Wonder Woman 1984Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/23/20 09:29:00
The first “Wonder Woman” (2017) was one of the better examples of the glut in superhero-related movies that have pretty much dominated American filmmaking in the last few years—it told a reasonably engaging story, utilized a light touch that stood in stark relief to most other examples of the genre and contained a central performance by Gal Gadot that, like Christopher Reeve did when he played Superman, perfectly embodied the sincerity and idealism of her character without demonstrating even a shred of irony or cynicism. The only things that kept it from quite attaining the same heights as the best superhero movies were the lack of a truly memorable villain and a final half-hour in which all the wit and nuance was pushed to the side to make way for the usual orgy of anonymous special effects. Now, after months of delays and enough sturm und drang to fuel a movie or two, the sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984, “ has at long last arrived with its key players—Gadot, co-star Chris Pine and director Patty Jenkins—once again returning for duty. Alas, the flaws that dogged the original film have returned as well, along with a host of new ones to boot. The result is a far more uneven experience that still contains moments of undeniable entertainment that don’t quite manage to compensate for strange pacing issues and a curiously uninvolving story that always seems on the cusp of finally coming together without ever quite doing so.Although the title may make it sound like the most peculiar George Orwell adaptation to date, the 1984 in the title refers to the time it takes place, rendered here in all of its Day-glo-colored, parachute-pantsed, mall-walking glory. In fact, a Washington D.C. mall proves to be the kickoff for the story proper as Wonder Woman (Gadot) busts up the robbery of a jewelry store that s a front for fencing rare and unusual artifacts. Those recovered artifacts end up at the Smithsonian, where Wonder Woman, via her alter ego of Diana Price, works and where she befriends Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a sweet-but-nerdy gemologist charged with identifying the recovered loot. One mysterious item proves to be a gemstone that has the ability to grant wishes. This proves intriguing to not just Barbara, who wishes to be strong and confident like Diana, and Diana, who is still pining for lost love Steve (Pine) 70 years after his death , but to Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a TV huckster with weird hair and an unending line of bluster about his success that is based on a pyramid scheme that is on the edge of collapsing. (No points for guessing who this character may have been designed to suggest.)
Before long, it becomes apparent that the stone comes as advertised—Barbara becomes capable and self-confident and Diana is stunned to come across Steve reborn into the body of another man. As it turns out, Maxwell has made a wish as well, one that transforms him into the financial wunderkind that he has always wished himself to be while allowing him to grow more and more powerful through a series of additional transactions. As it turns out, this is not an especially benevolent stone and while it does grant your wish, it takes away the thing that is most precious to you—Diana begins to feel her powers ebbing while Barbara loses all traces of her former warmth and humanity. Things can be reversed if the one making the wish recants it but Diana is not sure if she can bear losing Steve again and Barbara definitely does not want to go back to being a walking doormat. Then there is Max, whose stature has grown to the point where he is arguably the most powerful person in the world—more so than even President Reagan (Stuart Milligan)—but whose powers have gone so out of control that the entire world lies on the brink of total annihilation. (Again, no points for guessing who we are supposed to be thinking of when he is onscreen.)
Even though I tend to run a bit cool on superhero movies as a rule, I enjoyed the first “Wonder Woman” so much, despite its flaws, that I was genuinely looking forward to this one and while it isn’t a complete disaster by any means, I found it difficult to work up much of a rooting interest while watching it. For starters, the story, conceived by Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, is kind of an ungainly mess with a plot borrowed liberally from the classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” villains that simply aren’t especially interesting—Max is more of a pathetic bore than a convincing threat and while Barbara’s shift to darkness is initially interesting, it becomes much less so as it culminates in her transforming into a full-on super villain known as Cheetah that resembles a refugee from a furry convention—and a finale that bring the world to the edge of destruction and yet nothing of consequence really seems to be at stake. The film also suffers from the kind of bloat that usually afflicts sequels like this when they try to make things bigger and better than before—none of the action setpieces come close to approximating the stellar combination of technical finesse and recognizable human stakes seen in the original’s justifiably celebrated No Man’s Land sequence. Even the scenes that do sort of work—a prologue feature Diana as a child competing in a wild athletic competition on her home island, the aforementioned mall opening and a scene where Diana and Steve fly to Cairo in a specially enhanced plane—go on for so long that even they wind up wearing out their welcome long before they conclude.
As with its predecessor, the best thing about “Wonder Woman 1984” is Gal Gadot in the title role. This is a part that, just by its nature alone, is already teetering towards complete silliness but she never succumbs to the silliness in the way that others might have. At the same time, she projects a kind of joy throughout that further sells her believability in the part by making her seem remarkably human, even when she is swinging through the air via lightning bolts and other spectacular activities. I also once again enjoyed the oddly endearing byplay that she and Pine demonstrate in their scenes together. Wiig is also good early on, coming across as funny and endearing without going overboard into farce, though as her character lapses more and more into villainy, she grows less and less interesting. And while Jenkins has made a much less smoother film here than the original, she does deserve some props for not excessively mining the period setting for empty bits of nostalgia. Aside from the occasional fashion faux-pas, the stuff she does traffic in tends to lean towards the darker aspects of the era—ones that seem to be making comebacks in this day and age, perhaps not coincidentally.Between the inevitable comparisons to the first film, the highly publicized delays and its rank as one of the few major studio blockbusters to actually come out this, there was probably no way that “Wonder Woman 1984” could have ever lived up to the enormous expectations placed upon it. That said, even if you can set all of that to the side, what remains is a somewhat unsatisfying work that seems to contain about four bad ideas and elements for every good one and whose undeniable virtues cannot quite rescue the rest of it. And yet, between the inherent promise of the material and the presence of Gadot, I will no doubt be looking forward to the all-but-inevitable next installment of the franchise when it finally comes around. Before it does, however, I can only hope that those involved can finally sit down and give both the character and the actress who embodies her a screenplay that is truly worthy of them.
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