A Superhero Rocks the '80s

Age of Excess January 7, 2021  

  

On Wonder Woman 1984

W

onder Woman (2017) was a blast —

an exemplary action movie that injected into the D.C. superhero universe an excitement and

playfulness that made the superhero genre temporarily feel fresh again. Its follow-up, Wonder Woman 1984, is also playful, and we are again charmed by leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. But gone is the sprightliness of its predecessor — its overall light-on-its-feetness and feeling of possibility. This two-and-a-half-hour-long sequel, which has also been directed and co-written by a returning Patty Jenkins, is overlong and overplotted; there isn’t too much about it to distinguish it from most other brawn-prioritizing bigger-is-better superhero-movie sequels. By the time the bloated last act has arrived, everything has turned sluggish and uninvolving. During the last few action sequences we can’t get caught up in the thrill of it all because we’re anxiously waiting for the wrap-up.

Gal Gadot in 2020's Wonder Woman 1984.

Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gadot), went through a lot in the first movie. She left her home turf, the Amazonian paradise Themyscira; pretty much single-handedly stopped World War I (most of the film took place in 1918); and fell deeply in love with the very first man she laid eyes on, pilot Steve Trevor (Pine). At the end of Wonder Woman, Trevor, spoiler alert, died in a plane crash. The sequel picks up some 66 years later, in a Washington, D.C., where Prince is working as a single, friend-and family-less archeologist who still has not gotten over her romantic loss. Her loneliness is telegraphed to us in an early scene where Prince is dining alone, al fresco. As she gazes wistfully at the scenery around her, we can tell she’s thinking about how things used to be, wishing she could return to her past. 

 

In stark contrast to the first movie, which one might remember as almost colorless (the war-torn landscapes in which much of the action took place was by necessity wet and gray-looking), Wonder Woman 1984 can be visually glossy. It has lots of fun offering a nostalgist’s idea of the ‘80s. It might be junky — sort of Stranger Things-esque — but it’s likably bright. I enjoyed looking at the film during its first few acts; one introductory action sequence is set in a mall, and all the surrounding poofy hair, high-waisted trousers, popped collars, fanny packs, and gaudy neons make for cute decorations. (The mall melee is also the most low-key of the movie’s action sequences, and it might 

be the most engaging: the others are mostly so CGI-addled and distractedly shot they might as well not even be happening.) It’s like Jenkins had marathoned a series of ‘80s-era blockbusters and taken careful note of everything she wanted to ape. I was relieved her throwbacking wasn’t excessively on the nose and aggravatingly chintzy like it was in the mid-1990s-set Captain Marvel: In that movie, allusions to the past were so aggressively unimaginative there was even a fight scene set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”

 

In Wonder Woman 1984, trouble blossoms from a rock. It’s a bronze-colored stone that comes into Prince’s possession after the FBI asks her and her colleagues to determine the worth of several antiquities recently stolen in a robbery. Her instincts tell her it’s a worthless, if cool-to-look at, piece. It 

turns out, though, that this rock is not an unspecial lump but actually something of a wish-granting monkey’s paw — a thing Prince comes to understand when Steve suddenly turns up at a party she's attending one evening, apparently back from the dead. (He’s possessed a conventionally handsome man’s body; no one’s very ethically concerned about this.) Prince has been wishing to herself that he would come back to her — apparently so often that she could be looking at a rock's worth and be in the middle of internally stating her wish — and it’s finally come true. 

 

Just as Prince is beginning to understand what this magical trinket is capable of, it’s fallen into the wrong hands. A wannabe oil tycoon with unctuous and swoopy hair, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), has whisked it away — flirted it out of Prince’s sweet and shy colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) under the guise of faked romantic and philanthropic interest. (Lord, also a “television personality,” just wanted to borrow it, Minerva explains to Prince demurely.) Lord, like any classical villain would, uses the stone to attain power — wishing himself into various leadership roles to amass capital. (During one of his first big outings, he secures control of scores of oil reserves in Egypt; this film’s vision of the country and its inhabitants is so stereotypical it might as well have been released in 1984.) Lord is unhealthily hungry for that power. He’s like a vacuum whose on-off switch has broken off; he can’t stop himself from sucking up what will inevitably be world-dominance. Lord is like Jordan Belfort as a Universal monster. “You can have it all — you just have to want it!” he says with a crocodile’s grin on TV before everything in his life changes. 

 

Minerva unwittingly benefits from the rock’s powers, too. One evening, she wishes to herself that she could be more like Prince — sexy and smart are among the descriptors that come to her mind. Suddenly she has super strength and can do stuff like read four books a night, a newly developed skill she credits with also fixing her lousy eyesight. Her confidence in herself becomes almost overpowering — like asking for a few sprinkles on a sundae but getting the whole container plopped on the hot fudge. At first her new capacities make her feel like the person she’s always meant to be, and for a while she’s the only one affected by her changes. She’s harmless. But, in tandem with Lord, she finds herself wanting more than she has in the present tense. After getting revenge on a man who’d harassed her while walking home a few nights earlier, awakened in her is a need to destroy. It gives her powers a place to assert themselves.

