruntled military vets (led by Jeffrey Donovan and a very good Scott Eastwood). Andy Garcia even pops up as a crime boss fittingly named The King.

All of this could have turned into an indulgent convoluted mess, but to Ritchie‘s credit he along with co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies keeps everything coherent and engaging. He still packs the movie with many of his favorite ingredients – a meaty ensemble cast, snarky dialogue, offbeat nicknames, non-linear storytelling. And to add a little extra flair Ritchie tosses in some fun and fitting chapter titles like “dark spirit” and “scorched earth”. At the same time, the macho wisecracking does wear a little thin (particularly in the first half) and there are a handful of plot holes that left me shaking my head.

Still “Wrath of Man” is an all-around solid effort from Guy Ritchie and a return (of sorts) to his earlier form. It’s also a lot different than your standard Statham beat-em-up. It trucks along with a relentlessly grim tone, never winking at the camera, and leaving none of its characters with completely clean hands. And it’s centered by Statham, whose stoic, hard-as-granite exterior fits perfectly in Ritchie’s bloody world where crime thrives and violence begets violence. “Wrath of Mine” arrives in theaters on May 7th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Without Remorse” (2021)

Over the last few years we’ve seen an emergence of new young action stars. And while many of them cut their teeth playing Marvel superheroes, they’ve also ventured out to make more grounded old-school action flicks. Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, and now Michael B. Jordan are (thankfully) too talented to be confined to one category. Yet they’ve shown themselves to have the physicality and steely presence to carry these kinds of movies and they are helping to breathe new life into the action genre.

Jordan’s latest film “Without Remorse” lands on Amazon Prime this weekend and it packs a formulaic old-school feel. It’s based on a 1993 Tom Clancy novel and is co-written for the screen by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples. It’s helmed by Italian director Stefano Sollima who (along with Sheridan) also made the underrated “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”. Original slated for a theatrical release by Paramount, the distribution rights were sold to Amazon after multiple COVID-19 delays.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Jordan plays Senior Chief John Kelly, a member of an elite Navy SEAL team who we first meet in war-torn Aleppo, Syria. Their team is called in to carry out a cut-and-dry hostage rescue, but during the mission John’s unit are surprised by Russian military forces protecting a secret arms depot. An exchange of fire results in Russian casualties which sets in motion a series of events that will forever change John’s life.

Back home in Washington DC some three months later, John is contemplating leaving the military for a new job in private security. He and his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) are only a few weeks away from welcoming their first child and John is ready for life as a family man. Sadly that’s a pipe dream for lead characters in these types of movies. The past comes back to haunt John when armed Russian assassins, in retaliation for the Aleppo encounter, murder his wife and leave him for dead. John’s life is saved but all that he loved is gone.

After a lengthy and painful rehab, a tortured and revenge-thirsty John is determined to find the people responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child. “They crossed the line. They brought their war to my house” But he finds himself caught in the gears of bureaucracy as the CIA and Department of Defense hash out a ‘proper’ response. Guy Pearce plays a frustrated Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay who is willing to slightly step outside the lines to get answers. Jamie Bell plays the perpetual fly in the ointment Robert Ritter, a weaselly CIA agent who always knows more than he’s letting on and is constantly handcuffing any progress in the name of government protocol.

John’s quest for vengeance thrusts him head-first into a world of shady geopolitics, where heads of power secretly move their pawns around the global stage with impunity. At first John takes matters into his own hands, but that comes with consequences and proves to be too big for him to handle alone. So despite the concerns of his commander and close friend Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Jack is put on her team to go behind Russian lines to extract an ex-Spetznaz agent linked to the killing of his wife and others on American soil. But for him it quickly becomes a battle of personal payback versus mission integrity.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Without Remorse” has a broader and more sprawling story than you might expect. Not just in terms of global scale, but in its telling of John’s story. It covers a lot of ground with the character and Jordan’s gritty determined performance carries us through. The political side of the story can get a little muddy and at times is too thinly written for us to be invested. But the meat and potatoes of the story is Jordan embodying a character driven by anger and pain yet trapped within a dubious yet powerful system that calls the shots.

