******SUPER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
Back in 1978, director Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” took a then-silly idea of a comic book hero in tights and made it viable for broad audience appeal. The trick was for the audience to fully invest in the character, with no winks or camp. “You will believe a man can fly” was Superman’s tagline.
Director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” (2017) had a similar mission statement; to take its subject matter seriously. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of humor and lightness, but the grim World War 1 setting and epic battle of the gods that transpired made it clear that film wasn’t going to be invisible jets and camp. The 2020 sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984” has loosened things up a bit, and the result, while somewhat less epic than the 2017 film, is entertaining enough, though in a very undemanding way.
For full disclosure, I didn’t attend a theatrical screening of WW84; my wife and I streamed the film via HBOMax using a digital projector and collapsible 7 ft. screen to approximate a theatrical experience safely from our home.
Let’s dig in…
The film opens with a flashback to Themyscira, the secret island of mythical female warriors and a young demigoddess child named Diana (Lily Aspell), who is competing in a decathlon with adult warriors. With Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) watching the games, the young woman feels tremendous pressure to best her competition at any cost. During the competition, the ambitious young Diana takes a shortcut, causing her to forfeit her win, thus earning the scorn of both mother and mentor. This is the first of several simple lessons to be gleaned from the film–cheaters never win. The truth ultimately catches up to you. Lesson learned. Moving on…
Note: Once again, director Jenkins does a beautiful job of recapturing the mythic feel of Themyscira from the previous movie. Filled with filtered golden/green hued scenery, the opening sequence is set in a taller IMAX-friendly aspect ratio of 1.85:1, unlike the rest of the film, which is narrowed into a 2.39:1 image.
With scan-line opening titles suggesting a old cathode-ray TV set, and some wild color pop, we cut to the summer of 1984; the time of Reagan, MTV, big hair, the space shuttle, neon lighting, and a large indoor shopping mall in every city. Glitz, glamour and greed. With her costume colors tweaked to be a little brighter than we saw in the previous movie, the ageless Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has settled into a life in Washington DC, working as a researcher at the Smithsonian…an immortal woman, hiding in plain sight. Right off, there is an action sequence set in a big ’80s-looking mall, where Diana foils a hostage situation following a seemingly-botched robbery at a high-end jewelry outlet. Put a kid or a puppy in danger and you instantly have an audience’s attention, right? Well, sometimes cliches are cliches because they work.
Note: There is a delightful conceit in observing the past of 36 years ago as the “the future.” Like the Duffer Bros’ “Stranger Things,” WW84 revels in ’80s nostalgia— right down to the teased mullets, Miami Vice-fashions and t-shirt dresses (loved seeing a B. Dalton Bookstore again). I’m sure there are minor anachronisms here and there, but the overall period is affectionately captured. I should know, since I was a mall-rat high schooler myself in those days.
Diana foils the bad guys with her luminous lasso of truth, because, as she bluntly states, “I hate guns” (so do I, but there are more subtle ways to deliver that message). However, one of the store’s rare antiquities–an amber stone with a Latin-inscribed ring around its base–is taken. The smuggled stone ends up at the Smithsonian, where it is catalogued by socially awkward new curator Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a character right out of a bad date night movie. Dropping a pile of papers en route to her office, no one stops to help the awkward Barbara (of course), save for the compassionate, statuesque Diana, for whom the insecure Barbara immediately goes “Single White Female”. Barbara’s girl-crush on Diana might as well be telegraphed in neon-signage above her frizzy-haired head.
Note: Once again, the filmmakers dust off the long-antiquated cliche of putting glasses and awkward hairstyles/clothing on otherwise attractive people to make them “nerds.” This is one of the ways that WW84 feels more like a film made in the 1980s than a modern movie–it uses so many of the hoary old cliches from that era. You can practically start a countdown to when Barbara will shed her glasses and find her ‘strength’ (i.e. inner beauty, sexuality, etc). SNL veteran Kristen Wiig almost acts as if she’s doing an ’80s movie parody on her old late night series.
