WONDER WOMAN 1984 (Movie Review)

Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins return for this worthy if spotty, bloated DC sequel.

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for sequences of action and violence, adult situations, some language)
Released: December 25, 2020 in theaters and streaming on HBO Max
Runtime: 151 minutes
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Lilly Aspell, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Ravi Patel

In theaters and streaming on HBO Max

When director Patty Jenkins said that she made Wonder Woman 1984 for the big screen, she wasn’t kidding. At all. That hype was more than just a requisite sales pitch. She meant it, and she delivered.

With major sequences shot on IMAX cameras (and the entire film shot on celluloid rather than digitally), Wonder Woman 1984 is mounted and scaled for the best venues that modern multiplexes can provide, as is Jenkins’ vision for it.

The ambitious scope is apparent even on the small screen (and right from the opening flashback, which showcases a young Diana Prince competing in Themyscira’s Olympic style games; it has visual sweep in abundance), so much so that HBO Max viewers will find themselves often thinking, “I really wish I was watching this in a movie theater.”

That goes for the story, too. Wonder Woman 1984 wasn’t just made for the big screen; it was made for a big crowd.

Though the script isn’t on par with the near-perfect origin story of Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman (which remains the best DCEU entry to date, improving with age, even if the finale gets reduced to VFX overkill), there are lines, exchanges, and moments that were clearly designed to trigger audience laughs, gasps, and cheers.

Even with necessary COVID-era capacity restrictions, watching Wonder Woman 1984 with a limited-seating, socially-distanced masked crowd would be better than settling for streaming.

Yet even as it delivers the goods when it counts, don’t expect WW84 (which is the only title that appears on-screen, for what it’s worth) to equal its predecessor, let alone surpass it. In stretches it’s not even close, with a script that becomes a bit of a mess.

Falling prey to various strains of sequelitis, WW84 gets bloated where it should be trimmed, sells one great villain short (Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minvera / Cheetah) by requiring it to share screen time with another that’s overdone (Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord), and often tries too hard to entertain as it resorts to obvious, winking humor rather than displaying the sly confidence of, say, the original’s romantic banter between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor or, more broadly, its clever characterizations and wit.

Indeed, after this 1980s set adventure launches with two different back-to-back 10-minute action sequences, Wonder Woman 1984 shifts down for a full hour before unleashing another blockbusting set piece. That stretch is overstuffed with introductions, setups, and info dumps (which get clunky and too direct, unlike the organic exposition of the original), driven by obvious dialogue, thin characterizations, and conventional relationship dynamics. 

It’s sixty minutes of formula spruced up with 80s pop culture kitsch. The setting works and the references are fun, plus the 40-year-old era helps to alleviate the inevitable question “Why doesn’t she assemble the Justice League?” that would linger unanswered in a modern setting. 

So while that stretch is hardly a slog, it could’ve been significantly trimmed – or, better yet, more properly balanced, especially since the most important moments of exposition get rushed through (relating to a powerful ancient stone, the implications of its powers, and how Max Lord plans to use it for evil). It’s as if the story’s mystical foundations are so flimsy that Jenkins doesn’t want us to think too much about the possible holes that exist or the allowances that may be required to buy in.

The reunion of Diana and Steve offers welcome sparks (their chemistry remains strong, and Chris Pine exudes Old Hollywood charm with a contemporary flair), but the budding friendship between Diana and Barbara feels forced out of necessity.

And Max Lord? As an over-the-top, maniacal Ponzi scheme shyster (in a not-so-veiled critique of Donald Trump), there’s too much camp in Pascal’s performance for Lord. He’s a loose cannon but never feels formidable. I’ll grant that Pascal commits to the gonzo approach with sincere conviction, but it’s a consistent miscalculation that’s dialed up way too high, and too often. For the Mandalorian star, this is not the way.

With Lord as the fulcrum for conflict, Barbara Minerva’s evolution into the Cheetah isn’t given its proper due – but thanks to Kristen Wiig, it’s still one of this sequel’s strengths. Pre-transformation, Wiig brings her brand of nervous comic energy to Barbara, but instead of relaxing in her comfort zone Wiig uses it to substantiate Barbara’s desire and weakness for power. 

When she gets it, we see a Wiig that we’ve never seen before: dark, disturbed, scarred, and very triggered, with a nasty ruthless streak, all fiercely portrayed with cutthroat coldness even while also maintaining a latent whisper of her fragile, broken humanity. She even gets better the more against-type the role becomes.

This is a new Wiig that I am totally here for and want to see more of, especially since this overstuffed tentpole takes too long to get to it, explore it, and take full advantage of it.

And those set pieces. Spread too far apart, they don’t come as consistently as they should, but when they do they thrill and astound, with a desert road truck-and-tank convoy fight as the centerpiece highlight. Second only to the now-classic No Man’s Land stunner from the first film, it conceptually feels like a referential homage to the similar, iconic one from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Through every showdown, star Gal Gadot balances grit, strength, and athleticism with a balletic swan-like grace. She remains a superb action lead, especially for Jenkins earnest approach, and one whose struggles are personal and of-the-heart rather than of crisis in identity (which is the go-to for superheroes far too often).

In fact, if you ever wondered if the pure, wholesome optimism of the late-1970s Christopher Reeve Superman could ever work today, Jenkins and Gadot prove that it can. Idealism isn’t corny when you genuinely believe it.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Wonder Woman 1984 (including a mid-credits extra that’s more “bonus zinger” than “future tease”), even if there’s also an equal amount of belabored narrative to wade through. But the former is worth the latter, especially if experienced in the biggest high-end venue you can find.

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