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Patty Jenkins’ stirring 2017 stand-alone feature debut for the popular character who made her first DC Comics appearance in 1941, Wonder Woman, came along at just the right time to shake up the male-dominated superhero screen universe, reinvigorating the genre landscape with amped-up estrogen in her fight for peace, love and equality. The movie, like Black Panther the following year, was significant in terms of its step forward in representation; for many of us whose appetite for superhero sagas has its limits, these two films remain high points. The feverish anticipation around this sequel at the end of a pandemic year that’s been lean on blockbusters will automatically generate an enthusiastic welcome, even if it doesn’t avoid the sophomore trap.
As the first high-profile feature from the delayed Warner Bros. slate to go out simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max ahead of the studio’s full roster in 2021, Wonder Woman 1984 has a lot riding on it. No doubt, big-screen consumption that includes Imax in some locations will benefit the viewer experience. But safe access at home will be a welcome relief for many more, with the potential to do for the WarnerMedia streamer what Hamilton did for Disney+.
RELEASE DATE Dec 25, 2020
Jenkins’ first entry, written by Allan Heinberg, was a powerful origin story that followed the protagonist’s self-discovery with ample breathing space for character development between action sequences that mixed visceral sword-and-shield clashes with exciting superhuman feats. Gal Gadot’s physically commanding demigoddess Diana led a ragtag team of men to bring down a World War I German chemical weaponry plot. Her chief ally against evil was Chris Pine’s American fighter pilot Steve Trevor, also providing a dreamy romance that humanized her without ever reducing her to swooning mush.
Where the 2017 film invoked the gods, the over-complicated, two-and-a-half-hour sequel — written by Jenkins, former DC Comics president and CCO Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham — invokes … The Art of the Deal? Pedro Pascal plays Maxwell Lord, an unctuously familiar breed of snake oil salesman in a honey-blond ’80s wig thick with hair product. He’s first seen hawking tickets to the American Dream in tacky TV commercials for his Black Gold Oil Cooperative, a dodgy land-rights purchase whose investors are getting antsy. Max’s greatest fear is being considered a “loser,” but his palatial offices are a front for an empire with no foundations. Pascal is always a magnetic actor, but the overt Trumpiness, especially this late in the game, is just too on-the-nose to be amusing.
WW84 is at its entertaining best in the early sequences. As she did in the last installment, Jenkins opens by returning to Diana’s childhood (she’s played with appealing pluck by Lilly Aspell), bringing back Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, respectively, as her mother, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and her mighty warrior aunt and mentor, Antiope.
Despite being half the size of her competitors, Diana performs outstandingly in a contest of physical skills with an obstacle course that’s like Amazonian Ninja Warrior. Instead of Mount Midoriyama, the contestants go outside the packed arena for the final stretch, a decathlon-type challenge combining an open-sea swim, horseback riding and archery, all of it further adrenalized by the thundering strains of Hans Zimmer’s rousing score. Diana learns a hard but valuable lesson in patience, diligence and honesty, along with her mother’s assurance that her time will come.
Back in Washington, D.C., in 1984, the ageless Diana is working in the archeology department of the Smithsonian Museum. Her secret superhero presence in the city is introduced when thieves attempt to lift ancient artifacts from a jewelry store that’s a front for traffickers. Setting this sequence in that most era-defining of locations, the shopping mall, allows Jenkins, production designer Aline Bonetto and costumer Lindy Hemming to get most of the jokey retro visuals out of the way early with a riot of bad hair and pastel fashion crimes.
Watching Gadot swing between mall floors on her golden lasso after knocking out the closed-circuit surveillance cameras is an absolute blast. There’s a sweet nod to Diana’s role as protector of the innocent when she whisks a small girl out of the way and they exchange a complicit wink before she rounds up the perpetrators and delivers them to the cops, as a TV newsman reports on the latest intervention of the “mysterious female savior” thwarting crime in DC. It’s in this kind of muscular coverage, combining action with intimate character insights, that Jenkins and returning DP Matthew Jensen excel. And the stunt work throughout is terrific.
Back in civvies at the office, Diana appears to be the only person of that decade with taste. Her poised beauty and vertiginous animal-print pumps elicit the open admiration of new hire Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), the shoes providing an early hint of how that geologist character will evolve. A bespectacled nerd with unmanageable hair and terminal social awkwardness, Barbara is starved for female friendship but even more so for male attention. So when flirtatious Max Lord presents himself as a potential museum donor, showing unusual interest in an unidentifiable stone confiscated from the mall heist, Barbara is too giddy with romantic distraction to notice he’s a creep.
