Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Shows Us a Hero

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Wonder Woman 1984 has guts and heart that sometimes lead it to make some boneheaded narrative decisions. It is an imperfect movie. But it also has the potential to be a game-changer.

Patty Jenkins is back in the director’s chair for Wonder Woman 84 and she is, as ever, swinging for the fences. She also has a writing credit this time along with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. Strange how after a decade of superhero comic book movies the only one to be directed and written solely by women is still Birds Of Prey.

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the ageless demi-goddess now works at the Smithsonian. It is 1984 and Diana still misses Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Decades have passed and Diana seems to be living in the world but not part of it. Yes, she rescues people and stops crime, but she does so seemingly on her lunch break.

The movie starts with a series of accidents and crimes that Diana as Wonder Woman, foils. Including a jewel store robbery that is a front for a black market warehouse, including an ancient wishing stone. Diana easily foils the robbery and the items are shipped to, of course, the Smithsonian. In a lot of ways, the beginning of Wonder Woman 84 feels like something out of the old “Wonder Woman” television show. Filled with coincidences and low stakes drama that requires Diana’s attention.

Soon, we meet Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) a new co-worker of Diana at the Smithsonian. Honestly that we spend so much time with Diana and Barbara at work is kind of refreshing. So, many superhero movies give our heroes jobs that they never seem to ever really do. I’m not saying Diana Prince is any kind of working-class hero or anything, from the looks of her apartment, it’s a sweet gig, but it is startlingly uncommon how little we see our heroes doing anything as mundane as showing up to work.

Barbara is a shy, bookish woman who seems the polar opposite of Diana. Whereas Diana turns head in whatever room she walks into and commands attention, Wiig’s Barbara seems to leave almost no trace. Her boss doesn’t even remember hiring her despite being the one who hired her. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, something that becomes apparent, Diana does not often do.

We also meet Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a sleazy television personality with obviously dyed hair and a fake smile. He is a millionaire who is always a million dollars shy of being a millionaire. Pascal and Jenkins have obviously modeled him after the current exiting Flailing Fascist. But any similarities are purely surface level designed to poke fun at the obvious artificiality while also showing the alarming number of people who are somehow ignorant of how much much of a phony he really is.

Keeping in mind that no movie ever introduces a wishing stone without intending to use it, it should become rather obvious as to what Wonder Woman 84 is setting up. Barbara wishes to be more like Diana and soon discovers Diana is more than advertised. Maxwell wishes for more power and wealth using the mindset utilized by egocentric megalomaniac billionaires since time immemorial. Lastly, Diana wishes she could see Steve again.

Of course, no wish comes without a price.

Here’s where the wheels start to get wobbly. Barbara’s storyline and Max’s storyline are both fascinating and both Wiig and Pascal are excellent in conveying equal parts regret and heartbreaking greed. But the two characters feel as if they should be in different Wonder Woman movies, not the same one.

Not to mention Diana’s wish is granted but in the oddest of ways. Steve Trevor does come back but his spirit possesses another man’s body. It’s implied that to Diana he’s Steve Trevor but to the rest of the world, he is merely some handsome rando. All this renders the scene after they have sex weirdly complicated. Honestly, I was just shocked to finally see a comic book movie flat out state that their characters have sex.

Fitting after all since Wonder Woman was one of the few who implied it, but Wonder Woman 84 has them in bed in a scene straight out of a rom-com. As Gadot and Pine bantered back and forth and luxuriated in their post-coital bliss, I was stunned to realize how little had happened. For much of Wonder Woman 84 Jenkins almost delights in how uninterested she is in being a comic book movie.

Instead, we are treated to Diana showing Steve around Washington, D.C. Gadot and Pine have a wonderful moment where she shows him an escalator for the first time and it is, no joke, sort of magical. Jenkins isn’t afraid to allow her characters to feel and wallow in joy and wonder.

