Sunday, December 27, 2020

Some Kind of Wonderful: Wonder Woman 84 (a/k/a WW84) Is A Noble Effort With Mixed Results (Minor Spoilers)

Following on the heels of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (and released just before the controversial Justice League (2017)), the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman (2017) took what (or rather, who) was the best part of BvS and built a foundation that was more than just a film; it became a cultural touchstone that transcended its comic book and cinematic milieus. In short, Wonder Woman is a tough act to follow. "Is", not "was". The colors are brighter, the bombast is greater, the stakes seem higher, but despite attempting to tackle some pretty hefty and current culturally relevant themes, WW84 attempts to do too much with mixed results.

The year is 1984. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is an antiquities researcher at the Smithsonian Institute who still finds the time to don the red, blue, and gold; rescuing civilians yet somehow remaining an urban legend, all the while still PINEing  for the decades-deceased Steve Trevor (as in, Chris Pine; Star Trek; Unstoppable). She crosses paths with wallflower/co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig;  Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters), who is in possession of a magical stone that can grant wishes to whomsoever possesses it, at significant cost. This puts her and Diana in the crosshairs of the television personality with the mega-watt smile and chutzpah to match, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian; Game of Thrones). This leads to a domino effect of events that will not only test Diana’s mettle, but may cause her to sacrifice all she holds dear, including herself.

It is an ambitious film in attempt and scope with resonant themes that, given the time period wherein these events take place, show that not much has changed. Yet like the mythical Icarus, its reach exceeds its grasp. At 2 hours and 30-plus minutes, the film’s pacing is one of its major faults. By the same token, it’s pacing is understandable. Jenkins takes the time to allow the characters to breathe in development. However, there are times when those scenes continue long after their point is made. Further, there are a few plot holes and leaps of logic that undermine the film’s narrative flow. Another issue is that of the special effects. The film is sumptuous to look at. Definitely brighter in visuals and in tone (at least, on the surface), but at times a few effects, including some involving the Lasso of Truth, look like they needed one more polish before release. But underneath all the 80’s glitz and glamour, Jenkins and fellow screenwriters Geoff Johns and David Callaham, can’t help but bring our current concerns to the fore. Political commentary aside, we are living in a year where we’ve faced despair and loss daily. Who now wouldn’t want to wish away our troubles, or wish our loved ones back into our lives? The film’s conceit is the old adage of being careful what one wishes for...which is both necessary yet hard to take given that we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet it’s one that gives Godot’s Diana an extra dose of humanity that grants an almost-all-powerful demi-goddess some relatability.

Speaking of the narrative, it is peppered with echoes and beats from DC films from the past, namely Superman II, Batmans Returns, Forever, and Robin. The homages are there if one looks for them, but executed in such a way that it’s not distracting for those not in the know. The action set pieces, when they finally do take place, are engagingly well executed, even if it does take some time, and the aforementioned leaps in logic, to get there. Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly diverse and helps carry the story along, even if at times he left the temp track to Marvel’s Ant-Man’s acoustics on repeat (not to mention a key BvS underscore).

Fault cannot be found with the actors, whose performances are the best part of the entire affair. Gal Gadot’s Diana is a woman in transition between Wonder Woman and the warrior we meet in BvS. While still beguiling, there’s an added pain behind her eyes and aloofness in her carriage. But, as with the first film, the heart of the proceedings is the relationship between Diana and the newly resurrected Steve Trevor. They bring in the necessary humor and poignancy that bolster the movie. Their chemistry together is as electric as in the first film, and as genuine as one can get. Theirs is a team of equals, each leaning on the others’ strength even at the time of their greatest weakness. In Wonder Woman, it served as that film’s spine. Here, it serves the same function while almost beubg enough to forgive the film's faults. It follows a mythological hero's journey trope for Diana, and anyone who is not affected by their journey has citrine stone for a heart.

Kristin Wiig borrows heavily from Michelle Pfeiffer in her portrayal of the (unnamed) Cheetah, yet surprisingly makes Barbara a formidable, menacing character in her own right, with understandable motivations. Perhaps the most challenging of roles, Pedro Pascal’s con-man-entrepreneur-turned-world-dominator Max Lord is the epitome of the 80s “greed is good” Gordon Gekko/Tom Vu/Tim Robbins mentality. Again, without getting political, Pascal manages to turn in a performance which is at times over-the-top camp, yet totally in keeping with the time period…yet, even with that, he turns in moments of dramatic gravitas that belie the bluster. He serves as cautionary tale of ego unchained; one which is made all the more terrifying when taken metatextually. As a whole, their combined performances lead to a rounding climax that doesn’t end in the way a standard super hero film would…and is all the better for it.

For all its issues, WW84 should be lauded for being something different, something new. Think of it as a James Bond film pre-2006, when the films were only tangentially connected by character alone. It tries to do too much to varying degrees of success. Yet despite its logistical and pacing issues, WW84 is, at its heart, a fun movie that tries to show that despite our hardships and personal turmoil in a world seemingly gone mad, hope does exist if one has the fortitude to grasp it…even if that message does seem heavy handed at times. Despite the hiccups, it embraces the, dare I say, wonder.




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