Director: Patty Jenkins
Year of Release: 2020
Motifs: The Effect of Wishes and the Need for Truth
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
I do not wish to continue this essay before acknowledging the societal good Wonder Woman 1984 is. I believe Patty Jenkins is doing remarkable work in shaping how films treat women both narratively and on the production set. I am not going to be kind to this film despite how much I enjoyed watching it.
Wonder Woman 1984 was, pure and simple, fun. However, while having fun is absolutely necessary during a year that is best categorized as unfun, analyzing how fun a film is can have a stifling effect on the quality of future generations of films. I.e., an awful movie can be entertaining; the quality of the film is not mutually exclusive to how fun the film is – it can be both fun and not well-made. Finding solutions to the many missed opportunities could have elevated WW1984 beyond fun.
With a historical lack of ethical female representation in superhero movies, Jenkins was given the opportunity to be a part of a movement in Hollywood to have more diverse representation on the big screen. To an extent, Jenkins succeeds, but this essay aims to analyze the film via a lens of cinematic technique, not its cultural significance. This preface is meant to be my acknowledgment that the existence of WW1984 is a societal good (in terms of gender/sex representation) and that I hope this essay will emphasize the need for better quality films that endeavor to make more diverse decisions in filmmaking more impactful.
WW1984 has multiple problems in nearly every category I analyze films through but is still an entertaining spectacle. No matter how contrived and bloated the story is, or how floaty the CGI looks, or unintelligible action sequences due to weird editing decisions,…WW1984 is enjoyable. As was the case with the Wonder Woman film from 2017, the characters and actor's performances are the film's highlights. Regardless of how you perceive her involvement with the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006, her support of Israel's invasion of Gaza in a Facebook post back in 2014, or her truly unfortunate participation in the celebrity acapella rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Gal Gadot is marvelous as Wonder Woman and brings this goddess to life in stunning fashion. Chris Pine, Kristin Wiig, and Pedro Pascal also perform phenomenally! However, excellent performances can only reflect upon and serve the script, never improve it.
Without further ado, let's dive in.
Narrative – 5/10
Two brand new characters are introduced! First, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a self-proclaimed oilman who is hellbent on making a fortune to care for his son. Second, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an insecure geologist who befriends Diana. There is a MacGuffin at play as well in the form of a magical stone that grants the wielder any wish…with consequences (a MacGuffin is an object in a film's narrative whose sole purpose is to trigger the plot). The three main characters of the film – Diana/Wonder Woman, Maxwell, and Barbara Minerva – all make a wish (though Diana and Barbara do so unwittingly, i.e., they were not aware their wish would come true, nor did they know the ramifications of their wish).
Diana wishes for her former hot boyfriend, Chris Pine – I mean, Steve Trevor – to come back to life. Steve Trevor was Diana's love interest and supporting protagonist in the first Wonder Woman feature but died at the end of the film as part of a heroic sacrifice. She and Steve journey once again to thwart Maxwell before his wish-fulfillment causes world devastation.
Barbara wishes to be more like Diana after being saved by Diana from a drunk man who attempts to assault Barbara sexually. Thus, Barbara unwittingly gains the strength and abilities of Wonder Woman. However, *SPOILERS* she does not want to relinquish her newfound confidence and skills, so she ends up partnering with Maxwell in his conquest to keep her powers, thus becoming The Cheetah.
Finally, Maxwell wishes, unconventionally, to become the stone itself and can now grant wishes under his conditions. Maxwell is already an individual gifted with the talent of persuasion, so he spends the movie persuading others to make wishes that ultimately benefit him. He quickly becomes incredibly powerful – riches, fame, and legitimate power when he eventually convinces the U.S. President to make a wish. It is interesting to note that the only male antagonist of the film is someone with incredible agency – someone who is literally able to manifest his desires whenever he feels like it. Through a feminist lens, this presents an interesting conflict between Diana, Barbara, and Maxwell. This film can be interpreted as a critique against White Feminism – a movement that excludes people of color from feminist activity. Being a white woman who now has the same power as a non-white woman, Barbara is now using that power to exclude Diana from the action. Additionally, Maxwell Lord does not care that Barbara helps him because he can get away unharmed at specific points due to her protecting him. It is an interesting interpretation that warrants further exploration; however, I think the film narratively fails to deliver on these interesting concepts even with further investigation.
The film's narrative is textbook contrived. There are two critical themes – "the truth will set you free" and "be careful what you wish for" and the film does not connect these two in a meaningful way. Clearly, "be careful what you wish for" is the theme with the direst stakes (the world will end if people keep making wishes); however, the theme surrounding "truth" is seldom interesting in the film. This is partially because it is rarely brought up, and, when it is, it hardly has the weight of the other themes the film tackles.
