Dec 28 2020

2020: Even Wonder Woman Lets Us Down

Published by at 12:38 am under Movie Review

–Wonder Woman 1984 is not nearly as good at the original. Pluses: the cast is still very charming, and a few of the fight scenes are effective. I did actually like most of the first hour of the movie.

–Setting: In the original Wonder Woman, the WWI setting contributes to a hard bleakness which effectively contracts with the main character’s naivete and optimism and it sets up a reasonably effective conflict with a villain. I sense that they selected the 1980s out of some observation of rampant consumerism in the 1980s, but the only actual observation on the 1980s the movie was actually committed to was that people dressed weird in almost exactly the same way as in any other 1980s period piece. There are no points at which the 1980s setting contributes to anything interesting, and several where the story pauses to focus on how crazily people dressed in the 1980s.

–The only character in this movie who does not have the weight of the 1980s crushing down on him is the homeless Jiminy Cricket guy.

–The two main cast additions are Pablo Pascal (Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones) as a sleazy conman and a Kristin Wiig completely unbelievable as either a lifeless wallflower or someone who wished for Wonder Woman’s charisma and verve. Refusing to go back on turning into a cat-person is somehow not the least believable part of this character. This character is such an inversion of reality that only a quadruple-negative sentence can express how bonkers she is.

–Maxwell Lord is theoretically inspired by 1980s businessvillains like Gordon Gekko but has none of the abrasive charm, “in your face” quality, or menace to pull this off. He is, as he admits to his son, more of a loser than anything else. This is not the stuff of dramatic legend.

–We’re told a few times that the Minerva character before the wish is humorous, witty, and fun to be around. Don’t believe this pep talk, it’s all lies. The closest she gets to a laugh line is that reading a lot of books somehow cured her eyesight.

The movie completely derails after Maxwell Lord meets with the President. Up to this point, it hadn’t been particularly dumb. Everything that comes out of this scene is a complete trainwreck (the President wishing for more nuclear weapons, a nuclear war starting without explanation, the magical communications system, Max’s plan to let everyone wish for whatever to steal something which probably isn’t very interesting, and everything about Cheetah). What ensues… I think the dumbest superhero plots up to this point have been an evil CEO releasing a fatal cosmetic in Catwoman or Curtis Connors trying to turn everybody into lizards. Wonder Woman 1984 dares to ask: why choose between a cartoonishly evil CEO and someone turning herself into a cat? It’s the 1980s.

–Hundreds of nuclear weapons suddenly appearing are enough to provoke a nuclear war. Weirdly this is not THAT far off from the Turkish or Cuban missile crises, though the dialogue here is not nearly good enough to cover something that’s critical to the plot and probably not intuitive to the average viewer. If you had a minute for this, maybe the Soviet premier confronts a peace-minded general who had insisted that the Soviet Union had a good read on America’s nuclear plans and that the threat level was low. Then panicky reports pour in as US missiles appear in aggressive postures, and the US first-strike which they genuinely feared for much of the Cold War looks like it might be happening at this very second. For a related incident, I’d recommend checking out the Able Archer panic.


–Maxwell’s wishes can be revoked by the recipient, so it’d be in his interest to NOT screw people he needs on board. E.g. when Minerva asks to be an apex predator, my instinct would run towards “humans ARE apex predators” rather than “make my most committed soldier into a cat monster.” If you feel obliged to keep the cheetah connection, perhaps she has the speed of a cheetah but does not actually look like she came off the set of Cats.

–“Firing a particle counts as touching” is one of the lamest workarounds for a superpower limitation I’ve seen in a while. Among other alternatives, the 1980s had several human chains with millions of participants (e.g. 2 million people in the Baltic Way calling for independence from the Soviet Union or 5 million for Hands Across America). I think millions of people gathering for a cause, particularly under fear of government suppression, is more inherently interesting than touching someone with a particle.

–The setup where Maxwell Lord can add secret costs to wishes (knowing or otherwise) leads to a lot of unclever problem-solving with zero interesting interaction between him and his targets. It might feel higher-stakes if the targets knew they were in a high-stakes situation and that the cost of making the wish would be serious.

–Lord gets too much screen-time for a villain that’s at best forgettably mild and at worst a cartoonish maniac.

–I don’t think the climactic showdown is very clear. Wonder Woman shows Maxwell a flashback of his own traumatic childhood along with a glimpse of his missing/distressed son to help show him that his playing with wishes is having a terrible effect on the person he’s trying to impress. As actually shown, I don’t think it’s clear that this flashback is of Maxwell rather than a live victim in real time. PS: Given how quickly the situation devolves into nuclear warfare, this appeal by Wonder Woman shouldn’t be necessary for this villain.

–I like the concept of a mostly non-physical showdown between Max and Wonder Woman.

— Some scenes that could have been reworked:

  • The decathlon scene is zero-stakes and most of this ~10 minutes could be better spent elsewhere. It doesn’t matter at all whether she wins or not; she’s never expressed any interest in being an athlete before, and it’ll never come up again. The stakes MIGHT be indirectly higher if the competitors were closer to her in age so we can see how she stacks up against other girls from similar backgrounds. Also, if the actors were of a similar age, they’d be able to run at similar speeds without making Wonder Woman look slow. (As it is, the older actors were definitely holding back and the cinematography didn’t do a great job hiding it). PS: I liked that the film shows the shortcut without screaming “this side-path is cheating” and also that the young Diana doesn’t claim “nobody said it was against the rules” but accepts that it’s a violation of the spirit of the competition. Contrast to how a more modern character might handle this (e.g. Captain Marvel takes a shortcut racing against her friend and, when called out on it, asks “Since when is a shortcut cheating?”)
  • Diana’s setup as a Smithsonian researcher is executed in a low-stakes direction. Thinking back to the original movie, there’s a delightful contrast between an idealistic hero-warrior and one of the most disillusioning wars in history, and in a low-key way she’s a perfect fit for the setting and the story.
  • Every moment of the movie focusing on the 1980s as strange. There’s not enough material to justify a scene where Trevor tries out a bunch of super-1980s clothes or gawks at people in the subway. I’d suggest 5 seconds at the most. PS: before you make a movie set in the 1980s with mohawks and pink polos and stuff, I’d recommend checking out works FROM the 1980s. It’s much less pronounced in, say, Back to the Future’s 1985 scenes than in Wonder Woman’s DC subway, which is a total mismatch for the setting.
  • Cheetah only shows up for a weak fight scene, and I’d just cut Minerva’s turning into Cheetah altogether. The character concept hasn’t aged well and the character design and execution are memorably awful.
  • A shopping mall jewelry shop is an odd setting for a mythological/exotic smuggling operation. Did they need a shopping mall scene that badly? Why? I think a lower profile setting would probably have fit what they’re trying to do with her being semi-unknown to the public. (In terms of smoothly fitting in with other movies, Batman later on does research on her going back 100 years to connect the dots. The less public she is now, the smoother it works later).

There’s a crazy amount of contrivance going on:
–Randomly running into Maxwell Lord leaving Cairo and instantly recognizing him.
–The first person to stumble upon Minerva beating up her assailant happens to be the one person in town that she regularly speaks to.
–Wonder Woman responding to the mall robbery almost instantly.
–Everything about the jet. Her Smithsonian ID has access to an airfield with an unaccompanied jet fighter ready to go. Steve Trevor, who hasn’t flown planes since WWI, is able to fly it. She sprouts anti-radar invisibility powers out of nowhere. There’s enough fuel for a return flight around the world. God knows where they landed it on either end. No one asks about her ID being used the night of the theft. The stated rationale for going through all this is that Steve doesn’t have a passport and they don’t check on the body he’s inhabiting. There’s a lot of better solutions here, but she’s a Smithsonian researcher and maybe she smuggles him in a shipment of items being returned to Egypt? Or maybe she pulls strings with a smuggler or something?
–Later on, she randomly gains the ability to fly almost immediately after Steve dies. This probably isn’t necessary here. This system for the President to deliver a speech into the world’s televisions would presumably be most convenient if it’s located near Washington DC, so it plausibly could be accessible without flying there. If you absolutely need Wonder Woman to have a mobility superpower for later appearances, I think occasional teleportation would probably cover the movement logistics without leading to flying brick fight scenes.
–The Dreamstone: Diana doesn’t recognize it or otherwise sense its importance, even though she’s on a first-name basis with the god that created it and works full-time researching archeological and mythological mysteries. If you want the villain to be THAT ahead of her, an oil executive who can’t afford a full-time secretary is an odd choice unless there’s some better explanation than what we got. Rethinking the scene where he invites himself to the Smithsonian to meet the researchers, he doesn’t sound at all like he might ever have gotten interested in finding a long-lost artifact or somehow pulled it off. I think it might help if he gets a rewrite to be more cerebral and ambitious, maybe even obsessed, with ancient artifacts. To develop his awareness, I’d have him interact more with Diana in this scene than Minerva. She should get the feeling that he’s way more than just a TV salesman. He might get the sense that she’s definitely more central to this case than Minerva is. This is star-sense. Stardom: Diana lives it, Lord craves it, and Minerva doesn’t even know what she doesn’t have.
–Wonder Woman somehow remains an open secret despite dressing like an Amazon and stopping crimes in broad daylight. She makes a point of letting kids know that they need to keep it quiet and she destroys the mall’s security cameras but the DC press would have to be more incompetent than normal to miss a superhero operating like this.
–There’s a receipt with Max Lord’s name on it in the Dreamstone’s carrying case. Despite this super-obvious clue, Max STILL gets close enough to the Dreamstone to steal it from the Smithsonian.
–When Max Lord meets with the President, there happens to be a tech presentation on the only system in the world which meets a bizarrely particular “I have to be able to physically touch everyone” requirement. But… what’s the presentation doing there? The President wasn’t even supposed to be in the office. (He mentions confusedly that he remembers being somewhere else altogether).

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “2020: Even Wonder Woman Lets Us Down”

  1. B. McKenzieon 04 Jan 2021 at 3:26 am

    A thought on flight: one of the goofier moments in the movie is when Wonder Woman discovers she can fly, first by twirling her lasso really quickly and then just by holding her arms out. Some problems here:
    –Flight tends to make fight scenes worse. It chews up time in a very generic way and DC/WB is not very good at incorporating special effects into fight scenes.
    –WB loves wasting time on low-impact flight scenes. It won’t be any better for Wonder Woman than it has been for Superman. (Contrast to Chronicle, which has a flight scene where things actually happen and is not completely wasted time).
    –It reduces options for chase/escape scenes and probably make stealthy entrances less interesting.
    –Someone flying like Superman looks inherently goofy, and it’s worse with the lasso.

    Here’s an alternative idea. With Trevor dead she may need some way to move around the world but I’d like it not to interfere with her action scenes. I’d suggest instead a teleport ability which requires enough concentration/time it wouldn’t affect her combat scenes. It covers the problem of how she gets to, say, Cairo and back, without needing to waste time on flight scenes or steal a jet fighter from the Smithsonian.

  2. Willon 14 Jan 2021 at 1:30 pm

    The worst part of the movie was definitely Kristen Wigg walking off the set of Cats, and the following fight scene.

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