Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984 is fun blockbuster escapism but not as emotionally gripping

When 2017’s Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins was released it was considered the lighter, more fun of the films in the DC Extended Cinematic Universe. It brought us this portrayal of a character that was full of optimism and hope. The latest release sees Jenkins return to direct the follow up, this time setting it in the brash and bold 1980’s.  After the poor performance of Tenet earlier this year it was always going to be a risky thing to have Wonder Woman 1984 go to the cinema. But when so many of us are looking for that little slice of blockbuster escapism, you won’t be able to go past this on the big screen.

Some minor spoilers ahead in this review.

In a flashback sequence we are returned to Themyscira, a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) is taking her place in an Amazonian Warrior Challenge. She is intent on winning, so much so that she resorts to cheating, only to have her win snatched away by Antiope (Robin Wright). The older Amazonian general tells her that only the truth is how real heroes win, that cheating will always be the failed path.

In downtown Washington D.C in 1984 some robbers try to steal some antiquities from a jewellery store only for Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to stop them. Amongst the antiquities is the Dreamstone, a magical and ancient stone that manages to grant wishes. Whilst working for the Smithsonian Diana Prince and her bumbling awkward work colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) are tasked with investigating the artefact. Diana wishes to be reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Barbara who is often overlooked by friends and colleagues, wishes to be as strong, sexy and special as Diana. 

However when oil entrepreneur and tv personality Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) manages to bribe his way into the museum and woo Barbara, he takes his chance to steal the stone. He manipulates its power so he can then grant wishes, but the stone requires an exchange in order for it to work. The only way to stop it is to renounce your wish or to destroy where its power originates.    

Jenkins crafts the Wonder Woman 1984 screenplay with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham to exude a style and tone that feels more akin to the superhero movies of days past. Think Richard Donner’s Superman or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman where the heroes still have a sense of naivete or blissful ignorant hope for the good of others. Even though the film is set in the 1980’s there isn’t really too much of that era on show here after the first 30 minutes. And while the macguffin of the plot requires its own tricky but ultimately inconsequential explanation. Fundamentally it’s the concept of wishes both giving and taking power that is the danger here. The important thing to remember is that a good superhero movie needs to rely on a manifestation of evil to be defeated.

In amongst this larger more ideological power is Jenkins’ own #MeToo callout. In almost every scene where Diana is sharing a room with a man he is looking her up and down or trying to engage her in undesirable conversation. There’s a scene where Barbara gets attacked by a drunk who wants to take her home. Both women endure to a degree unwanted male attention. For Diana it forces her into a reclusive lifestyle, where any of the men she meets can’t match Steve’s chivalry. Whilst for Barbara, her meekness gets changed into downright aggression as she takes back her own agency. Obviously this isn’t anything new in cinema, we’ve seen films like Catwoman and Birds Of Prey and Kick Ass do this in previous iterations, but here it’s more from the woman’s point of view. 

While Gadot’s Diana remains an almost constant shining beacon of goodness. It’s interesting to see her more troubled by the world, feeling more alone than ever and longing for Steve. And her frustration at having to give her one good thing up in order to continue fighting. In the first movie she had this adorable child-like innocence. Here she definitely feels more worldly and wiser and Gadot manages to still encapsulate her purity and joy as well as her strength and fierceness. 

Having her team up again with Pine’s Steve Trevor is an interesting choice. There is also a purposeful inversion here of their characters. As Steve delights in the wonders of this -to him- futuristic age. Including puffy fashion, escalators, electric trains and the achievements of NASA.  It’s in their reunion that we get a slower change of pace and a moment to breathe before the next round of action hits. Sure he doesn’t really have much to do here besides be a bit dorky and cute, but their chemistry makes it enjoyable. 

Wiig’s performance is definitely a stand-out in this film. Her socially awkward and bumbling klutzy Barbara is the right amount of endearing for us to be disappointed in her when she begins to change. As she starts to embrace and exploit her power she becomes an intimidating menace and a threat, devoid of her earlier charm and warmth. 

Pascal’s performance is a little bit too wacky and OTT to be palatable. He at one point says “I’m not a con-man, I’m a TV personality” echoing an all too familiar and unsubtle nod to a certain famous TV personality now former President. We are supposed to feel for this man burdened by the expectations of society upon men, that they be successful and provide for their families. Even if those expectations means it comes at the cost of his son’s respect and love. Though his attempts at emotionally connecting with his son fall flat in comparison to Pascal’s recent performance with a puppet.

The action set pieces are no doubt, fun and exciting. Diana making repeated and clever use out of the lasso and her headband and gauntlets. Much of her fighting is a mixture of her trying to trip up and take down her opponents as well as defensive maneuvers. But when she goes toe-to-toe with superpowered Barbara she almost meets her match. 

Unlike the first film that has its iconic “No Man’s Land” sequence, this film doesn’t quite have that same powerful self actualisation moment. Sure there’s a great moment where she learns to catapult herself and take flight using her lasso. But it doesn’t quite have the same emotional suckerpunch feeling as the first film. And like its predecessor it suffers from a ridiculous final act that uses way too much CGI in the dark to cover its tracks. It’s a slight disservice to Wiig’s excellent performance to then have the remaining on screen time make her look like a rejected Cats (the 2019 movie) performer. And surprisingly there is a mid-credits scene that brings a famous cameo to the screen. 

Wonder Woman 1984 is a blockbuster with the fun escapism that all of us sorely need during these fluctuating and challenging times. The film though isn’t quite the sum of all of its parts. The clunky plot device macguffin, the overly caricature villain and another ridiculous final act do hamper this. But it’s bold, colourful and audacious choice in having a hero who is good and kind and fierce and strong proves that Wonder Woman still manages to reign in this DC Cinematic Universe.

 

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)  

Wonder Woman 1984 has advance screenings on 23 December, and officially opens in Australian cinemas on 26 December 2020 through Roadshow Pictures.

Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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