As someone who generally cares more about the second part of the term “superhero movie,” I have to say that the best and ostensibly most original aspect of their newfound domination of the landscape is the fact that anything can happen in a superhero movie. What this would mean in the absolute best sense is that movies could take actual narrative chances or base themselves on completely outlandish premises that don’t need to be ported from film to film; Superman could be a cabbage farmer in one movie and a being made entirely of light in another and we would still recognize him as Superman, somehow. The universal mythologies of superhero movies should be the best part of your average overblown special-effects extravaganza. What it usually translates to, instead, are movies where stakes are entirely removed by the fact that whatever dramatic beat you need can be modified, erased or ignored through the contrivances of the genre.
Case in point: the first Wonder Woman film was set during World War I and the second is set in 1984 — a date which once suggested a hellish totalitarian landscape but now is more likely to suggest neon vaporwave visuals, funky costumes and FM-radio needle-drops. This is, in my eyes, a huge advantage that comes with the territory of making a movie about an ageless, ostensibly invincible Amazon from a made-up island in another dimension adjacent to our own. Wonder Woman is our only constant amongst Wonder Woman movies, so if you want to make a Wonder Woman movie where Diana Prince gets a job as a whaler on a ship in the 1700s, you can. If you want to make a movie where Diana Prince is actually a human-sized mouse who rides a motorcycle and has a drinking problem, you can. The problem is that this particular Wonder Woman movie, despite being set 66 years after the first one, is about more or less exactly the same things but somehow takes a much longer and more circuitous path to get there.
Decades after the events of the first film, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) works as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, where she meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a nerdy scientist who also gets a job at the Smithsonian and grows jealous of Diana’s beauty, poise and general tendency not to constantly drop things when moving from point A to point B. Diana befriends Barbara despite the latter’s somewhat worrisome attitude towards her, but things really get mucked up when oil-tycoon billionaire and thinly veiled Trump analogue Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) comes sniffing around the Smithsonian looking for a dreamstone, which has somehow made its way into the collection. The dreamstone, you see, grants whoever is touching whatever wish they want — regardless of whether they speak it out loud or not. This means that Diana accidentally wishes that her dead lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) were still here and Barbara accidentally wishes she were like Diana — things that happen rather magically, to their great surprise. But when Lord gets his hands on the stone, his wishes soon take on global significance.
Wonder Woman 1984 begins with a rather steady cartoonish tone. It’s an umpteenth attempt to carry on the tradition of Indiana Jones, Gremlins or even Big Trouble in Little China — ’80s movies with an edge but also a heightened, knowingly slapstick comic tone. It works well enough for the first act, moving swiftly into familiar Encino Man / Blast From the Past material as Trevor marvels at everything that has changed since 1917 (a lot, as it turns out). Somewhere in there, however, Wonder Woman 1984 mostly drops the sense of humour for a more straightforward superhero movie with roughly the amount of exposition and block-stacking one might expect. The first half-hour of Wonder Woman 1984 is so markedly different from the film that preceded it that we as a viewer are lulled into a a false (or, at the very least, temporary) sense of novelty that unfortunately doesn’t last long.
Part of the illusion is that, contrary to popular belief, the ’80s is not a genre in itself, and thus whatever window dressing may be present in Wonder Woman 1984 eventually takes a backseat to the dutiful block-stacking / stack-knocking style of storytelling that’s so prevalent in the superhero genre. Even in that overstuffed playing field, Wonder Woman 1984 clocks in at an unmanageable two-and-a-half-hours, a runtime that is simultaneously unearned and unexploited as the film treads water to no particular effect. Having watched the first Wonder Woman for the first time a few days before seeing this one, I was surprised to what extent the film leaned into its roots as an old-fashioned adventure film, with little concern for the interconnected webs that link all superhero movies. Wonder Woman 1984 drops that pretense fairly early on but doesn’t really fall in line with the alternative, either.
The result is a movie that is functional but fairly dull, where the lead struggles to carve out a space in a movie that has her name on the title and where the villains are omnipresent and completely ill-defined. At the time I sat down to watch Wonder Woman 1984, I had not seen a superhero movie (not counting the first Wonder Woman, I suppose) in nearly 10 months. Despite my general antipathy towards them at the best of times, I found myself sort of enjoying the absolute chaos for once. That doesn’t really mean that Wonder Woman 1984 is a particularly good example of a superhero movie, though; one thing it certainly means is that we could use a lot less of them.
Wonder Woman 1984 is available in Canada on premium VOD on Friday, Dec. 25. See more details about the film on its IMDB page, and watch the trailer below:
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