4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Is It a Trash Can or Is It Art? — Wonder Woman 1984

Starting in August 2017, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic in “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch.” He caught up to real time, as it were, in January 2020, but is revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. This week, we’ll look at Wonder Woman 1984, and next week will be an examination of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Wonder Woman was something of a flashpoint (no pun intended) in 2017. The (idiotic) conventional wisdom was that woman-led superhero movies weren’t popular. This was based on a sample size of two: Elektra and Catwoman. Never mind that plenty of man-led superhero films tanked, too, nor that the problem with those two films were not that they had female leads…

WW was a massive hit, finally muting (if not completely silencing) the sexist naysayers, and the sequel was green-lit instantly.

Patty Jenkins originally only intended to be involved in the first WW film, but she was quickly signed to do a second (and third, and a spinoff). She collaborated with Geoff Johns, a longtime comics writer and the liaison between the comics end of DC and the DC Extended Universe on the sequel film’s story, and they wrote the script together with Dave Callaham.

With the first film taking place at the end of World War I, and with Diana’s subsequent appearances in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League taking place in contemporary times, Jenkins and Johns decided to do another period piece, this one taking place in 1984.

The film used two villains from the comics. One is the Cheetah, a longtime adversary of Diana’s going back to the sixth issue of her comic book in 1943, also created by William Moulton Marston. Three different women have taken on the mantle of the Cheetah: the original was a wealthy woman named Priscilla Rich, who was jealous of the attention being given to Wonder Woman, and who also had dissociative identity disorder, and later her niece Deborah Domaine took on her aunt’s mantle in a 1980 comics story by Gerry Conway and Jose Delbo. After 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths reset the DC Comics timeline, a new Cheetah was created by George Pérez and Len Wein: Barbara Minerva, an archaeologist who takes a serum intended to turn her into a superhuman, but which has nasty mental side effects. The version in this movie played by Kristen Wiig mixes Rich’s envy of Diana with Minerva’s archeology background.

The other villain is Maxwell Lord, created as an industrialist who is manipulating the post-Crisis Justice League in their eponymous 1987 title by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. He has been a primarily antagonistic figure, sometimes manipulated by outside forces, other times just a jackass on his own. He’s reimagined here as a grifter trying to get rich with a Ponzi scheme involving oil rights, played by Pedro Pascal.

Back from Justice League are Gal Gadot as Diana, Robin Wright as Antiope, and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta. Back from Wonder Woman are Chris Pine as Steve Trevor and Lilly Aspell as the child version of Diana. Making their first appearances in this film are Oliver Cotton as Simon Stagg (an evil CEO in the comics, here one of Lord’s investors), Stuart Milligan as the President of the United States, and, in a mid-credits cameo, Lynda Carter (TV’s Wonder Woman 45 years ago) as Asteria, an ancient Amazon warrior whose armor Diana wields in the climax.

The movie was one of the many victims of the recent apocalypse, as the closing of theatres due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to it being delayed from the intended June 2020 release until December of last year in what few theatres were open and also on HBO Max.

 

“It’s only wind and air and how to catch it”

Wonder Woman 1984
Written by Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, Stephen Jones
Original release date: December 25, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984 trailer, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as Diana and Steve Trevor

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Centuries ago, when Diana was still a little girl on Themyscira, she participated in a complex obstacle course against several grown-up Amazons. She outperforms the adults for much of the competition, but at one point she looks back at the people behind her and gets knocked off her horse by a tree. She takes a shortcut to reunite with the mount, but that’s actually cheating, and so just as she’s about to cross the finish line first, Antiope yanks her off the track. She and Hippolyta tell her that the truth is the most important thing. Taking shortcuts and lying are not the acts of heroes.

Flash forward to 1984 Washington D.C. Grown-up Diana in a new version of her Wonder Woman costume saves a jogger from being hit by two morons driving too fast, saves a bride who’s having her picture taken from dying from a fall over a railing thanks to some other morons, and, most spectacularly, stops a robbery in a mall, saving many lives in the process (and also making sure to trash the security cameras so she can’t be identified).

She then arrives for work at the Smithsonian, where she meets a newly hired archaeologist, Barbara Minerva. Minerva is awkward, shy, and virtually invisible—the person who hired her doesn’t even recognize her. The stash from the mall robbery is brought by the FBI to the Smithsonian to identify—it turns out the target of the robbery were artifacts being sold on the black market in the back room of a jewelry shop. Minerva is tasked with that, though Diana does kibbitz on the identification, particularly about one particular object that seems like a fake. However, while walking near it, one co-worker mentions that he wishes he had a cup of coffee, and a few minutes later, someone has an extra cup of coffee and gives it to him. Minerva also expresses a wish to be more like Diana.

Minerva and Diana go out to dinner, and on her way back to the office, Minerva is harassed and physically assaulted by a drunk. Diana, who left her keys at the office, saves her, saying she used a simple self-defense technique that requires shifting your weight.

