A Column Written by Philip C. Perron
Wonder Woman, possibly the most iconic superhero of them all, stands out for so many reasons. She was one of the very first woman characters to break through what has stereotypically been a man’s genre. And like many of her other DC comrades, she’s part of the fabric of pop culture. When 2017’s Wonder Woman was released by Warner Brothers/DC, not only did it become one of the biggest grossing films of that year, it also was partly responsible in rejuvenating the DC Universe that had taken many hits with much less successful productions.
Once again Warner Brothers brings back Patty Jenkins as director and Gal Gadot in the title role in the follow up film, Wonder Woman 1984. Originally set to be released in December 2019, the movie was postponed to be a mid-summer blockbuster spectacle. Of course the COVID pandemic scuttled that hope, and the film instead became the very first movie in Warner Brothers’ highly advertised but controversial direct-to-VOD release schedule. Though appearing December 25th at the few theaters that still seem to remain open, its Christmas day release happened concurrently on HBO Max where Warner Brothers’ entire slate of 2021 films are now to appear for their debut.
Though taking place in the pivotal year of 1984, the movie starts with a flashback that actually itself is a commentary on both the film and Princess Diana’s own future moral code. We get to watch a prepubescent Diana competing against adult Amazons in a type of decathlon upon her native island of Themyscira. Though unaware of the rules, we are quickly able to understand the competition. Demonstrating skills with archery, spear chucking, athletics, and horseback riding, the end goal of course is to win the race. When an unfortunate misstep causes Diana to fall behind, she uses ingenuity to rebound only to be thwarted by onlooker and aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Afterwards she is lectured by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) on how one must win by the act of fairness and truth; essentially lying to oneself does not make a hero.
Flash forward to 1984, Diana is now Diana Prince, a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Though not aging since her stint in the 2017 film (that film taking place in 1918), those unfamiliar with that movie (or the mythos) soon gather that Diana is essentially immortal (being born of the gods).
When a front for stolen antiquities is shut down, the many recovered items are sent to Diana’s place of work to be identified and cataloged. New employee, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), is assigned to the task. While working with Diana, the two begin an unlikely friendship. Though brilliant, Barbara is a shy insecure woman who admires and desires Diana’s charisma, style, and confidence. Such attributes innately seem to ooze from Gal Gadot. Having started in the modeling and the fashion world, the actress seems to portray such strengths naturally.
In a controversial casting choice, Kristen Wiig turns out to be a surprising find for the role of Barbara. By film’s end, as her many interviews have shown, she will become the iconic villainess Cheetah. The role, thought to be for an actress a decade or two younger, Kristen Wiig takes the part from timid scientist to a confident and sexy professional with little effort. Coming from a comedic background, she is another in a line of comics who show how much easier it is to transition to dramatic roles. Her starring take in the 2014 dramady Welcome To Me was just a preview of the complex roles she was born to play.
Unbeknownst to Barbara and Diana, one of the many stolen items in their charge is the priceless Dreamstone, a magical talisman that was created by a demigod from Amazonian folklore. Its powers grant wishes to those who possess it. Unaware, both Diana and Barbara have their own personal wishes granted. Diana wishes that her boyfriend, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) was alive and back with her. Barbara’s though seems much more innocuous; have the beauty, confidence, and style that her new friend Diana has. And shortly later, Barbara is a charismatic leader at work who’s immediately desired by both her male colleagues and strangers. One amazing yet straightforward scene, she’s the center of attention, dressed in an amazing work suit, surrounded by her coworkers, discussing their work project, throwing in the occasional joke, radiating with extraordinary confidence. A mirror image of the woman we were first introduced to.
But much like other superhero films, there is more than one antagonist. Failed businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) also desires the Dreamstone. Having been thwarted in buying it on the black market, he soon gets his hand on the dangerous item and from there sets off a megalomaniac vision of his world. And though his reasons have a root in mental abuse coming from childhood, his character arc is nothing more than a one trick pony.
Barbara’s story is more a consequence of Ford’s actions. Her role and turn to super villainess was shortchanged once her alter-ego as Cheetah arrived. In an awesome reveal that is scored against Hans Zimmer’s most chilling musical moment in the film, what lacks in Cheetah’s ultimate screen time is at the very least driven by a marvelous face off of Barbara’s personal desire of simply wanting to be comfortable in her own humanity opposed to Wonder Woman’s charge in saving the world from a mad man.
But Wonder Woman 1984 can’t be discussed without the return of Steve Trevor. Having died heroically in 1918, sixty-four years earlier, the Dreamstone’s power brings him back. Diana, like many of us, pines for the return of those they miss so dearly. And with the power of the Dreamstone, her desire for Steve is granted. And with his arrival, their immediate chemistry from the 2017 film is an absolute boon to the more human elements on screen. Their relationship shows us that Wonder Woman is more than a cipher for heroism. She too is in essence a “human” who has hopes, wishes, and desires like those she protects. And seeing Steve playing the fish-out-of-water role in an unfamiliar 1984 as Diana did in an unfamiliar 1918 works resulting in some lighthearted comic relief. Throughout the non-action scenes, the two continuously hold hands as young lover do; Diana seeming to lead her man across the divide that such a remarkable return has done to him while quelling the melancholy that has followed her ever since his untimely passing in the first film.
The movie however doesn’t fully work. The second act when Maxwell Lord’s plan begins to go global seems to send the movie into a chaotic spiral that oddly mirrors the character itself. Both the dramatic and thriller aspects from the first act are overshadowed resulting in quite a mess at times. And the political imagery and metaphors that follow along Maxwell’s path may feel somewhat insulting and a bit too black and white for many viewers. Fortunately when Barbara returns to the film, she saves the movie from its own self destruction. But a bitter taste will still remain for a good many members of the audience. Such unpleasantness is hard to forget.
The final act, though closing all story lines fully, leaves some characters’ endings unfulfilling and even awkward. Maxwell Lord’s story arc doesn’t fit with his prior actions, and to try to humanize him after all that he has done may be considered a bit distasteful to some. And Barbara’s story ends quite anticlimactic especially after the two year build up that Cheetah was given in press releases.
Yet with its flaws and its somewhat bloated runtime of 151 minutes, the movie does what it was meant to do. It is a thrilling and entertaining ride that follows one of our favorite iconic characters. The charismatic Gal Gadot shines once more. She embraces a role that at one time would be considered camp. And as an actress, she has proven herself as a talent with full range. Her depiction of Wonder Woman is that of a woman who kicks butt not because she wants to, but because she has to. And coming from the fashion and modeling world, she stands out in all the costume and makeup choices that the crew have chosen for her.
All in all, the film is a fun time for the whole family. And it stays true to the core fan base. Let’s hope the next film comes sooner rather than later.
Fun movie facts:
- Watch for a mid-credit scene that will delight fans of the original Lynda Carter television series.
- Gabriella Wilde plays a small but fun role as Maxwell Lord’s exhausted office manager Raquel.
- The invisible jet finally makes an appearance.
- A very obscure power from one of Wonder Woman’s incarnations appears. She can ride air currents and lasso lightning.
- Anyone into fashion will be delighted by both Gal Gadot’s and Kristen Wiig’s choices of heels, outfits, and accessories.
- New action figures are out. One for Barbara Minerva, one for her as Cheetah, and one for Wonder Woman.