So last weekend I watched WW 84 (2020) at last — and yes, that is the title we see on-screen. There were several things I liked in it but it did not stick the landing or, indeed, most of the flight.
The opening is great. Young Diana is competing with the adult Amazons in an athletic event that combines running, combat, archery and horse-riding. When she’s unhorsed by a branch she cheats to get back in the lead, but her mother (Connie Nielsen) knows. She stops Diana crossing the finish line and tells her taking the short, easy route to get where you want to go is never the solution. It’s obviously setting up for a dilemma later … that never actually happens.
Then we get some delightful scenes in 1984, showing off period fashion, videogames, shopping malls. It’s at one of them that a gang of crooks try to steal some black-market antiquities from a jewelry store, only to be stopped by Diana in a neat little action sequence. She leaves, telling the witnesses not to mention she was here. I’m not sure why, other than to explain why Superman and Batman haven’t heard of her when she “first” appears in Dawn of Justice.
Cut to Diana, working as an archeology expert at the Smithsonian. She’s distant from her colleagues, at least the male ones, but strikes up a friendship with newbie Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wig). Yes, that Dr. Minerva, the Cheetah. A nerdy, insecure gemologist (as well as multiple other “ists” — she’s a brain) she’s able to connect with Diana when she has trouble with everyone else.
Happily they’re both assigned to investigate and identify the antiquities recovered from the jewelry store. Unhappily, one of them is a magic wishing talisman; when Diana wishes she had her old boyfriend back and Barbara wishes she could be more like Diana, they get their wishes granted. Steve (Chris Pine) returns to life and Barbara finds herself becoming increasingly strong and graceful.
That could have set up a heck of a movie but then they throw in Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a wheeler-dealer come positive-thinker entrepreneur. Investor Simon Stagg has discovered Lord’s company is built on sand and intends to shut it down. When Barbara shows Lord the talisman, he pulls the “wish for more wishes” trick by wishing to become the talisman. Now he can grant the wishes of anyone he touches, in return for taking from them whatever he wants. For example, he grants a Mideastern nobleman’s wish to control all his ancestral lands and drive out all foreigners, but in return takes the potentate’s security force. When the public lashes back against the noble’s wish, he has no defense.
Before long, Lord is working his way up the chain of power, taking over media empires and political offices. Diana’s out to stop him but the talisman’s taken something from her too — she’s becoming weaker and more mortal. The only way to reverse that is to unwish Steve and ultimately to unmake all the wishes. Trouble is, Barbara’s now in love with her new self, her beauty and her feral power; she’s not willing to give it up (the price, in her case, is her human decency). When Diana tries to confront Lord, Barbara fights to save him. After she and Lord escape, she tells him being Wonder Woman’s equal isn’t enough: she wants to be better, an ultimate apex predator.
At the climax, Lord, who’s losing his life to the power of containing the magic, goes on TV and broadcasts an invitation for everyone to make their wishes. In return, he gains health and strength while the wishers (“I wish you were dead.” “I wish the cops would drag your kind back where they came from.”) make the world worse. Oh, and Ronald Reagan wishing for more missiles to dominate the USSR has resulted in missiles suddenly materializing in an apparent attack, which the Soviets are ready to retaliate for. Can Diana save the w0rld? Will Steve have to make the sacrifice? Can Barbara, now half-woman half-cat, regain her soul?
The movie felt like someone had drawn up plans for a Wonder Woman TV series and then squeezed the results down to 2.5 hours. And not in a good way. Wig is charming as Minerva but that’s part of the problem; sure, she’s a little socially awkward (something carrying over from the Golden Age Cheetah rather than the Minerva version) but she’s cute and likable. We see that even the person who hired her has forgotten she’s there but she’s simply too personable for me to buy it (unlike Famke Janssen’s turn as a shy teacher in The Faculty). Given more time to develop, that might have worked, but we didn’t have it. And while Wig’s able to convey her pleasure in becoming stronger, the jump to “I want to be a Cheetah” doesn’t make much sense. Plus it’s previously established it’s one wish to a customer.
Lord is much closer to the comics version than the character that appeared in Supergirl a few seasons ago (including the comic book version’s weakness for bleeding when he uses his mind-control powers). He’s not evil at first but he’s a conniver and promoter with ambitions beyond his ability. But at the climax it turns out he’s a tragic figure, the product of a bad family and an abusive (or at least extremely critical) father. And he loves his son, which to be fair was set up from early on. It’s too late in the film to make Lord redeemable and Pascal’s performance up to that point always felt shallow.
The there’s the talisman. In an Easter Egg, Wonder Woman identifies it as a creation of the Duke of Deception but it’s not primarily deceitful — Diana gets exactly what she wants and so does Barbara. The issue isn’t so much that it twists wishes as what it enables Lord to take in return, like one of the cursed antiques in the Friday the 13th TV series or the direct-to-video Wishmaster. It’s not good when a movie shooting for A-list quality makes me think of crappy predecessors.
And the issue of cheating and taking short cuts never does come up. I suppose you could argue that returning Steve to life is a cheat but Diana has no idea that’s going to happen. Nor do I buy that she’d have done it knowing the consequences (I’ve read complaints that Diana spending the past 60 years mourning Steve is a bit much, and that’s a valid criticism too).
Godot is great, some of the action scenes are awesome and so are some of the little bits. There’s an early moment in Barbara’s transformation where a janitor spills a bucket in front of her and she deftly leaps over it — in heels. But most of the movie doesn’t rise to that level.
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