Maxwell Lord—who has been seen on TV commercials hawking his company Black Gold, which invests in potential oil-drilling sites—has made a big donation to the museum, which gets him a tour of the facility. Lord expresses an interest in the artifacts they’re identifying for the FBI, particularly the little tchotchke that Minerva and Diana thought might be fake. He flirts outrageously with Minerva, also, taking her back to her office ostensibly to make out with her, but really to steal the artifact, which is actually a stone blessed by the gods called the Dreamstone. It can grant any wish, but it extracts a price.

Unaware of this, Diana wished she could have Steve Trevor back—her apartment contains a virtual shrine to his memory, including his watch, a photo from the war of the entire gang, and a picture of Diana at the Trevor Ranch. Trevor’s mind then inhabits the body of some poor random dude. Trevor spends a couple of days cleaning the guy’s apartment and trying to find Diana, and tracks her to a gala thrown by Lord. Also at this gala is a former coworker of Diana’s who’s now working at the White House, and who obviously has the hots for her.

Diana is thrilled to have the love of her life back, and Trevor is fascinated by all the changes that have taken place over the last seven decades (faster trains and planes, for one thing; fashion, for another). At no point do either of them give a nanosecond’s consideration for the person whose life Trevor has now taken over.

Now that he has the Dreamstone, Lord wishes for himself to be the Dreamstone. Now Lord can grant anyone a single wish—however, he’s already burned his own wish, so he goes to Simon Stagg, one of his investors (who has realized that Lord’s a fraud, and has demanded his money back), and gets him to wish for Lord’s success. He grants that wish, as Black Gold is now successful, and he takes in exchange Stagg’s freedom—his company is now under investigation by the SEC.

Lord gets his assistant (and only employee) to wish for more help, which nets him a staff. Lord wants control of good oil fields (the ones he invested in were already dry, which is how he was able to acquire oil rights—that being the scam that Stagg figured out), so he goes to Cairo to acquire the lands of an oil baron.

Realizing what the stone is, Diana discovers (via Minerva) that Lord took the Dreamstone. Diana and Trevor sneak into Lord’s office and find that he’s flown to Cairo. They steal a plane from the Smithsonian that Trevor can somehow fly despite his piloting skills being seventy years out of date, and which Diana is able to make invisible with a power she’s never used before.

Lord grants a wish of the oil baron’s in exchange for gaining all his land and security. Diana and Trevor try to stop him, but Diana’s strength is diminished and Lord gets away.

Wonder Woman 1984 trailer, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Lord’s next stop is the White House. While in the Oval Office, having been granted an audience through one of his staff member’s wishes, he learns of a global satellite system that can broadcast to every television in the world. He grants the President’s wish for more nuclear weapons in exchange for his power and security staff.

Diana has a surveillance system set up that enables her to track Lord to the White House. Trevor notices a human-sized package in her surveillance room, which she says is a suit of armor belonging to Asteria. When the Amazons were imprisoned, Hippolyta freed them, but Asteria was the warrior who stayed behind to fight the men while the Amazons escaped to Themyscira. All the other Amazons donated their armor to Asteria, and she fused it into a mighty suit of armor with wings. Diana has been searching for Asteria, but has only been able to find the armor.

Using her former coworker, Diana is able to get access to the White House, but by the time she and Trevor arrive, Lord is protected by the presidential security detail. Diana refuses to hurt the agents too badly, however, as it’s not their fault they’ve been suborned, and then Minerva shows up. Because she wished to be like Diana, she now has Wonder Woman’s strength. Diana’s own strength continues to diminish, so Minerva is able to wipe the floor with her. She is loyal to Lord, who showed her the way to greatness. In gratitude, Lord grants her a second wish: to be an apex predator.

Lord goes to the satellite control center with Minerva, and is now able to grant wishes to everyone in the world.

Trevor convinces Diana that she has to renounce her wish in order to get her strength back and stop Lord. She does so, and Trevor goes back to being some random dude. Diana puts on the Asteria armor and goes to the satellite control center. She battles Minerva, who is now half-human, half-cheetah, and then confronts Lord. He’s taken so much from people making wishes that he’s too powerful for her to fight directly. So she wraps the lasso of truth around his ankle and makes an appeal for humanity—but it’s not to Lord, it’s to everyone he’s broadcasting to.

It works, even on Lord, who realizes that he’s destroying the world around his young son. Everything returns to normal. Around Christmas time, Diana sees the person Trevor possessed, and they have a nice chat. At no point does Diana apologize to him.

In the middle of the credits, we cut to the present day, with a large pole nearly falling on a child in a stroller, but a woman catches it with one hand. When the mother thanks her, the woman, who calls herself Asteria, says it’s just a matter of shifting your weight…

 

“Life is good, but it can be better!”

Wonder Woman 1984 trailer, Pedro Pascal as Max Lord

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

This is a spectacularly frustrating movie. The bones of a good story are there, but the meat and muscle are rotted and twisted and pulled.