Individually, the film does not explore these themes very well either. It's clear from the onset that you shouldn't get everything you wish for, and it is also clear that dishonesty is not acceptable. However, Diana did not knowingly wish Chris Pine back into existence – it was on accident that he exists again. But the only thing that applies to WW is that she "wished" for a certain Chris Pine to return to her. But she never really wished for that out loud or anything…so does the thing work via telepathy or something? If so, why would bury the stone work at all to solve the conflicts of the film? Why does Steve Trevor return by possessing some random non-consenting man? I'm going to take a moment to reflect on this fact – Chris Pine's character is not in his original body. Steve Trevor is inhabiting another man (Diana only imagines this man looks like Chris Pine). Chris Pine (inhabiting a random man) goes on dangerous endeavors with this man's body and it is heavily implied that Diana and this man have sex. The man did not consent to any of this, so it leads to a very awkward representational problem in that regard.
Wonder Woman 1984 sets up an intriguing premise, but fails to deliver on that premise's promise by missing opportunities to delve into how and why people make the wishes they do in a non-clichéd way.
Cinematography – 8/10
WW1984 is shot beautifully – a scene where Steve and Diana fly the invisible plane among fireworks (as dangerous as one might correctly assume that would be) is absolutely gorgeous. In non-action scenes, the camera represents the relationships between the characters remarkably well and emphasizes the true talent Patty Jenkins has in directing films. However, it is in the action spectacles of the film where the cinematography hinders the intelligibility of the film. The camera whip pans far too quickly to effortlessly keep up with the action in these scenes. Clarity in camera movement is necessary for the audience to know the stakes of the fight, who is performing what actions, and the impact those actions have on those who are fighting. Far too frequently does the movement and the shakiness of the camera inhibit our ability to comprehend what is happening in these action sequences, so I am not allowing the film to have a perfect score here in an otherwise visually brilliant film.
Film Design – 6/10
The costumes, make-up, and set design of the film are equally astounding in their visual beauty and their relevance to the time period the film takes place in. The 1980s has a very distinct visual style and WW1984 hits the nail on its head with how that style is depicted. However, WW1984 represents this style in the most conventional ways imaginable. Watching Steve Trevor (a relic of World War I) mock parachute pants, breakdancing, and even garbage receptacles is indeed humorous but has been done repeatedly in other films. Even the 2017 Wonder Woman film has a fish-out-of-water quality to it; however, Diana is the one who experiences the new world instead of the now-dead Steve Trevor.
Additionally, the computer-generated action sequences are weightless. Wonder Woman can fling herself around effortlessly, a testament to her powers of course; but, the world around her is unaffected by her strength. Punches send people hurling, but the "feel" of these punches don't have the impact they should. The ground beneath Wonder Woman as she jumps hundreds of feet into the air does not quake. Weightlessness is not a problem if you're fighting bad guys in space, but, on Earth where there's gravity and momentum, an on-screen punch that sends someone 10 feet backwards needs to feel powerful. In this film, it doesn't and divorces me from truly believing the characters are truly as strong as they are presented. It's a missed opportunity to have more weight to action that demonstrates the true spectacle of power that's on display.
Performances – 9/10
As I stated earlier, the performances are wonderful. Pedro Pascal is a lot of fun in this movie. Gal Gadot and Chris Pines continue to have wonderful chemistry and each delivers an independently good performance overall despite narrative weirdness about why Chris Pine has returned to perform as Steve Trevor. Big surprise that Kristen Wiig was a wonderfully sinister antagonist even if her character arc was written as blandly as possible. Acting as such grandiose characters as these is indicative of the talent Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, and Pedro Pascal have and they're simply a pleasure to watch.
Editing – 3/10
The editing writ large is confusing. I've already mentioned how action sequences in WW1984 are nonsensical due to the camera movement, but they are equally problematic in terms of how these scenes are structured in post-production. The difference in the editing between 2017's Wonder Woman and WW1984 could be rooted in that the edits were done by different artists – Martin Walsh for 2017 and Richard Pearson for WW1984. Each have a distinctive editing style with Richard Pearson performing the editing for many fast-paced action thrillers like The Accountant (2016) and Quantum of Solace (2008). However, even in these previous films of Pearson's, the break-neck pace of the action is performed far too quickly. One example is how there were three different shots used for a single leg sweep at the beginning of the film that were so disorienting that it broke my willing suspension of disbelief.
Sequence goes like this:
1. Wonder Woman blurrily glides across the floor of a mall and sticks the feet under a robber in a simple pan of the camera,
2. Cut to an overhead shot of the robber being flung in the air and spinning twice
3. Cutting to an extreme low-angle shot of the robber now hanging upside down.
We've glided across the floor, looked down at the flipping robber, then looked up at the robber. We have no idea how the robber is being hung nor how Wonder Woman got back up to her feet and returned to the robber in time to catch him. This sequence also highlights what I was saying earlier about the "weightlessness" of the action – Wonder Woman is literally gliding on her knees maybe 15 feet and then kicks the robber hard enough to send him flipping straight up into the air (but not hard enough to completely shatter his ankles). This confusing style of editing is littered throughout the film's many action scenes, and traces of it can be seen even in non-action scenes. This quality of editing is unacceptable, but since non-action scenes outweigh action in terms of how much of the film they take up, I'll give the film some credit.
Cumulative Rating: 31/50…62% – I recommend WW1984 but with severe reservations