This may sound like a routine thing to say at this point in the year, but I really miss going to the movies. I’ve known that for some time now, but the depths of this desire didn’t fully become clear until I saw the opening 10 minutes of Wonder Woman 1984. Since most studios have held on to their tentpole releases for a vaccinated public’s return to theaters, I didn’t spend much of 2020 immersed in this sort of spectacle: Action by land, by air, by sea; large-the-life contraptions; horses and archery; a race to the finish line—all stunningly shot by Matthew Jensen and tightly edited by Richard Pearson.
Then a jump forward in time: A three-story shopping mall in Washington D.C., circa 1984. A jewelry story holdup leads to the theft of ancient artifacts and a magical rock. As the crooks make their escape, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, who also produces) lassoes in and stylishly dispatch them. It’s kinetic. It’s energetic. Thinking about what it would look like on a massive screen made my throat catch.
But then the story kicks in. Diana is a researcher at D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute, alongside Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig)—who feels unseen and unappreciated—in a division recently purchased by up-and-coming oil magnate Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Lord has an interest in that magic rock stolen from the jewelry store, now in possession of the Smithsonian. Neither Diana nor Barbara knows what power the rock holds, but Maxwell does. It grants the person touching the rock a wish. Diana wishes her beau Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) wasn’t dead, Beverly wishes to be strong, powerful, and sexy, like Diana, and Maxwell wishes to be the bad guy. The wishes are granted, and the movie is ready for act two.
These early scenes are enjoyable. The period costuming and set design is on point, and widescreen framing, analytical editing, and smooth tracking shots give Wonder Woman 1984 a feeling of being made in the ’80s. When Wonder Woman and Steve chase down Maxwell in Egypt, how Wonder Woman works her way through the armored convoy is reminiscent of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark—but with superpowers. The stunt work is impressive, and Patty Jenkins proves once again to be a director who can handle action, character, and humor. Gadot and Pine have genuine chemistry, and Pascal manages to convey sniveling desperation coupled with zealous pursuit. Each character gets their moment in the sun, but Wonder Woman 1984 falls short in the script department—authored by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callahan. It’s a cumbersome script, one that tries to keep a dozen plates spinning while Jenkins and company fill out the world with side adventures and atmosphere, before building to a jaundiced climax and an optimistic resolution. Spoilers to follow.
First, a little story catching-up: Maxwell’s wish (a wish for more wishes) turns him into the conduit for the rock, allowing him to grant wishes to powerful men around the world. The wishes come with a Faustian bargain, one where Maxwell is also granted a wish of his own. But each wish kills him just a little, so Maxwell uses a secret U.S. government program designed to allow the president to supersede any televised broadcast across the globe. Why the president would need to address the people of, say, Queensland, Australia, at the drop of a hat isn’t quite explained, but the fact that the broadcast “touches” every TV on the planet is all Maxwell needs to implement his plan. Now he can address the entire world, persuade them to make a wish, any wish, and while he is granting their heart’s desire, he can heal his own. In addition to reconstructing his liver, curing his aches and pain, reverse aging, what have you. How this works, I do not understand.
Fine, but then the story turns sour. Chaos reigns as it appears everyone in the world has wished for something horrible. A shop owner in London wishes for the Irish to be deported—and the police outside immediately comply. The Irish customer wishes for her to drop dead, and she does. Militaries across the globe wish for more missiles than the U.S.—the president wished for more nukes earlier in the movie—and trigger World War III. A terrorist located in a dirt bunker somewhere in the middle-of-god-knows-where wishes for victory. It seems that when the world is offered the ultimate gift, humanity has nothing but hate in its heart and winning on its mind.
Shenanigans. If you asked ten people what they wished for most, nine would say money—at least then we could have seen deer stampeding down Dupont Circle because someone wished for “a million bucks.” I would have wished for a bowl of ice cream. Surely someone would have wished for world peace—all the Miss America contestants certainly would have. If Miss South Carolina wishes for world peace while the terrorist in the dirt bunker wishes for world domination, which wish would be granted?
But I digress. Using Maxwell and the Lasso of Truth, Wonder Woman addresses the world, shows them the errors of their ways, and asks them to renounce their wish. And since Wonder Woman is speaking to no one in particular, she addresses the audience. And like that, worldwide annihilation is averted, and everyone sees the errors in their ways. It’s like Wonder Woman left Pandora’s box open long enough to make sure hope got out too.
The movie then jumps ahead to Christmas, and everyone seems to be having a grand old time, enjoying the life that almost got away. Do they know how close they came to obliteration? Did that Irish bloke forget the fish’ n’ chips shop he frequents on Fridays is run by a bigot? Our terrorist friend in the dirt bunker had a change of heart when Diana started talking, how’s he doing? And why did he have a TV in the bunker in the first place? Wouldn’t his enemies have noticed the extension cord?
I could go on—the movie is two and a half-hours and raises more questions than the script has answers. Instead, the writers rely on cheap shorthand, the kind of storytelling they hope you buy without a second thought. Yes, people are mean, and given a chance to better themselves they will often take the path of least resistance. And, yes, people do like clear sunshine and hot drinks on a pleasant afternoon. But the speed in which Wonder Woman 1984 squishes those two truths together is disorienting, to say the least.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Story by Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns
Based on characters by William Moulton Marston
Produced by Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins, Stephen Jones, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 151 minutes, Opens theatrically Dec. 25 (where available), and on HBO Max.