Have you seen it yet?
By it, I mean the colossus of stay-at-home movie viewing: Warner Bros.’ epic, splashy, on-demand release of the much-awaited sequel, Wonder Woman 1984. In a year when film releases have been torpedoed by the pandemic and its repercussions, it’s impressive but not surprising that WW1984 would garner what is, for 2020, a decent opening box office of $16.7 million—making it the top-grossing movie post-COVID19.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you want to, be warned, for SPOILERS AWAIT the further along in this review that you read. You have been duly informed. And if you want to, you can opt out now and come back later. But if these spoiler-filled waters appeal to you, read on, and let’s chat about what works in this film…and what doesn’t.
Now, I’m a fan of Wonder Woman—both the superhero character and the Gal Gadot/Patty Jenkins reboot. And for fans like me, there’s a lot to love about this film. Gadot plays Wonder Woman with aplomb, easy glamor, a sense of distinguished elegance meshed with an earthy quality that makes Wonder Woman so appealing. She’s a classy superhero, strong and feminine at the same time, certain of who she is. She faces challenges without the wounded personalities that incarnations of Batman and Superman have made them a bit of a drag for some of us in recent years.
As a film, Wonder Woman 1984 has plenty for movie lovers to appreciate. It feels, for one thing, like we’re back in the 1980s, with the glitzy mall stores, somewhat ill-advised big hairstyles, and ahem, the fashion sense. There’s another fabulous Amazonian scene in the beginning which makes me wish, just a bit, that we could get a film all about Hippolyta and the island. The fight choreography, cinematography and costuming for the Amazon’s island is just delicious to watch.
Then we move into the world of men. And that’s where the film both introduces some really interesting ideas that it doesn’t 100% follow through on, and where you get some glimmers of what is ok plotting, which is better than a lot of films, but still could have been improved upon.
For one thing — and here is a spoiler you probably know about — Steve Trevor is back. Kind of. Not really. He’s back from the dead, which as we all know if we’ve watched movies before, is a problem. There’s always a price to pay for that kind of return, and this story is not different.
But that’s not really a problem. What is a problem is that by focusing this part of the story on Wonder Woman’s romance with Steve Trevor, the character of Wonder Woman gets smaller somehow. Like the film wants to ride the Bechdel Test line. It’s unfortunate because we get one little hint that Wonder Woman is struggling not just with the loss of Steve, but with the loss of everyone she once knew in the 1940s… a photo of her, ageless, with a woman who is surely Etta Candy, looking like an elderly great-grandmother.
So, why focus on Steve as the person she longs most to see? After all the years she has lived, why is she not wishing for Etta? Or all her friends from WWII? Or someone from Themyscira? As someone said to me as we watched WW1984, “I didn’t think she was really that into Steve.” This is debatable, of course. But what makes Wonder Woman such a popular character among women is precisely that she isn’t all about men. By bringing Steve back as her wish—one she doesn’t even have to think twice about, because she knows exactly what she wants—she suddenly becomes less than the superhero we loved in the first film.
There are other problems with the story too. The 1980s were definitely focused on oil, but as an article in Slate points out, the muddled oil sheik who’s pining over lost land seems a bit, shall we say, cartoonish and stereotyped?
Then there’s how the film deals with women, specifically the villain, Cheetah. There’s a hint of attraction between Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) and Diana, but then it gets blasted out of the water by Barbara’s questionable attraction to Maxwell Lord and her sudden, intense jealousy of Diana. Seriously? She turns into a cat and literally gets into a cat fight with another woman? Ugh. This character has so much potential—and would be a wonderful way to muse upon how cheating our way into a powerful position is dangerous, and dissatisfying. Kristen Wiig is great in the role, and make the character shine. I wish she’d had more to do.
Pedro Pascal does a decent turn as the other villain, Max Lord. But I kind of wish we had more time with him and his son. An early scene showing him excited to see his son and frustrated that his struggling business is intruding on father-son time would have made the ending, in which he gives up his wish to save his son, more believable and cathartic.
His performance, like Wiig’s, is solid. All the acting works great. The biggest challenge is that, in typical superhero movie fashion, there’s just so much going on that the acting doesn’t get as much of a chance to stand out. Could a filmmaker one day actually trust the audience to like a little less chaos and a little more depth of story?
All in all, though, these issues may seem nitpicky. The Wonder Woman franchise is definitely among the best superhero films out there, with an ability to remind us that there are indeed, as Wonder Woman herself says, a lot of good things to like in our world, just as it is. Superhero films included.