(WW84 premieres on HBO Nordic 26.3.)
Arriving finally in Finland on HBO Nordic, WONDER WOMAN 84 hasn’t exactly had an easy ride. Initially delayed by the COVID19 pandemic, 84 saw itself pushed back multiple times over the past year. Eventually released on HBO Max last December in the states, 84 lingered in limbo for another three months before making its way to our shores.
By now, anyone interested in director Patty Jenkins’s latest will have read all about the culture war brewing around it, leaving very little mystery regarding the plot and general reception of the DC flagship. If that wasn’t enough, another piece of DC mania launched this week in the form of ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE, effectively stealing even more of 84’s thunder.
This is a shame because even with its multitude of faults, WONDER WOMAN 84 is a better, more coherent, and palatable film than Snyder’s magnum opus. It doesn’t mean that it’s a great film, or even a very good one, but it won’t waste your time any more than it needs to.
If all this sounds like faint praise, that’s because 84 is extremely hard to celebrate in any other way. It’s a film that suffers from significant hubris and tone-deafness, which is becoming a trend with DC property. And while handsomely produced with a major budget, it saddles itself with unseemly politics and themes that drag the whole thing down. Even when it shows promise with wondrous moments like Diana harnessing lightning on a journey through stormy skies.
Once more with feeling
Set 70 years after WONDER WOMAN’s events, 84 finds Diana living a quiet existence in Washington D.C., where she serves as a consultant-type liaison at the Smithsonian. Still pining after her lost love, Steve Trevor, Diana goes about her life stopping minor crimes while keeping her identity secret. When a magical artifact capable of granting wishes reappears by accident, it plunges the world into chaos as desperate oil tycoon Maxwell Lorenzano uses its powers to give himself the ability to shape the world around him. Though suddenly reunited with Steve, Diana has to decide whether her own needs and desires surpass those of the world entire.
Right from the start, where 84 indulges in an extended action sequence back on Themyscera, the Amazon home island, it’s clear the sequel hasn’t progressed in story or character. Diana remains the same in her first outing, and much of the plot dedicates itself to teaching the same lessons as last time. What’s worse is this repetition makes Diana defined by her love of Steve, as every action she takes is either for or by him. Even her iconic powers of flight and invisibility stem from his lessons. Most notably a hugely funny moment where he mansplains how flying works.
Steve’s magical return is its own can of ugly worms. The film establishes that he’s not really here, only in spirit, and that his body is that of a stranger. Everyone else sees the person who used to exist, and only Diana and Steve know different. The possessed man has no memories of this or any say what happens next. Steve and Diana proceed to bang like rabbits, which is precisely as horrific an implication as it sounds.
Meanwhile, the villains of the story are equally problematic. As Lorenzano, Pedro Pascal elevates the turgid material as best he can, bringing humanity to a lesser part. But it’s hard to overlook that in a film set during the 80s, which saw the American coup in Iran over oil interest grow into a full-fledged revolution, that 84 chooses to cast a Latino man as the villain. Similarly, it’s even harder to swallow that the deuteragonist of the picture is Kristen Wiig (who is superb), playing Barbara.
Superifically, Barbara and Lorenzano are 80s tropes personified. He’s the nefarious tycoon who probably cheats at the slopes. She’s the one-makeover-away-from-sexy type. Both wish for the power to change their position in society. Lorenzano from his traumatized nobody to a success, Barbara from being a victim to someone with agency, and the film antagonizes them for it.
For example, an early scene finds Barbara walking home at night, quickly becoming the target for sexual assault. A half-hour later, with her newfound powers on the rise, Barbara meets her assailant again. As he goes to assault her again, Barbara whoops the ever-loving crap out of him. This would be a moment of triumph in any other film, of hamfisted but earnest success showing the proper response to anyone harassing others. But 84 treats it like the birth of a villain, complete with a dark and moody soundtrack and low camera angles to underscore what a bad thing Barbara just did.
Meanwhile, Lord is a broken man with a painful past (filled with equally tired stereotypes), trying to make a name for himself to impress his son. Pascal sells the manic urgency beautifully, and his pained repetition of “I’m not a loser” to his child is one of the few poignant moments in the film. He’s a man stuck in the system designed to keep him down, and when he breaks the wheel using magic, the film paints him as the epitome of everything wrong with 80s greed.
It’s a message that says power is only for the chosen few. Everyone else deserves their victimhood.
Politics, damn politics
Is it possible to be tragic, desperate, and still greedy? Absolutely. Our society is perfect at creating such fates. But 84 does nothing with this setup and instead leaves an uncomfortable implication dangling over the film. In choosing the American experience of the 80s as a backdrop, it also chooses certain political implications that go unexplored. And as such, 84 turns muddled and ugly very quickly by what is not said.
All this comes to a head during a pointless and bizarrely staged visit to the Middle-East, where Diana rides a missile to save children from invading military forces. It’s a moment of hamfisted propaganda that is especially dire considering Gal Gadot’s very public politics.
So why set the film at such a troubled period? It’s because 84 isn’t interested in the decade because of what it means politically or culturally.
In the same way that WONDER WOMAN fetishized the First World War, 84 loves the 80s with the same kind of nostalgic vanity that any modern throwback does. Its depiction is that of the have’s, so everything is drenched in neon lights, Walkmen, and extravagance. In this world, there’s no indication of the Soviet Union beyond a vague caricature.
There’s no AIDS epidemic. No poverty. No Reaganisms (or Ronald Reagan at all, for that matter). America exists in a cold capitalist vacuum, so removed from the rest of the planet that Wonder Woman has spent nearly a century living an expensive lifestyle, only stopping the occasional mall robber in the process.
In theory, all this could lead to an incredible exploration of power and complacency. What happens when a superhero grows blind to their responsibilities? How does a God live in a world that is in a constant state of flux? But 84 has no interest in any of that. It emphasizes the importance of keeping a status quo, especially one that keeps power and privilege in the hands of those who already had it.
And if viewed with squinted eyes and the most passive attitude possible? Even then, 84 remains difficult to recommend. At two and a half hours, the pacing is a drag, the story often needlessly convoluted, and Gadot remains as uninteresting an actor as ever. The film writes itself into a corner so often it becomes humorous, but it also never seems willing to get in on the joke. Despite establishing that only Diana can see Steve as he is, 84 has them hijack a fully fueled fighter jet from a museum(!) because Steve doesn’t have a passport. Diana can jump across vast distances at a time, but it takes Steve to explain wind for her to realize that she can also fly.
By the time the convoluted narrative finds an end, little feels different or changed. Especially considering how different Zack Snyder’s depiction of Diana is in the films that follow. As a pilot for a TV show, 84 would probably be serviceable if it were half its current length. But as a sequel, it has no interest in continuing any storyline or thematic exploration. It remains like other 80s throwbacks, stuck in a past it doesn’t honestly remember, wallowing in a nostalgia that only holds everyone back.