In spite of Barbara’s neediness, Diana takes a sincere interest in her work, particularly the Latin-banded artifact, which Diana soon realizes is a wishing stone (something akin to a genie’s lamp, or more accurately, the old monkey’s paw legend). A still heartsore Diana makes a fleeting wish upon the stone for her lost beau Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the charming World War 1 flying ace who was killed in the climax of the first film, and in the tradition of other ’80s wish-fulfillment movies (“Big” “Labyrinth” “18 Again”), we see a gust of ‘magic wind’ blow across her tresses. Message received. Feeling both sorry for Barbara and intrigued by her work, Diana accepts the lonely woman’s offer of an early dinner date, where they discuss antiquities, wish fulfillment and the kinds of instant-bonding discussions you’re more likely to see in Hollywood movies than anywhere else.
In a scene right out of the late 1980s TV series “Quantum Leap,” the soul of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) leaps into the body of a modern-day DC-area engineer (Kristoffer Polaha). Steve sees someone else in the mirror, but we (and later Diana) see only Chris Pine. The confused Steve is both delighted and baffled by this ‘strange new world’ of the 1980s, as he tries to cope with day-glo fashions, modern art, advances in avionics and other modern miracles of 36 years ago. This stranger in a strange time acts a ‘little creepy’ in order to find his lost love Diana Prince, whom he saw earlier in a crowd.
Note: Chris Pine, with his effortless charm and charisma, adds much to the movie. His character’s resurrection is done in a very 1980s-way, in keeping with the overall vibe of WW84. While I like the character, I was nevertheless pleased to realize that his Quantum Leap-style resurrection was not meant to be permanent, as the deeply moral Steve realizes he is only back on (literal) borrowed time. I don’t think such a man could live with himself as a body snatcher. Steve is stand-up guy who has a clear sense of right and wrong, and he sometimes acts as Diana’s moral compass in 1984, just as Antiope did for the younger Diana on Themyscira. That said, Steve does take a few, ahem, *liberties* with his borrowed body… more on that later.
Meanwhile, a wannabe oil magnate/TV personality with the adopted moniker “Maxwell Lord” (Pedro Pascal) has become a major donor to the Smithsonian in order to seduce the insecure Barbara and gain access to the wishing stone, the earlier theft of which he was behind. Realizing that Diana has fortified her position as friend-guardian for Barbara, the calculating Lord invites them both to a glitzy shindig later that evening. Initially, Diana rejects the offer, but later decides to attend, in order to learn the true motive behind the sudden philanthropy of Lord. Barbara has also taken advantage of the stone, idly clutching it while wishing she could be more like her confident, sexy friend Diana … one big tall wish, coming up!
Note: So much to unpack with the admittedly shallow Maxwell Lord character, who is a very unsubtle stand-in for current soon-to-be ex-president and real estate hustler/conman Donald J. Trump. Like Trump, Lord’s obvious insecurities are poorly masked behind dyed hair, over-the-top salesmanship and an insatiable appetite for wealth, fame and power. Early on in the film, we see that Lord, like Trump, is also swimming in debt, much like Trump’s own financial hemorrhaging. That said, a few wrinkles are added to separate the two; for starters, Lord is a South American immigrant, and he is a father to a kindly young son named Alistair (Lucian Perez), whom he loves very much (unlike Trump’s more transactional personal relationships, at least according to niece Mary Trump). These added traits give the character some leverage with which to redeem himself later on in the film. Lord’s insecurities stem from an abusive, unloving father who shamed his bedwetting son into abandoning both his heritage and culture for his faux J.R. Ewing-like ambitions. The Lord character has one foot in the 1980s and another one deeply immersed in modern-era American politics. Also of note: actor Pedro Pascal (who is magnificent in DisneyPlus’ “The Mandalorian”) also played a cop in the infamously failed 2011 “Wonder Woman” revival TV pilot, which starred Adrienne Palicki (“The Orville”) in the title role.
