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Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 is ambitious and messy.

In many ways, the original Wonder Woman could be said to be the first true blockbuster of the Trump era, in much the same way that The Dark Knight was the closing blockbuster of the Bush era and Star Trek was the opening blockbuster of the Obama era. It is not a literal or a chronological distinction, but instead that acknowledges the film’s place as a cultural marker. The original Wonder Woman spoke to the question of what it meant to be good in a world that is not, which resonated in the second half of the decade.

No spoilers.

As such, it feels appropriate that Wonder Woman 1984 will be the last blockbuster of the Trump era. Part of this is simply down to factors outside the film’s control – it was originally meant to release earlier in the year, and Warner Brothers had originally planned for Dune to take the Christmas release slot that ultimately went to it. Still, it’s hard to watch Wonder Woman 1984 without getting a sense that director Patty Jenkins has a lot to say about the current moment. Even insulated by its mid-eighties setting, Wonder Woman 1984 is a movie anchored firmly in the present.

There’s a lot of rich thematic material here and grand ideas. Indeed, Wonder Woman 1984 might just be the first superhero blockbuster that serves as a metaphor for the idea of an economy. However, the execution is a little too broad and too clumsy. Wonder Woman 1984 works best when it is anchored in its characters and giving them room to breathe. It struggles a bit when it tries to position itself as a brand extension of a recognisable franchise.

There’s a lot to like in Wonder Woman 1984. The film’s setting is delightfully vivid and rich. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen pumps up the colour and saturation to present a particularly vivid vision of the decade of excess – one permeated with bright blues and reds, where gold glistens and pink pops. It is deliberately heightened and occasionally unreal, taking on the texture of old photographs or shining memories, an impressive texture that neatly compliments the look and feel of the original Wonder Woman.

More than that, it continues to allow Jenkins to position the Wonder Woman films as spiritual successors to the work of Richard Donner on Superman and Superman II, the films that codified what a big-budget and mainstream comic adaptation could look like for a generation of viewers. The Donner films are a touchstone for a lot of superhero directors. Sometimes this works well, as in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Sometimes it does not, as in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

However, Jenkins is willing to let Gal Gadot as Diana present herself as a figure analogous to Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Her costume is bright and often seems ready to pop off the screen, even without any 3D digital voodoo. There’s a charm and an innocence to all of this, which remains just on the right side of nostalgia. It captures the memory and the feeling, rather than slavishly devoting itself to soulless reproduction. Unfortunately, the script itself is not always so lucky.

Of course, the use of colour in Wonder Woman 1984 is a market of the film’s setting. The film is set against the backdrop of the mid-eighties, unfolding in the midst of the “greed is good” generation. That generation finds expression in the person of Maxwell Lord, the owner of the company “Black Gold” who runs a series of infomercials assuring audiences that “life is good, but it could be better.” Lord is presented in the spirit of Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. Like Jordan Belfort, his infomercial even finds him stepping off a helicopter to welcome audiences.

All that glitters.

Lord is a fascinating character. He is played with surprising nuance by Pedro Pascal, who treats Lord as a surprisingly nuanced individual. Lord gets motivation and back story, he gets a series of explanations for his greed and hucksterism. The film presents Lord as a larger-than-life figure, but only because Lord himself has chosen to play the role that he does. Even before the arrival of a mysterious artifact, Lord seems to believe in the power of magic, of manifesting success by presenting success – he calls it “self-fulfillment” and even alludes to “the power of positive thinking.”

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Wonder Woman 1984 is the level of humanism that permeates the film. Indeed, Wonder Woman 1984 often seems positioned in direct opposition to the original film. Wonder Woman posited that mankind was worth saving because that is what heroes do, even if they do not “deserve” it. It was a surprisingly bold argument for a superhero film, one that emphasised the importance of heroism as something inherently selfless – something to be done not for any reward, but because of the rightness of the action itself.

In contrast, Wonder Woman 1984 believes that people are fundamentally decent. It seems to suggest that even villains and monsters deserve some empathy and compassion. The movie’s opening set piece features an attempted robbery at a jewellery story that is serving as a front for black market antiquities. When Diana shows up, one of the robbers panics and takes a child hostage. Even his fellow armed criminals seem horrified by this reflexive and panicked act. “What are you doing?” demands the leader of the gang, seemingly shocked that one of his goons would threaten a kid.

However, even as Wonder Woman 1984 extends a great deal of humanity to Maxwell Lord, it is almost impossible not to see him as an extension of the archetype embodied by President Donald Trump. Lord is a failed businessman, a “loser” who has managed to parlay some television appearances into a minor celebrity as he swindles all of his investors. Through a series of events, Lord manages to hustle his way into the White House and the Oval Office, eventually assuming the full power of the Presidency of the United States.