And of course there is the action, consisting of several fiercely kinetic gun fights and a couple of exhilarating set pieces (my favorite being a superbly shot plane crash in the Barents Sea). Jordan sells it all with intensity and ferocity to spare. He leaves us wanting more which is a good thing considering the mid-credits scene we get. It not only hints at a franchise but teases a specific something that will leave a certain segment of entertainment fandom chomping at the bit. “Without Remorse” premieres Friday (April 30th) on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Watchmen” (2009)

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“Watchmen”, the critically acclaimed comic book limited series from the creative duo of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was always something I admired more than I loved. But there’s no denying the mark it left on the industry. Told through twelve issues that were published from September 1986 through October 1987, “Watchmen” was a complex sociopolitical story that director Terry Gilliam once called “unfilmable”. Yet 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, and finally DC Comics sister-company Warner Brothers all took their shot at a big screen adaptation.

“Watchmen” eventually went to Zack Snyder whose bold style made him both perfect for the material and a question mark. There was no doubt he could create a visually immersive world fitting of Moore’s vision. But could he wrangle together Moore’s fascinating yet complicated narrative? For the most part yes, but much like the highly esteemed comic series, that too is complicated.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The film is a dystopian neo-noir that skips along an alternate reality timeline. The bulk of the film takes place in 1985 at the height of the Cold War. Nuclear paranoia hangs over the globe as the United States and the Soviets wave their sizable nuclear arsenals at one another while a doomsday clock ticks down to the projected Armageddon. Meanwhile costumed heroes, who for years impacted world events from the Vietnam War to Watergate, have been forced into retirement by the government. So the hero-less world sits and waits for what seems like its inevitable doomsday.

That’s a really broad summary of the backstory and setting which actually plays a significant role in the film. Numerous references to the past and meaningful flashbacks take us as far back as 1939 to introduce us to a superhero team called the Minutemen. A montage tells us of their glory days and their tragic demise. At one point we stop in 1959 to witness a lab accident that transforms nuclear physicist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into the glowing blue matter-bending Doctor Manhattan. We learn of the formation of the next wave of crimefighters called the Watchmen who are forced to disband in 1977 after “costume adventuring” is ruled illegal. This is just some of the table-setting and world-building that packs weight on this densely plotted story.

Back to 1985, reverberations from the past are constantly being felt and some old wounds are opened up when a former Watchmen named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is beat to a pulp and thrown to his death from his top floor apartment. His murder barely leaves a mark with his former teammates save for Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a part masked vigilante and part sociopath who operates like a hard-boiled 1940’s private detective. Rorschach’s investigation leads him to believe that someone from their past is targeting the Watchmen. So he sets out to warn his ex-partners, Silk Spectre (Malin Åkerman) whose mother was an original member of the Minutemen, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) who still struggles to find his place in a post-Watchmen society, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a billionaire entrepreneur and the world’s smartest man, and the unintentionally cold apathetic Doctor Manhattan who is preoccupied with something a tad more….global.

The film’s central story quickly turns into a murder mystery with a handful of interesting twists and a few conspiracies to unearth along the way. But there’s much more going on which Snyder along with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse manage to fit it with varying degrees of success. The movie shines brightest as a gritty and cerebral deconstruction of the now lucrative superhero genre. It also questions our real-life concept of “heroes” and challenges several societal constructs. And while there is no overtly political message, it does examine political power and how quickly it can be swayed in one direction or another. All of these things were fundamental to Moore’s series and Snyder makes sure they’re present in his film as well.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

But while Snyder has brought this “unfilmable” story to the screen in the best way imaginable, he still can’t entirely keep it from feeling a bit cramped even at 160 minutes. Part of it is due to his faithfulness to the source material. While a couple of changes were made to the story and some action scenes extended, Snyder generally sticks to the look, themes, and tone of the comic. But this means pouring a lot in and covering a ton of ground some of which is inevitably shortchanged. And that same allegiance to the material means he covers some things the movie could have done without. For instance a certain romance springs up between two key characters that is a big part of the story. They aren’t the most convincing pairing mainly because the movie wastes time on sex scenes that could have been better used elsewhere in their relationship. But these scenes were in the comic so…..

Still I can’t overstate the challenge of bringing “Watchmen” to the screen which makes what Snyder has done here all the more impressive. His filmmaking strengths are vividly on display as “Watchmen” looks incredible and the world he visualizes is compelling and immersive. The characters are given a surprising amount of attention and the performances are strong (maybe a quibble of two with Matthew Goode but that’s it). Still, this is a jam-packed movie that gives you lots of plot often with little time to process what you’re given. There is a 215-minute “Ultimate Cut” out there that may solve some of these problems, but I’ll let you find that out for yourselves.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “WandaVision” (2021)

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I think it’s safe to say that we have reached a point to where everything Marvel Studios touches turns to gold. You could say one reason is because the mastermind behind the MCU Kevin Feige and his team of creators have defined the superhero movie genre for an entire generation. For better or for worse, Marvel has set a standard so high that many audiences reject (almost out of compulsion) any other unique vision or approach to the genre. Don’t believe me? Ask the DCEU. Movies like the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!” (which you could argue is the most MCU movie of their entire catalog) aside, much of the DCEU has been met with at least some resistance (and in many cases tons).

