'Wonder Woman 1984' And The One-Villain-Too-Many Problem
Wonder Woman 1984 premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on December 25.
As much as 2017's Wonder Woman came steeped in muddy browns and muted grays, every frame of its sequel Wonder Woman 1984 radiates bright, retina-sizzling neons and pastels. That stark contrast goes beyond their respective visuals — it extends to their very different emotional landscapes and narrative drives.
Where Wonder Woman was an origin story set largely amid the soggy trenches and bombed-out European villages of World War I, WW84 relocates Diana (Gal Gadot) to the broad white boulevards of Washington, D.C., in the middle of the Greed Decade. As a kind of mission statement, director Patty Jenkins stages the film's first (of, it should be noted, surprisingly few) action set-pieces in that most consumerist, I-Love-The-'80s location possible: A mall. (As you watch that scene play itself out, try to keep yourself from knowing that all of Wonder Woman's feats of jumping and punching and Magic Lasso-ing are unfolding in a place that smells strongly of hot dogs and cinnamon rolls and orange chicken; just try.)
As intentionally grimy as Wonder Woman looked, it's story was clean and linear: Diana left her home on the Amazon hideaway of Themyscira to stop a war engineered by a god who fed on the senseless destruction it wreaked.
You perhaps spot a contradiction already: She fights ... to keep people from fighting?
Welcome to the character of Wonder Woman, Warrior for Peace, historically difficult needle to thread. Originally created with the best, most morally clear purpose any superhero could possess — namely, to punch Nazis in the face, a whole lot, with verve and elan — she represents a fundamental paradox. She exists to embody the capacity for violence (enormous physical power combined with advanced military training) yet she solves problems through compassion, empathy and, mostly, Truth.
Sounds a bit gender-essentialist, no? Why can't a woman be a badass, delivering savage beatdowns to those who deserve them? The good news is that, in recent decades especially, she has been, and she does. Jenkins picked up on this, which is why those scenes in which Diana finally gets to let loose are the most thrilling in either movie; Gadot's handle on the physical demands of the role is sure.
All of this feeds into the three reasons why WW84, while entertaining and frequently funny, lacks the propulsive drive of its predecessor.
It's a hoary critique of superhero movies that their computer-generated effects look gleamingly artificial and dull. Wonder Woman's focus on practical fight choreography meant it could have dodged (or, more fittingly, deflected) that critical bullet, had its climactic all-CGI fight scene not devolved into visual incoherence.
WW84, however, sets up camp in the uncanny valley in its opening minutes. A sun-drenched flashback on Themyscira features computer-generated figures performing physical feats with a false weightlessness that defies both gravity and sense. The film's climax — another CGI slugfest — takes place at night, which is a bit more forgiving, though not much.
2. (Superhero Cinematic) History, Repeating
The superhero film genre has been around for at least half a century, depending on whom you ask, and what strikes you watching WW84 in the year of our lord 2020 is how it still hasn't learned the most essential lesson of all:
When it comes to villains, more is less.
Pick one, and stick with it. Give them enough motivation, and screentime, to make an impact. Have them stand in clear moral opposition to the hero, and move the story forward.
Loading up on villains can work, of course, but only under specific conditions: Tim Burton's 1992 film Batman Returns famously recruited both Catwoman and the Penguin to great effect — but both of those characters had already established significant cultural footprints: beloved by Nerds, recognizable by Normals.
The same, it cannot be said, of WW84's Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) and, especially, Maxwell Lord (a shockingly uncharismatic — nay, acharismatic -- Pedro Pascal). Wiig brings a great comic timing to the film's first half, when her squirrelly anthropologist befriends Diana and — not uncoincidentally — comes into her power. It's nothing you haven't seen her do before, but credit should be given to both the actor and the script for finding a way in to a villain that only a handful of comics writers have managed to make effective.
Pascal, on the other hand, flounders as Lord. Granted, that's part of the character's whole schtick — a desperate huckster who's grasping at anything to stay afloat — but Pascal seems wildly miscast, and his willingness to hurl himself bodily into Lord's tortured distress only exacerbates that impression.
3. Too Many (Grace) Notes
Jenkins and her fellow screenwriters Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham clearly know Diana's whole Warrior for Peace schtick (Johns, especially, as he's clocked serious field time with DC and its IP). Which might explain, but not excuse, the script's tendency to keep slowing down to supply Wiig and Pascal with scenes duly apportioned with emotional beats, psychological motivations and characterizing details. It's a good impulse, in theory, especially when you keep in mind that they're in the script to expressly set up Diana's efforts to defeat these villains. She wins the day, after all, by reaching out to their innermost conflicts, understanding what drives them, and forcing them to confront the Truth about themselves.
Again: On paper — on the comics page, especially — it works. In an action movie, however, when you've got two villains, each outfitted with their discrete sets of grace notes that must be churned through, those scenes keep piling up and piling up and cannot help but muddy the waters and crowd out the spectacle we clamor for.
Still, though: WW84 is entertaining, Gadot nails the character and her contradictory nature, and Chris Pine shows up (never mind how) to reestablish, and further, the two actors' easy, charming onscreen chemistry.
Plus? Not for nothing? If you grew up with the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, and/or the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, you'll want to wait for the moment, one hour and ten minutes in to the film's running time, when something happens. A something that would, in a crowded, opening-night theater, elicit a spontaneous cheer of pure, unfettered nerd-joy — a phenomenon unique to the superhero film genre, and its greatest gift to the world.
But just know: That moment retains a not insignificant fraction of its essential power, even if you're just sitting on your couch scarfing pretzels.
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