Fight scene from Wonder Woman 1984

Does it Matter that “Wonder Woman 1984” is Meaningful, Unique, and Average?

“Wonder Woman 1984” is balanced on a fine line between nonsense and beauty. It opens with one of the best sequences in a superhero film. Then it has a mall fight that takes place much like it would in a 1980s movie. Choices like these make the film constantly hard to pin down.

Parts of it feel a lot more like a superhero movie from the 80s, particularly the Christopher Reeve-era “Superman” movies. These included both good moments and bad, and “Wonder Woman 1984” follows suit.

The plot is pretty simple. What if “The Secret” were true, everyone got their wish, and a Trumpian con-man was the only one who knew how to take advantage of it? “Wonder Woman 1984” never feels like a horror movie, except that its ideas and their consequences feel horrific because of the current events they speak to.

A lot of people don’t like this film. I do. I’ll cut the argument out of it right now – both views are right, depending on what you want out of a movie like this. “Wonder Woman 1984” triples down on its central theme and spends about as much time with Pedro Pascal’s villain Maxwell Lord and Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Barbara Minerva as it does with Wonder Woman and her alter-ego Dr. Diana Prince. If you buy into the central horror of the theme the movie’s running with, it can be an affecting experience you’ll want to see through. There’s also nothing wrong with slipping up on the film’s often generalized writing and thinking it’s all too uneven and directionless. Both are pretty accurate reads, and it’s one reason why the movie’s proving divisive.

This difference comes out of whether you want to see this film’s story or whether you want to see a Wonder Woman superhero movie. It’s strange that the movie has a really good idea what to do with Lord and his path, some idea what to do with Minerva’s, and almost no idea what it wants to do with Prince’s.

Lord has a direction that I’d argue makes him one of the best realized superhero villains we’ve seen. His writing is well thought out, entertaining, his performance is superb, and the character carries the movie’s extremely relevant central themes with direction and verve. Minerva’s path is increasingly generalized, but Wiig’s performance is deceptively good and overcomes that pretty easily. Prince’s path through the story is underwritten, often sappy, and takes shortcuts to bring her into plot alignment as the other two speed along. It’s a weird jolt after the first “Wonder Woman” followed her almost exclusively. This film gives her very little to do, and puts the most thought into Lord and how his journey carries the film’s themes.

If you’re ready to take the movie on its own terms and priorities, that may be fine. If you came specifically for a Wonder Woman movie focused on her as a superhero, it’s a big problem. Neither viewer’s preference is right or wrong, but you can see how each is going to have a wildly different experience watching the film.

On top of this, we spend more time with Prince the alter-ego than we do with Wonder Woman the superhero. Where it makes sense for Lord to develop the way he does and go from place to place the way he does, Wonder Woman seems to take advantage of some pretty big plot shortcutting. At one point, she steals a museum jet, and not only is it in working condition, it’s fueled up enough to take her halfway around the world.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this logic in this kind of movie. Superhero movies are often rife with shortcuts like these, but they usually explain it away with magic (or magical superscience) or they’re good enough at misdirection to help you overlook it. Not so here. The shortcuts are very visible and they’re badly written. I can forgive that in a superhero movie; not everyone will.

Are the action scenes good? They’re well done, but fairly sparse. They also risk something pretty refreshing for the genre – Wonder Woman is nigh untouchable. She is supposed to be both descended from gods and a godkiller. I’d say this makes the action veer close to cheesy. She swings from a glowing whip. She slides as much as she runs because otherwise her momentum would send her through walls – this can take some movements into Legolas shield-surfing territory. She runs faster than cars. Even when she’s severely weakened at points in the film, she uses an armored truck as a personal shield while running 70 miles per hour.

It’s refreshing because a lot of superhero movies right now have leaned into superheroics just being explosions vs. other explosions. Some of those explosions are very pretty, but at the end of the day, I don’t care who can explode more. If I wanted to see that I’d watch “Mythbusters” re-runs. If she’s akin to a god, then yeah, 99% of her combats should be breezes.

The last superhero movie that really tried doing that was Ang Lee’s “Hulk”. We know how that went. Unlike that film, though, the action isn’t a central point. Wait! What?!? Then what is a superhero movie where the action isn’t central? How can a superhero movie that prioritizes something other than action be the event movie experience we want?

I’d ask the opposite question. How have we tolerated so many superhero movies that only pose heroism as violence? Don’t get me wrong – I love my fight choreo. I’ve been trained, I’ve trained others, I’ve written on it extensively. But if all a superhero does is win by fighting, what’s their value? Superheroes are supposed to be a little more like…well, like “Star Trek”. They’re supposed to look for opportunities to communicate, to understand, to win the fight by not having to have it in the first place. How is this supposed to be a golden era of superhero movies when none of these superheroes remember that violence is only one of many tools they’re supposed to possess?