There’s a reason Max wants the stone, of course. Its wish-fulfillment powers play into the “greed is good” ethos of the era, the culture of “more,” even if Max still shows a shred of humanity as a divorced father nagged by guilt over his neglectful relationship with his young son (Lucian Perez). But the stone’s rewards come at a cost. That applies both to whomever is granted a wish and to the sequel’s cluttered screenplay, which spirals into such a chaotic swirl of world political disorder, nuclear threats, the “Star Wars program” and satellite communications monopolization that the characters get lost in the mayhem.
Even the resurrected Steve ends up getting short-changed despite some gorgeous scenes that stir the heart. Diana has been, ahem, pining for him for nearly 70 years, and she first catches sight of the pilot after striding into a Smithsonian gala in a stunning off-white coat-dress with thigh-high split that takes full advantage of Gadot’s gazelle-like physique. The head-turner clearly has plenty of practice brushing off unwanted attention from guys, so the poignancy of her reunion with the one man she truly loved recaptures some of the emotional pulse of the first movie. A scene with them strolling by the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, with the Washington Monument glowing in the distance, is enchanting.
There’s welcome humor, too, in Steve’s adjustment to the wonders of the “futuristic time” in which he’s reappeared, and to its wardrobe. Fans of one of the most endearingly cheesy elements of both the vintage comics and the 1970s TV series — the invisible plane — will be delighted to see it make a comeback in a magical scene that has the rejoined lovers flying through July 4 fireworks. (A friend recently confessed that one of his formative baby-gay moments was building an invisible plane by cutting up plastic water bottles and Scotch-taping them together.) When they follow the dangerously empowered Max to an Egypt of CG pyramids, there’s also a thrilling road chase in which Diana and Steve go up against the crooked American businessman, who has co-opted an oil baron’s security detail in armored vehicles.
But it’s soon after that point that the movie starts succumbing to breathless over-plotting. Part of it is a question of balance, with two villains competing for attention and neither of them all that compelling. Given that advance press and trailers have made it abundantly clear, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Barbara becomes Cheetah, a role in which Wiig attempts to stretch her range but just seems miscast. Her transformation from sweet social misfit, yearning to be “strong, sexy, cool, special,” to a ruthless apex predator who sacrifices her goodness is too abrupt to be convincing. And the physical clashes between the two women have a rote feel, including one that demolishes great chunks of White House interior.
Cheetah in many ways is a less interesting Catwoman, particularly as played so divinely by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which holds up remarkably well after almost 30 years. There are parallels also with that film’s other villains. Max Lord’s megalomaniacal hunger for success is traced back to childhood abuse from his father and his teenage outsider years; he could almost be an amalgam of Danny DeVito’s ugly orphan outcast Penguin and Christopher Walken’s sleazy business tycoon, Max Shreck.
As talented as both Pascal and Wiig are, neither actor is given the scope to have much fun with their characters, and the climax in which good inevitably triumphs over evil and the myth of being able to have it all makes way for the value of truth seems, well, anticlimactic.
There’s still a lot to love. Gadot remains a charismatic presence who wields the lasso with authority, even tethering lightning bolts in some arresting moments. However, I missed the more hand-to-hand gladiatorial aspect of so many fight scenes in the first movie. There’s a disarming romantic touch in Diana acquiring the ability of flight through Steve’s explanation of its rudimentary principles. But watching her soar through the air — while consistent with later editions of the comic — also detracts from the athletic leaps that make the character distinctive, turning her into an ersatz Superman with a cuter outfit.
Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max
Production companies: Atlas Entertainment, Stone Quarry
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Polaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenwriters: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham; story by Jenkins, Johns, based on characters from DC; Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston
Producers: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, Stephen Jones
Executive producers: Rebecca Steel Roven Oakley, Richard Suckle, Marianne Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Walter Hamada, Chantal Nong Vo, Wesley Coller
Director of photography: Matthew Jensen
Production designer: Aline Bonetto
Costume designer: Lindy Hemming
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Richard Pearson
Visual effects supervisor: John Moffatt
Casting: Lucinda Syson, Kristy Carlson
Rated PG-13, 150 minutes
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