Enough of the tortured anatomy metaphor: There are three aspects of this movie that show up its major difficulties, consisting of the two best things about it and the absolute worst thing about it.

The two best are both related to one very important aspect of Diana’s character: she is a hero. This is reemphasized by the lesson that Antiope teaches her in the flashback at the top of the movie. She isn’t just a warrior, she’s a hero. Too often Hollywood superhero movies forget the second half of that word, but it’s very much a part of Diana. This is best seen in two distinct places: in the White House fight scene, where she takes great pains not to inflict major harm on the Secret Service agents who have been assigned to Lord pretty much against their will, and then in the end where it’s not might that wins the day but an appeal to humanity and compassion. (It’s not particularly realistic that everyone recants their wishes, but the metaphor and message are important enough and satisfying enough from a story perspective that I’m willing to forgive it.)

But then we have the fact that Steve Trevor’s ghost takes over some random dude’s body and life and nobody ever comments on it! Diana’s wish has, for all intents and purposes ended this guy—who never even gets a name—and she never once expresses a micron of concern for him. This is, frankly, despicable behavior, especially given that Diana and Trevor sleep together, so she’s now also raped this person. The actions are appalling enough on their own terms, but to have it be this character in particular is a disastrous misreading of who Diana/Wonder Woman is not just in her previous movie, but in the rest of this one.

And it didn’t even need to be that way! The Dreamstone doesn’t seem to be concerned with the preservation of matter and energy when, for example, the U.S. suddenly has ten times the nuclear arsenal it had prior to the President’s wish. So why couldn’t it re-create Trevor without possessing some innocent bystander? Or, if it had to do that, why couldn’t that be the price Diana had to pay? Committing horrible acts against this guy, turning her into not-a-hero, and then having her face that. (It even ties back to the lesson from the film’s opening.)

Wonder Woman 1984

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

This is one of many missteps in this mess of a script. Some of them are small: Trevor couldn’t possibly dope out how to fly a 1980s jet plane that fast, escalators already existed in 1918 and Trevor would probably be familiar with them, and fireworks are even older than that. But the biggest misstep is that it doesn’t do what it promised on the label: there is absolutely nothing in the plot of this film that requires it to take place in 1984. The opening bits with Diana being a secret hero work better in the timeframe because nobody has cell phones and security cameras are analog video cameras that are easy to sabotage, and Trevor trying on period clothes is hilarious. But the overall plot doesn’t have to be in the 1980s at all. Yes, there’s the threat of a U.S.-USSR nuclear war, but that’s just one of a billion chaotic things happening at the climax, and we don’t need it to make the plot work.

Plus, the U.S. President is just some old white guy, and if you’re going to do the 1980s Cold War, why not do Ronald Reagan? (Even though the actor playing him was weak, one of the things that made X-Men: Days of Future Past work was explicitly having the construction of the Sentinels be a Nixon Administration project, which gave the whole thing more weight.) And, frankly, I didn’t buy that that global satellite system could exist with 1980s technology. The President analogizes it to the “Star Wars” program, except that never actually worked. That particular plot point would have worked much better with present-day tech.

But while the script Jenkins co-wrote is a mess, her work in the director’s chair remains superlative. She gets great performances out of everyone. One reason why it was worth having Steve Trevor’s ghost in the movie is to recapture the sparkling chemistry Gal Gadot and Chris Pine had in 2017, and they’re a delight here (even if the circumstances leave a bad taste in the mouth). Kristen Wiig is fantastic, playing pretty much the exact same role Michelle Pfeiffer played in Batman Returns, but her transformation from awkward introvert to bad-ass villain is completely convincing. And Pedro Pascal leaves no piece of scenery unchewed in his full-throated lunatic turn as Lord. I particularly love that he shouts most of his dialogue even when everyone else in the room is speaking in normal tones.

And Jenkins directs the action superbly, from the mall robbery at the top of the movie to the Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque jeep chase in the middle to the fight between Diana and Minerva at the climax. Some of the CGI looked a bit weak, which may have been a byproduct of some of the post-production work being done during the height of the pandemic shutdown.

Also, the Lynda Carter cameo was just bliss, and I really really hope that’s followed up on in the present-day sequel that is currently in development.

 

Next week, it’s the only other superhero movie released in the last half-year, and it isn’t even really a new one, though it also stars Gal Gadot: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Keith R.A. DeCandido has, with his wife Wrenn Simms, formed the very-small-press publisher Whysper Wude. Their first project is the anthology The Four ???? of the Apocalypse, which features alternate takes on the apocalyptic equestrians of yore. Among the authors are David Gerrold, Jonathan Maberry, Peter David, Jody Lynn Nye, David Mack, Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, Michael Jan Friedman, Adam-Troy Castro, Laura Anne Gilman, Gail Z. Martin, and tons more. Read all about the four cats of the apocalypse! The four lawyers! The four opera singers! The four rock stars! The four cheerleaders! And more! The anthology is being crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and has tons of nifty bonuses and extras—check it out!

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