Movie Curiosities: Wonder Woman 1984
The past ten years have been flooded with various failed attempts at replicating Marvel’s success on the big screen. The Dark Universe. The Amazing Spider-Man. Transformers. Ghostbusters. And those are just the ones that actually materialized. You know what every single one of those failures had in common?
When they inevitably collapsed, the responsible studios blew them right the fuck up.
Alas, this is not a lesson that DC has ever learned. From the DC Rebirth to the New 52, all the way back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC has a long and embarrassing history of “soft reboots”, trying to keep what works while jettisoning everything else. It never worked in comics, and it will never work in movies.
It’s now common knowledge that AT&T (who purchased DC and the rest of Time Warner in 2018) is now upwards of $150 billion in debt. Through the past couple of years — most especially during the pandemic — we’ve seen AT&T try to staunch the bleeding by selling off companies and laying off thousands of workers.
Most notably, WB tried directing viewers toward their flailing and expensive HBO Max service by pledging to release their entire 2021 slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. This was a unilateral decision made by the top brass at WB, made without any regards to the filmmakers who are contractually entitled to a cut of the box office take that this decision will inevitably drain. Now Dune (2021) may be exempt from that arrangement after Legendary Pictures filed suit, and more lawsuits will likely follow in the months to come. Warners’ big play backfired, they’ve alienated themselves across all of Hollywood, and they won’t be any richer for it.
And then we have the DC Cinematic lineup.
What we have here is a massive (and expensive!) cinematic superfranchise built around the Justice League, for the Justice League, without the Justice League. Their Avengers-killer failed spectacularly, and WB has no idea what to do next with the DC stable except desperately cling to Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and whatever other miscellaneous scraps of respectability are still hanging around.
Oh, and they can make a new standalone Batman movie. Another one.
The top brass at Time Warner have shown such alarming ineptitude over the past few years, I’m not the least bit surprised that they keep on throwing good money after bad. They just don’t have the brains or the guts to simply blow it all up and start from scratch. So instead, we’re left with a studio that has no idea what to do with the property aside from throw a bunch of money at it, keep on churning out movies with no purpose or direction, and hope that brand recognition alone will be enough to make a billion dollars at the box office.
(Side note: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — studios cannot keep gambling their entire existence on billion-dollar grosses for $200-million-budgeted movies. It’s already sunk at least one major studio, and it’s going to sink Hollywood.)
It looks uncannily like what 20th Century Fox was doing with the X-Men franchise over the past ten years. And I’m not talking about the Deadpool franchise or the standalone Logan films — those were made with clear artistic visions and low enough budgets that the studio left them alone. No, I’m talking about Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, and The New Mutants, all clearly the products of a studio that had no idea what to do with their IP. Hell, Fantastic Four (2015) had similar problems for similar reasons. But at least Fox had an excuse for producing movies at a constant rate, to keep the properties away from Marvel for as long as possible.
What the hell kind of excuse does WB have for Wonder Woman 1984?
Our premise this time concerns an ancient artifact that turns out to be a kind of Monkey’s Paw — whomever uses it will get a wish, but with disastrous unintended consequences. Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (a returning Gal Godot, of course) wishes that she had her old boyfriend back, thus Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is revived. Kinda sorta. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, so of course it’s complicated. He’s not a zombie, though, I can at least tell you that.
Elsewhere, we’ve got Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a geologist who gets her hands on the artifact. She’s a socially awkward put-upon klutz — complete with thick glasses and unkempt blonde hair — who isn’t very attractive or confident, but with a bit of magical help, she turns into a homicidal cat-themed DC supervillain. Now, where have I seen that before?
Last but not least is Maxwell Lord, a villain who shares a long and… *ahem* controversial history with Wonder Woman. Incidentally, you may be wondering why this blonde white man is played here by the distinctly Chilean Pedro Pascal. Well… that’s kind of the point.