I

t’s amusing to watch Wiig transform from an endearingly unconfident Julie Hagerty type to a tough chick resplendent in abrasive eyeliner and spiked leathers. At times it looks as though she was doing Lita

Ford cosplay. As a comic actress, Wiig has dependably done everything she could do in a given scene to get a laugh. She’d roll around in mud if she felt it necessary. As a villainess, Wiig does everything she can to be convincingly bombastic, and her dedication is admirable, even if the character, and her rapport with Prince, feels a little old-fashioned — antiquatedly catfight-esque. (Just like the recapitulation of the four-eyed social outcast-to-foe trope — it’s so worn out I don’t think it can ever be effectively resuscitated.)

Wiig and Pascal are too goofy for this movie. They try to bring characterological textures — campy ones — the screenplay doesn’t have, and they clash more than they complement. They’d serve better in something more along the lines of 1980’s Flash Gordon. In that lovably extravagant-looking movie (watching it is like looking at a comic book come to life), characters, villains in particular, needn’t have much else besides a strong trait or two and a distinct look. For Flash Gordon’s archfiend — Ming the Merciless, from the planet Mongo — an unquenchable thirst to cause natural disasters on Earth to soothe his boredom was decorated outwardly with a pair of serrated eyebrows and a weeping-willow mustache underneath a sheeny bald head. (He always wandered around in fiery-looking robes that made him look like a volcanic explosion frozen in time.) 

 

For Lord and Minerva both, the shared key trait is an overwhelming desire for more power whose end goal remains mostly nebulous. Visually, Lord has been done up to look like a younger version of Donald Trump (one is surprised Jenkins didn’t go for a Reagan manqué as the film’s chief big bad). And in Minerva’s case, it’s a sartorial evolution from archetypal nerdy nebbish to rock star to finally, with no reason that we hear, a cheetah woman who sometimes prances on all fours. (Minerva’s villain name: Cheetah.) 

 

Wiig and Pascal don’t seem to be in the same movie as everyone else. The screenplay doesn’t establish either villain enough to make their antagonistic wishes feel anything other than prescribed. The script seems well-aware of this vagueness but doesn't do much to mitigate the problem. In one scene, where Minerva is relentlessly attacking Prince, I thought it didn’t make any sense for this to happen: The film hadn’t given us a persuasive reason why Minerva would act this way, especially around her colleague, who might be her only friend. But then, in a tidy piece of exposition, Prince weakly says to Minerva just after being thrown into a wall by her that she should think about how she’s acting. This rock is draining her of all the warmth and kindness that once made her special. 

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onceptually the movie sounds as if it might unfurl with the silliness of Flash Gordon. There's all this world-dominance-seeking with no substantive motivations glossed with an ‘80s glow. But Wonder

Woman 1984 is more often unbecomingly self-serious than it isn’t. I’d say, too, that this is a movie set back by the “too many villains” syndrome. The combined megalomania of Minerva and Lord is exhausting. (I suppose the muchness is in keeping with the movie’s “era of excess” backdrop.) Because the Trump allegory as brought on by the Lord character is so clunky — it’s a cartoon depiction of avarice’s ugliness, and once we’ve gotten to the finale the film has become hammily sanctimonious and ideologically fuzzy — I could have done with just Minerva. We would likely have gotten to many of the same places without so much top-heaviness. (Lord, too, is more annoying than fun to hate — he’s like a fly superglued to your ear you’d do anything to simply flick off.)

Pine is predictably very charming, and the moments where he’s getting acquainted with ‘80s iconography are mostly inspired. (He’s like a little boy getting all the toys he wants out of an arcade’s crane machine on his first try.) Almost unavoidably, there is a getting-ready sequence — a favorite trope of the '80s teen movie — where he must decide what he’s going to wear for his first official day out. It’s a funny nod to how in the first movie Prince learned with wide and curious eyes about what earthly pleasures she’d been missing out on. For Trevor, 1984 might as well be a different planet.

 

But Trevor’s place in the movie, though intermittently bringing joy, feels increasingly gratuitous. Powers of the magic rock aside, it’s unclear how exactly he got here. And screenwriters Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham don’t do enough to convince us that Prince is still grieving him strongly enough to unconsciously wish he could return to civilian life. It’s an invocation of an old trope — of the immortal hero having a hard time dealing with what their immortality brings, and as such yearning for what once was more strongly than the average Joe. But it’s offered without much conviction or persuasively shown need. 

 

Gadot’s limitations as an actress are more prevalent in 1984 than they were last time. In the 2017 film, she often had to lean into comedy, and she was an unexpectedly stellar deadpan-funny actress. Her comfort in action sequences was almost a bonus. But she spends most of the time in 1984 somberly serious, and because Gadot isn’t an actress that can give big emotions a superhero’s grandeur — she can be like an android feigning dynamism — she often feels like the least interesting person in the room when objectively Prince is. I was glad to have this movie to watch with loved ones over the holidays — it’s ultimately an agreeable-enough action film. But the wonder of its predecessor has dulled, and unlike its antecedent, which inspired some optimism about the state of the superhero movie, it gives rise to more pessimism. C