Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Down to Earth: WONDER WOMAN 1984

If Wonder Woman 1984 was the first Wonder Woman, I doubt we would’ve gotten a second. I sat stupefied as it got worse by the scene, so fundamentally misunderstanding the appeal of the first movie it made me wonder if that one was actually as good as I thought at the time. I’m sure it is, but, still: imagine everything you enjoyed about the first movie. Now imagine a movie with none of that. It does have Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the Amazon in exile sworn to save humanity from itself. But this time, instead of a clear line to a distinct villain, she’s fussing around in the margins of an obvious parable. There’s a con man (Pedro Pascal) pretending to be a tycoon with slicked-back blonde hair and garish suits. He wants to steal a magic rock on which he can make wishes. Before he can go full Midas, Diana, in her day job as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, and a mousy co-worker (Kristen Wiig) make wishes on the rock, not knowing they’d actually come true. For Diana, it means a reunion with her long-dead pilot love (Chris Pine). For the other woman, it means becoming an accidental supervillain. (Isn’t that a Brad Paisley song with LL Cool J? Ha.) So the movie involves Wonder Woman investigating a magic rock. Look, that’s not in and of itself the problem, and anyone who says it is better look long and hard inside themselves about the Infinity Stones. The main issue is mild action sequences which generate no suspense, little energy, and, worse still, no wonder. It loses Diana’s character to a curiously passive and simple plot, which somehow takes the stupidest thin ideas and makes them endlessly confused. Why not just grab hold of the magic for yourself and wish the whole movie's worth of problems reversed, or the movie itself over and done with? We’re ahead of her the whole time. It's not every day you see a fantasy arguing we should all dream a little smaller.

After working so well with epic earnestness of the kind you could find in Richard Donner’s Superman, writer-director Patty Jenkins is here going for a Richard Lester vibe, but she overshoots Superman II and ends up closer to Superman III. It has comedy that falls flat, romance that remains unconvincing (the hoops it jumps to get Pine back never satisfy), and a plot that just never sparks to life. WW84 has enormous events — a huge wall popping up in the middle of Egypt (an unusual tone-deaf sequence), nuclear arsenals accumulating, and improbable global catastrophes in the making — that don’t seem to matter much. It stages a confrontation in the White House, but doesn't have any real interest in 80's politics like it did World War I last time. It has a winking tone that at first is a colorful comic book cartoon — I enjoyed the opening action beats: an Amazonian Warrior Challenge and an 80s mall rescue — but grates quickly. So brightly lit and simply staged, it veers away from playing up the secretive God qualities of its star, and instead leans on her rudimentary action figure qualities. She’s posed and weightless, and so is the story which clunks and clatters along. The villains are introduced as comic relief and never work themselves up to real threats, even when the world is ostensibly on the line. Part of the problem is their plot grows both predictable and takes forever to get anywhere. Jenkins and her team want to try something different, and I can admire the attempt to swing away from a temptation to follow the standard bigger, louder, darker, and more overstuffed superhero sequel template and harken instead back to something more contained, and vaugely Silver Age DC. For how expensive it is, it feels cheap and, though it does some globetrotting, it feels so small. It’s almost literally the version we would’ve gotten in 1984, when the sadly underwhelming likes of Supergirl or Red Sonja were all you had for strong women in capes, and studios weren’t betting an extended universe of interconnected spinoffs on them.

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