Every new superhero film has to deal with a blessing that can also be a curse: The Discourse. Due to the deep cultural roots of their source material, these movies aren’t allowed to simply succeed or fail like “ordinary” films. Whether good or bad, they have to become part of a wider discussion that has gone on for decades, and as a result, it is very important to people who are fans of a particular property that their favourite character features in movies that feature prominently in this discussion as beacons of quality (such as DC’s Wonder Woman or Marvel’s Avengers) and not the butt of jokes or a source of ridicule (such as DC’s Catwoman or Marvel’s Spider Man 3 )
Unfortunately for Wonder Woman 84, it appears to have settled firmly in the latter category, and is therefore destined for a lifetime of ridicule despite apparently doing well enough financially to merit a suspiciously quick green-light for a sequel. As can be attested by movies such as the financially successful, yet widely hated Batman v. Superman, financial success does not alter a movie’s position in the discourse.
Therefore, since this aspect of the discussion has already been settled, this review will not concern itself with assigning a score to the movie. I’m lucky enough to be one of the those who are close enough to the source material, as a lifelong fan of Wonder Woman, familiar with her adventures from the very earliest material by W. M. Marston to contemporary critiques of the character by the likes of Jill Lepore, to be inclined to give it as much of a chance as possible.
Therefore, I’ll be focusing on taking the movie apart in order to see whether we can gain some insight into what worked, and what didn’t. There will be spoilers, however I will signal when they are about to appear. So, without further ado, let’s take a dive into the latest adventure of Diana Price.
As lovely as Aphrodite, as wise as Athena, with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules, she is known only as Wonder Woman!
On Wonder Woman 84
The film is a sequel to Warner Bros’ successful superhero movie Wonder Woman, which was set within World War One. It features Gal Gadot as Diana, the titular Wonder Woman, and is set in the 80s. While the first movie’s primary antagonist was War, personified by the God of War, Ares, this movie focuses on a thematic struggle against lies- personified by the other of Diana’s original foes, the Duke of Deception. Unfortunately, the Duke himself does not actually make an appearance in person. Instead, his power is represented by an ancient stone, interestingly made from Citrine, one of the most commonly faked crystals, and inscribed with the words “place upon the object held, one great wish”.
On a side note, Charles Marston’s original thesis for Wonder Woman had her fighting the personification of the wars that ravaged the world at the time he created her- and in his estimation this war was propped up by greed, and lies- personified by Ares and his lieutenants the Duke of Deception and the Earl of Greed. While the Earl of Greed is not mentioned by name, his influence is felt- as the movie’s climax inexorably reveals the primal driving force behind the desire for false success.
Back on topic- It turns out this “fake” stone is capable of granting wishes for a price, allowing its victims to achieve their goals by taking a dishonest shortcut. The movie’s key through line is established when the three key characters, Wonder Woman, Barbara Minerva, and Maxwell Lord each use the stone’s powers in selfish ways, leading to chaos and an inevitable conflict.
The movie’s narrative makes a number of interesting choices- almost casting Wonder Woman herself in the role of a villain to start with; implying that she has not learnt a lesson she was taught earlier on as a child, as she prioritises her needs over those of others in the same fashion as the other two characters. In other words, it turns out that Diana does not yet have the values that will make her a true hero.
Speaking of this lesson, the movie opens with a beautiful and lavishly shot representation of the Amazons’ hidden island, Themiscyra, upon which their athletic games are taking place. During the games, after being denied a dishonest win that she would have achieved “only by knowing the truth in her heart, and refusing to accept it”, Diana is taught a valuable lesson- “no true hero is born from lies”.
The movie’s aesthetic then settles into what will be its dominant look; a vividly coloured rendition of the visual feel made popular by Warner Brothers’ early Superman movies. This is a choice that works for the most part, except in a number of ways that I will get to below.
Before I get into the swing of things, I have to mention that the film’s soundtrack impressed me. I have to say I’m a sucker for melodious film scores, and the use of Wonder woman’s unique leitmotif in certain sequences really hit the spot for me!
And now, on to my list of “takes”. Warning- there are mild SPOILERS ahead, so you may want to skip to the conclusion if you haven’t seen the movie. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, or have already seen in-depth reviews and are interested in an alternate take on certain aspects of it, please read on.
On Diana’s flaws
A key aspect of the movie, as hinted at earlier, is that all three characters who come in contact with the power of the Duke of Lies use it for selfish reasons, and subsequently begin to act like villains. Diana, Barbara and Max all have something in common: they are all essentially people who, despite currently existing on different points on the moral spectrum, nonetheless have good hearts. People who, on gaining a heartfelt desire through the power of the stone, begin to act in ways they would later regret.
In Diana’s case, she wishes for the return of her dead boyfriend, Steve Trevor, for whom she has pined for the last few decades. (in context, considering the Amazons’ unlimited lifespans, the fact that Diana has not yet moved on is not as unbelievable as it may seem) She is so desperate to keep him that she doesn’t even consider for a moment that another man’s life had to be sacrificed in order to bring him back. (This leads to an abhorrent scene where she makes love to Steve in this man’s body). Later on, when she realises that she has had to give up her powers in order to keep Steve alive, she stubbornly chooses to keep fighting in this state of reduced capability, hoping to solve the problem without giving up her hearts’ desire.
