There are so many reasons the long-awaited sequel to the groundbreaking Wonder Woman is genuinely bad that I need to start by simply listing them: writing, editing, acting, directing, logic, effects, and motivation. Returning director and co-writer Patty Jenkins has delivered a new story about Amazonian-adrift Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), set roughly 70 years after the previous film. In that entire time, she has been lovesick for the late Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) while remaining largely hidden from the public, only popping out to save the day when it’s absolutely needed.
Before we get to Wonder Woman 1984 proper, the movie opens with an extended flashback showing us young Diana (Lilly Aspell), still the only child on her home island of Themyscira, about to compete in an annual contest of strength, speed, and skill against full-grown Amazons who are smart enough to know that Diana should not be trifled with or taken lightly just because she’s not yet a teenager. The sequence is also an excuse to show us Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) one more time and bring back from the dead Amazonian general Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana’s mentor and coach. In fact, the entire reason the impressive and energetic scene exists is for Antiope to give Diana a closing-moment lesson about how it is never right to win by taking a shortcut or cheating. Considering how elaborate the contest is, this may be one of the most expensive lessons ever committed to film. Still, the sequence is a blast, so no complaints there.
Jump ahead to Washington, D.C., circa 1984, an era of greed, self-interest, flash and excess—all driven by the man occupying the White House at the time (at least in the real world; I’m not sure about the DC Cinematic Universe). Why have a lot when you can have more? I suppose the film deals with these societal issues a bit, but like most things in WW84, these messages get muddled and ultimately lost in…everything else. Diana works at the Smithsonian, curating ancient artifacts, probably as a cover to keep an eye out for lost treasures from the gods that human shouldn’t have access to.
Once again, we’re treated to another big action sequence, but this one is a bit more comical, as Wonder Woman stops a group of thieves from robbing a mall jewelry store that is selling black market artifacts out of a back room, including an oversized gemstone that seems of great interest to many. The robbery goes bust and Diana must swoop in (after destroying the mall security cameras) to save the shoppers from the criminals. The sequence is interesting because it has inserted shots of young girls in the mall staring in awe with big smiles as Diana takes down the criminals with her golden lasso, as if Jenkins is reminding us that the first film did a fantastic job inspiring and empowering girls around the world. Rather than actually inspiring them once again, we get to see people pretend to be inspired; it’s the first of many, many strange choices the film makes.
At work, Diana runs into gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), an awkward, clumsy, nervous, frequently lovesick, bookish scientist who is recruited by the FBI to examine the large gemstone picked up during the robbery. But before she can even get to it, into the building walks potential big donor Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, currently killing it in The Mandalorian), an oil speculation tycoon who has become famous for his enticing TV commercials, his inherent charm, and his clearly fake teeth. Naturally, Barbara swoons over him. But we soon find out that Max is a bit of a con artist whose business is in the toilet and money is running out since none of his oil wells are producing. He is desperate for the stone because he has heard that it grants one wish if you ask for it while touching it. Lord also has a young son who should be wearing a t-shirt every time he’s on screen that reads “Plot device,” because the kid only exists to send Max down a different path. One of the biggest issues with WW84 is villain motivation. Other than simple greed, the lengths that Lord goes to in order to gain power and wealth seem counterintuitive to actually having power over a planet that places value on those things. He sends the world into a chaos that will result in the fabric of society being destroyed, and who wants to rule over a planet that doesn’t appreciate money, power and fame? But I’m getting ahead of myself…
At various points early in the film, Barbara wishes to be like Diana, and she ends up becoming style conscious, outgoing, fun and sexy to those around her. Meanwhile, Diana secretly wishes that Steve was still back in her life…and suddenly there he is, back from the dead (technically in the body of another man, but Diana only sees Steve—don’t ask, because I don’t get it either). Simply because the bond between Diana and Steve is so strong, the sequences between them are my favorite in the film. Steve basically takes the Captain America approach to acquainting himself with the modern world by trying to make sense of its fashions, technology and attitudes, and most of that is fairly funny. Steve is also quite helpful in helping to track down and fight Lord as he works to secure his place as…I’m not exactly sure what his end game is, but it’s likely not healthy for the world.
One of the biggest issues I have with the film is that Pascal is terrible in this role. He overplays nearly every movement, gesturing wildly, and screaming most of his dialogue. It hurts watching him as Max Lord because he’s meant to be a bit ridiculous, but none of it comes across as funny or poignant or maniacal enough, and when he finally makes his wish, it’s to become the stone, able to grant wishes to anyone who asks and in return get something from them—sometimes money, oil reserves, a security detail, and eventually a life essence, none of which makes sense. The rules of the gemstone are kept very vague, and as a result we keep finding out different tricks it has that only seem to crop up when the plot requires them. It’s asinine.
There are a couple of action set pieces, including one set in the White House and another set on a desert road in the Middle East, that are impressive and give Diana a chance to show us a few things she’s learned in the 70 years she’s lived in the “World of Men,” particularly with her lasso, which does a lot more than compel people to tell the truth these days—maybe a bit too much. For those of you wondering about Wiig’s turn as the well-known Wonder Woman adversary the Cheetah, oh boy. Eventually, Barbara gets a second wish to become an apex predator, and she transforms into a part human/part feline creature that looks like a first-draft outtake from last year’s Cats. I wish I were kidding. The Cheetah is in one poorly rendered fight scene, in which Wonder Woman reveals an ancient Golden Eagle armor, which is pretty cool, but I’m not sure why she felt the need to don it beyond it being shiny.
WW84’s climax is a brutal exercise in disappointment, when all of the subpar elements of the movie converge in a battle of wits between Wonder Woman and Max Lord, who is in the process of siphoning off the world’s life force or something like that. It’s an unnecessarily splashy sequence (not unlike the first Wonder Woman) that suddenly attempts to introduce motivation to Lord’s character. They throw his sad son in the mix to bring dad back to reality, while inserting really tasteless flashbacks into Max’s childhood, watching his mother get beaten by his father and getting beaten himself for wetting his bed, as if that excuses Lord’s appalling behavior for the duration of this 151-minute slog.
There are times during WW84 where the plot felt less inspired than some of the storylines in the original ’70s TV series. There were times where I was genuinely stunned by how ill-conceived and -executed entire sequences were here. Except for Pascal (whom I normally admire greatly), I can’t even fault the performances for the movie’s flaws. Gadot has gotten noticeably better as an actor in the last three years, and Wiig actually gets more interesting as a troubled but empowered character as the film goes on. But it’s genuinely odd seeing so many key supporting roles occupied by unknowns. I’m not knocking the life of a character actor, but I found it strange the filmmakers didn’t spend a little money on filling key roles (like the president) with known faces, if only to jolt us awake every so often.
Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t a total bust, but it’s closer than I ever would have imagined it could be. And before you unleash your conspiracy theories about the real reasons I didn’t enjoy this movie: I adored the last film and was genuinely eager to see this one because I thought it might embrace its comic book roots a bit with more entertaining villains. Instead what we get is a lovesick Diana whose feelings for her dead boyfriend cause her to consider putting his “life” before the world’s existence. That’s not the Wonder Woman I grew up with or want to see from Jenkins, Gadot and company, and I’m fairly certain it’s not a version of the character anyone else wants to see, either.
Wonder Woman 1984 opens in theaters wherever they are open on Friday, December 25; it will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
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