“For me, [Wonder Woman] is a big misstep, I can only hope that Wonder Women 1984 will prove to be better.”
When I wrote this for my Wonder Woman review I genuinely had faith in Patty Jenkins to deliver a better sequel given the fact that she was co-writing the screenplay and I chalked a lot of the first film’s missteps to the lack of a female voice in the writing process. But here we are, as I write these words it has been less than an hour since I walked out of the cinema, disappointed but not surprised.
One of my biggest complaints about the film can be seen through the opening scene of the film; a flashback of Gal Gadot’s titular hero as a child in Themyscira, competing in an Olympics-style event (although in practise the event looks like a rejected concept for American Ninja Warrior), which despite her age compared to the other contestants, she is on track to win. There’s a set-back that she faces during the race which she overcomes through a conveniently placed slide (no I am not joking), after this she regains her place in the lead only to be stopped at the very last second by her mentor because apparently she cheated by taking the slide…… Now we’re never informed that using the slide that was clearly placed by the Amazonian women for some reason (despite the fact that it’s child size and on the side of a mountain that could never serve any real purpose outside of being very convenient to the plot) would be cheating in this competition, especially when in the moment it’s framed as Diana being quick-witted and resourceful in order to complete the race rather than giving up after the first set-back. The reason Diana’s instructor gives is pretty vague and amounts to the idea that Diana doesn’t deserve to win because she’s a child and inexperienced, despite the fact that Diana is clearly better than every other contestant.
Now it seems like I’m going too deep into something so inconsequential, but it perfectly highlights a significant issue with the screenplay in that there is no consistency or logic to the world, and often they’ll just reveal something after the fact in an attempt to make it make sense and while I’m sure that a lot of audiences won’t take issue with this, it’s clear that the screenwriters don’t respect their audience’s intelligence enough to try and form some level of consistent internal logic. This issue happens throughout the film; whenever it becomes convenient to the plot the rules of the game will shift to keep the contrived plot moving forward. As I walked out of the cinema I heard other cinema goers talking in confused tones about the logic behind the central macguffin because right near the end of the film the rules of it are suddenly changed without explanation. This lack of clarity within the screenplay shows an incompetence on behalf of the screenwriters, or a disregard of the intelligence of their audience.
The rest of the film focuses on Diana in the 1980’s, who is now working in the Smithsonian Museum as an anthropologist while living a double life as the still unknown superheroine Wonder Woman. After a botched robbery reveals the existence of a black market for goods and artifacts at a local shopping mall, one of Diana’s colleagues at the Smithsonian, Kristen Wiig’s Barbara, is tasked with identifying the central macguffin of the film; a mysterious crystal that is revealed to be the equivalent of a monkey paw. The magic crystal will grant the wish of whoever is holding it, causing Barbara to wish to be more like Diana and for Diana to wish for her deceased lover, Chris Pine’s Steve Taylor, to come back. Pedro Pascal’s character is searching for the crystal in order to achieve the success and riches that he’s striven for throughout his career as a sham-businessman, and as I’m sure you can guess; the power of the crystal falls into the wrong hands and Wonder Woman is left to restore order.
Now if you don’t know what the monkey paw trope is; it comes from the short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs, and the general gist is the monkey’s paw grants wishes but with an unexpected negative consequence attached to it. Now this trope has been used in media a countless amount of times since the short story was published in 1902, but normally when this trope is used a new spin is put on it in order to keep the idea fresh. But Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t do anything new with it, it just copies the idea of the Monkey’s Paw and the idea that “if everyone’s wishes came true, it would be a disaster”, and just copies and pastes it into a superhero film. The film even goes as far as recognising that the central maguffin (and it is very much a macguffin) is copying the monkey’s paw gimmick and literally refers to it as a “monkey’s paw” in an attempt to mitigate the clear lack of creativity that went into this film. Now is there anything inherently wrong with reusing a common trope in films? No not necessarily, but when it’s done with such a lack of creativity and simply rehashed without any interesting application, it shows how creatively bankrupt the team is, which is even more bizarre when you consider the wealth of source material that they could have drawn on for this film instead.
One of the most egregious moments in the film is when the now super-powered Barbara takes revenge on the man that previously tried to sexually assault her earlier in the film. In a moment of revenge Barbara uses her new-found strength to beat the drunk man to a pulp only for a homeless man that Barbara would look out for stumbles across her and the now unconscious (possibly dead) body of the man. Now this is framed as if it’s a scene of Barbara going too far and rejecting her previous humanity and goodness, despite the fact that the implication of this moment is that the man is trying to take advantage of Barbara violently in both encounters. This is an inherently tone-deaf moment as it frames Barbara as the bad person for lashing out at the men in society who get away with harassment (something we see both Barbara and Diana suffer through throughout the film without repercussions for the men) but it’s made worse when you consider that one of the biggest strengths of Patty Jenkins’s breakout film; Monster, is the way she makes you empathise with the real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos as she lashes out at men after a violent rape sends her into a spiral of killing. It’s just a very weird message to send out in a film that is so heavily marketed towards young girls especially, and it seems like there would be so many better ways of showing Barbara’s descent than having her revenge on her almost-rapist be the moment of no-turning back for her character.