At the DC gala, Diana is positively luminescent in a side-slit white gown, and immediately has to deflect creepy advance after creepy advance in order to spy on Maxwell Lord, who is getting very friendly with Barbara by promising her money, dreams realized, etc (i.e. Trump’s campaign pitches in 2016). Realizing that Lord is up to no-good but lacking the means to prove it, a distracted Diana is approached by yet another would-be suitor … but this one’s a little bit different.
Note: I find it interesting that Diana attends the party to spy on Lord and Barbara, yet she wears a breathtaking white dress, gold Themysciran jewelry, and perfect makeup. It’s not exactly good surveillance technique to look as though you just walked off a cover shoot for Vogue or Cosmopolitan. You’d think after decades with mortals, she’d learn a thing or two about being inconspicuousness. At least Lynda Carter wore the “nerd glasses” in the 1970s TV version of “Wonder Woman,” though they did (very) little to hide her radiance. The late Christopher Reeve, handsome as he was, was much better at such ‘hiding’ with his “Superman” Clark Kent persona. Reeve’s voice, personality and even posture changed dramatically whenever we went from Kal-El to Clark; you could easily believe he was two separate people.
This ‘stranger’ recognizes her, and says things to her that she last heard at the end of the First World War, from her late lover Steve Trevor. Realizing that her wish for Steve’s return has somehow come true, she takes Steve into her arms for an impossible reunion of souls. Steve takes Diana back to his temporary digs–the somewhat messy but otherwise nice apartment of the bachelor engineer whose body he’s currently occupying. They spend the night, and in the morning, Diana takes Steve for a whimsical tour of the ‘future.’ Old pilot Steve is amazed by the world he sees; a world where human beings fly transatlantic on a whim, as well as into outer space. This sweet reunion will be short-lived however, as Steve realizes he is only borrowing his current body and can’t keep it. Diana chooses to ignore this nagging truth for the time being (just as she willfully ignored her own rule-breaking during the decathlon of her youth). She doesn’t yet realize that her wish for Steve’s return has sapped some of her own strength and power as ‘payment.’ Returning to her apartment, Steven happens upon a suit of golden winged armor, which Diana says once belonged to the legendary hero of her people, Asteria, who once used it to ward off an invading army of male soldiers, allowing her people to escape and form the isolated paradise of Thymescira (Important Exposition For Later).
Note: While the movie glosses over the particulars of Diana and Steve’s reunion, one issue that is never addressed is Steve’s newfound avatar body. Does that temporarily displaced man have any consent or rights? Steve uses that man’s body for sex with Diana, but what if that body belonged to a gay man? Or an asexual? Or what if gorgeous exotic brunettes simply weren’t ‘his type’? For the movie’s sake, we discover later on in the film that the avatar-body guy (no on-screen name given) is both unattached and attracted to Diana, but sex should ALWAYS be consensual, even if one’s body were being used to have sex with a demigoddess. Steve and Diana both use this ‘meat-avatar’ for their own whims, with no thought to his own will. In a way, this bizarre lack of sexual ethics feels very 1980s as well. Many ’80s sex comedies such as “Porky’s,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Zapped!” et al typically featured people performing lewd, non-consenting sexual acts on one another strictly for s#!ts and giggles, with no thoughts to consequences or trauma.
After allying himself with his mole Barbara, Lord acquires the wishing stone, and toys with it for awhile, granting himself wish after wish, exacting prices from others as compensation. Growing tired with begging the stone for favors, the ambitious Lord decides to become one with the stone–absorbing its wish-granting powers directly into his being. The now transformed-Lord can use his own gift of persuasion to make others do his bidding by physically touching them and making them ‘wish’ on his behalf—exacting any price from them that he chooses.
