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“Wonder Woman 1984” soars, but only rarely

Wonder Woman 1984

Gal Gadot remains great in the title role, but the sequel does too little, while doing too much, to match her.

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Sixty-six years after she slew Ares, the God of War, and cleared the decks for humankind to fix their proverbial shit and end World War I, Diana Prince, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), has settled into a new life in Washington, DC. Her apartment, filled with reminders of the “Great War” and the man she loved ever so briefly, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), suggests that while she is alive, she hasn’t truly lived in some time.

A brief encounter with clumsy, ignored co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig) gives Diana what might be the first whisper of friendship she’s had since the battlefield. Soon, though, a stone Wiig is analyzing gives Wonder Woman something even more valuable. Against all natural laws, the love of her life returns, aware he died but just as clueless about how he’s back. With an object like that, it is no wonder would-be oil mogul Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is champing at the bit to put it in his hot little hands.

Before the viewers can get to that plot, however, Wonder Woman 1984 kicks off with two action scenes. The first, a flashback sequence set on Paradise Island featuring small child Diana (Lilly Aspell) and the film’s only glimpse of the Amazons including mom Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and mentor Antiope (Robin Wright). It also conveniently lays out the film’s theme—the importance of truth, even unhappy truth—conveniently in the first 10 minutes.

The second sequence, the heavily featured in trailers mall set-piece, shows us how Diana has kept up being Wonder Woman while still managing to evade public knowledge of her existence. You may have seen early commentary on WW84 comparing it to Richard Donner’s Superman films and this scene is the reason. While shot through with far more chaotic energy than those movies, it nonetheless hits some of the same notes keying into similar emotions. Diana is a far less joyous figure in this film than she had been in Wonder Woman, but this allows viewers a glimpse of that incarnation of the hero. The moment she shares with an eight-year-old girl feels exactly like the kind of playfulness we’d expect of a woman who thrilled to her discovery of ice cream almost 70 years earlier.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) wields her Lasso of Truth, with lesser results, in Wonder Woman 1984. (Warner Bros)

While both sequences offer something that fans will likely be hoping for from this sequel—the Diana who saves lives with a smile and the Amazonian utopia—it also frontloads the movie with about 15 minutes of table-setting content. While only a bit longer than its predecessor WW84 feels comparatively draggier and spending so long hovering in second gear at the film’s start is a not-insignificant reason for that.

The movie finds redemption, unsurprisingly, in the Diana-Steve dynamic. While we definitely need to find a way to formally ban all period movies from having a scene where the film invites viewers to laugh at how ridiculous fashion was back then, Gadot and Pine’s chemistry manages to make even that trope worth a smile as opposed to endless eye-rolling. The film’s best visual moment–the two flying in a fighter jet above Fourth of July fireworks–is a representation-by-image of what their interactions bring to the movie. WW84 only soars, it seems, when we are literally flying alongside the characters. A later flying scene feels a bit too CGI and weightless—we are still chasing Christopher Reeve all these years later—and yet is still an exhilarating high point.

The movie’s relationship to its visuals in general is frustratingly inconsistent, despite being directed by Patty Jenkins once again. The early scenes in DC feel acutely artificial, like something on a backlot. Just when I started to think that was the point, a kind of imagistic metaphor for the 80’s shallowness, the film starts to look and feel more authentic including a well-realized recreation of the Washington Metro stops of the mid-‘80. This lasts until the film’s climax and it isn’t just the CGI-heavy battle between a now-fully Cheetah Minerva and Wonder Woman. There is also a scene with one character embracing their son in a park that is as blatant a green screen moment as you can find in a film with a budget around 200 million.

The visual language also robs key characters of depth. One expects Wiig’s Minerva to follow in the footsteps of Jim Carrey’s Riddler, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, or Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, and be an aggressively nerdy villain who’s love of the hero curdles into hate. The film appears to want that for her as well as we are told she is a friendless klutz. But that’s almost all WW84 does: tell us she is that kind of character. In practice, she looks to be a woman of average fashion sense—albeit one with big glasses—who struggles with heels a bit and spills her briefcase once. We know her “new” self is different because the script, from Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham asserts, but the movie gives us so little of Minerva the outcast that that assertion is almost we have to go on.

While only a bit longer than its predecessor [Wonder Woman 84] feels comparatively draggier.

Pascal’s Lord also suffers a bit during a late film humanizing montage. Besides just being a questionable choice to give us the character’s tale of woe in such rapid order with only about 10 minutes left in the film, it is also placed directly after a different montage of people experiencing pain and tragedy. As a result, it is about four cuts into the montage before it registers this isn’t the present day of the movie, but rather a glimpse of Lord’s tragic backstory.

Again, when the action centers on Gadot and Pine, and Gadot especially, WW84’s inconsistencies and shortcomings feel remarkably easy to overlook. As noted earlier, Gadot has to deaden some of Diana’s inner light here which makes for a less delightful version of the character. However, that’s where the story finds Wonder Woman emotionally and Gadot does well in making us feel the heaviness of her pale imitation of living while still letting us recognize the character many connected with so deeply in the first film. Pine’s Trevor, in contrast, feels lighter. Freed from the ongoing trauma of combat and the sensation of there being something after death, almost everything seems to tickle him. Even when things go dark, Pine never loses the character’s sense of grateful enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, all the pieces being there doesn’t matter if they don’t get put together. Whereas Wonder Woman was only let down by its weightless final fight, Wonder Woman 1984’s divisions are much more apparent. Here when the movie goes deep into the CGI well for another superhero smackdown, it doesn’t register as disappointment. It just feels of a piece with the rest of what’s come before it: excellence undercut.

Oh and for those of you who care about this sort of thing, the film does boast a mid-credits sequence, a short scene that is both a sweet tribute to the actor it centers on and a baffling non-sequitur that neither aids the film we’ve seen nor teases any future plans.

Wonder Woman 1984 wishes its way into your living rooms via HBO Max and into theatres on Christmas Day, December 25th.

Wonder Woman 1984 Trailer:

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Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens is a freelance writer and therapist from the Nutmeg State, hailing from the home of the World’s Smallest Natural Waterfall. In addition to The Spool, you can read his stuff in CC Magazine, Marvel.com, ComicsVerse, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. And yes, he is listing all this to try and impress you.