‘Wonder Woman 1984’ is lost in its own ambition

Friday, January 1, 2021 - 6:46pm

NOSELL

Warner Bros. Pictures

This one has been a long time coming. Originally slated to premiere as early as November 2019, “Wonder Woman 1984” had a number of different release dates. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was eventually pushed to its current Christmas 2020 premiere with the HBO Max caveat. As a big fan of the first “Wonder Woman,” I’ve been planning on watching this movie since I first heard about it last February. Yet, now that it’s finally here, there’s a lot to think about. 

Set about 70 years after the events of the first film, “Wonder Woman 1984” follows Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, “Keeping Up with the Joneses”) balancing her time between a quiet job at the Smithsonian and a secret life as the headband-throwing, lasso-twirling, ass-kicking Wonder Woman. When Diana and her kind but awkward colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids”) discover what is essentially a magical rock that grants wishes, they inadvertently receive what they most desire: Barbara wishes to be more like Diana, and Diana wishes for more time with her deceased lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, “Star Trek Beyond”). In the meantime, when Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, “The Great Wall”), a sleazy con man trying to make it big in the oil industry, gets his hands on the stone, things erupt into chaos — because, as always, granting wishes comes with a catch.

The plot itself isn’t complex, but somewhere in the 151-minute runtime and $200 million budget, the film feels like it’s bitten off more than it can chew. For every delightful scene or captivating action sequence, there is a glaring problem or a confusing choice that throws the film out of balance.

Many of the best parts are the things that are retained from the first film’s success. As with “Wonder Woman,” Gadot is effortless in her portrayal of an immortal being, imbuing Diana with the confidence and strength worthy of a goddess. What is especially impressive is that she is able to bring in more of Diana’s humanity as well. Even though she is an Amazon, Diana ends up in a place where she can’t bring herself to be completely selfless — what’s more human than that?

In addition, despite my initial reservations, bringing the character Steve Trevor back was one of the film’s biggest positives. Pine and Gadot have a really nice dynamic, and Pine always finds ways to be endearing and entertaining within any scenario — watching Steve get incredibly excited about pop tarts or discovering how to use an escalator, for example, were some of the highlights of the film. And, as a former WWI pilot, Steve maintains an unbridled delight for flight, talking excitedly about planes and taking any excuse to take to the skies.

One of the oddest parts of “Wonder Woman 1984” is that the year 1984 is completely arbitrary. The contrasts between the ethereal, stylish Diana and the colorful, consumer-heavy 1980s interpretation is strange — plus, it’s hard to take a fight scene seriously when it takes place in front of a J.C. Penney. Honestly, except for a fight in an overwhelmingly ’80s shopping mall, vague Reagan-era Cold War politics and some clothing and hairstyle choices, the film could have been set in the present day and you wouldn’t even notice. There were opportunities for pop references or montages set to killer ’80s music, or something that would give the film a stronger foothold in its own setting, yet these opportunities were never capitalized on. It’s true that imbuing the film with Wham! songs or the “Footloose” soundtrack would make it more campy, but at least it would make it more fun. But, even beyond the film’s interpretation of the era, why 1984? If there are any concrete reasons why, the film doesn’t give any hints or explanations.

Another strange, and sometimes downright confusing, aspect of this film is the bizarre treatment of its villains, especially in relation to the character Barbara’s arc. This is not Wiig’s fault — in fact, Wiig’s affability and comedic timing are part of what holds the first hour or so together. Where things get muddy is Barbara’s status in the story. Despite the fact that Cheetah is listed as one of the villains in the film’s description — and the fact that Wiig’s character was openly marketed as the one who would become Cheetah — Barbara’s villain arc doesn’t come to fruition until almost two hours into the film, and the name Cheetah is more implied than mentioned. It’s a baffling situation that makes one wonder who messed this up, the filmmakers or the marketing department. And so, in the end, despite Wiig’s best efforts, the Barbara/Cheetah montage is a victim of bad pacing and poor character development more than anything else.

However, considering the slew of negativity surrounding the film, it needs to be stressed that there are a lot of good things about it. Gadot and Pine are excellent, and Pascal and Wiig do pretty well with what they’re given. There are a number of nods to the original “Wonder Woman” TV show: The creation of the invisible jet is a particular highlight, and Lynda Carter (“Sky High”), the original Wonder Woman, makes a cameo at the end in what is potentially a hint about the next film’s storyline.

Importantly, the film is very engaging. It’s true that the dramatic introduction is less dramatic when you’re lying in bed and watching on a laptop screen. Yet at the same time, there were long periods of time when I forgot that I was in my bedroom in 2020 with a pandemic raging outside.

Additionally, there are some good emotional notes that keep things driving — I, for one, cried twice, which is not a given with most movies. Curled within Diana’s slightly nonsensical but mostly poetic broadcast to the world, there are messages of universal hope and love — something nice to hear these days. In this way, “Wonder Woman 1984” is fun enough, and effective escapism … as long as you don’t think too hard about it.

But in the end, “Wonder Woman 1984” flies too close to the sun, and falls apart under its own weight. The parts that make the beginning better fall apart by the end, and the parts that make the end bearable take a lot of time to get there. Even with emotional, funny or poignant moments scattered throughout, the film seems like it’s running to catch up with its own plot, and it loses sight of itself somewhere along the way. Sure, “Wonder Woman 1984” has been a long time coming. But after watching it, I wonder if it maybe needed a little more time to pull itself together.

Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.