Note: Lord’s making himself one with the wishing stone feels like a clear metaphor for Trump’s as-yet unclear power to self-pardon, which has been discussed ever since he first assumed the presidency in January of 2017.
With Steve as her investigative partner, Diana is troubled to find she lacks some of her old strength when trying to break a once-easily destructible padlock. Returning to Barbara’s office at the Smithsonian, Diana asks her newly emboldened friend for the stone, which has gone missing. Still half on the side of the angels, Barbara admits that she let Lord keep it, since he donated so heavily to their research wing. Diana learns Lord is headed to Egypt to ‘make a deal’ with an oil-rich rival, Emir Sayid Amin Abydos (Amr Waked). She and Steve need to depart for Egypt right away, but Steve’s borrowed identity lacks a passport.
With time running out, Diana breaks the rules yet again when she remembers a fleet of decommissioned aircraft donated to the Smithsonian. She and pilot Steve steal a (somehow) fully fueled and functioning two-seater fighter jet for a 6,000 mile nonstop flight from Washington DC to Cairo! As they slip into the cockpit and warm up the plane for takeoff, Diana decides, at that moment, to clue Steve in about a few modern advances like radar and surface-to-air missiles (!). Realizing their plane will be shot down long before it reaches Cairo, Diana works a desperate bid of demigoddess magic to cloak the plane in a bubble of radar-proof invisibility–yes folks, they finally worked Wonder Woman’s invisible jet into DC cinematic lore. As she and Steve ascend unseen towards the clouds, they fly through a 4th of July fireworks show above DC. It’s a beautiful cinematic moment, but only if you shut your brain off completely and enjoy the pretty photons…
Note: While the scene is striving to be something poetic like Lois Lane’s magical first flight above the clouds with Superman (“Superman: The Movie”), I was left with too many nagging questions to lose myself in the moment: How is a decommissioned fighter plane bound for the Smithsonian fully fueled and ready for a long range flight to Cairo? Fighter planes are designed for limited engagements over enemy territories, which is why they typically need bases or large aircraft carriers for refueling and support. I won’t even ask how they were able to refuel their cloaked fighter plane for their return trip after arriving in Cairo. While I can forgive demigoddess Diana not wearing an oxygen mask for high altitude flight (despite her diminished powers), there is no way that Steve could go without an oxygen mask and/or flight-suit for high-altitude sustained flight. Steve may be a spirit, but the body he’s occupying is still mortal. Sorry to burst bubbles, but even a fantasy film needs rules.
Once in Cairo, Steve and Diane learn that Lord is inching his way towards even more wealth by power by stealing the Emir’s oil after granting his wish for a magical border wall to rise from the earth and create a barrier between he and his impoverished enemies, who lose access to water in the process (once again, another metaphor for Trumpism– this one directed at his ‘build the wall’ hyperbole). With Lord’s damage to the region done, he steals the Emir’s security forces and flees back to Washington DC for a rendezvous at the White House. Steve and Diana buy a cabbie’s car, and attempt to chase Lord’s desert convoy. At only partial power, demigoddess Diana isn’t able to stop Lord’s forces, who shoot at her and even graze her once-indestructible arms. Bloodied and bruised, Diana still manages to save a number of civilian lives in the process; but otherwise, their sojourn to Cairo is a near-total bust.
Still in Cairo, Diana calls Barbara at the Smithsonian and asks her for help in understanding the artifact. Barbara comes up with a would-be expert named Babajide (Ravi Patel) who runs a record store as a front for his supernatural-archeology hobby. The trio eventually rendezvous at a storeroom behind Babajide’s record store, where he immediately recognizes their description of the artifact. He tells Diana, Steve and Barbara all about the terrible price the stone exacts in exchange for its wishes. An on-the-nose Steve quips, “Like the monkey’s paw.” Diana then wonders aloud if Lord has somehow fused with the artifact to grant himself its power. Lord’s next move will undoubtedly be a shot at the presidency, hence his return to Washington. Gazing up from their heavy speculation session, Steve and Diana realize that a duplicitous Barbara has booked.