Early on, we learn that Maxwell Lord is a Latino man who changed his name and image to look like a massively successful white man on television. He portrays himself as a prodigious oil tycoon, conning people across the world into investing with his company, when in fact his corporate headquarters is little more than a shiny facade over a hollow shell.
But then Maxwell Lord takes the artifact, using his wish to make himself the Monkey’s Paw. Thus he’s free to grant the wishes of the wealthy and powerful, taking their own wealth and power for himself when things go wrong. In execution, it’s a clever and effective twist on Maxwell’s duplicity and telepathic powers from the source text. Moreover, the basic notion of a Monkey’s Paw story on a literally global scale is a surprisingly decent foundation for a superhero picture.
From start to finish, this is explicitly a movie about lying, cheating, taking the quick and easy route, making selfish and/or unwise wishes, etc. And all of this dovetails beautifully with Wonder Woman, whose trademark weapon is the Lasso of Truth. Hell, she was created by the man who invented the polygraph. Only the best Wonder Woman writers have truly understood and celebrated that Wonder Woman is the Spirit of Truth, and it’s great to see the filmmakers embrace that.
That said, this angle does suffer from one crippling flaw: The particular message of “you can’t have everything” sounds really condescending, coming from a superhero. Spider-Man can do that and get away with it, because Peter Parker is a nerdy wimp whose life is absolute shit and all of his friends and adoptive family either die or turn evil. Diana Prince, on the other hand, is a freaking Amazon, born with superhuman strength, agility, and everlasting beauty.
Yes, Diana feels bad because Steve Trevor died and they can never be together in the long run. And yes, Gal Godot and Chris Pine still share an effortless chemistry that makes them easy to root for as a couple. That doesn’t make our hero look any more empowered when Steve Trevor saves the day by sacrificing himself AGAIN. And if this is Diana’s big sacrifice, the thing that she has to give up to set a good example and prove that nobody can have everything… I’m sorry, but no. That’s just not enough to cut it.
What makes it even worse is that Barbara Minerva — our latest iteration of the Cheetah — was ideally placed to directly call Diana out on this. Barbara only ever wanted the kind of power and attention that Diana has, and who is Diana to deny her that? Diana herself never comes up with a decent answer for that, and it’s a wasted opportunity.
To be clear, there’s a lot to like about this adaptation of Cheetah. Bear in mind, the various iterations of Cheetah are probably the most iconic of Wonder Woman’s villains — the closest she’s ever had to a Joker or a Lex Luthor — and this take proves herself to be a worthy foil. I might also add that in spite of my earlier Batman Returns crack, the approach to Cheetah works far better in this movie, likely because it’s a much closer fit to the source material.
Right off the bat, Barbara and Diana are both firmly established as social outcasts. One is a beautiful Amazon from another place and time and her friends are all dead, while the other is a clumsy bookish misfit who has no friends. Yet they’re both intelligent and well-meaning women, capable in their respective fields, looking for company in a world that doesn’t seem to understand them or have a place for them. Yet Wonder Woman responds to the evils of men with non-lethal force, applying her powers with compassion and integrity with the goal of making the world a better place. Cheetah, on the other hand, is all about fighting fire with fire, responding to the evils of men with righteous fury and raw aggression.
In theory, Kristen Wiig was a fantastic choice for the part. She can do dorky and sexy and all points in between. (Seriously, at 47 years old, Wiig looks damn fine in this picture.) She can do funny, she can do brainy, she can do dramatic, and she can deliver furious anger like nobody’s business. The problem, however, is that Wiig is a notable alumna of the Paul Feig School of Comedy. Thus she has the mistaken assumption that rambling on for minutes at a time is funny and endearing, rather than annoying and utterly pointless.
More importantly, Barbara was shaped by a number of outdated stereotypes regarding scientists: Big glasses, socially awkward, dorky and ugly, etc. Which brings me to what may be the single biggest problem of this movie.