Moments such as when Diana learns to fly are a reminder of how much the genre has forgotten the notion of child-like wonderment. Little things like Steve finding out about NASA and Diana’s pleasure from his excitement, makes Wonder Woman 84 an outlier, a movie concerned with awe and joy in a very deep and human way.

For much of the first part of Wonder Woman 84, I found myself more entertained by these little scenes. Scenes such as Diana and Steve bickering about what outfit he should wear when they go out. The scene is one of the rare non-dramatic scenes in which Gadot feels comfortable and at ease with the dialogue.

Gadot is a movie star, and if you give her a close up she’ll nail it every time. But there are times she comes across flat, scenes in which the dialogue does not serve her as well. Gadot’s X-factor is such that her relationship with the camera is mesmerizing at times and when the scene requires an emotional heft she can bring it.

Jenkins and her Matthew Jensen, who shot Wonder Woman 84 understand this and give us several shots of Gadot as if she has just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. Jensen, unlike so many other comic book films, bathes the movie in warm bright light with the occasional colorful neon lights to give the movie an 80s feel. 

WW ‘84 in many ways suffers from the thing all sequels suffer from. Taking what worked in the first one and then giving us more of the same with a few little tweaks. But the problem is, few people ever agree about what worked in the first movie so sequels tend to just have more of everything, and Wonder Woman 84 feels overburdened at times trying to make sure everything is bigger but not necessarily better. 

Some of the action sequences feel flat. Jenkins is attempting to steer clear from CGI effects and while the practical effects make the scenes more tactile, there is something off. The pacing seems slowed, a possible byproduct of seeing it at home on my Chromebook rather than the big screen blown up to larger than life proportions. But the fight scenes are choreographed in an almost rote fashion.

But then there are scenes in which Wonder Woman 84 attempts to whitewash history. How it goes about this whitewashing and oversimplification becomes an exercise in a fool’s errand. Why Jenkins or any of the writers thought this was a good idea when the entirety of history with white people is right there remains one of the film’s most glaring and, sadly, racist flaws.

I haven’t even broached the scene in which the wonderful Ravi Patel plays a Mayan ancestor. The actor is almost unrecognizable under a mass of dreadlocks and while the movie goes out of its way to have Patel’s character mention how he is only a fraction Mayan, in a movie filled with representation issues, it is nearly a straw that breaks the camel’s back.

An all too real reminder that lip service and actual action are not the same. 

In my original review for Jenkins’s first Wonder Woman, I called it a blueprint for a new kind of comic book movie. Sadly, comic book movies since then have largely been merely more of the same, with a few exceptions. But Jenkins in Wonder Woman 84  has, with a few missteps, carried on from what she did in the first. She has taken Diana and us to the next logical step. A hero whose power is empathy and understanding. A hero who blends mercy with justice and understands that one without the other is a road to moral destitution.

The final battle is such a delightful change of pace that I found myself moved to tears both by the emotional impact and at the audacity of it all. That we see both the hard choices that Diana must make along with her seemingly bottomless compassion is something of a cinematic masterstroke. The ending will have many gnashing their teeth and claiming it’s anti-climatic.

But this is only because it does not end the way we have been told superhero movies should end. Quite frankly the ending of the film is, for a mega-budget superhero film, one of the more audacious climaxes of the newly minted genre. It works on almost every level in a way that left me almost breathless.

Pascal’s performance, which is impeccable throughout the entire movie, lands big toward the end. As big of a star as Gadot is, it’s impossible not to walk away wondering how Pascal isn’t bigger. Yes, he is very popular and I know everyone loves him on The Mandalorian. I’m saying he should be a bigger star because like Oscar Issac, he makes it all look so effortless.

Wonder Woman 84 exists simultaneously as a deeply flawed, massively moving, and entertaining superhero movie. The movie is a rarity among superhero movies. It gives us a hero who makes a legitimate sacrifice and whose themes and ideals are not chucked out the window in favor of an awesome action set piece. 

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Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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