Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
If Warners Brothers could wish for anything, they’d probably ask for a year without the Covid pandemic. Their fortunes invert the monkey’s paw maguffin of Patty Jenkins’ superhero sequel. In this long-delayed movie, those who wish on the talismanic object, later personified by Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord, get their heart’s desire but pay a price. Bloody Faustian rules, eh? But Warners got the opposite of their dreams – a full-on industrial meltdown, yet still managed to end 2020 as pariahs.
How did the studio that gained universal praise for releasing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a canary in the mine, end up the villain? By deciding to release their entire 2021 slate simultaneously in the US on HBO Max and in cinemas. The appetiser? The Christmas release of Wonder Woman 1984: half-blockbuster, half-bribe to embrace a little-watched streaming service.
Intentionally or not, this unprecedented hybrid release will invite American audiences to perform a day-and-date experiment; contrasting the theatrical experience with its streaming equivalent, using the same movie. What conclusions will they reach about the added value of theatrical exhibition? Does Wonder Woman 1984 provide enough scale, depth and, yes, wonder, to justify the higher cost of a theatrical screening, as well as the attendant inconveniences of travel to and from the venue, terrible food, and a loud and obnoxious audience?
If theatrical exhibition is to survive, its content must be both distinctive and worthy of the big screen’s potential. WW84 is colourful, good natured, even endearingly naïve in an old fashioned kinda way, but it’s also gossamer thin with weightless action to match. The movie glides on big emotion and specifying, while being bereft of style, tension and psychological intrigue. In short, it’s one-dimensional, so it’s reassuring to know the next Star Wars movie will be helmed by the same director.
The dullness doesn’t detract from its likability, but a breezy blockbuster, lacking any edge or character, is unlikely to convince millions to forsake the comfort of their living room and the known irritants in their household, for the unknowns of the multiplex. WW84 is, by accident rather than design, the movie that underscores how disposable studio tentpoles have become, and how streaming has used both long-form storytelling and more mature writing to improve the offer to consumers.
When a movie doesn’t cost $200m and isn’t conceived as a one-size-fits-all, four-quadrant product, it can afford not to be bland. When movies cost a quarter of what they do today and could therefore take a chance on building an audience rather than pandering to the broad and shallow one required to gross a billion dollars, they were worth watching. WW84 is a big old tub of vanilla. It’s a movie built on nostalgia for a more earnest, less cynical era of superhero movies, that ironically tells you everything about what said movies have become.
When we check in with Diana Prince she’s lonely and a little waspish, pining for Chris Pine’s dead, dead-eyed pilot. You can’t blame her for finding a friend in fellow lonelyheart Kristen Wiig. It’s tough being two intelligent women with a joint interest in ancient cultures, when the world’s full of creepy, predatory men, who cat call you in the street. Naturally, that prompts Wiig to wish she was a cat.
What brings them in contact with failed Dad, oil tycoon and TV bullshit artist Max Lord, is an ancient artifact that can grant their heart’s desires. This allows Prince to resurrect Pine, though for some odd reason he’s reconstituted by quantum leaping into some other man’s body, Lord to gain wealth and power, and Wiig to drain off Wonder Woman’s abilities – though the movie later gets confused and attributes her weakness to Pine’s rebirth.
While Prince and lover Steve resurrect their fish-out-of-water act from the first movie, with the roles reversed, the villains build their strength and set up the inevitable final confrontation. Fortunately, the solution to everyone’s problems can be found some core tenets of feminism; notably absent from the real movies of the mid-80s; namely, not needing a man to be happy, being happy with who you are (especially if that means competing with another woman), and not being blindsided by the false choice between career and family.
If a superhero distracted by a relationship while their enemies run rampant, sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct lift from Superman II. That film was an uneasy mix of Richard Donner seriousness and Richard Lester frivolousness, and WW84 is similarly conflicted.
A tighter, less mechanical confection would have had bigger stakes; maybe understood the need for some memorable setpieces. Instead, Jenkins has made a film that will lift the spirits of the easily pleased without raising their pulse.
“You can’t have it all,” Prince tells Lord, as his megalomania threatens the world (but more importantly the relationship with his son), and in keeping with the film’s core theme – that seems to be a teachable moment of truth. Superhero movies once knew how to be both big spectacle and big hearted. But then once movies used that sweep to differentiate themselves from the small screen. It feels like that era’s over and this could be the flick that makes it undeniable to those few unwavering cinephiles. Merry Christmas, movies. You’re dead.