I Wish for a Better Sequel — Wonder Woman 1984
As I mentioned a couple of days ago with the review of , the reaction to the so-called “tentpole” films of 2020 was not so great once people got to actually watch the movies without a highly-coordinated marketing campaign in the months leading up. The multiple delays, lack of ad campaigns, and subsequent releases on streaming services led to a situation where only Tenet was viewed by both critics and audiences as a net positive. This shined a spotlight on the largest problem with the studio system as it currently stands, showing what happens when you actually have to rely on the quality of a project instead of wearing down your audience or outright manipulating them to shell out their money. Imagine how great some movies could be if they took all those millions for advertising and invested it in a solid story with believable characters, realistic special effects, and actors who look like they give a crap.
I imagine that if they had, Wonder Woman 1984 would have actually been good. What was arguably the most anticipated film of 2020, the follow-up to the spectacular first outing that made us think/feel/believe/hope that the DC Extended Universe had finally gotten their shit together, turned out to be just another lazy sequel, a pure exercise in a studio (in this case Warner Bros.) taking its audience for granted and simply assuming we’d cream our respective jeans from the mere mention of another franchise entry, and putting forth almost no effort. Had this been released in November 2019 as originally planned, or as a 2019 Christmas release, or even in March or August of last year, it probably would have cleaned up at the box office, raking in close to a billion for the WB. Instead, and almost to spite us, it became the poster child for Warner’s insulting and cynical decision to just release all their movies on HBO Max this year, a decision that has earned universal backlash, and rightfully so. It’s as if they decided that if they can’t con the viewing public into watching bad movies in theatres, they will simply try to destroy the theatres themselves rather than improving their product, the cinematic equivalent of taking their ball and going home.
There are hints of a good movie just beneath the surface here, so it’s not a total failure, but if it walks like shit and talks like shit and smells like shit, flush it down like the shit it is. There are a few fun moments, and it’s clear director Patty Jenkins still cares, which will hopefully translate into some quality for the next film, but apart from that, the movie stylized as WW84 (What Would Eighty Four?) is just another turd of a comic book adaptation, the biggest sin of which is a baffling lack of the titular hero.
The film begins with a 10-minute opening sequence (in a two-and-a-half hour movie) that plays like it was created directly from focus group data that no one knew how to read. A young Princess Diana is eager to take part in the Amazon Olympics on Themyscira, competing in a lengthy, Ninja Warrior-esque obstacle course race against much older and better-trained women. Because she’s half god, she basically kicks the ass of everyone around her, until she looks backwards at the wrong moment, and gets knocked off her horse, which quickly gallops away. As the others pass her, she notices a way to shimmy down a pipe (cue Mario music and/or the jingle for the Slip ‘N Slide) and remount her horse to finish the race. In doing so, she misses a checkpoint along the way that apparently she was supposed to hit with an arrow. Because of that oversight, her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) tackles her at the end, preventing her from finishing, calls her a cheater, and delivers the so-called moral of the entire film, that anything obtained through dishonesty is bad and that everyone must live the truth.
Now, let’s break down the bullshit bit by bit. One, apart from the moral, this entire scene didn’t need to exist. There is literally no context or callback to it in the rest of the film. Two, it’s clearly there for fan service, to appease those of us (myself included) who were pissed off at how early and casually Antiope was killed off in the last movie when she was the 2nd most kickass character. We even shoehorn in Connie Nielsen to have two lines as Hippolyta. Three, how exactly did Diana cheat? The rules are never explained. We’re to rely on our own internal logic to presume the racers had to hit the checkpoints, which is fine, but there’s no indication that Diana made a conscious decision to bypass the checkpoint to get her horse back and skip the field. From what we can see, the checkpoint isn’t even in her field of vision. She probably didn’t even know it was there. All we saw was her get knocked off her horse, have the whole field pass her by, then see her horse, an opportunity to get back and finish, if not win. Now, if the rules were explained properly, you can let her finish and inform her that she’s disqualified for missing the checkpoint. That in itself could have provided the same lesson, or an even better one, because you can enhance it with a caution to always be aware of your surroundings and not take the first option that presents itself. Hell, have her go back to the course and finish “properly” by having her hit the checkpoint and come back. That adds endurance, instills a sense of fairness, and seeds a desire to right wrongs into the character. But to just deck her for being resourceful and call her a liar and cheat sends the entire wrong message. What was she supposed to do, quit? Real good lesson for a superhero-to-be or an Amazonian in general.