It’s right there in the title: 1984. Early and often, this movie leans heavily on its setting in the mid-’80s, with a distinctly heightened and gaudy motif throughout. In theory, “heightened and gaudy” isn’t necessarily a bad way to go for a comic book movie, especially in the hands of a director like Patty Jenkins, who’s already earned her genre stripes. The problem is that this particular take is so artificial, it doesn’t even look authentic by the standards of the time. And the filmmakers compound this by using the period setting as license to indulge in outdated stereotypes, which doesn’t help.
Worst of all, Gal Godot cannot do “heightened and gaudy”. That is simply not in her repertoire. Though her Wonder Woman may dress up in flashy outfits and rescue innocent kids, this is still a superhero built for the trenches of World War I and the dour self-importance of a Zack Snyder film. With this stoic and understated performance against the scenery-chewing camp of everyone around her (Chris Pine excluded), what we’ve got here is a Wonder Woman who looks perpetually out of place in her own movie.
The action scenes don’t help either. To start with, the filmmakers took away Wonder Woman’s sword and shield. I can understand taking away the sword, as it was never really a great fit for Wonder Woman’s compassionate and non-violent brand of heroism. But taking away the shield? Come on! The scene of her using that shield against heavy weapons fire was one of the most iconic the previous film ever had!
More to the point, fewer tools and weapons means there’s less that Wonder Woman can do in a fight. She’s got her boomerang tiara, sure, but that’s an impractical weapon and she barely ever uses it. All she’s got left are her inconsistent super strength and her lasso to do all the heavy lifting. And the filmmakers were visibly straining to find new ways to make the lasso effective and exciting. It gets so bad, Wonder Woman’s big climactic fight with Cheetah gets reduced to the both of them swinging around aimlessly in the general direction of each other. Pathetic.
And don’t even get me started on that ridiculous car chase in Cairo. How could Wonder Woman spontaneously change into her outfit? How could that broken down POS car repel bullet fire like nothing? Hell if I know!
For miscellaneous notes, I’m happy to report that Lynda Carter herself finally gets to make a mid-credits cameo appearance. I’m even more stoked to confirm that we finally — FINALLY — get our Invisible Jet for Wonder Woman.
(Side note: In her recent announcement teaser for the upcoming Rogue One, director Patty Jenkins made a big deal about her father, Cpt. William T. Jenkins, a fighter pilot who was killed in action. It’s easy to see how much it meant to Jenkins that she could present a sequence with Wonder Woman and the Invisible Jet.)
We’ve also got Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and even young Lilly Aspell reprising their roles from the previous film. Pity they only stay around for the prologue. Sure, it’s a solid and well-acted prologue that firmly establishes the themes of the movie, but I might have liked to spend more time in Themyscira. As if this 150-minute movie wasn’t padded to the gills already.
Finally, there’s the Hans Zimmer score. Such a disappointment that the signature wailing electric cello doesn’t come in until half an hour from the end. The established Wonder Woman theme never really comes alive without it. But again, that theme was very clearly built from the ground up for Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman (2017), both movies that are the complete opposite in tone, compared to this one.
Wonder Woman 1984 is a misfire. I don’t want to blame that on the script, because the central premise and themes are solid. I can’t blame the actors, because they’re all solid choices for their respective roles. I sure as hell can’t blame the director, as it’s been solidly proven that Patty Jenkins gets this character.
No, this is the kind of failure that can only come from someone up top. In point of fact, setting this film in 1984 was such a boneheaded decision, so deeply set into the fabric of this movie, it could only have come from the studio heads. This is very clearly a movie assembled from solid quality parts, put together by someone with no clue as to how or why they all fit together.
Getting back to my earlier point, it’s in everyone’s best interests for WB to just give up on DC for a while. Focus on the animated efforts, the HBO Max series, and the ongoing CW efforts, but please stop rolling the dice with muddled and inconsistent $200 million mediocrities like this.
I know it hurts to lose Gal Godot as Wonder Woman, I’m upset with it too, but she’s not to blame for any of this and we all know it. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Just blow it all up, step away, and reboot the whole thing in ten years. Hopefully, the studio will have the necessary money and talent by then.
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