This is an aspect of the movie that I have some issues with. While I do appreciate the fact that Diana is not perfect, I am not so sure the movie did a good job of showing that Diana has acknowledged and regrets the acts she committed in order to keep Steve alive. It does, however, show that she has grown beyond the need to take shortcuts in the first place- as she is offered an opportunity to get Steve back, no strings attached, and rejects it.
On Barbara Minerva
Barbara Minerva is another character who encounters the stone. She is a brilliant research scientist, (played by “Saturday Night Live” comedian Kristen Wiig) who is extremely talented, but is socially awkward. She cares for the homeless, is diligent at her work, and has a pleasant personality, but lacks self-esteem. As a result she looks up to the much more confident and “perfect” Diana.
After seeing Diana effortlessly defeat an aggressive would-be rapist, Barbara wishes for her confidence and power, which she achieves at the cost of her humanity and her warmth. This sets her on the villainous path of the Cheetah, opposite Wonder Woman.
Barbara is one of the better aspects of the movie, on aggregate. The special effects that depict her eventual transformation into a feline monstrosity are not a high point in the film, but the fact that she becomes more glamorous and desirable to her male colleagues simply due to a shift in her self confidence, attitude, stance and poise, is a pleasant callback to the performance Christopher Reeve brought to the original character of Superman, in one of the movies that this one pays a lot of homage to. She isn’t quite allowed to take this as far as Reeve did, but seeing this happen did bring a smile to my face.
On Maxwell Lord:
Real name Maxwell Lorenzano, the film’s primary antagonist has quite literally built an empire of lies. A con-man running a television ponzi scheme, Maxwell has researched the power of the stone, and, his scheme falling apart around him, he desperately pursues it in order to wish his dreams into reality.
On acquiring the stone, Maxwell wishes to actually be the stone. He then acquires a potentially unlimited number of wishes, which manifest as the price he extracts from people he hoodwinks into making wishes while touching him. He eventually learns of a way to touch millions of people around the world through television, generating an incredible amount of power for himself.
On the surface, it appears that the price he has to pay for “being the stone” is deteriorating health- a condition that worsens the more he uses his power. He counters this by taking the health of others as a price for their wishes, but in doing so, the true price of his wish is revealed: endless, insatiable greed, which puts him into a spiral of self destruction- leading to his neglect of the reason for his ambitions in the first place: his desire to protect his son from a life similar to the one he led, while growing up.
Practical aspects of Maxwell’s story (such as the bizarre technology he acquires from the US government, apparently by random chance) are quite silly on the surface of things, but are presented in delightfully tongue-in-cheek fashion. The aforementioned is also delivered through such an enthusiastic performance from Pedro Pascal that it almost needs neither the interference of Diana, nor her battles against Barbara in order to work. His ability to touch people all over the world does eventually allow Diana to connect her lasso with millions of people, using its power and her own, true, rejection of the wishing stone’s lies to reverse much of the damage that has been done all over the world (and to influence him into abandoning his plan), but through the visual presentation of Maxwell’s climatic meltdown alone, this particular arc achieves all that it needs to.
In many ways, Maxwell Lord “carries” the film.
On flight and the lasso:
After seeing the initial trailers, I was expecting the representation of Wonder Woman’s flight powers to be as ridiculous as shown there. Things aren’t quite so bad in the movie itself, however, which is one reason I found myself enjoying her maiden flight once she learned to ride the wind. I could have done without her lassoing lightning, though.
I was, however, not a fan of the lasso becoming an analogue for Thor’s hammer and Spider-Man’s webs. It was almost as if Diana’s ability to traverse the world became a grab-bag of the most iconic methods out there (she had Superman’s flight pose, spun the lasso the way Marvel’s Thor spins his hammer, and swings from her lasso like Spider-Man) however it cannot be denied that all three of those traversal methods are extremely striking to behold. Wonder woman’s traditionally unique methods of traversal are her wind riding (which, hopefully, rival studio Marvel nails when they eventually adapt their similarly gifted character “Storm”) and her invisible Jet. The first was done justice. The second? I’ll barely give it a passing grade due to the music that played during the jet’s maiden flight, but multiple aspects of the scene didn’t quite work for me.
On the invisible Jet
Unfortunately, what should have been one of the highlights of the movie, was marred by a number of clumsy story elements. Diana obtains the jet by stealing it from a Smithsonian exhibit, inexplicably selecting one that happens to be prepped and fueled for takeoff (perhaps we can assume she has some knowledge of the status of those planes, since she works there and has authorization to access the exhibit?). She then randomly casts a spell that cloaks it using the same magic that has hid her homeland for thousands of years. While the apparently out-of-character action of stealing an aircraft can be explained away as a representation of the current state of her values (willing to take shortcuts to get what she wants, and not caring about the consequences to others), it is harder to explain away the fact that she randomly displays this magical power and never uses it again, nor is it satisfying to a fan of the character, that Steve would be the one to pilot the jet in this scene.