But not so for Marvel. Part of it is due to the allegiance of dedicated fans (and in some cases critics) who heartily embrace anything (and I do mean anything) the studio does. But it’s also because Marvel has been synonymous with quality and they’ve truly done something incredible with the MCU. While they aren’t always scrutinized the way they could be, MCU films are routinely good and always entertaining. They’ve done well casting their characters and picking the big screen stories they want to tell.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

After all they have done to change the superhero blockbuster landscape, now they look to do the same to episodic streaming. “WandaVision” marks the first of several limited streaming series coming to Disney+. Its story is told over nine episodes and the series was advertised as something we’ve never seen before from the MCU. We were also told it would have major repercussions for Phase Four (or whatever Marvel is calling this) and future storylines. The series brings together two second-tier characters from the Marvel films (and two of my favorites from the comics) and in a snap moved them higher up on the MCU food chain. But that doesn’t mean “WandaVision” is without flaws.

The series was presented in a half-hour television sitcom format with Matt Shakman directing each. It was given a hefty budget which becomes more obvious the deeper we get into the story. But most importantly, the series brings back the two stars from the MCU movies, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision. Obviously seeing them both together in a post-“Endgame” story raises a TON of questions and adds even more appeal. Olsen and Bettany had good chemistry in the movies but here they really shine, even as the show’s sitcom gimmick starts to wear thin.

“WandaVision” is built on a big central mystery so getting too far into the plot could potentially spoil its effect. Essentially the setup is this: mere weeks after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” Wanda and Vision are living a happy suburban life in the small idyllic town of Westview, New Jersey. In an effort to fit in, both hide their identities from their neighbors and townsfolk. But here’s the catch, their life plays out like a TV sitcom complete with opening credits and laugh tracks. Each episode (minus the final two) is set in a new decade which the sitcom framework conveys. For example, episode 1 is presented in 4:3 black-and-white and is riffing on 1950’s television, specifically “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with a dash of “Leave it to Beaver”. Episode 2 moves to the 1960’s evoking “I Love Lucy”. Episode 3 shifts to color and has a “The Brady Bunch” vibe. And so on…

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

At first this comical conceit is a lot of fun, but it slowly and steadily runs out of gas especially when Wanda and Vision begin noticing something is off in their seemingly television-perfect life together. Whether it’s the behavior from the reoccurring characters who pop back up in every decade (none better than Kathryn Hahn’s quintessential nosy neighbor Agnes), Wanda’s instant pregnancy, or creepy unexplainable visions. The mystery of what’s going on in Westview quickly becomes the most interesting component of the show. Yet “WandaVision” sticks with the nostalgic sitcom gag all the way through episode 7. And when over half of these roughly 30 minute episodes is spent laughing and nodding at decades of sitcom history it leaves little time to dig into the much more compelling elements of the story.

In fairness, the sitcom bits aren’t arbitrary. The show does eventually connect them and add context to their existence. In other words they make sense. But on a week-by-week basis they do account for a lot of the running time. The scraps are given to agents of S.W.O.R.D. who set up a base outside of Westview to monitor what’s going on there. They’re led by the blandly antagonistic Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg). These scenes also feature three returning MCU side characters: the equally bland FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), a returning but inconsequential Darcy Lewis (Kay Dennings), and one of the show’s most intriguing pieces Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Paris). Monica was the adorable little girl from “Captain Marvel”. Now she’s grown up and clearly has a big future ahead in the MCU.

The last two episodes are the longest and finally give us some needed answers while revealing who has been pulling all of the strings. This is the series at its best, wrapping up some story angles, leaving others wide open, and introducing some ‘magical’ new elements into the MCU that is sure to have some long-lasting impact. It also features an eye-popping final showdown that truly is unlike anything the MCU has done before. It’s where the show’s bigger budget can be seen the most.

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Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Not everything wraps up quite so nicely. A couple of characters just up and vanish in the final episode (at least one has an excuse we can halfway buy). There’s also the unavoidable question of where are Wanda’s friends from the Avengers? Yes Thor is in space, Cap is old, etc. But no one saw what was going on or felt the need to check on Wanda? Also the finale exposes a certain mid-series surprise appearance to be nothing more than a shameless attention-grab. It earned Marvel plenty of headlines and online chatter but weakly ended as a lame anatomy joke reminiscent of something you would see on Beavis and Butthead.

