There are two films inside of Wonder Woman 1984, director Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her successful 2017 debut in the DC Comics-based franchise. In the first case, it’s a fun diversion of a superhero movie, full of arresting images, flashy action, winking comedy and the speechifying of moral victory we all know will come at the end. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon with a bucket of popcorn, and if all you want from your superheroes is action, distraction and super-human beauty, then WW84 (as the film has been promoted) ticks all the boxes. But the other film is the one Jenkins didn’t make but perhaps should have: a deeper look into a compelling character who may be a god but who moves through the human world with a child’s innocence.

Expecting depth and nuance in a superhero movie is perhaps asking too much, and yet previous films have managed the trick, from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to James Mangold’s outstanding Logan. After all, if superheroes represent vehicles for our desire to enact justice and overcome evil, why can’t they also stand in for our struggles with personal integrity and loss? The answer surely involves the accounting departments at major movie studios, who calculate that explosions and fist fights translate best into ticket sales and streaming audience numbers. They may be right, but that’s also where WW84 flounders. The action sequences, once they kick in, feel weightless and insubstantial, both physically and thematically.

Reprising the part of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, Gal Gadot seems perfectly suited for the role of the mysterious Amazonian warrior who emerges from a mythological past to study and protect humankind. The Israeli actress possesses the stature and poise of a benevolent deity, and projects intelligence and empathy in her interactions with the human characters she encounters. Her scenes with her love interest, World War I flying ace Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), sparkle with wit and sweetness as she helps him navigate the unfamiliar landscape of mid-’80s fashion and commercialism in Washington, D.C. His presence in this story, decades after his heroic self-sacrifice in the previous film, hinges on the script’s MacGuffin–an ancient crystal that grants wishes.

Suffice to say that the ramifications of the magical totem involve the annihilation of all life on Earth, and Wonder Woman aims to stop it. Standing in her way are a pair of bad guys, including Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a smooth-talking TV shyster determined to wring every dollar and ounce of power from his possession of the crystal. Pascal, on loan from the lead role in the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” seems to be having a blast playing a bewigged crook in a pinstripe suit. He exudes the slippery charisma of a quintessential Reagan-era scumbag, and it’s fun to watch him gnash his teeth and slit his eyes the way he seldom can in his helmeted role the Star Wars-based series. The other villain, played by SNL alum Kristen Wiig, has less to work with in her role as an under-appreciated scientist whose transformation into a baddie involves the ’80s-movie cliché of removing her eyeglasses and tousling her hair.

That reliance on decades-old film tropes runs like a vein through WW84, although it can be challenging to determine whether it amounts to homage, irony or just lazy storytelling. An early sequence at a suburban mall presents a feast of visual references–poofy hair! Waldenbooks! Reeboks!–calculated to elicit nostalgic chuckles from some viewers. Later narrative twists, including imagery of American and Russian ICBMs launching into the sky, evoke memories of Cold War nightmares. But the power of these period-specific touchstones is drained by the weightlessness of the CGI-heavy action sequences and the shallowness of Wonder Woman’s motivation. A prologue in which young Diana learns a lesson about cheating fails to resonate with her later dilemma involving personal sacrifice. Gadot is at her best when showcasing her physical grace in hand-to-hand combat, but she barely seems to touch the ground in her fight scenes, seemingly levitating and bouncing painlessly away from obstacles in a way that diminishes the stakes. When Superman lifted effortlessly off of his feet to fly away in Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman: The Movie, it was a thrilling thing. When Wonder Woman floats above the pavement, it seems like she’s barely trying. If she’s a god in possession of all her powers (including the ability to suddenly turn a stolen jet invisible), then what chance do the villains really stand against her?

Fortunately, Wonder Woman doesn’t seem to suffer the existential crises we’ve seen in other recent DC films focused on gritty and dour depictions of Batman and Superman. They could certainly use some of her zest and humor, and the reminder that devotion to goodness and justice is integral to the character of the superhero. Wonder Woman, however, seems mainly concerned with protecting her boyfriend, and she’s willing to save the world with a tidy speech while she’s at it. But aside from that, she doesn’t seem to know why she’s here, and at the end of the movie, neither will you.

A reliance on decades-old film tropes runs like a vein through WW84, although it can be challenging to determine whether it amounts to homage, irony or just lazy storytelling.
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Mediocre Woman
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