2020 | rated PG-13 | starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Lilly Aspell | directed by Patty Jenkins | 2 hrs 31 mins |
Season 5 Premiere
A flashback from the rest of the DC Universe films and a flashfoward from 2017’s World War 1-set Wonder Woman, the year is 1984 and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) lives in secret among the people of Washington D.C., working with rare artifacts at the Smithsonian when she isn’t foiling robberies with her lasso of truth and God-like strength. After a botched robbery, a Wishing Stone lands in her possession and gets passed around granting the wishes of those that hold it. For meek scientist Barbara (Kristen Wiig), it is to be as poised, charismatic, attractive and strong as Diana. For oil startup huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, looking like Jeremy Renner in a bad 80s wig), it is to be a success of immense power. For Diana it is to see her long-lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) once again. When all of these wishes are granted with devastating side-effects, Diana and returned Steve must fight back as a cascade of wishes threatens to reshape the world and re-ignite the cold war.
In a few of these reviews I’ve explored a tangent, plot holes or political angle noting that those things wouldn’t matter if the movie were effective, funny, exciting or just plain fun (Here, Here and Here, for example). Wonder Woman 1984 is such a movie. A big, boisterous and often baffling film, boasting an impossible premise it can’t get it’s arms around, an execution that is positively tangled up in it’s own logic and editing that seems so sloppy and last-minute you wouldn’t know this was a huge tent pole film for DC that had plenty of time and money to smooth out. It brings up one crazy idea, sets up rules for it and then tosses those out for the next crazy idea. Having spent some time on the internet, I’m aware that the internet judges movies as good or bad based on “realism”, “logic” and counting plot holes as sins. When the movie is this fun and this wacky, I do not care. I loved it. It is a big dumb summer movie pushed out on Christmas, but it is also an utterly charming big dumb comic book movie.
Patty Jenkins returns to the director’s chair, having done the introductory work in 2017, and it is one of the pleasures of 1984 that DC seems to be giving her the freedom to indulge in her Richard Donner, Superman II inspirations. Many will probably argue they’ve given her too much freedom, but two of my biggest gripes with Wonder Woman are not present here: the film is entirely stand-alone, with no mandated ties back to the botched DC Universe. It’s also free of the usual 3rd act CGI battle – though what Jenkins comes up with here is even weirder and crazier. 1984 often plays like a Russell T. Davis era Doctor Who episode juggling immense power with over-the-top roof-raising and world-ending stakes that just barely holds itself together. Remember that Doctor Who episode where The Master shrunk the Doctor to a shriveled baby, put him in a cage in a flying warship and he was resurrected by the simultaneous power of world “believing” in him? That’s the kind of giddy fun nonsense we’re talking here.
So let’s dig into this. To set a story around a Wishing Stone that manifests vague ideas into reality, along with the God-like power of Diana and this film’s roster of enemies, is an almost impossible task to translate to a movie screen. At first the film seems to construct a set of rules, where the stone doesn’t just pop things into existence, but set off a chain reaction that makes them happen. That’s a workable idea. Just as quickly it drops that. It sets up that everyone has one wish with, and disposes of that when it’s convenient. When Max Lord starts sucking the wishes out of everyone around him, it gets kind of incomprehensible as to what he can do with that power. The movie also makes no sense from a location standpoint, sending Diana taking off from Washington DC, blasting across the sky for miles only to get something in her apartment in Washington DC. Jenkins plays this out to the highest stakes possible with fights in the White House corridors, nuclear rockets smoking in their silos and Lord terraforming the Earth. Silly as it is, the film is a textbook example of how to escalate stakes in your story, giving Diana immense power and putting her up against a villain with essentially the same powers.
Maybe the weirdest thing about the film is the inclusion of Chris Pine’s character Trevor, who perished at the end of Wonder Woman. Pine’s Nathan Drake devil-may-care role was a highlight of the first film so it makes sense the movie would bend reality over to get him back. However, the way he comes back is a baffling head-slapper, a can of worms that the movie can’t address. Worse, Pine isn’t given a lot to do here and looks visibly bored. It is here where 1984 echos the first film’s fish-out-of-water humor, this time with Trevor, a 1940s pilot trying to adjust to 1980s techno-America. Jenkins’ vision of the 80s doesn’t feel like the broad sketch of parachute pants and Flog of Seagulls jokes that movies tend to do with the era, nor does it feel like a calculated nostalgia trip. It is a setting that ultimately becomes essential to the cold war story.
It’s not the 80s setting that feels refreshingly retro, it’s Jenkins’ commitment to classic DC superhero ideas that do. She mounts the film as a full-court argument that her superhero is the mightiest of them all, starting off with the quaint idea that she saves every day people from falling, being mugged or being hit by cars. This is what Superman was before Marvel and DC decided that good comic book films were defined by how dark, dower, realistic and ironic they could be. There is an unabashed sincerity to 1984 that will not come off as hip. Then there is Gal Gadot herself, who on one hand comes off kind of bland and wooden and on the other hand fits exactly the mold of an action hero, handling herself well in the film’s several spectacular action scenes (none better than a desert car chase, what she does with a rocket launcher and her lasso is awesome). In the first Wonder Woman I had a better idea of her arc from sheltered princess to the world of humans. This time things are about letting go, but it’s not as resonant as it was the first time and Jenkins isn’t committed to the theme. In fact, the film is such a mess it’s finale seems to contradict it’s own theme – Diana believes in humans natural kindness but then has to convince the world not to do evil when given the chance to make a wish. The film is also loopsided in it’s focus, often zeroing in on something like Lord’s relationship with his son instead of answering big questions (like why the hell is Steve Trevor in another man’s body?!)
If there is any doubt we’re no longer in the female empowerment era of 2017, it’s Wonder Woman 1984, which hinges it’s plot on one woman jealous of another’s shoes, forces them to fight each other and centers it’s hero’s arc around not being able to get over a man in 40 years. You could make the case that it’s a double-standard to ask Wonder Woman have an emotional arc where similar male action heroes (think Ethan Hunt or any Jason Statham brute) are just 1 dimensional action heroes. That’s valid, but even I was shocked at how deep these more sexist tropes ran and how easily Jenkins fell back into stock story beats. Did we mention that the action scenes are kind of great? A crazy desert car chase where Diana lassos a missile and Diana batting away bullets in the White House are highlights.
You could direct a parade through the plot holes in Wonder Woman 1984, and yet the movie is such a booming success of a light and sound show. It matches each loony dropped story point with a fun bit of business getting more entertaining the messier and crazier it gets. Pure Hollywood escapism, that bucks the gloom-and-doom trend, Jenkins rustles up enough high-energy chaos to make it the most purely fun thing the DC universe has put out so far. It’s a Superman movie and it’s a better one than anything Zack Snyder gave us. Maybe one day we’ll get something as fun as it is grounded, but that’s not today.