Hiccups aside, “WandaVision” still accomplishes what it sets out to do: 1) Show that streaming episodic television is an exciting an effective means of telling fresh MCU stories and filling out their large sprawling universe. 2)  It fleshes out Wanda and Vision, not so much their backstories but their relationship which is the true centerpiece of the series. “WandaVision” adds a much-needed layer of humanity between them that earns our empathy and makes them big players moving forward. 3) It moves the MCU forward in a meaningful way and with potentially far-reaching implications. All together “WandaVision” may not be the most seamless television series experience. But it does expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an exciting way while setting the table for the slew of other Marvel streaming shows on the horizon. “WandaVision” is streaming now on Disney+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Wild Indian” (2021)

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Written, directed, produced, and co-edited by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian” tells the unsettling story of two men inextricably linked by a violent crime from their childhood. It’s a piercing and clear-eyed examination of trauma, guilt and embracing identity rather than running from it. Told through a deeply authentic indigenous perspective, “Wild Indian” contextualizes numerous aspects of the modern native experience while knocking down conventional approaches to indigenous characters and their stories.

Corbin Jr.’s “Some time ago” opening has an inescapable folktale quality to it. An Ojibwe tribesman trudges under a beautiful sun-cracked forest canopy with nothing but his bow and arrow. We don’t see he’s face, but a caption tells us he “got a little sick“. We don’t know where he’s going, but he’s clearly compelled to keep moving. The short sequence not only drips with allegory, but it’s a subtle way of connecting the past to the modern day. And when the tribesman reappears later, his presence has a much clearer and more visceral meaning.

The story proper begins in 1988 on a Wisconsin reservation where a young teen named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) wears more bruises than smiles due to an abusive home life. With no childhood to speak of and his innocence stripped away, Makwa’s lone retreat is his cousin and best friend Ted-O (Julian Gopal). Life at a local Catholic school isn’t much better. There he is bullied and left on the fringes by the other students. A priest inquires about the bruises but Makwa refuses to say, knowing what will happen at home if he does.

While walking through the woods after school an exasperated and worn down Makwa tells Ted-O “I don’t want to go home. I can’t handle it no more.” Makwa takes the rifle they slipped out of Ted-O’s house and arbitrarily fires at a classmate walking in the distance. With a cold budding psychopathy Makwa coerces Ted-O into helping him bury the body. Neither tells anyone what happened. All through this a simmering yet perhaps too subtle subtext speaks to missing persons, law enforcement and reservation life.

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The story then leaps ahead to 2019. Makwa (now played by Michael Greyeyes) has burned every hint of his past, his heritage, and his culture. He’s changed his name to Michael Peterson. His marriage to his white wife (Kate Bosworth) feels like an act of assimilation rather than out of genuine love. And his pandering to his bosses (one of them skittishly played by Jesse Eisenberg) has him in line for a promotion at his San Francisco business firm. But Corbin Jr. wastes no time showing that no matter how deep you bury your past you can’t fully escape it.

The trajectory of Ted-O’s life couldn’t be more different. He’s spent the last 25 years in and out of prison mostly for drug offenses and we meet him again (now played by Chaske Spencer) as he’s finishing up a ten-year sentence. A close-minded judge might write Ted-O off as a bad seed. He has a shaved head and tattoos on his face and neck to go with the rap sheet. But underneath the hardened exterior are echoes of a good heart. Even more, he still bears the guilt from that deadly afternoon in the woods.

Contrast that with Michael who is clean-cut, has the fancy suits and walks with an air of success. But underneath his dapper façade is a damaged man barely suppressing his deep-rooted violent impulses. Greyeyes has an austerity and emotional restraint perfect for a man curbing his dark side. But when those impulses boil to the surface Greyeyes can be terrifying and the film’s thriller elements really come to light. And hats off to Corbin Jr. and his fellow indigenous cast and crew for bucking how movies have often handled native characters.

“Wild Indian” highlights the immeasurable value of independent filmmaking. It allows stories to be told from perspectives too often neglected by the studio machines. With this film the uniqueness of Corbin Jr.’s point-of-view is apparent and his storytelling grounds us in a shrewd gritty realism. His sure-handed direction is only hampered by his brisk pacing which whisks us through parts of the story that could have used more detail. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of what we’re given and I can’t wait to see what Corbin Jr. does next.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Wonder Woman 1984” (2020)

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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.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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

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