The Monkey’s Paw is a great starting point for a good story about the way our fantasies clash with reality. It’s hard to go wrong. And indeed, Wonder Woman 1984 starts from a strong footing with that in mind, but it struggles through a story filled with great actors and weird decisions. Minor spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 follow.
Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman is a symbol of strength and self-reliance, and Gal Gadot has done an incredible job modernizing our live-action perception of the character, who primarily existed through Lynda Carter in the 1970s. But so much of what made Wonder Woman feel so modern and exciting is missing from WW84. In correcting Wonder Woman‘s biggest mistake, the movie somehow managed to make every other mistake that the first one avoided along the way.
A Day in the Life
Diana Prince has, since the first film, lived in the “world of man” for over 60 years, and yet, as we meet her again, she’s still actively mourning Steve Trevor, who is literally the first man she met. I’ll give her that she met a pretty great guy to start, but it’s still pretty weird. Over half a century later, Diana is living a solitary life in Washington D.C. as an antiquities specialist at the Smithsonian. In her free time, she eats dinner alone, sits in her apartment alone, and suits up in her iconic armor to go out and fight minor crime in her chosen city. Along the way, she knocks out any security cameras around, ensuring that this Woman of Wonder, a Wonder Woman, if you will, stays an urban legend and not a public figure.
This part works really well. It’s rare that we get to see superhero characters in movies living their daily lives. Not every day can be a battle against Thanos or Darkseid. We usually only see this kind of storytelling with more grounded characters like Spider-Man, and even then in sparing amounts. This sequence is fun and bright and the kind of heroics I’d expect from a character like Wonder Woman.
Things start to slide from there, though. I’m in love with the casting for this film, but the writing, less so. Kristen Wiig is a killer choice for Cheetah. She’s a dork; anyone who has watched her on Saturday Night Live or in her other movies knows that. But she’s also been in the limelight long enough that she’s had to transform herself into the leading woman that can go to award shows. She works great, then, as this loner intellectual who suddenly finds herself with confidence and strength and wants to capitalize on it. But the movie doesn’t give the actress enough to work with.
Barbara Minerva is an example of how so much of Wonder Woman 1984 deals in shorthand. They give us lazy (or efficient, if you’re feeling generous) tropes to work with to deliver information quickly, but the end result is that it feels like we’re told we’re supposed to care about the character without being given the time to do so.
We meet Barbara for the first time just as Diana does. The movie wants us to believe they’re friends, but gives us a few scenes of Diana trying to keep everyone at arm’s length to prove it and nothing more. It’s hard not to wonder what their relationship would’ve looked like with a few more minutes of interaction between them and perhaps having us enter their friendship in media res.
Once Barbara’s powers begin to manifest, she changes as per the movie’s Monkey Paw premise; in getting her powers, she gave up her humanity. First figuratively, and then literally. WW84 establishes this first by having a sexual predator try to rape her (Diana saves her) and then by having her cross paths with that predator again so that she can beat him to within an inch of his life.
When Was This Made?
We’re supposed to be shocked at timid Barbara kicking the pervert into a truck, and at how much of her humanity she’s lost. But in 2020 it feels like more of the audience would be cheering for her beating the snot out of him than not. Both this and Diana’s extended decades-long mourning feel like gender politics that would’ve worked in a movie made in the 1980s. But this movie wasn’t, and it feels so different from that of the first Wonder Woman film.
Another place this comes up is with the movie’s weird focus on high heels. Certainly, high heels are a problem that many women and very few men experience, a complication of performative femininity. The movie spends a lot of time, though, saying first that high heels suck, but also that women can kick ass in them, and that being able to kick ass in them means they’re extra-strong women. Television dug into this notion back in the 1980s enough that it feels outdated to spend so much time rehashing it.
They did what?
While Barbara gets her powers, Diana gets her Steve, and this is another weird problem that’s rooted so deeply into the movie that I’m not sure how they could’ve wiggled out of it. The artifact that seems to be granting wishes brings Steve back to life, but instead of putting him in his own body, it puts him in the body of some dude who has a life in 1984 Washington D.C., and it’s difficult to see why Jenkins and co-writer Geoff Johns went this route.
The monkey paw effect is that, in getting Steve back, Diana starts to lose her powers, so the manner in which Steve exists is almost irrelevant to the plot of the movie. And so it’s perplexing why they put him in the body of another man, which Diana then kisses and has sex with. If this was Wonder Man, and Dana Prince was banging Stephanie Trevor while her soul inhabited the body of another woman, there’d be riots. Based on the discourse online after WW84 hit HBO Max, it seems like people see the truth of this pretty clearly, but we’re wondering how Johns and Jenkins didn’t. Or if they did, why they didn’t comment on it. It sure seems like something Diana would not have been down with.
WW84 doesn’t truly belong to either Diana or Barbara, though. Instead, it belongs to Max Lord, Pedro Pascal’s character. Pascal is the highlight of the movie as it hits right alongside his skyrocketing career. In WW84, he plays the part of Max Lord, founder and chairman of Black Gold Cooperative, a co-op that promises joint ownership of an oil company. After his bombastic intro with the ultra-1980s television commercial, though, we follow him from the front end of his business into the office. Max Lord is less oil magnate and more snake-oil salesman. He’s never struck oil, and his office is literally empty.