I’ll move on from the plot now as despite not wanting anyone to subject themselves to this movie I recognise that some people will want to anyway and I don’t want to spoil too much, and also because there’s plenty of non-narrative issues I want to talk about. Now one of my biggest criticisms of the first film was Gal Gadot’s lacklustre performance, and without wanting to repeat myself too much, not much has changed. Gadot is just as wooden and dull as the first film, even in the moments of emotion in the film her performance doesn’t work and feels disingenuous. While I must concede that Gadot visually fits the role to a tee, she simply doesn’t have the acting chops to carry this franchise and she sticks out like a sore thumb alongside her co-stars. Comparatively, I thought that Kristen Wiig, who I had very low expectations for going in, did as good a job as she could do with Barbara. Wiig has great comedic timing and a lot of the best jokes of the film involve Wiig in some way, and she manages to balance the original dorkiness of Barbara with the confident, powerful Barbara we see by the end of the film. I would also like to highlight Pedro Pascal who is, in my mind, the best part of the entire film. Similarly to Wiig, he is definitely stunted by the limitations of the screenplay & direction, but despite this his performance manages to shine through the dreck (mostly). Now the obvious elephant in the room is the fact that Pascal plays Trump. Yes, you read that right, he plays Donald Trump; not literally mind you, the character is called Max Lord, Patty Jenkins has outright said that Trump was not an influence for the character but from the way Pascal looks, to his mannerisms and the concept of the character (a ponzi-scheming businessman who is known for his TV appearances), it feels disingenuous of Jenkins to claim Trump had no bearing on the character. As I said before, Pascal is easily the best part of the film, he plays the character so well and hits the levels of desperation, intensity and emotion that is required, but unfortunately the script absolutely neuters the character during the climax but I can’t blame Pedro. The same thing happens to Wiig’s character and again it’s not her fault, but it’s still a shame regardless.
So by now I should have made it clear that the screenplay has significant issues and Gal Gadot is still too wooden to be a leading actress, but unfortunately the technical side of the film isn’t much better. For a film with such a high budget, the special effects look dreadful. There are two major action scenes in the film that look awful, ironically enough both can be seen in the trailers for the film, the first is the scene of Wonder Woman running head on towards the camera. While it’s clearly meant to be stylised to represent her superhuman abilities, it just looks bad, the cinematography makes the scene look warped, and the special effects make Gadot feel out of place in the frame. Similarly the fight between Wonder Woman and Wiig’s Cheetah at the end of the film just looks atrocious. It’s set in the dark, which I assume was done in an attempt to cover up the horrific looking design of Cheetah’s VFX, it literally could have been lifted from Cats (2019). But the way the fight is filmed is so poorly done that the fight feels so inconsequential; it doesn’t feel like the camerawork is framing the blows in a way that highlights or enhances the momentum of the fight. There’s a moment that can be seen in the trailer where Wonder Woman grabs Cheetah mid air and slams her to the ground, but the camerawork is so flat that it doesn’t feel like the big hit that it is clearly meant to be. At one point the fight transfers underwater, and the lighting is so terrible that you can barely make out the scuffle that’s happening and because of it, the whole section feels futile. While I wasn’t a fan of the action in the first film, it’s leagues and bounds better than what we get in this film.
To conclude, DC has had a very interesting 2020, releasing both Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984, two female with women at the forefront both on screen and behind the scenes. But yet there is a stark difference in quality between the two, with Birds of Prey easily being the best film released in the DCEU and Wonder Woman 1984 being one of the worst. Whereas Birds of Prey felt like a breath of fresh air, Wonder Woman 1984 is contrived and unoriginal. The narrative is just a retread of one of the most famous short stories of all time, that doesn’t add any meaningful message or thematic underpinning that gives this film anything to say. There’s a very weak message that amounts to “maybe if you had everything you wished for it wouldn’t be as good as what you already have”, which is an incredibly stupid message as the film frames the wishes in the film as the most over-the-top extremes (like political leaders wishing for nuclear missiles and starting a nuclear war as a result, or everyone wishing for money to the point where the economy crashes) but it fails to consider that some people would be wishing for things like a cure for their life-threatening illness or to be rid of an abusive partner or similar very reasonable wishes. So for me the film really does fail in all areas, it has a painfully simplistic message, visually it looks bad (especially any time Wonder Woman is flying or swinging through the air), the cast is lacking or capped by the screenplay, and the screenplay is atrocious. Looking back at the quote I put at the beginning of this piece I feel my trust and confidence in Patty Jenkins is now diminished, while I’m sure I’ll check out any future Wonder Woman films and probably her Star Wars film, but any sense of optimism going into these is gone.