Coming in at the end of 2020, Patty Jenkins’ widely anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 1984 has been framed as the last great hope for this year’s Hollywood box office. While almost all other blockbusters have been rescheduled for 2021 or beyond, Warner Bros’ superhero adventure held the line – albeit with a streaming release in the USA – and is pretty much the only major studio release for the holiday season.
Living in secret among humans in 1984 Washington, Diana (Gal Gadot) continues fighting crime at a low level while working as an archaeologist for the Smithsonian. When an ancient gem stone is sent for study following a failed robbery, it is soon recognised as a magic artefact that grants wishes – causing unexpected consequences for Diana, her colleague Barbara (Kristen Wiig), and unscrupulous entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal).
To be honest, the circumstances under which WW84 is finally being released would be unfair on any film. Pent-up demand for a big Hollywood action vehicle does not do the film any favours, and may even cause audiences and critics to respond in a harsher manner than it deserves. Taken as a whole, the film is a classic case of being good rather than great. Individual elements stand out, and key scenes and sequences are terrifically entertaining, but overall the pace lags badly while of the two antagonists the film arguably spends too much time on the wrong one. In its defence these weaknesses are largely shared by the first Wonder Woman (also directed by Jenkins), however this second instalment cannot rely on novelty value in the same way and never quite hits the emotional energy of the original’s widely praised ‘No Man’s Land” sequence.
Gal Gadot continues to demonstrate her excellent performance as Diana, and it is great to see this fourth appearance (after Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman, and Justice League) provide her with a lot more character material with which to work. Diana’s emotional struggles may seem superficial, but they have a lot more depth than a typical DC or Marvel comic book adaptation has to offer. This modicum of sophistication benefits other members of the cast, but strangely fails its key antagonist Maxwell Lord.
Long-term comic book fans will likely bristle at the film’s characterisation of Lord, a long-term supporting character who was transformed rather abruptly into a villain by writer Geoff Johns – who also co-writes and produces the film. It is definitely John’s take on the chatacter here, although after the transitioned from suspect businessman to criminal mastermind he now appears have become reather naive and stupid. He is, all in all, not the strongest of villains.
Thankfully the film’s second antagonist is blessed with a much stronger character and a much better performance. Kristen Wiig has a well-established career as a comedic actor, but here she showcases a far more dramatic side. Her bookish geologist Barbara Minerva is better known in the comics by her alter-ego Cheetah, and the film does a great job of slowly transitioning her into a super-powered villain. Nowhere in the film is she actually named Cheetah, but no matter – nowhere in either film has Diana actually been called Wonder Woman. If there is a top highlight of the film, it is Wiig.
Unfortunately the issues that plagued the first Wonder Woman movie plague the second. For one, the film is simply 30 minutes too long – just long enough for momentum to be lost and tedium to creep in. For another, there is simply too much time place in-between action scenes. When Diana is in her Amazon outfit and fighting criminals, she shines. A road chase along an Egyptian highway is particularly thrilling, but simply is not enough. One more set piece would, I suspect, leave the audience more satisfied.
There is also a weird treatment of the Arab world in the film, that feels particularly distasteful given the political opinions of its Israeli star. I do not feel qualified to comment on it to be honest, but it is definitely problematic.
WW84 is a good film, but after the goodwill generated in the first film I think the audience will be expecting a great one instead. Jenkins simply fails to deliver the goods. This is a mixture of good and bad elements, and while the good – the over-arching themes, the photography, the characters – entertains immensely, the bad – including Maxwell Lord, the flabby plot, and a weirdly lacklustre Hans Zimmer score – doggedly remains to drag the whole piece down. It is not a swing and a miss, but it is far from a home run either.