Wonder Woman 1984 is bonkers in a way that superhero movies these days don’t have the nerve to be.
In its fairytale tone, 1980s setting, and moral earnestness, it reminded me of Superman II, and in other ways it reminded me of Batman Returns. Nobody involved got the memo that comic-book movies in the shared-universe era of Marvel and DC films must be grounded in irony or cynicism or both.
Indeed, WW84 — the only title seen onscreen — barely acknowledges that it’s meant to be part of a shared universe.
Remember that WWI-era photograph of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor that Bruce Wayne dug up in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and sent to Diana Prince by way of connecting with a mystery super-woman who might be needed again? (If you don’t remember? “WW84 is agreeably diverting” might be all you need to know.)
That bit of detective work kind of suggests that Diana (Gal Gadot) has been keeping a low profile for the past century, right? I’m not going to say that WW84 entirely forgets that, but I’m not saying it’s real concerned about it either.
After a prologue flashback to Diana’s native Themyscira — in which eager young Diana (played again by Lilly Aspell, now 13) learns a hard lesson from her aunt, Robin Wright’s stern General Antiope, about taking shortcuts and cheating truth — we catch up with Diana, nearly 70 years after her WWI exploits, working at the Smithsonian in antiquities and doing occasional superheroics. (Without quite staying out of the news, she presumably doesn’t leave a lot of photo or video evidence for Bruce Wayne to overlook.)
It’s a good thing, I guess, that Wonder Woman isn’t much more than a rumor or an urban legend, because Diana Prince isn’t much of a secret identity. Glamorous, confident, physically capable, Diana makes no effort to hide behind a façade of Clark Kent timorousness or Don Diego foppish decadence. She doesn’t even wear Lynda Carter glasses like she did in 1918.
It’s not hard to see why vulnerable, accident-prone Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a new hire whose areas of expertise include gems, is so taken with Diana that, when the notion of having a wish granted is brought up, her first thought is to be — what else? — like Diana.
What do you wish for when you are Diana? Obviously, someone to share it all with. And not just someone, but Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, who died heroically at the end of Wonder Woman.
The granting of wishes is also very much on the mind of a self-promoting would-be oil magnate and wealth guru named Maxwell Lord (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal), whose TV ads blend Norman Vincent Peale-esque positive thinking and Kevin Trudeau-ish pyramid-scheme hucksterism. He’s part Gordon Gekko, part Gene Hackman Lex Luthor.
WW84 gracefully dovetails these characters’ comic-book destinies and desires, along with a DC Comics MacGuffin called the Dreamstone (which may put viewers in mind of Marvel’s Infinity Stones, though as with most DC/Marvel convergences DC got there first), into an elegantly simple plot that gives us two classic Wonder Woman villains — along with a global crisis of nearly Infinity War proportions.
Like the big comic-book movies of the 20th century — particularly the Tim Burton Batman films — the villains are more interesting than the hero.
Wiig brings pathos and sweetness to the improbably named Barbara Minerva, who is both awed by Diana and also can’t help resenting her perfection a bit. Then Barbara’s life turns a corner, and her pleasure at being noticed by men and flirted with by the likes of Max Lord is palpable.
As she and Diana find themselves on equal footing, the awe falls away and the resentment comes to the fore. At the same time, Barbara finds her empathy (for example, her solicitude for a homeless man for whom she regularly buys food) slipping away.
As Max, Pascal is simultaneously larger than life and smaller than he seems; you can feel him willing himself to be the titan of wealth and power he presents himself as, but hasn’t quite managed to become.
If some viewers are reminded at times of another self-promoting, womanizing figure of that era whose success has allegedly been less than represented, it’s worth noting that WW84 humanizes Max, whose deepest motivation is to make his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez) proud of him.
Ultimately, WW84 is as goodhearted toward all as its heroine, which is both its strength and its weakness.
Gadot’s Wonder Woman remains, like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, an attractively aspirational hero, a vanishing rarity in contemporary comic-book cinema. Yet there was a tension and pathos to the character of Superman, who as Clark Kent was as invisible to Lois Lane as Barbara was to men before turning that corner.
The pathos of Superman was also connected to the loss of the alien homeworld he never knew and the instigating death of his foster father, Jonathan Kent, whose salt-of-the-earth Kansas values inform Superman’s Boy-Scout character.
Wonder Woman, as appealing as she is, has none of that. It’s true that she lost Antiope to a German bullet in 1918, but Themyscira is still very much there and her mother Hippolyta is still queen.
There’s no real secret-identity duality to struggle with, and Diana’s one emotional attachment in man’s world, to Steve Trevor, is complicated only by the fact that he’s dead. Until, you know, he isn’t? And then emotional complications do arise, and Diana finds herself facing a moral dilemma like the one Barbara faces.
Steve aside, Diana’s emotional isolation and uncomplicated perfection threatens to make her boring, a bit like Marvel’s Thor circa The Dark World — a much less perfect character, to be sure, but also a bit like Superman without the tragedy and pathos.
In the last half-hour of its 2½-hour run time, WW84 bogs down with overextended, overwrought conflict and a rushed attempt to do justice to Barbara’s ultimate transformation into Wonder Woman’s most iconic villain — a move that should have been deferred to another movie.
Add Cheetah to a long list of perennial comic-book antagonists, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Venom) to the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions of the Joker, who became “one and done” villains of the week on the big screen.
I still enjoyed WW84, partly for the appealing leads and partly for the morally earnest fairytale storytelling. I wish comic-book movies tried more to be like this, and less like Avengers: Infinity War or Thor: Ragnarok or Justice League.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.