That being said, the scene itself is visually gorgeous, and its overall presentation- including the music that plays, the dialogue and performances, are so arresting that I can’t deny its appeal despite these issues.
On special effects and combat:
Some aspects of the combat were carried over from the first film and they are just as impressive here. However, Wonder woman does a lot more throwing of the lasso around in this version (and, inexplicably, slides around quite a bit, too). I’m not sure I like it quite as much- it’s a style that would have benefited from top of the line CGI and high quality wire work. Instead, from the first time we see an imperiled bride float unrealistically when saved by said lasso, it is clear that this movie seems to be deliberately going for an 80s feel. This artificially makes it seem as though there were limitations on what could be done, thus making a lot of combat sequences appear cheesy and poorly executed.
This, I think, is unequivocally a negative. I was prepped for this by the trailer that gave away a desert battle scene. (A trailer that made me feel shocked and appalled when I first saw it!) Since then, I had made peace with the direction the film was taking, and within that context, the effects are not as cringe-worthy as the trailer suggested they would be.
However, they are not good, in my opinion.
That being said, ignoring the quality of the combat special effects means we are better able to focus on the narrative. In this regard, the movie does a great job of putting across the difficulty Diana faces due to the loss of her powers , and the weakness/vulnerability that comes across as a result.
And this brings me to what is probably the worst aspect of the movie, which is what I call its “superhero power tree” (beware…nerd rant incoming!)
On the consistency of power levels
A good, well written superhero narrative is very much aware of the fact that this genre is very much about powerful individuals and the interactions between their powers, as they clash- in this regard the genre dispenses with realism or normal cause and effect in favour of a sort of gladiator-style “versus” competition. This only works when rules are established and represented consistently, and in the best superhero movies the interplay between (and escalation/de-escalation of) these powers feed directly into the narrative.
This movie, however, relies on other devices to carry it’s plot along. Several aspects of the movie’s power balance are either inconsistent or do not make sense. For example, why does Diana need the special golden armour? In the comic book series “Kingdom come”, she uses it to fly; but here, she has already learned to ride the wind before she decides to use the armour. At a point in the movie, when her powers were diminished, she could have used the armour to protect herself, but she inexplicably does not use it until she actually regains said powers. When she gets her powers back, she appears to gain invulnerability/ healing against piercing damage (unlike the comics) ….but that then negates the Cheetah’s primary source of threat against her in that adaptation- her piercing claws. Speaking of the Cheetah, her wish was to gain Diana’s power-which becomes the primary source of the threat she poses during the period when Diana is weakened, but when the final battle occurs and Diana is back to full strength, it appears the Cheetah is extremely weak compared to her….and is defeated when Diana exposes them both to an electrical discharge. As my geek-brain’s desire to excuse away inconsistencies is on overdrive at this point, I will assume that Diana is immune to lightning due to her divine nature, and that Cheetah did not request specifically for this aspect of her power, but for now that is simple “head-canon”, an attempt to rationalize a failure of storytelling by embellishing my private reading of things
This aspect of the movie is a mess, which is a shame, because this is key to “The Discourse” around superhero movies.
Where the movie truly shines is in the way its narrative serves as a vehicle for the theme of the story. In many cases, the film sacrifices simple plot consistency for thematic strength. This is a movie all about the wickedness of falsehood and the dangers of taking a shortcut to success. It also uses its climatic moment to deliver a timely and powerful message about the triumph of collective humanity over Individual greed. While the movie makes a big fuss about a metaphorical struggle against the Duke of Deception (who sadly does not make an appearance), it has a strong undercurrent linking this to greed. In the end it seems as if the real price the main villain pays for his extraordinary wish is an insatiable greed that he is only able to renounce once he realises how his lust for power is hurting the one person in the world that he loves.
Cheating, lies and greed are linked in a basic, fundamental way, and this movie reveals that as a secondary theme slowly yet effectively. Willingly giving up what has been achieved by dishonest means is the only way out of the chaos created by unintended consequences of selfish, narrow minded avarice.
This is such a positive message, and is delivered through such arresting visuals that I feel it is overly simplistic to just write the film off due to its failings within the realm of superhero entertainment.
The movie can in fact entertain, and, despite its problematic action scenes, can also be beautiful to look at.
It can also serve as a rare source of simple joy and uplift in these grim times- especially as the pandemic of 2020 rages even more furiously in the dark days of December.
The film’s critical score on Rotten Tomatoes currently sits at a mediocre 62 percent, and is falling daily as more negative reviews pour in. The film has a B+ Cinemascore, which is broadly in line with this, but it fares far worse on sites that provide a better measure of the core superhero audience’s opinion, such as Metacritic (4.3/10), IMDB (5.6/10) and the unverified RT user score (43 percent)
I, personally, will take solace in the fact that the movie is nonetheless guaranteed a sequel, and therefore hope that DC is able to reclaim some of the magic they were able to capture with Wonder Woman’s acclaimed first outing.