Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) - Patty Jenkins
The opening sequence of Wonder Woman 1984 is astonishing. It firmly, emphatically puts the Wonder in Wonder Woman. It also effectively sets out the key thematic idea Diana will have the grapple with in the film. A young Diana, back on Thermyscira, competes in a incredible athletic competition with other Amazons. It serves as a an opportunity for Diana to learn about truth and honesty and the right way to win. Something which will come to play a huge part in the decisions she has to make in 1984.
Following the death of Steve Trevor at the end of Wonder Woman, Diana has kept a low profile, working at Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and appearing as Wonder Woman only in fleeting rescures which enable her to keep her identify secret (it also part explains why Wonder Woman is not known coming the time of Batman vs Superman and the Justice League). The death of Trevor still hangs heavily on Diana, and her love for him makes up a significant part of her character and personality grounding her in emotion. Despite her amazing powers she remain deeply human.
Whilst working at the Smithsonian, she meets a fellow colleague, Barbara Ann Minerva (played with great comic timing, but also emotional range by Kristen Wiig), who despite her broad range of specialisms and evident intellect remains mousy, shy and introverted. There are good jokes at her expense as no one seems to remember her. Minerva is requested by th FBI to examine some antiquities discovered in a recent robbery (thwarted by Wonder Woman in one of the films early great set pieces). Following some investigation they discover that one artefact claims to grant wishes. Unbeknownst the both Diana and Minerva, is the Dreamstone and soon both their lives are complicated. Meanwhile Maxwell "Max Lord" Lorenzano (an perfectly cast Pedro Pascal) plays a failing oil tycoon who is searching for the device so he can gain power, prestige and respect.
If this setup sounds convoluted it's because it is. There are a range of narrative strands, and in screenwriters Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan's attempts to give each character agency and their own narrative development they film does often feel slightly muddled. But thankfully it never detracts too much because the film constantly reminds you that its grounded in character, and motivated by their desires, ambitions and insecurities.
Minerva for example, wishes to be more like Diana, and gets a lot more than she bargained for. Her development and growth is played out against the backdrop of the mysogynistic, male-dominated world. We see both Minerva and Diana navigate this world, Diana with supreme confidence and Minerva with increasing fear, disdain and anger. It sets them up as parallels and drives their conflict. Minerva, lacking the upbringing Diana received on Themyscira ends up going down a much darker, and more tragic path. There is an excellent sequence at a gala event to raise money for the Smithsonian which we see entirely through the eyes of Minerva and Diana, as both navigate the drunken, boreish sexually aggressive nature of men. I found myself thinking back on all those other films which feature similar scenes, but filmed from the male gaze, where the sexually predation is completely absent.
As Diana begins to investigate the artefact her life is further complicated by the arrival of Steve Trevor. This is perhaps the strongest strand of the story. The chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine (which helped make Wonder Woman a triumph) is a welcome return ye it never fully derails the film. Pine is also great as the wide-eyed fish out of water. The film includes some great comedic moments, showcasing Pine's excellent comic talent.
The relationship between Diana and Trevor becomes the core of the film, and forces her to face her biggest challenge. Initially Diana is unbelievably happy at the return of Trevor. Her pain disappears and her life seems whole again. She refuses to acknowledge the manor of his return, or the prospect of him having the leave. But like the lesson she learns at the films's beginning she must come to recognise the truth and how dishonestly she as acquired Steve's return. It makes for some genuinely heartbreaking moments and feels like a breath of fresh air. Like so much of the film, and what makes it a triumph, it feels so fresh, unlikely and invigorating that a superhero film would choose to tackle these subjects and in this way.
The real star of Wonder Woman though is Gal Gadot. She is the first true female superhero and remains the jewel in the crown of the current spate of DC superhero films. She magnifiently embodies both Diana and Wonder Woman with such conviction, and so much emotion that she feels like the heart of the cinematic universe. I for one would celebrate a decision from DC to plant her firmly at the core of their plans for the future. One of the great attributes of Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman is how human and fallable she makes her. There are series of moments here where she fails, and her greatest strength is never her strength, her speed, or are various accoutrements.
Superhero movies often live or die by their action set pieces and one of the curious notes of Wonder Woman 1984 is how light on the ground set-pieces felt. Thankfully, there was no overblown, bombastic and explosive fight scene at the end (although the fight scene we do get is the one major disappointment - mainly due to an over-reliance of CGI rendering the sequence bereft of physical heft). What we do get though are a series of fun, entertaining and emotional and narratively driven sequences which are exceptional. The early robbery foil is a delight, mainly because it feels old-fashioned in the best possible way. A call back to earlier superhero films such as the original Superman which instilled wonder and awe and did so with a lightness of touch. But the big set piece, and a standout in recent superhero fare is a huge car chase sequence as Wonder Woman attempts to track down Max Lord and prevent him from using the stone. It a excellent executed sequence and showcases both Wonder Woman's strengths and her human weaknesses. You feel both the peril she find herself in and celebrate her determination, ingenuity and doggedness. It's also another example of the greatness Gadot brings to the role.
Wonder Woman 1984 is an equal to is original, and possibly a shade better. Its 1984 setting doesn't feel like intentional exploitation of the recent 80s nostalgia, but instead sets the tone for the both the story and the tone of the film. The film feels like a call back to the original Superman and Jenkin's direction helps keep the tone entertaining, light and pacey, whilst also taking serious tones. She falters slightly when juggling all of the characters beats and arcs, but should be celebrated for making all of the principle characters deeply developed and pyschologically rich. It's rare that a superhero film can have you punching the sky and shedding a tear but Wonder Woman 1984 hits both those notes and many inbetween. It's a dazzling and unique superhero film which uses its female hero (and villain) to great effect, commenting the gender roles, the patriarchial society we live in, but never drags the film into a lecture.
Wonder Woman remains the greatest character in the current DC cinematic universe. I'd happily watch Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins reprise their role over and over again if they can keep things this much fun.