After that superfluous nonsense, we cut to the 80s, where Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, mostly phoning it in, I’m sorry to say) thwarts a robbery at a DC shopping mall, one of only THREE appearances for the character in hero form, the other two being a mildly entertaining but bullshit-heavy chase scene midway through and the film’s climax. The sequence is a bit of fun, with Diana more toying with the thugs than anything else as she takes them down, engaging in some Home Alone-level slapstick vigilante violence, and winking at little girls who witness the awesomeness. There’s an almost Spider-Man degree of fun while the crimefighting going on, and in a decade like the 1980s, I’d have been completely fine if that was the tone the film wanted to take. Instead, like the 10 minutes that preceded it, it was mostly pointless fluff, completely abandoned by the rest of the film, and only tangentially related to the actual plot, as the thieves were trying to steal an artifact for the film’s main villain, Maxwell Lord.
Lord is… not a good villain, mostly because the film just doesn’t know what to do with him. I’ve not read too many Wonder Woman comics, so maybe this characterization is dead on with the source material, but within the context of a stand-alone movie, he’s all over the road. Patty Jenkins has said that she based this version of him on Gordon Gekko from Wall Street, but if that was the intent, I just don’t see it. For one, Gekko was confident and ruthless, and Max Lord is neither of those. He’s a sniveling loser desperate for success in order to be admired by others, mostly his young son. Also, with the hair, makeup, and costuming job, if the idea was to go for Gekko, they clearly didn’t get the memo. The blonde wig, orange tan, and tacky, ill-fitting suit are clearly references to Donald Trump. When you add in the whole “sniveling loser” and “desperate for success” aspects, and his absolute incompetence as a businessman beyond basic ponzi schemes, it’s pretty obvious where we’re actually going. Don’t get me wrong, I hate Trump, and after he incited violent insurrection yesterday and attempted a coup, people can take him to task until the end of time as far as I’m concerned. All I ask is that you be honest about what you’re doing. Pedro Pascal, who plays Lord, is a terrific actor. I loved him on Game of Thrones, and he’s brilliant on The Mandalorian. This? This is not those things.
Per her past depictions, Diana works in anthropology and antiquities, this time at the Smithsonian. After the artifacts are recovered, a new geologist, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), is brought in to examine the objects, including a gaudy looking stone that has an inscription on it that it can grant wishes. Barbara, who is basically made up to look like Michelle Pfeiffer’s version of Selena Kyle, hates how awkward she is, and how she never gets noticed by men. After meeting Diana, she’s got herself a girl crush, and in a moment of despair mixed with silly imagination, grabs the stone and wishes to be like her. After an indoor wind blows through her hair (seriously guys, you couldn’t come up with a less clichéd effect?), she finds herself more confident, and is able to walk in heels. She gets a whole new wardrobe and begins attracting attention from her coworkers. It’s like those awful teen movies where the “dorky” girl suddenly becomes “hot” the moment she takes off her glasses or shows some skin. Those movies were from the 90s mostly, which, when combined with the Batman Forever reference I just made, really gives lie to the 80s vibe this movie is supposed to have.
Anyway, Barbara wishes herself to be like Diana, and Diana, in a moment of wistfulness, silently pines for Chris (see what I did there). At a fundraising gala, two big things happen. One, Barbara gets seduced by Max, leading him to steal the Dreamstone, and a random man accosts Diana. But this random man has the personality/soul/aura/whatever of the late Steve Trevor. Upon recognizing his words, the random guy transforms into Steve — at least from Diana’s perspective — and we successfully resurrect two characters who died needlessly in the last film for bullshit reasons.
Meanwhile, with the Dreamstone in hand, Lord takes the magical wish-granting ability super seriously and wishes to become the living embodiment of the stone itself. This gives him the power to grant one wish to any person, which he does in exchange for something precious to them, be it property, money, or their very freedom depending on the situation. He of course exploits this ability, and uses it to become extremely wealthy and politically powerful. I’ll admit it’s an interesting premise, but the execution is pretty slapdash, and as “Monkey’s Paw” stories go, The Simpsons did it better 30 years ago, and kept it to seven minutes. Also, drawn to her newfound strength and Lord’s power, Barbara turns into Cheetah, ruining the one Wonder Woman villain I knew anything about (the crap CGI doesn’t help).
Honestly, that’s another one of the major problems with this movie. It’s fan service that doesn’t know how to serve fans. From the moment Lord gets his hands on the Dreamstone, pretty much everything is just a box check or reference to the larger mythos. You have the opening sequence, which is little more than an excuse to bring Robin Wright back. Steve gets brought back to life for no real reason that’s germane to the story. You introduce Cheetah and Max Lord, but not in any recognizable way other than the names. They even find ways to squeeze in an “origin” for the invisible plane and Diana’s flight power. References are perfectly fine if there’s a reason for them, be it contextual information or even silly jokes. But for the most part, all these things are just… there, as if their mere inclusion substitutes for depth.
And I’ll admit, some of these moments make for a bit of fun. As illogical and dangerous as it would be, the image of flying the invisible plane through a fireworks display is a pretty awesome visual. Similarly, while an 80s fashion montage is cringeworthy, it’s nice to have Steve mirror the montage Diana had in London in the last film. But even that feels a little half-assed, because they also try to mirror Diana’s sense of wonder at 20th century London by having Steve be amazed by an escalator, which, just, no.