Make your own “golden laces” joke.

He is larger than live, vulgar and tasteless. Even the smaller details of the film cannot help but point to an obvious source of inspiration. At one point, Lord helps to build a wall that turns out to be both monumentally stupid and needlessly divisive. At another point, it is revealed that Lord is not even the character’s real last name, and that he changed it because it the original sounded too foreign. Naturally, so many of Lord’s own problems – including his neglect of his own child – come down to a deeply troubled relationship with his own father. It is not subtle at all.

Wonder Woman 1984 positions itself as a meditation on the idea of what happens when a hustler and conman is able to swindle his way to power. The plot of Wonder Woman 1984 is powered by a mysterious artifact with the power to grant wishes. Steve Trevor, who is resurrected by that stone, correctly identifies the artifact as a “a monkey’s paw.” It grant wishes, but those wishes come at a terrible price. Often the individual does not even know what they are trading when they make the deal; one character wishes for a coffee, only for it to burn their mouth.

The narrative of Wonder Woman 1984 operates by a fairly basic but abstract logic. The film’s story is driven by magic rather than anything more rational. This is interesting, as most superhero movies tend to coat mysticism and magic in pseudo-rationalist trappings – Doctor Strange is primarily interested in magic as a means of transportation, while the Thor franchise treats its deities as sufficiently advanced aliens rather than literal gods. In contrast, Wonder Woman 1984 is much more straightforward: the stone is magic.

This is an ambitious approach to storytelling, because it requires a great deal of commitment and faith in an audience’s willingness to go along with an admittedly heightened premise. The wishes in Wonder Woman 1984 hinge on everything from the ability to part traffic “like the red sea” to making nuclear weapons spontaneously materialise. The costs are similarly vague, whether the arrival of an investigative unit at just the right moment through to a more abstract loss of a character’s empathy.

Make it lasso.

Nevertheless, the centre metaphor of Wonder Woman 1984 is very clear: nobody gets anything for free. Indeed, it’s tempting to look at Wonder Woman 1984 as a parable about the importance of the economy and of trading standards; everything has a value and price even if those values and prices are not monetary in nature, and they must be respected. Any attempt to disrupt that basic law of the universe will have increasingly dire consequences.

Jenkins hammers this point repeatedly and cleverly. Indeed, the action in Wonder Woman 1984 is often structured to underscore the thematic point. Many of the action beats in the film are built around the idea of action and consequence, both morally and physically. In the film’s opening scene, Diana uses the momentum of a flipping pendulum to propel herself. She does the same thing later on with the axle of a flipped truck. Actions and reactions are certainties in the world of Wonder Woman 1984.

Indeed, the sequence introducing Diana in the context of 1984 plays on this idea repeatedly, following on the importance of physics – of kicking a car in the right spot to knock it off-course, for example. Similarly, a small act of shoplifting leads to chase down the street that leads to a pedestrian getting clumsily pushed off a bridge, an illustration of the doctrine of unintended consequences. It’s very impressive visual storytelling.

Lord’s attempt to stay one step ahead of his creditors early in the film becomes a race to stay one step ahead of the mystical consequences later on. Indeed, Lord becomes a master of the “art of the deal”, attempting to manipulate the people around him into giving him what he wants while also taking from them what he needs. Again, it is hard not to see echoes of Donald Trump in this figure, a man trying desperately to outrun his crippling obligations.

Lording it ove rher.

However, Wonder Woman 1984 extrapolates outwards from Lord, and turns this into a broader point about contemporary culture. The film is predicated on the idea that everything comes with a cost, and that trying to cheat that cost will only end in disaster. The film even opens with a flashback to Diana’s childhood that underscores this point, where Diana attempts to win a competition by cheating, only to be called out for taking “the short path” to victory rather than earning it.

The philosophy espoused by Lord is one of “more.” He promises his followers, “You don’t even have to work hard for it. All you have to do is want it.” When he asks President Ronald Reagan what the leader of the free world could possibly want, Reagan replies, “What is there to wish for but more?” Later on, sharing a helicopter ride with Barbara, Lord offers something close to a philosophical summary of his character. “There is always more.”

Lord promises his followers and allies their best dreams and desires, and they believe in him. They make their wishes, expecting to get something for nothing. It’s not a subtle metaphor for the culture of excess that defined so much of the eighties, but it also serves as a broad comment on much of the Trump era, the enablers and the supporters who made his victory possible by deciding to believe his obviously false promises to give them whatever they wanted – to build that wall, to bring back jobs, to give medicare to all, to hurt the right people.

