I’ve been on something of a hiatus from commentary as of late–which, given the circumstances the country finds itself in, isn’t the worst thing in the world for a guy who would very much like to keep his marbles; but it also makes me feel a bit derelict in my duty to snark at the passing scene, if only to provide a laughing counterpoint to all the craziness and post-election malaise. So what’s a person to do when he wants back in the game?
Why, write a movie review of course.
Things being what they are, however, it’s impossible to divorce anything from politics, and the case of Wonder Woman 1984, recently released in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, proves to be no exception. My spidey senses first got tingling on that aspect when I saw the advance buzz coming in from mainstream critics, who heaped a ton of praise on the film while hailing its importance as a vehicle for female empowerment in Hollywood. Not that there’s anything wrong with sisters doing it for themselves, but I also couldn’t help but remember how a similar kulturekampf preceded the release of Ghostbusters, with its all-female leading cast, in 2016–and we all remember how that stinkeroo turned out. Were the media trying again, just a little too hard, to convince audiences that they were required to like a movie simply to send an approved message of social justice. . .even if that movie sucked? Truth be told, I would’ve been less skeptical had the critics given WW84 the Justice League treatment, and pronounced it just another dumb tentpole in the rather lackluster DC Cinematic Universe.
On the other hand, I thought the first Wonder Woman was a terrific (if imperfect) piece of entertainment, with Gal Gadot turning in a wonderfully charming and warm performance as Diana Prince, amazing action set pieces, an intriguing World War I setting, and incredible on-screen chemistry with co-star Chris Pine. I had also read how film series helmer Patty Jenkins had insisted on creative control with a minimal amount of the studio interference that had made the aforementioned Justice League such a disaster. With that pedigree, the odds for WW84 seemed to work in its favor–or so I had hoped.
Alas, critics whom I trusted–i.e., those who leaned toward the right side of the political spectrum–dashed those hopes pretty throughly, declaring the movie a woke mess not worthy of my time. They seemed to confirm my fears of a ham-fisted attempt to hammer a message of gender politics instead of telling a good story–which weren’t exactly quelled when Jenkins herself declared in interviews sthat he crafted the film’s villain to be a Donald Trump-like figure, right down to his golden locks and mannerisms. But what the hell? I had a subscription to HBO Max so that my wife could finish up Gossip Girl after it dropped off Netflix, so why not give the wonder a whirl and decide for myself who was right?
Let me start out by saying that I didn’t hate it. Now that’s faint praise because I didn’t exactly like it much, either. Rather, WW84 struck me as just the opposite of woke–a film that almost seems to take pains to be as inoffensive as possible, from its characters and pacing all the way down to its climactic battle in which, as far as I can tell, nobody is even killed. And the way everyone seemed to learn their lesson in the end reminded me more of an ABC After School Special than a superhero flick–certainly nothing that had the emotional heft of, say, Avengers: Endgame from the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Part of the fault for that lies in the story itself, which–like the final Avengers–features an all-powerful stone with mystical powers, but instead of bending space and time it grants wishes. Yes, you read that right. Wishes. Like the genie from Aladdin. Wielding this awesome power is Max Lord, played by The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, who according to Patty Jenkins is supposed to be the Trump guy–but only if Trump had been imagined by a person who had never ever seen or heard Donald Trump. Lord, you see, is an immigrant himself, and even speaks with a Hispanic accent–hardly Alec Baldwin’s exaggerated impression of a blustering Queens brogue. To top it all off, Lord is just a single dad with business problems trying to save a crumbling company–a con man running a Ponzi scheme, to be sure, but also a man who loves his son and wants him to be proud of daddy, which is why he absconds with the stone and uses it to become successful. The way he’s presented, we actually sympathize with the guy. If that’s the way leftist filmmakers present Trump to the public, I wish we had more of them.
Then there’s the absolutely glacial pacing of the first act, which starts off with a throwaway flashback to Diana as a child running in some American Gladiators-esque warrior games that could have been completely excised from the movie without losing a thing. We then flash forward to 1984, where we get to see Wonder Woman foil a heist at a shopping mall carried out by the most incompetent bunch of crooks I’ve seen outside of Bugsy Malone. This is all supposed to set up the discovery of the wish-casting stone, but only serves to drag the narrative out for another full hour before anything actually happens–which includes our introduction to the film’s secondary baddie, Barbara Minerva (played by Kristen Wiig, coincidentally of Lady Ghostbusters infamy), who eventually mutates into Cheetah, supposedly a badass villain from the comics but who comes off here as an escaped refugee from the Cats movie.
Finally, director Jenkins doesn’t really seem to know what kind of film she’s making here. Is it a grand, sweeping epic? The games from the first scene certainly make you think so–until the story swings over to the bumbling criminals at the mall and Wiig’s portrayal of the cringing, shy and klutzy Barbara, which gave me some serious flashbacks to Richard Pryor in Superman III. Then the tone shifts yet again, when the love of Diana’s life, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), returns from the dead as the result of an accidental wish–and suddenly we’re in a tearjerker romance, interspersed with some comedic fish-out-of-water hijinks as the century-old Steve tries to navigate the complexities of life in 1984.
Speaking of which, I still have no idea why Jenkins decided to even set the film in that decade. Aside from a few jokey references to the styles of the era (Jane Fonda Workout clothes and parachute pants make co-starring appearances), there’s very little here that couldn’t have been set in 2020. One might be tempted to think this was all a crass attempt to cash in on 80’s nostalgia, which is all the rage these days–although I will admit to cracking a smile during the party scene when Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” is jamming in the background. That’s right, folks. “Relax” wasn’t even close to the best song they did.
And yet, and yet… I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a soft spot for WW84. It has a certain goofy earnest charm, in spite of its flaws, and didn’t go out of its way to insult half its potential audience. Some right-leaning critics have compared the President who appears in the film to Reagan, but in my opinion it’s largely incidental and doesn’t disparage the Gipper the way you would expect in a woke screenplay, and if gender politics appear anywhere in here I’d be hard-pressed to point it out. Then again, maybe after the plodding, joyless and cynical slog that was Disney Star Wars, WW84 seems downright ebullient by comparison. For that, at least, I will give it credit.
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