But almost all of that could be forgiven if we got a healthy dose of Wonder Woman doing awesome stuff, but we don’t even get that. Like I said, we only get three sequences of Wonder Woman doing Wonder Woman shit, and the first one is intentionally obscured by edits and her strategic destruction of surveillance equipment, so even then we’re only getting a tease. Gone are the moments of pure joy and badassery from the first film. Remember how our collective jaws dropped when she walked straight out of a bunker into No Man’s Land, where the Zack Snyder slo-mo bit actually worked and she swatted away bullets and shit? Well, continue to let it be a fond memory, because it’s nowhere to be found here. Instead, Diana can literally change outfits during a shot change and rescue kids playing in the street too oblivious to hear a literal convoy of trucks and tanks barreling down on them (and I’m sure the image of a former Israeli soldier saving Egyptian kids from rapacious oil barons is going to play SO WELL in our current global political landscape).
Then finally, there’s the underlying lesson we’re all supposed to learn from that first scene, that nothing gained through dishonesty can be true or good. The Dreamstone is meant to be a literal representation of that, with every wish demanding a sacrifice of some kind. On the surface, that sounds fine, but the film proves it wrong time and again, and it’s such a broad stroke that even the slightest bit of nuance would make it crumble.
Just look at our three main characters to see why this falls flat. Diana didn’t earnestly wish for Steve to somehow come back to life. She simply happened to have the stone in her hand while she reminisced. That’s supposed to be interpreted as a wish and therefore not only come true, but diminish her powers in exchange? Why? What conscious, dishonest action did she take? None, same as her finding her horse as a kid. She didn’t willfully break any rules or try to cheat, so why should she be punished? She expressed what her heart honestly felt at the time. That’s literally the opposite of the moral’s sentiment and the Dreamstone’s caveat.
As for Max and Barbara, how fucked are they in this equation? By this film’s logic, whatever you are, that’s what you’re meant to be, and to aspire to anything more is cheating and dishonest. So Max is supposed to live his life as a failure? I don’t pretend to sympathize with the guy, but he does honestly want to do right by his son and give him a good life. His execution is woefully misguided, but no alternative is really presented. It’s not like the stone’s there, tempting him, while a genuine offer for middle management and a generous benefits package is sitting on the table, allowing him to choose easy greed over an honest, if harder, means to a better life for his kid. All we have is a man at the end of his rope, seeing a chance at his dreams. How is it cheating to seize a once in a lifetime opportunity? And poor Barbara, who fangirled for a minute, and without any warning of consequences, fantasized about walking a mile in her hero’s shoes. And her punishment is to essentially lose her soul? Her “truth” is to be ignored and unappreciated despite her talents and intellect? Her “truth” is to never be loved or desired apart from drunk date rapists in the park? What kind of shitty lesson is that? Hey girls, if you’re insecure, it’s for a reason. Suck it up, buttercup and be happy that this is your lot in life. Never reach for anything more. Oh and by the way, that strong, sexy woman commanding the room? She was born with that, and therefore entitled to it. You’re not. Here’s a cat. You’ll collect dozens more while you spend your life alone and unloved. That’s the “honest” thing to do.
You can deal with temptation in much more honest and realistic ways. It’s a trope that’s been done cleverly throughout the history of fiction, from the story of King Midas to Bruce Almighty causing a riot by making all of Buffalo win the lottery simultaneously. Instead, this film opted for, “Ugly girls deserve to be ugly, hot girls deserve to be hot, and if you take any action to better yourself that’s cheating and you deserve to suffer.” What the hell?
This movie is a mess, and I really wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to believe that after this, , and Birds of Prey that the DCEU had finally rounded the corner and we would get consistently good shit for years to come. Instead, we got yet another example of studio hubris, assuming we’d pad their coffers on name recognition alone. It’s way too long with way too much unwarranted fan service (including a cameo that made me want to slam my head against the wall). The main theme and moral is complete self-serving nonsense that delegitimizes the very audience it’s supposed to serve. We barely get any actual Wonder Woman in this Wonder Woman movie (cue the Jeff Goldblum memes). I know that most of the time sequels, especially franchise sequels, represent a step back in quality, mostly because they’re hastily thrown together to strike while the iron’s hot and the property is still popular. I get it. There are way more Attack of the Cloneses than there are Empire Strikes Back s. But that’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have to spend 150 minutes wondering what I’d have to give up in exchange for my vehement wish that this movie be better, and neither should you.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What sequels are actually worth watching? Were you surprised that a movie could ruin a villain worse than having Jesse Eisenberg play Lex Luthor? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on January 8, 2021.