' ' Cinema Romantico: Wonder Woman 1984

Monday, February 08, 2021

Wonder Woman 1984

There is a moment in “Wonder Woman 1984” when the President (Stuart Milligan), not so much a dead ringer for Reagan as a nod to him, takes stock of events from the Resolute desk and says words to the effect of “There’s something strange going on here.” It reminded me of the moment in “Delirious” (1991), the comedy where John Candy’s soap opera writer can magically dictate events in his life through the written word, when Raymond Burr’s character looks around, confused at some implausible turn of events, and wonders “What the hell is going on around here?” That might be an obscure reference, but just as “Delirious” deliberately lost the plot so, too, does “Wonder Woman 1984” continually lose sense of itself as it goes along. It is funny and serious, huge and intimate, fast and slow, and not from intriguing juxtaposition but from a kind of clearance sale story. If the first “Wonder Woman” succeeded because of an impressive modesty in its storytelling, its sequel falls apart in the same way its villains do: that is, wanting more. That might have been a sly commentary on the era in which it is set, though such biting irony escapes WW84, mostly just regressing to the Comic Book Movie mean of too much and not near enough. 

“Wonder Woman 1984” begins with a flashback to Themyscira, the homeland of Wonder Woman – née Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) – as a child, competing in something like a variation of the Amazonian warrior Olympics. If it’s a show-stopping starter, of course, it is also the story promise, ending with some proffered wisdom about truth and lies destined to come around in again in the end. That promise takes root in the movie’s modern day, 1984, in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where Diana, working as a Smithsonian archaeologist, comes into possession of a mysterious dreamstone, sort of a geologic genie’s bottle. Alas, a would-be oil tycoon, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), gets his hands on the dreamstone by seducing Diana’s frumpish colleague, Barbara Minvera (Kristen Wiig). And though he winds up in league with a few Arabs, an uncomfortable nod at 80s American cinema’s tendency to vilify them, Lord’s real model is a red-blooded American, a PG Gordon Gekko. He brings the world to the brink of Armageddon, or something, through the dreamstone by literally giving the whole world whatever it wants, Pascal’s escalating physical tremble embodying how greed can eat someone from from the inside-out. It’s a tidy set-up, a plot and theme no less simple, really, than those wacky kids in “Weird Science” (1985) learning to be careful what you wish for, and yet the cumbersome execution by director Patty Jenkins, emblemized in that egregious two-and-a-half hour run time, renders the whole thing as a slog.

Though “Wonder Woman 1984’s” shopping mall setpiece homage to “Superman III” gets by on a distinct sense of joy, most of the action scenes here are not so much perfunctory as deadening. Rather than build from the deeper part of the narrative, elucidating the character or her quest in a meaningful way, a la that spectacular WWI trench scene in its predecessor, they are simply productionally mandated pyrotechnics bringing the movie to a halt in the middle of itself, ugly to look at and tedious in their depiction. Since when did the action scenes become the bathroom breaks? Smaller moments work better, like Barbara, having transformed into her dynamic Cheetah alter ego, mauling a male ogler on the street. It’s dark and kicky, though ultimately her subplot merely skims the psychological surface, the character and performance only carving out, say, a C- on the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman scale. 

If Barbara evolves from socially hapless physical comedy to mean and sober, WW84 itself does not quite chart the same trajectory, unable to either settle on cataclysm or comedy or nimbly blend the two. In a late scene after the whole world’s wishes have gone awry, cows graze on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, which is not as funny as it sounds, a surreal CGI spectacle that just lies dormant on the screen, like it’s waiting for a sitcom laugh track. The successful comedy concerns Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Diana’s first movie flame, the WWI flying ace. Indeed, if you wondered how WW84 might resurrect Steve even though he died, the rapacity that is the very object of the sequel’s scorn becomes its saving grace, allowing Diana’s involuntary wish that Steve was still alive to conveniently grant Pine’s entrance. Given the setting, his character, in modeling 80s clothes and riding escalators, becomes the fish out of water that Diana was in the first movie, though this simultaneously highlights the singular weakness of WW84: that is, Wonder Woman herself.

If Diana was neatly folded into a small band of brothers in the first film, she also stood out, the character’s hell-bent earnestness, so ably evinced by Gadot, carrying the movie along no matter how huge the surrounding context grew. In “Wonder Woman 1984”, on the other hand, despite being front and center so much, its eponymous character improbably recedes before our eyes. She is never afforded space truly reckon being in love with a character that is, more or less, a ghost and the character’s inherent selflessness is never properly weighed against the selfishness of all the others. The conclusion is ostensibly moving in its notion of forgiveness, though it also oddly underlines just how little Diana ultimately has to do with the resolution in the first place. Unlike Steve, Diana might be real, but, really, it’s as if she is never there at all.

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