This is one of the slight frustrations within Wonder Woman 1984, where so many of these horrific consequences are presented as the result of ignorance or indifference. The people making these wishes rarely intend for them to hurt other people directly – the wishes just work out that way. There are a few small counter-examples, but it’s notable that President Ronald Reagan wishes for more nuclear weapons in order to force the Russians to stand down, only for it to have the opposite effect.

All about Steve.

However, this suggests a blind spot in Wonder Woman 1984 that was not present in the original Wonder Woman. The original Wonder Woman accepted that peoples and governments were capable of malice and violence, and that sometimes the cruelty was the point. In contrast, Wonder Woman 1984 seems to have a hard time believing that human beings could be motivated by malice or anything other than the best of intentions. Everything in Wonder Woman 1984 is presented as a comedic misunderstanding rather than malice aforethought.

In the context of a film positioning itself at the end of the Trump era, this seems almost painfully naive. It recalls debates that the people who voted for Trump did not know what they were doing or that they only wanted to make their lives better rather than hurting others. It suggests that despite all the harm caused by the policies of the administration, Trump himself is a figure who deserves pity and empathy because of his own tragic back story. It’s the one element of the central metaphor of Wonder Woman 1984 that does not ring true.

In a broader sense, Wonder Woman 1984 seems to comment on the nostalgia that drives so much of contemporary politics and pop culture. Early in the film, Diana accidentally gets her own wish from the stone. She gets to resurrect Steve Trevor, the love of her life who sacrificed himself at the climax of Wonder Woman. Trevor is resurrected in a stranger’s body, another illustration of the idea that everything comes with a price. However, Trevor’s presence and resurrection also makes Diana weaker.

The resurrection of Steve Trevor is one of the more compelling and stronger aspects of Wonder Woman 1984. On the most basic level, Chris Pine and Gal Gadot are great screen partners. In particular, Pine is a remarkably generous performer as demonstrated by his work in films like A Wrinkle in Time. The two bounce off one another remarkably well, and the film is never more alive than when the two are just enjoying each other’s company, showing a tenderness rare in the genre. Jenkins keeps things fresh by reversing the fish-out-of-water dynamic of the first film.

Home again.

However, the return of Trevor also works because it makes the film’s point very well. The audience understands the lure and the appeal of nostalgia, of resurrecting a lost past, because the audience wants Trevor to be around as much as Diana does. There’s a surprising amount of emotional heft to that drama, as Diana feels the pull of that nostalgic comfort. Even as she is weakened by it, Diana clearly wants to retreat back into a happier past rather than face the present. Wonder Woman 1984 cleverly puts the audience in her emotional space, wanting Trever back just as much.

Unfortunately, Wonder Woman 1984 suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. In particular, as the film approaches its third act, the movie muddles its central themes in favour of fan service. This is perhaps most obvious with the character of Barbara Minerva. Barbara is introduced as a fascinating character and a familiar archetype. In a nod to the movie’s eighties setting, Barbara is presented as the stereotypical nerdy and frumpy girl who could just be a little hotter if she took off her glasses, put up her hair and wore a tighter dress.

It’s a very savvy use of a familiar trope by Jenkins, and Kirsten Wiig does good work in the role. Barbara is an academic, and seemingly a good one. However, she is constantly ignored and overlooked by the people around her because she fits the stereotypical “Hollywood homely” archetype: she wears baggy clothes, has thick-rimmed glasses, and lacks self-confidence. Barbara wishes to be noticed. She wishes to be “strong”, to be “sexy”, to be “cool.” She is immediately transformed, and becomes the centre of attention.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, particularly positioning Barbara as a foil or mirror to Diana. Diana’s mythic origin suggests a child sculpted from clay. Instead, Barbara sculpts herself. However, Barbara does not seek to be her own person. She seeks to copy Diana. More than that, it is very clear that Barbara tailors herself to fit with the male gaze. She becomes a reflection of what men want to see in her, rather than the best version of herself. It’s an interesting approach to the character, and makes her a sharp contrast to Diana’s own independence.

Holding on forever.

Sadly, the movie fumbles this theme in the third act, when Barbara inexplicably wishes to be “an apex predator” and turns herself into a computer-generated cheetah person. To be clear, nothing in the movie to that point had foreshadowed this development, outside of Diana’s cheetah-print heels. There is no sense that Barbara has a cultural or personal interest in cheetahs. There’s no sense that that the magic wishing stone can transform people into strange animal or human hybrids. There’s no sense that Barbara even owns a cat or liked the Doctor Who episode Survival.

To put it simply, Selina Kyle’s transformation into Catwoman in Batman Returns is more clearly signposted than Barbara’s transformation into a cheetah person, and even that was a very surreal and strange shift within the world of the movie. There’s absolutely no reason why Barbara’s wish (“I don’t want to be like anybody else”) should be realised in the way that it is, and absolutely no reason why the climax of Wonder Woman 1984 should insist on Diana facing off against a computer-generated cat person shrouded in shadow – except nostalgia and fan service.