Note: When Diana calls Barbara from Cairo (nearly 6,000 miles away) both cities are somehow in broad daylight, despite a 7 hour time zone differential. The YouTube channel CinemaSins is going to have a field day with this movie…
Realizing that Barbara is Lord’s mole, Diana uses her charms on a flirtatious ‘insider’ to gain access into the White House. Once inside, she’s back in her Wonder Woman outfit (still showing some scars from her battles in Cairo), whipping out her lasso of truth, just as Lord is in the final stages of monopolizing his power from an unnamed Ronald Regan-esque president (Stuart Mulligan), from whom he steals both full military authority and prosecutorial immunity (oh, how Trump would love that power). The megalomaniacal Lord’s nonstop abuse of his own powers is physically rotting his body from within. With that in mind, Lord’s goal is to hack into a top-secret particle beam satellite system to deliver his “touch” worldwide–promising to grant everyone’s wishes while stealing their life-force for himself. Diana and Steve make their way into the White House, just outside the Oval Office where they are met by both Secret Service and the Emir’s defected security detail.
Note: Once again, I know this is a fantasy, but the idea that Lord would assume particle beams transmitting images to monitors is the same as being “touched” is pure nonsense. Particle beams don’t transmit RF signals, let alone “touch.” You’d be a lot closer to ‘touching’ someone by breathing in the same air, or like Monty Python, farting in their general direction.
Even in her reduced capacity, Diana still manages to kick serious ass while taking names. As Lord slips out of the Oval Office, Steve and Diana decide to divide and conquer, with Steve (unsuccessfully) trying to stop the oil tycoon-turned-human monkey’s paw, while Diana confronts her old ‘friend’ Barbara. The once-meek Barbara now recognizes Diana’s true identity as Wonder Woman, and she realizes she now shares that power by wishing to be “more like her.” With Barbara gaining new aptitude and Diana’s own strength reduced, the standoff between them ends in a stalemate as both are forced to retreat and regroup. Reunited with the nearly omnipotent-but-rapidly decaying Maxwell Lord aboard Marine Force One, Barbara makes yet another wish to be “an apex predator” (i.e. “Cheetah”). With DC and the entire world collapsing into hellish anarchy (much like 2020 itself), Diana says a tearful goodbye to Steve, who realizes he needs to leave this borrowed body in order for Wonder Woman to fully regain her powers. Tearfully, a reluctant Diana renounces her wish for Steve’s return in the hope of saving the crumbling world around her. Letting Steve go has also given her a newfound ability she always envied of her pilot beau—the ability to fly. Making like Supergirl, she takes to the skies before her inevitable confrontation with Barbara and Lord.
Note: Wonder Woman never flew freely (ala Superman or Supergirl) in the 1970s TV series, relying instead on her invisible jet, which made an appearance in this movie. My DC comics fan wife tells me that Wonder Woman regularly flew in the comic books, however.
Triangulating on the particle-beam signal’s point of origin, a winged, gold-suited Wonder Woman (wearing the armor of Asteria) arrives at the remote, top-secret base where the US military has allowed the nearly-omnipotent and untouchable Maxwell Lord to make his chaos-inducing plea for the world’s wishes. Draining the world’s well-wishers of life-force, he is soon his old self again. Before Wonder Woman can stop Lord’s worldwide infomercial, she receives a visit from a fully Cheetah-fied Barbara…
Note: Before I go any further, I have to say that Kristen Wiig’s “Cheetah” fur suit and makeup look absolutely ridiculous. She looks like she’s auditioning for an off-Broadway “Cats” revival. The fur suit and makeup are utterly laughable. Wisely, director Jenkins chose to shoot this creation in muted lighting and edit the combat in quick-cuts, so that we don’t get too good a look at this atrocious catsuit. Once again, SNL veteran Wiig looks like she’s starring in an SNL sketch of a kitty litter commercial.