I remember the 1990s animated “Batman” series as most do: a high point in superhero storytelling (yeah, Batman’s not technically “super”, blah blah blah, I get it). That Batman got in plenty of fights, sure. And sometimes he gathered clues. Sometimes he went undercover and just talked to people for information. He saw many opportunities to talk to villains, to make them relent – sometimes because they still had a shred of humanity left, sometimes because all they’d wanted in the first place was someone to listen and understand. Some of the most exciting moments involved out-maneuvering a villain so well that the fight didn’t even have to take place. That’s a more capable and interesting hero than how we typically boil down the meaning of superheroes for movies.

I don’t see that very often in our superheroes anymore – every climax and set-piece is a fight. A lot of them are really awesome fights, but what about those battles that can’t be won with a fight? Those battles exist, and to never portray them means your storytelling is exceptionally limited. Those other stories used to exist in superhero adaptations. Where have they gone? “Wonder Woman 1984” remembers that superheroes are more than a pair of fists. Yes, she beats the pulp out of countless dudes, armored cars, deflects bullets, crushes dozens of guns in her hands. And she also finds other ways to solve a situation when appropriate.

That might strike some viewers as slow or anti-climactic. To me, it carries a lot of meaning. It makes the film more interesting because I know it’s willing to pose an unwinnable situation that might have to be solved in a way other than a fistfight we already know Wonder Woman will never lose. Figuring out how to outmaneuver unwinnable situations is interesting. Another fistfight or explosion-off can be entertaining, but if that’s all you have, if that’s the only way you know how to solve a situation in your movie, you start to lose a certain breadth in your storytelling.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is incredibly uneven, but it feels unique and valuable at least in this way. It sits relatively alone in modern superhero movies because the hero has more at their disposal than simply out-brutalizing someone else’s violence. That alone makes it a better superhero movie – specifically superhero movie – than a lot of the films featuring the best violence we can imagine through CGI. I don’t care about a 20 minute vignette about replacing a hammer with an axe, or who borrows what power, or if Iron Man has missiles that blow up 20% better than his previous ones. Give me a hero who sees more to their purpose than being an overzealous police officer, and you’ve won me over.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is not a great movie, but it’s one of a handful in the last decade that remembers a superhero is more about being an empathetic hero than being an impressive weapon. If it had spent a bit more time with that hero and given her more to do, it might be a better movie, but as is, I do think it’s a pointed one. Is that enough to make you like an uneven movie that badly needed a rewrite? That’s going to split viewership down the middle.

It’s an average movie that feels more original and less tiresome to me than many better movies in the genre that nonetheless make me feel pretty empty. I’ve said it before, I walked out of “Avengers: Endgame” both wildly impressed and also feeling like I’d just watched a pretty hollow, meaningless experience. “Wonder Woman 1984” didn’t impress me and it isn’t made nearly as well. But the experience is jam packed with meaning however unevenly it’s portrayed and discussed. Which is better? There are moods for each. Which are you looking for?

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of woman in film.

1. Does “Wonder Woman 1984” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Gal Gadot plays Dr. Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. Kristen Wiig plays Dr. Barbara Minerva. Robin Wright plays Antiope. Connie Nielsen plays Hippolyta. Lilly Aspell plays Diana at a younger age. Gabriella Wilde plays Raquel. There are a few other brief roles with speaking parts.

2. Do they talk to each other?


3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Primarily this is through Prince and Minerva, who speak extensively about history, artifacts, and research they do at the Smithsonian Institution.

The movie makes a point of showing how constantly harassed both are on a daily basis. Because the film is so focused on Lord, however, you might get less screen time for Prince as the lead role and Minerva in such an important supporting role than you’d expect.

This is also a good section to discuss broader diversity. Here, the film has some good and really bad moments. There’s an unspoken element to Pascal’s character Lord, where a Latino character bends over backwards trying to present himself visually and culturally as white as possible in order to be accepted in the business world. This is brought out later in the film through flashbacks. Even if it’s never outright discussed, it’s something I’ve struggled with in my life and it was a very recognizable and impactful character note to include.

At the same time, our heroes go to a Mayan descendant at one point in the film for mythological/historical information. First, I’m sick of Mayans being the excuse for any film to just stick whatever make-believe nonsense they want to shove into a film. That there’s such a massive hole of mythological and historical information is the direct result of colonialist violence, and is not an excuse to supplant and rewrite what’s missing with whatever your fiction needs. Yet it gets worse:

The character talks about being related to Mayans several generations back and uses the phrase “our people” to describe them. He is played by an Indian-American actor who in both my research and the research of other critics seems in no way to be Latino or indigenous. To simply take one person of color and assign him as another person of color is a disturbingly racist misappropriation of inclusion and representation, and is one of the most glaringly offensive moments I’ve seen in a film all year.

You can watch “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max with a subscription.

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