There’s no internal reason why Barbara has to become a cheetah person. The only reason that Barbara has to become a cheetah person is because the comic book character Wonder Woman counts the villain Cheetah as one of the most prominent members of her rogue’s gallery. She is a persistent presence throughout Wonder Woman’s publication history, which is scattershot and erratic enough that consistency is enough to elevate a preposterous opponent to the arguably status of archnemesis.

This is not do dismiss the character of Cheetah, although it seems fair to concede that Diana drew a short straw when the comic book fates were assigning major foes. Cheetah is not the Joker, nor Lex Luther, nor Doctor Doom, nor the Green Goblin. Cheetah is not even the Riddler, nor Bizarro, nor the Red Skull, nor the Vulture. There have been interesting interpretations of the character in the past, most recently Greg Rucka’s interpretation during his run on Wonder Woman, but those require a lot of groundwork. They do not throw Cheetah into the third act and expect her to work.

Wiiging out.

This is perhaps a problem with the modern era of comic book movies that prize fidelity and nostalgia about coherence and theme. In the old days, Superman II could readily acknowledge that Superman was not blessed by a particularly deep bench of foes by simply elevating and then-D-lister like General Zod to the status of primary antagonist. These days, Tony Stark keeps having to fight groups of generic antagonists who wear suits of armour, even seemingly offloading some of them to Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The decision to include the villain Cheetah in the way that Wonder Woman 1984 does throws the entire movie off-balance. Because Wonder Wonder 1984 is a movie that hinges on magic that operates by clean narrative logic – where things happen because they makes sense as things that happen in this kind of story rather than as motivated by rational cause and effect – the clutter hurts the movie. Once the internal logic is damaged by the addition of fan service, it starts to unravel.

The character of Cheetah is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of smaller elements of the film that seem to exist for no greater reason than because they are an established part of the character’s mythos and they belong in a Wonder Woman movie even where they don’t make sense. To pick another obvious example, Jenkins puts her own spin on the classic “invisible jet”, but the “invisible” part of that scene is the least compelling part – in fact, it serves as a distraction from the more interesting character work (and even spectacle) that plays through the sequence.

This is also something of a problem in the movie’s third act. Jenkins clearly listened to criticisms of the third act of the original Wonder Woman, which complained about the gratuitous climactic action scene that anchored the movie’s central thematic debate between Diana and Ares. Theoretically, there’s a lot to be said for Jenkins’ efforts to structure the film’s third act to avoid traditional “actors knock one another through computer-generated scenery” spectacle.

Gripping stuff.

However, it doesn’t quite work. The third still aims for an impressive and global scale, even when a large part of that comes from turning on a wind machine on a fairly conventional set. Jenkins’ desire to push against force as a means of resolution in a story like this is smart, but it’s a hard sell when the movie also insists on apocalyptic stakes. More than that, the film’s resolution doesn’t feel entirely earned. Wonder Woman spent two hours building its cynical view of the horrors that men commit, but Wonder Woman 1984 does not do as much to set-up its own ending.

This is all a shame, as it prevents Wonder Woman 1984 from joining the ranks of the best superhero blockbusters. The film has ambition to burn, and a lot of clever and pointed things to say about the current moment. However, it is also too clumsy and awkward in execution, too eager to indulge in the empty nostalgia that it rails against. Wonder Woman 1984 is constantly tripping over itself, which is truly frustrating. When the movie really gets going, it is fantastic. Then again, it’s probably hard to land an invisible jet.

2 Responses

  1. You forgot to adress the rather shady issue of the individual whose life Steve Trevor is hijacking.

    • The review is 4,000 words long, and deals with these ideas thematically. It doesn’t go point-by-point through an itemised list of scenes from the film because… well, that’s not how I write reviews. I also tend to avoid unnecessary spoilers in reviews, because I’ve had people get mad at me for pointing out that the villain lives in a nice house.

      I talk about the nature of the wishes in the film (and Diana wishing for Steve to return) and I also talk about how one of the film’s problems is an unwillingness to interrogate the actual consequences of these wishes as anything more than misunderstanding. So if you can’t intuit a broad criticism of the film’s treatment of its wishes and how that might apply to what happens to Steve’s situation from observations like…

      This is one of the slight frustrations within Wonder Woman 1984, where so many of these horrific consequences are presented as the result of ignorance or indifference. The people making these wishes rarely intend for them to hurt other people directly – the wishes just work out that way.

      …. and …

      Trevor is resurrected in a stranger’s body, another illustration of the idea that everything comes with a price.

      … then I guess such is life.

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