The Icon of the ’80s
While Pascal himself and others involved with the movie have denied that Donald Trump is an inspiration for his character, it’s hard not to see it. It’s not the modern Trump we know, though; the one that seems to have inspired Lord is the version we knew in the 1980s, the “Art of the Deal” Trump, who was more focused on looking successful by starting businesses, publishing books, making board games based on himself, and any other way he could seed the idea of his success in peoples’ brains. Max is faking it until he makes it.
He finally finds his power in WW84‘s MacGuffin, the Dreamstone. Becoming a sort of genie himself, Lord begins granting wishes and taking things from those he grants wishes to. Pascal comes into his own here. He’s playing a snake-oil salesman, but unlike his character he’s able to deliver fully on what he’s selling. Once we see that Lord is faking it, every line, all the confidence, all of it makes sense. Lord becomes power crazed, but we understand why, which I can’t fully say for Diana’s extended mourning Trevor or why, at the end of the movie, Minerva is willing to give up her powers. This makes Lord one of the better DC movie villains in recent memory, but it’s a problem that he’s the most sympathetic character in the movie.
It’s good that Pascal absolutely kills it, too, because the way he gets that power is a little less easy to swallow. The power comes from a relic, as is so often the case, but at no point are we given any context for how a huckster who seems to have little more than a failed marriage on his checklist knows about an ancient relic that even historians like Diana Prince and Barbara Minerva are unaware of. We try not to dig for plot holes in movies here, because generally speaking that ruins a good time. But in WW84, there are so many moments that require a leap from the audience that things like this stick out even more.
Fun with Steve
That brings us to the final member of the primary cast, Steve Trevor. While we meet the body he’s inhabiting for the movie first, as soon as Diana finds out who he is, she only sees Steve Trevor’s face. That is to say, Chris Pine plays the character for the rest of the movie, even though the body he’s inhabiting looks little like him. Pine is, once again, an asset to the cast, providing some grounding for Wonder Woman’s godliness. She gets a little bit of time to introduce him to the world of the 1980s, and a lot of the movie’s joy comes from these interactions.
As the two begin to make sense of Lord’s plan, that leads them to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. This is a sweet, fun segment, though something Jenkins did just a few weeks ago reframed it entirely. During Disney’s investor call–not something we normally bring up in a review–Disney gave us our first teaser for Star Wars Rogue Squadron, also directed by Patty Jenkins. In this teaser, Jenkins talked about her father, who was a pilot, and who died in service to his country, and how that made her want to tell the ultimate pilots’ story as a tribute to her dad.
While watching the whole sequence from the Air and Space Museum up until Diana and Steve steal a fighter jet, I could see the hand of the creator getting in the way of the movie. I wasn’t seeing Trevor reacting to all the planes and shuttles, but Jenkins telling us how we should feel. It became distracting. I’m not sure if this is a connection other people will make, but it was hard for me to ignore.
A Better Villain
As the movie hits its climax, we can start to see the movie that Jenkins wanted to make. The climactic fight between Diana and Barbara is exciting, fast, and acrobatic. It’s a proper superhero battle. What holds it back, though, is that lack of development for Minerva. It makes sense logically that she would defend Lord because she wants to keep her newfound power, but emotionally it cut a little short.
What’s clever, though, is that the movie puts Diana up against a villain that she can’t punch on an isolated airfield. Diana is strong enough to throw a tank, but she solves problems by protecting people and appealing to their better angels. It’s not as simple as Diana talking Max down, but it feels like a more appropriate fight for the character than the ending of Wonder Woman, which felt more like a video game boss than the end of a movie.
Part of the problem is that the Monkey Paw thing works on a personal scale as a morality play about our deeply held desires, but it doesn’t work well on a macro scale. If the last year has proven anything, it’s that many people aren’t interested in common sense or helping anyone other than themselves even when everything seems to be on fire. It feels right for Wonder Woman herself but wrong for our point in time here at the end of 2020.
Gal Gadot is Great
Before we close out, it’s worth mentioning just how enjoyable Gal Gadot is as Wonder Woman. Like Jason Momoa with Aquaman, she willed this character into the modern era through sheer charisma. She’s beautiful, calm, and collected. Her accent reminds us that America is an adopted home for Wonder Woman, even moreso than it is for Superman. She looks and feels the part. The idea of much of her role in this movie is a good one: she has to push down her feelings and deny herself things she wants so that she can help others. This is something many mothers talk about feeling. But the movie doesn’t seem to deal with that at all. She comes out of it no different than she went into it.
The Hand She Was Dealt
We can lay part of the responsibility for this at Zack Snyder’s feet. He gave Jenkins a framework that she has to fit Wonder Woman into. Wonder Woman was documented in this movie universe as being present in World War I, but disappeared–through World War II, through Vietnam, through the Cold War, through countless natural disasters–only to reappear in Batman v Superman when Clark and Bruce were yelling their mothers’ name at each other. That means that, ultimately, nothing much can change with Diana between Wonder Woman and BvS and Justice League.
But that means that the movie we get as a result feels a little bit hollow. A bunch of good actors, with only one of them really given enough to do–and it’s not either of the women at the center of the movie.