Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Preamble

2021 brings its first ray of good news (relatively speaking) courtesy of the home release of Wonder Woman 1984 (via rental on various VOD platforms). Even with the movie being caught up in the pandemic delay blender, 1984 has felt like a long time coming. Originally, it was slated for a December 2019 release before moving back a month to November. From there, the film got pinballed around until its seemingly limited release in UK cinemas late last year. Was it worth the wait? Well, let’s put on a colourful oversized blazer or some embarrassing pink Yoga gear and take a trip to the eighties to find out. In the meantime, what did you think of Wonder Woman 1984? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Looking back, Wonder Woman was somewhat of a revelation. Thanks to its solid direction, engaging screenplay and heartfelt performances, the movie effortlessly infused its larger than life title character with a mythical grandeur, that carried weight and pathos in its WW1 setting. In short, it was a surprisingly engaging and clever adaptation of comics’ most celebrated female character and her universe.

By comparison, 1984 is a light and excessive effort. The film comes across as an upmarket episode of Fantasy Island that’s mated with the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman films.

Wonder Woman 1984 is about the title character aka Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), attempting to uncover the origins of a MacGuffin called the dream stone. It grants the sole wish of people who come into contact with it. However, in return, it takes away an essential quality of the person who wishes upon it. The artifact has personal implications for Diana, as her one true love from the First World War- Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes back to life via possession of another body.

Whilst dealing with this emotional revelation, Diana must contend with Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a failing businessman who has absorbed the stone, and uses it to fulfil his selfish desires. At the same time, Diana’s new friend- Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is transformed by the stone into a shadow version of Wonder Woman, and refuses to give up her power.

In its best moments, Wonder Woman 1984 does capture the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman pictures. In fact, Gadot’s finest moments as the title character have an earnest commitment to the aspirational, and down to earth qualities of the character. They’re akin to Christopher Reeve’s performance as the Man of Steel, particularly when Gadot greets the criminals or interacts with some of the kids in the film’s early moments. At the same time, Gadot is often framed in a larger than life manner in some sequences- such as when she’s doing a tribute to the flyby scenes that came at the end of Donner’s films.

However, for all the Donner esque charm that graces 1984, the film lacks the strengths of those pictures (particularly the 1978 movie). At its best, Superman the Movie was akin to a biblical epic that juggled many disparate genres and types of films to tell its story. Because of these elements, Donner’s film near effortlessly papered over the cracks of its narrative problems. Wonder Woman 1984 does not share the same luxury.

This is in part due to a screenplay that even by standards of the genre feels simplistic and commonplace. The central dreamstone and its implications traps the characters in this perpetual void of single mindedness, that consistently feels shallow and emotionally uninteresting. It also serves to undermine Diana. She comes across as someone whose happiness solely comes from having Steve Trevor back in her life. This is a far cry from the first film that painted the character as someone who found enjoyment in the small charms of life. This character choice seeks to undermine an enlightened protagonist into a one note person, who occasionally slides into the realm of being unheroic.

The film also suffers in comparison to its predecessor. The 2017 film used its screenplay to consider Diana’s budding relationship with humankind at arguably one of its worst times. Without this central conundrum and depth, 1984 never rises above its shallowness.

Despite these problems, there’s some entertainment to be had in the performances. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord like a sleazy televangelist whose channeling Mr Roark’s shiftiness and Donald Trump’s bravado. Pascal’s performance is a go for broke cocktail that mixes over the top line readings, occasional heartfelt moments, and enough zany energy to rival a battery operated Furby.

Despite being saddled with the cliche material of the nebbish geek, who lives in the shadow of the central hero, Kristen Wigg surprised me as Barbara Minerva. Her transformation felt quite engaging, and her awkward comedic shtick giving rise to an intense desperation felt resonating. At times, her performance reminded me of when Robin Williams turned his motormouthed comic persona into some great stark performances. Despite elevating the material, Wigg’s acting made me wish that the screenplay devoted more time to Barbara and Diana’s friendship, as tension in a female friendship is rarely seen in a comic book movie.

Despite occasionally being marred by some odd riffs on some previously written material, Hans Zimmer’s score proves to be his most diverse music in years. It’s operatic, bombastic, and in many ways feels like an eighties superhero movie score. And I would be lying, if I did not say that the movie did not charm with its period setting. From the set design to the clothes and opening credits, 1984 fully embraces the eighties with a loving and nostalgic embrace.

In spite of having a considerable amount of shortcomings, Wonder Woman 1984 is a non offensive, fleeting trifle of a movie. It entertains, somewhat amuses, and provides a large popcorn bucket’s worth of escapism. However, it stands in the shadow of an incredible first film, that did interesting things with its mythology and storytelling. And in a genre that’s crowded, erratically plucking at the strings of a bare bones premise is not good enough.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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