PARKER Review – Wonder Woman 1984 (With Spoilers)

https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/12/19/wonder-woman-1984-gal-gadot-rules-mall-superhero-sequel/3899795001/

TLDR: Wonder Woman 1984 is a campy, incoherent mess. If you are really nostalgic for Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, but would prefer a Wonder Woman version of it, this is for you. I wasn’t bored, exactly, but I was doing a lot of cringing and incredulous head shaking as I made it through this 2.5 hour slog. Rating: 4/10

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

missed opportunities

Wonder Woman 1984 is the sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman, a rare bright spot in DC’s foray into creating its own cinematic universe. The original Wonder Woman took a rather dour subject matter (WWI), and director Patty Jenkins managed to profitably balance that by introducing an optimistic and morally centered protagonist in Diana Prince, aka “Wonder Woman.” This time, though, Jenkins is producing the source material as well as directing, and the result is a less than satisfying sequel, to say the least.

Wonder Woman 1984 does have a couple of good ideas that it tries to weave into the story, which in a different film could have worked. The first is that Jenkins insisted that her villains be relatable. Max Lord and Barbara Minerva (Cheetah) are the main villains, and at their core they aren’t “bad” people. They have good motivations, but their misplaced desires and beliefs drive them to engage in destructive behavior. Max wants to be impressive to other people, especially his young son, so he seeks power. Barbara wants to no longer be overlooked or abused, so she desires Wonder Woman’s strength and beauty. This is hardly a new idea, and yet many a film (especially the comic book variety) tend to feature one dimensional villains and a black and white world. It’s much easier, after all, to just say “bad man does bad things because he’s bad” and leave it at that. Complexity and nuance within villains make for a compelling story in the right hands.

The second good idea in the film is that there are costs to getting what you most want, a play on the maxim “be careful what you wish for”. I like the idea of a movie engaging in a thought experiment regarding “what would happen if everyone on earth got what they wished for most?” That’s an interesting premise akin to It’s A Wonderful Life, but on a global scale, and could have made for an interesting movie.

The problem is that both of these ideas suffer from intolerably incoherent writing, flat characters, and campy dialogue. If we are to relate to a character doing bad things, but for good motivations, their decisions need to make sense in light of those motivations. Alas, this rarely happens in the movie. In fact, in the very first scene we are greeted with a character doing a bad thing ostensibly for understandable motivations, but that decision made zero logical sense. This character in the opening minutes robbed a jewelry store. The police were closing in and he was about to get taken, so he decided to take a hostage because he’s “not going back” to prison. The overly punitive and callous treatment of prisoners in the US provides a clear motivation for our minor villain to do even worse things in order to avoid that fate, or at least that’s what it seems the film was suggesting. However his actions consisted of picking up a little girl and holding her over the railing on the upper deck of a mall while yelling out his motivation for doing so.

Even if one wants to say it was a negotiating ploy and he wanted to hold the girl hostage so he could get away, I’m not sure how holding her over a railing would help achieve that. To get away one has to be able to… you know… get away. This is something you’re definitely not able to do if you have to physically hold the hostage in a particular place or else she ceases to be in danger. The minute he either drops her, or brings her back over the railing, the implied threat vanishes. How is he supposed to get away while also holding her there? These issues that make your brain go “wait, what?” are riddled throughout the film and undermine your ability to contemplate the message. In fact, the reason the villain really held the girl over the rail was that the script said he should. How else was Wonder Woman going to save the day in a way that no one else could? The action fit the plot’s need, not the character or his motivations. This happens far too often in the movie, but more on the plot issues later.

The second idea fails for similar reasons. In this movie, a “dream stone” granted a wish to anyone who touched it, but in return for fulfilling the wish it took something from them. The problem is that the “costs” had nothing to do with what the wish was for. For instance, Wonder Woman lost her superpowers after she wished for Steve Trevor (her flame from the original Wonder Woman) to come back to life, even though her superpowers have nothing to do with him. She wasn’t told the cost before she made the wish, and there is no explained link as to why that particular cost was levied when she made this wish. In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey wished he had never been born, and so he’s shown what the consequences of that specific wish coming true are. There’s a direct link between the two, but not so in this movie. This undermines any broader moral one might take away; the only causal link between the benefit and the cost of any wish is that the script said there was one, depending on what the plot needed to move the story along.

All this removes whatever depth the movie was going for. Actions and motivations, costs and benefits, nothing has anything to do with the other. Things just happen because the script said it should. In the end the good ideas simply didn’t work.

Flat Characters

But, one may ask, was it at least entertaining or engaging, even if it wasn’t deep? To that I answer: meh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I am a big fan of “character drives movie” rather than “plot drives movie”. That is, I prefer the movie to be centered on who the characters are as they navigate the situations they find themselves in rather than a simple series of events on screen that the characters need to make their way through. This movie fails at character driven narrative almost entirely.

A small example to illustrate the point would be to contrast two similar scenes between the original Wonder Woman and this film. In the original, we have a “fish out of water” situation where Diana is dressing in the fashion of a woman in the early 20th century, whereas she was raised as a warrior on her secret island and never engaged with the outside world at all. She asks silly questions such as “How can a woman possibly fight in this?”, much to the bemusement of the people around her.

In 1984 the situation was inverted, where Steve tried on various 1980’s clothing after being dead for nearly 70 years. This one too is played for comedic effect, with Steve trying to sell Diana on letting him wear various ridiculous representations of 1980’s fashion.

