Wonder Woman 1984, 2020.
Directed by Patty Jenkins.
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen.
In the 1980s, Wonder Woman clashes with an evil businessman and a museum co-worker with ambitions to be both fierce and… furry.
If there was pressure on Wonder Woman to prove that female-led action movies could fly at the box office – and there was – then there might even be more pressure on the shoulders of director Patty Jenkins’s follow-up three years later. This time, Wonder Woman 1984 has to prove there’s a box office future for movies – period. Released simultaneously in the USA in cinemas and on the HBO Max streaming service, the superhero adventure is a guinea pig for a seismic shift in the way big movies are distributed. We won’t know how that experiment has shaken out for a long time yet. But more importantly, is it any good? Is the lasso of truth the perfect weapon for vanquishing baddies in an era of social distancing? Does the rest of the Justice League show up to squeeze into the rule of six?
Well, the woman on the marquee is certainly at the peak of her powers. Gal Gadot is delightfully otherworldly and quietly powerful as Diana, who has grown into the human world during the 70 years or so since she first left the bubble of Themyscira. She has gained an essential and charming humanity alongside her latent sense of good, which feeds into her vigilantism – rather more targeted than that of a Batman or Spider-Man. There might not be an action sequence here to rival the goosebumps of No Man’s Land, but Gadot’s lasso finds plenty of targets and the star also injects real, believable intensity into the emotionally demanding segments of the plot – of which there are many.
Much of that emotion comes from the return of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, despite his death in the first movie. The machinations behind his return won’t be revealed here, but it’s fair to say they’re subsequently tied into a Machiavellian scheme by struggling oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and a very MacGuffin-y MacGuffin. There are two villains for the price of one, with museum gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) morphing from ignored wallflower to the “apex predator” Cheetah.
Pascal shines as Lord – a charlatan with an empty office and emptier bank account who responds to criticism with the affirmation that “I am not a con man; I’m a television personality”. He’s a slimy character of barely concealed macho inferiority, conveyed with aplomb by Pascal in a performance which only grows in sheer size as Lord’s devilish plot begins to physically affect its mastermind. As much fun as The Mandalorian has been in recent weeks, it’s great to see Pascal handed the opportunity to act extensively with the aid of his face.
Sadly, the same depth is not given to Wiig. Certainly, her action scenes with Gadot are a delight – and her feline CGI has had a clear glow-up since the trailer – but the movie just doesn’t offer enough time for her to spread her… wings? Fur? Claws? Barbara is established as a woman desperate to stick out as much as Diana does, and this feeds into her transformation, but the third act sidelines all of that in favour of using her as a disposable super-figure for Diana to fight while Lord’s plot plays out. Several intriguing scenes of Barbara using her power against male harassers also fall short of ever providing an extra layer to her persona.
In general, in fact, Wonder Woman 1984 just doesn’t quite make the most of any of its story threads. The central conceit surrounding the aforementioned MacGuffin ultimately becomes a convoluted tangle of half-ideas, not helped by myriad doomy montages of societal collapse and a possible boiling over of the Cold War. The script – penned by Jenkins with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham – feels like it could’ve done with a significant prune and sharper focus. With a bulky running time of 150 minutes still leaving the story sold short, it’s a claggy and doughy movie that loses momentum as it moves into a third act willing to hand-wave at concepts rather than provide a particularly satisfying conclusion.
However, Jenkins excels behind the camera with a movie that, in a year short on bona fide blockbuster spectacle, feels like a kaleidoscopic visual smorgasbord. The action sequences are uniformly terrific, from the pulse-pounding Amazon Games – Total Wipeout for badasses in armour – to a metal-bending car chase along a dusty road outside Cairo. Whenever that electric cello theme kicks in, it’s a guaranteed punch-the-air moment.
The same, sadly, cannot be said for the scenes when the film attempts comedy. The easy-going earnestness and warmth which created the laughs first time around is still present here, but the quips feel forced and often rooted in the sort of obvious 80s nostalgia that has become de rigeur in an age dominated by Stranger Things and Stephen King adaptations. Particularly given the presence of a massively gifted comedian in Wiig, it’s bizarre that the movie emerges feeling a little po-faced. The joy of the first Wonder Woman often lay in how it never reached for Marvel, but this one feels a little too beholden to the other studio’s established formula.
Given how much Wonder Woman 1984 gets right, it’s disappointing that the overriding feeling is that of being slightly underwhelmed. Jenkins’s film is still a cut above just about everything else the DCEU has produced – though last year’s excellent Shazam! deserves a mention – but it suffers from being a more crowded and less coherent affair than its stellar predecessor. In a desire to mix things up, it falls a little short, despite its wonderful action sequences and engaging star turn. Then again, it’s better to have swung and missed, than never to have swung that Lasso of Truth at all.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.