Wonder Woman 1984, Wacky B-Movie Wonderment

Wonder Woman 1984 is much easier to wade around in if you simply accept that it’s an 80’s B-movie and go with it. Most comic-book movies in the 80’s were everything such a label invokes: chintzy, and with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. WW84 is better than those lost cultural items, but not by as much as you’d expect. Patty Jenkins, newly-minted household name and only three films into a feature filmmaking career, is suffering here from what is classically referred to as the “sophomore slump.” Her Oscar-winning debut Monster was all the way back in 2003, and through no fault of her own, she didn’t direct again until 2017’s original Wonder Woman. She may as well have been starting over at that point. Her follow-up, this bloated, silly, deeply flawed sequel, is also an enjoyable superhero outing thanks to Pedro Pascal’s gloriously charismatic and hammy performance as a sympathetic yet dastardly villain, a failing businessman and television huckster with a grand mane of blonde hair, and therefore a definite Donald Trump stand-in were it not for his immigrant backstory. His character essentially serves as a second protagonist, nearly an anti-hero until he begins attaining increasingly more power, and Pascal makes good on the hype initially glimpsed years ago on Game of Thrones. He’s a force to be reckoned with and it’s a real testament to what he brings to this role that, despite his power-hungry pursuit, we’re able to sympathize with his plight, his motivation for nearly half the movie. He taps into that inscrutable, intangible essence that makes even the smartest of us sometimes look up to people like his Maxwell Lord.

Like so many of these pictures, the plot hinges on a McGuffin called the Dream Stone (cribbing from Avengers much?), an ancient rock forged by a mischievous God intent on tricking those who would wield it. The stone. which grants the wielder any single wish, offers Jenkins an opportunity to explore 80’s era excess and modern-day greed, the selfishness and material cravings that led to moments such as 2020, where entitlement hath wrought a world where 300,000 deaths don’t mean much to half of the country. Chris Pine’s return here, this time his turn to play befuddled wonderment at the new world in front of him, is both a preposterous way to bring back WWI pilot Steve Trevor and perhaps the only way. It’s both amusing and amoral the manner in which he and Diana Prince cross so many ethical boundaries in essentially taking over the life of some odd “handsome man” the Stone declared was worthy of Trevor’s spirit. I took less issue with the ethical ramifications of it than I did the fact that, as an audience, we’re basically staring at a lie through most of the film. Maybe that was the point? Sure enough, Patty has loaded her sequel with enough pontificating about “lies” and “truth” that it amounts to being pelted in the head by a pitcher who can wind up but can’t deliver. At some point it becomes obvious that such messaging doesn’t necessarily jive with the notion of wish-fulfillment or a story about greed. Lord isn’t exactly lying to people, for he too is more or less blissfully unaware of the blowback these wishes can unleash. WW84’s actual message lays at the intersection of avarice and ignorance, no matter how much Patty would like to play with heavy-handed allusions to Trump’s post-truth playbook.

You’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned yet the star of the picture, Gal Gadot. While it’s overkill to suggest Gadot’s not in the film enough, there’s something to be said for Diana Prince taking a relative backseat to Pascal’s con man and Kristen Wiig as wannabe Catwoman Barbara Minerva. Diana’s entire character arc revolves around her inability to let go of Trevor, a man she has been grieving for and thinking about for sixty years. She basically tells Steve she hasn’t loved again or even tried to love again since he sacrificed himself all those years ago. As Steve puts it to her when he realizes the extent of her celibacy and self-isolation, “that’s crazy.” Again, I’m less concerned about the messaging of it all, of casting a heroic beacon of feminism as a gal all hung up on a boy for eternity than I am the logic of it. Chris Pine is a handsome man and his Steve Trevor a likable co-hero, but nobody buys such a smart, stunning woman who grew up in an-all female society would have such trouble moving on from the male body she went twenty-plus years without. That being said, Pine joins Pascal as one of the movie’s premiere saving graces, an aw-shucks pal out of time whose fish-out-of-water scenes involving aircraft and affable chemistry with Gadot put the plot holes and other relationships to shame. Gadot, for her part, proves herself akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger (credit to The Big Picture for that comparison): she’s not a particularly good actor, but we like watching her kick ass.

As the now much-maligned Cheetah, Wiig proves many of the naysayers correct when they said she was miscast in a villainous role. She’s absolutely delightful to watch as mousy, awkward Minerva, a self-absorbed woman who wants what Diana has, an enjoyable if all-too familiar character trope after Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle (Batman Returns) and Jamie Foxx’s Electro (The Amazing Spider-Man 2). She’s less believable in this role the more sinister she becomes, culminating in a White House set piece that is pretty laughable, in part because a steely-faced Wiig is the equal of a steely-faced Will Ferrell. As an audience, we can’t help but laugh because we’re so used to them subverting their “serious face” for laughs. Cheetah is the prime example of what generally plagues Wonder Woman 1984. Jenkins clearly intended to craft a boisterous, optimistic epic in the vein of Donner’s Superman or Raimi’s Spider-Man, about the sort of people who propagate the world’s ills and what can be done to stop/help them. Instead she’s made something more akin to Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, a wacky, unabashedly earnest, unintentionally cheesy adventure with its head in the clouds, with villains that work and villains that don’t. Barbara’s transition to Cheetah (a transformation we don’t even get to see!) is to this movie what Eddie Brock’s turn to Venom was to that movie, an unnecessary addition for the sake of upping imaginary stakes and providing an opportunity for a VFX-laden mano-o-mano in the final act. Apparently we can’t have Wonder Woman 2 ending on a fisticuff-less note of only healing and forgiveness, because that would be sacrilegious to the genre itself. At least there’s still Pascal, channeling Nic Cage as he bellows at the heavens, guffawing at the immense satisfaction of ultimate power attained.

P.S. Hans Zimmer conjures an effective score, but steals more than one cue from 2007’s Sunshine by incorporating a famous, moving track by John Murphy at a particular turning point for Diana. This would be incredible were it not already re-purposed once and re-purposed much better in 2010’s Kick-Ass.

Grade: B-

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