As Tom Petty said it best, the waiting is the hardest part. Just ask fans of the D.C. Universe, who expected to see Wonder Woman 1984 in December 2019 and have endured a year’s worth of overoptimistic postponements. After watching their proposed dates of June 5, Aug. 14 and Oct. 2 devoured by the pandemic, Warner Brothers took the industry-upending move of dropping the film as a day-and-date release that’s free to HBO Max subscribers.
Old-fashioned theatergoers can still see the movie on its proper giant screen in markets, like Florida, where cinemas are open, but this may be the first bona fide blockbuster in which no blocks need busting. And you can pause to go the bathroom, a perk of which, given the bloated two-and-a-half-hour running time, you will need to avail yourself.
It’s unfair to attach an extra year’s worth of hype to Patty Jenkins’ already highly anticipated sequel to Warner’s most lucrative film of 2017, but them’s the breaks. It’s finally here, and it underwhelms in every aspect that made its predecessor such an arresting experience: in charm, in smarts, in wit, in feminist empowerment, in pretty much every area but spectacle.
Conveniently enough for viewers who opt for the living room, the movie leads with its finest hour — or rather, its finest 20 minutes. We’re basking in D.P. Matthew Pearson’s IMAX-ready vistas of the unspoiled Themyscira, Diana Prince’s homeland, and the pint-sized Wonder Woman-to-be is competing in a Ninja Warrior-style competition against rival Amazonians thrice her size. The action is riveting, even on small screens, and the sequence concludes with a succinct Joseph Campbell takeaway. It’s a lovely standalone piece, like one of those nifty Pixar shorts that leads into the feature.
The rest of the picture is set in its title year, where our ageless heroine (Gal Gadot) now works as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., by day, and moonlights as extrajudicial law enforcement, lassoing hapless criminals from shopping-mall stick-ups and rescuing pedestrians from urban assaults. (Given the movie’s provenance, the nation’s capital resembles another scuzzy Gotham facsimile where everybody in the street is a drunk, a lecher, or both.)
Diana’s routine is disrupted by the appearance, at her workplace, of a socially awkward new hire, gemologist Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who is brought on to analyze a mysterious chunk of calcite collected by the Smithsonian after a foiled robbery. While of little monetary value, the gem has apparently been endowed with a wish-granting magic, which the two ladies explore on a lark: Barbara, to become more like Diana in strength, confidence and beauty; Diana, to bring back her deceased partner Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Before they know it, Barbara has become the most popular figure in the building, and Diana is meeting once again with Steve, whose consciousness has taken over the form of a handsome D.C. local — a pretty cumbersome way to resurrect the actors’ much-admired chemistry from the 2017 film.
Given the year in the movie’s title, the mind jumps to Orwell, but a better cultural reference is Wall Street. This film’s Gordon Gekko is Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a Ponzi-scheming businessman famous for his seductive infomercials, whose shady operation, the Black Gold Cooperative, is soon to collapse unless and until he gets his unctuous hands on the Dreamstone. Conflicting cast and crew accounts have shed light on how much the soon-to-be-departing 45th president inspired this egomaniacal wannabe billionaire with wavy blond hair, but we’ll let the screenplay speak for itself: “I’m not a con man — I’m a television personality!” he insists, and, later, “there’s a conspiracy against my success!”
The likeness would have resonated even if the Celebrity Apprentice host had not ascended to the most powerful position in the world. Donald Trump has always been a relic of the 1980s, a parody of its gluttony, and Jenkins feeds the popular imagination of that decade’s desire for More. In repurposing the language of self-help and personal development (“You can have it all — you just have to want it!”), Maxwell Lord is an avatar for millions of aspirants whose every unfulfilled desire is just one powerful mantra — or a wish from the Dreamstone — away.
The problem is that Jenkins wants to have it both ways. Fundamentally, she has bought what her villain is selling, because Wonder Woman 1984 is nothing if not a celebration of excess, screaming its own moralistic Message with tempestuous pomp and circumstance, until even the most checked-out spectator can’t help but absorb it.
Amid all of this grim lecturing, the fun is awfully short-lived. Mostly, it percolates from the still-winning camaraderie between Gadot and Pine, the latter naively transported from his World War I comfort zone in a foreign land of break-dancers and punk rockers, fanny packs and parachute pants. In the most amusing fish-out-of-water moment, he marvels at the architectural complexity of a garbage receptacle.
WW84 needed more of this, to say nothing of the short-changed development of Barbara Minerva into the misguided Cheetah. The homoerotic undertones of Gadot and Wiig’s first scenes together, which are so welcome in the context of a superhero movie, are jettisoned amidst the machine-gun barrage of plot plot plot that takes the story first to Cairo, then back to D.C., then to the entire world, which is, customarily, on the brink of complete annihilation.
Jenkins, to her credit, manages to see the humanity in every character — to Maxwell Lord’s insecurities and history of abuse as much as to Diana’s loneliness and reluctance. But these are dim signals this time around, struggling to be heard amid the cacophony of noise.
WONDER WOMAN 1984. Director: Patty Jenkins; Distributor: Warner Brothers; Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal; Rating: PG-13; Now playing in most area theaters and streaming on HBO Max