Since these scenes parallel each other, why did the first work and the second didn’t? The answer is that the comedy in the original Wonder Woman stemmed from Diana’s character: she was a warrior. The entire reason she was there was to fight the God of War, Ares, who she believed to be the cause of WWI. And yet, while she was basically invincible to the mortals she was surrounded by, she desired to restrict her role and not draw attention to herself or cause trouble in her quest needlessly. She desired cooperation with the people around her, not to overshadow or overpower them, because that’s who she is. That’s why she was trying to blend in and wear clothes that she ordinarily would never think to wear, had no idea how to wear, and had no idea that her clothes weren’t meant for fighting because she, as a woman, wasn’t expected to fight at all. The comedy stemmed from her character. The clothing itself was not what was funny, it was her being asked to wear the clothes that was funny.

Steve’s 1980’s runway show consisted of several minutes worth of pointless “haha 1980’s clothes are funny, amirite?” jokes. It had nothing to do with Steve’s character, goals, or motivations. And for that reason it felt empty, flat, and pointless. In many ways, that’s exactly how this entire film felt when it was attempting to recreate what the original gave us.

While this example might seem minor, it repeats itself throughout. The protagonists are underdeveloped and the situations they are in all too rarely have anything to do with who they are, and thus they fail to generate anything interesting at all to latch on to or be invested in. The result is that anything that was meant to be emotional was cringe inducing or simply empty. Everything from the comedy to the light hearted moments to the serious and emotional moments felt forced and awkward.

An incoherent plot

So much for the characters, how about the plot? If you haven’t gathered by now, the screenwriting for this movie is, to put it mildly, very poor. There are continuity errors with the other movies in the DC Cinematic Universe (Diana was supposed to have “walked away from humanity for 100 years” after WWI, per Batman v Superman, but apparently was in Washington DC saving the world in the 80’s?), but even ignoring the other films there were inconsistencies that a competent production team would have caught. For example, one of the villains, before turning evil, was telling a homeless man to “keep warm” on a park bench after giving him food in Washington DC. People were walking around wearing fur and coats. And yet, we learn later as fireworks go off, it’s the fourth of July. This is either supremely lazy writing or the result of extensive reshoots and hasty editing after the test screenings went poorly. My money is on a combination of both.  

But beyond the strange incongruities in the film, the characters are constantly making choices that made no sense given their motivations. It’s hard to overstate just how often this occurs. In one scene the President of the United States, worried about an ever-increasing escalation with the Soviet Union, uses his wish to get “MORE NUKES!” But given a desire to de-escalate tensions, and the fact that both countries had enough nukes to wipe out the planet several times over, this wish doesn’t really make sense. Why not wish for the other side to have no nukes? Why not wish for a defense system capable of defending against nukes? Why not wish for the Soviet Union to calm down? Why not wish for the Soviet Union to stop existing altogether?

Ultimately the answer is this: the plot required the stakes to keep being raised with every wish, ultimately endangering the entire planet. Even if it means that the characters need to make incoherent decisions which don’t match up with the character’s motivations. It does not matter. The characters don’t drive this movie, the plot does. And the plot needed escalations, so it was written in without thought or care as to whether this made any sense whatsoever.

HORRIBLE SPECIAL EFFECTS

If by now you’re thinking “hey, I wonder if it’s at least entertaining visually, even if the characters are flat and it doesn’t make sense as a story”, I have some bad news: this film, and I am not exaggerating when I say this, has worse special effects than most comic book TV shows despite its enormous budget. It truly is amateur looking and at times I could honestly not believe that this was allowed in a major movie release. I don’t have much else to say except there were several times when my mouth dropped open, I was so surprised at what I was watching.

AN UNSATISFYING ENDING

As I draw to an end, it’s fitting to also talk about the conclusion of this movie, which I would describe as wholly unsatisfying. All of the characters renounce their wishes, and ostensibly nothing happens to them, even the villains. I am not joking: the world nearly ended because of the actions of Max Lord and Barbara Minerva, and yet once the wishes are renounced they just… go unpunished?

And not just them! Throughout the film, there are various minor villains: catcallers, would-be rapists, colonialists pillaging foreign land, etc, yet none of these storylines are completed. Barbara gets her wish to be powerful and brutally beats a catcaller to within an inch of his life. Then once the wish was renounced and she lost her powers… nothing happens to her. Nothing happens to the abuser. Nothing happens to any of the catcallers we see throughout the film. No justice is dealt to either her or them. A middle eastern politician gets his wish to control Egypt without colonial interference which results in riots and looting. Ultimately he renounces his wish and… nothing happens to him, the colonizers he alluded to or the people rioting. Max Lord, who was the central antagonist and the one most responsible for the near-armageddon depicted, renounces his wish and… has a reunion with his son (who nearly died as a result of all of this), with no suggestion of consequences beyond a very basic “I don’t need to be great, I just need to be me” platitude that serves as his key takeaway.

In total there’s no real resolution beyond a superficial tone of “well, the world isn’t going to end today, I guess, so yay?” As a result it felt ultimately pointless. And that, I suppose, is good summary of this film. I was never bored. I didn’t actively dislike the characters. I saw glimpses of a much better story and what, I think, Patty Jenkins was attempting to go for. But never enough to pull me in, and quite a bit to grimace at along the way.

Wonder Woman 1984 is not as dour and convoluted as Batman v Superman. It’s not as utterly off putting as Suicide Squad. But it’s also not even close to as engaging, interesting, or entertaining as Wonder Woman. It’s just 2.5 hours of a pointless plot, flat characters, cringey dialogue and bad CGI.

Would not recommend. Rating: 4/10.

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