Moving past Cheetah’s ridiculous appearance, she and Wonder Woman get into it. Wonder Woman tries her best to talk down Cheetah, who claws away at Wonder Woman’s armor, peeling off its shiny golden layers like a metallic onion. The fight reaches a climax as the two are soon dueling underwater in a nearby lake. Expressing regret to her unrepentant friend, Diana manipulates a severed but still-active power line from the base directly into the water, promptly electrocuting Cheetah. Wonder Woman drags her unconscious opponent out of the water before she runs off to face Lord.
Lord is standing, arms raised, in the center of the military broadcast chamber, draining the very life from those he’s ‘reaching out and touching.’ Wonder Woman cuts into the broadcast by using her lasso of truth, telling the world to simultaneously renounce their wishes in order to stop Lord and reverse all of his damage. She then uses her truth lasso to make a now powerless Lord face his own past as an abused, ridiculed boy. A repentant Lord soon realizes his neglected son Alistair (Lucian Perez) is crying out for his father. With the wishes undone and the power exorcised, father and son are soon reunited. The shamed Maxwell Lord vows to do better by his boy. A de-Cheetafied Barbara is also seen stirring awake near the water, her immediate fate is uncertain…
We then cut to Christmastime 1984. Diana, looking timelessly fashionable (despite living in the 1980s) gazes at the falling snow and recognizes a stranger nearby; it is the man (or meat-avatar) her late lover Steve inhabited (or possessed, depending on your religious stance). Striking up a conversation, the two make a date.
Note: On a positive note, I appreciated the fact that the villains in the movie were not simply killed in the final act. This is something you don’t see very often in action movies. Usually the villains are blown to smithereens while the audience mindlessly applauds the carnage. WW84 takes some effort to show us that even those seemingly irredeemable people operate from a place of pain, making them a bit more sympathetic. That said, it’s too bad the villains in the film are written/acted so broadly that we don’t really feel their pathos as we should. An otherwise commendable ending from a movie with many issues.
The End—but not quite.
STICK AROUND AFTER THE CREDITS BEGIN, BECAUSE….
To those who wait around at about midway through the credits, there is a nice little stocking stuffer; we see the back of a tall brunette whom we assume to be Diana. A wooden street post falls, and the mystery woman catches it right before it crashes down on some innocent civilians. As the woman is thanked, she is asked her name. Turning around, we see Lynda Carter, star of the original “Wonder Woman” TV series (1975-1979) tell the crowd her name is Asteria … the mythical warrior whose armor just saved Wonder Woman!
Note: My old boyhood crush on Lynda Carter very much approves of this cameo. Carter’s still a gorgeous lady. Nice to see that Jenkins and company worked her into the story in a meaningful way, instead of a thankless cameo as Alistair’s school teacher, or some other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo.
Serviceable if not special.
For this sequel, director and cowriter Patty Jenkins has let some of the 1970s TV series’ camp back in (and even Lynda Carter herself). The result is entertaining enough, though the gravitas from the previous film is gone. Once again, the original Superman movie franchise (1978-1987) comes to mind, as each sequel of that series became increasingly silly. Granted, WW84 hasn’t gone full “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” just yet (thank goodness), but this sequel is definitely a case of diminishing returns.
Jenkins’ film scores big on one major objective: WW84 does indeed capture a feeling for 1980s pop filmmaking. Despite modern FX work, this sequel has the shallow soul of an ’80s action flick, and that may not be such a bad thing, depending on one’s preferences. While the 2 hour and 35 minute film feels a bit overlong, it held my attention adequately, and should make for a serviceable if undemanding movie night.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is available for streaming via HBOMax ONLY through Sunday, January 24th, 2021. After that period, it may revert to purchase-stream, or DVD/Blu-Ray. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 330,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, at least two vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with the vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can one be vaccinated and still carry it, for example). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe!