Rejoice, fellow superhero fans! The Wonder Woman franchise is finally back, just in time to brighten our quarantine. Oh, thank you, Warner Bros and HBO Max, for not making us pay for a $20 Dolby seat spaced six feet away from a shut-in who may be carrying COVID and is certainly carrying feline AIDS.
Here’s the plot we’ve been waiting three years for: It’s 1984, and Kristen Wiig wishes she could learn how to walk in high heels to attract Asian tech nerds. RuPaul hasn’t been invented yet, so Kristen finds a magic wishing stone to realize her big dream. Abra cadabra, and she’s rocking rhinestone platform stripper heels, which also hadn’t been invented yet, chunky highlights and a mall dress. Now she’s so hot she wants to remove the only obstacle to becoming the hottest woman in the world – Wonder Woman. Kristen is aided by Pedro Pascal, a gaudy TV personality who takes over the Presidency so is clearly supposed to be riffing on Trump. If you think I’m describing a weak SNL skit with host Gal Gadot, you are mistaken. If you think this sounds like it is directed by one of Hollywood’s man-child big-budget directors, you are also mistaken. It was co-written and directed by Patty Jenkins, a grown woman, who made the first terrific Wonder Woman but has clearly tucked her vagina into a backwards baseball cap for this.
The filmmakers want to have fun with tacky 1984, so they first cleanse our palate in the classically tasteful Themyscira of Diana/WW’s youth. Diana is 10 years old and competing with grown Amazon women in an obstacle-course challenge that is no more interesting than a typical episode of American Gladiator, other than it’s conducted on giant bathroom fixtures. It is all CGI work and no play. Robin Wright is back, even more ripped and heavily-accented, but, alas, she’s only here to teach Diana a Lesson About Truth, and us a lesson about expecting DC to make more than one decent movie per decade.
We move to 1984 and immediately meet every important character in two minutes. Diana strides by TV screens of Pascal’s oily pitchman Maxwell Lord selling his Ponzi scheme and then bumps into the nerdy new girl at the office who can’t walk in heels, Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, which is not the character’s name from the original comic and trying too hard to be clever (Diana and Minerva were both Roman deities).
Diana’s still working at that artifact place and running out periodically on wacky escapades to save people from mishaps at the mall, like falling over railings and running up the down escalator. Even the Wonder Woman 80s TV series wasn’t this silly! You go, Patty! Show us how low-budget action is done with $100 million in 2020!
A magic rock that grants wishes driving the whole plot? That’s so 80s! It would help if anyone on screen besides Wiig and Pascal, who ham it up like they’re in Goonies, were in on the joke. Wiig has always had the most fun on SNL with characters wallowing in delusion, like pathological liar Penelope and Broadway never-ran Mindy, and for his contribution, Pascal sledgehammers his Mandalorian’s stoic charm with a villain who’s equal parts Tasmanian Devil, coke fiend and J.R. Ewing. They certainly don’t save the film, but do make it more watchable in the brief moments when they’re the focus.
The supposed focus of this sequel is Diana pining for her dead lover Steve, whom she inadvertently brings back through the wishing rock. Not only do neither play well with the lame 80s references shoveled into their dialogue, but there is not an ounce of the chemistry and sexual dynamic these two characters had in the first WW movie. You can’t fault solid actors like Gadot and Chris Pine for this, so, yeah, Patty, step up to the online fan firing line.
There have been plenty bereft superhero film scripts where the villain’s motivation to destroy the world comes down to petty jealousy, and, fine, yes, we have a real-life villain in the White House with the same motivation. But the simple-minded ideas in comic books and their respective filmed versions grew more complex decades ago, including Jenkin’s first Wonder Woman film. So why revert to bone-headed pablum now? Just because it’s set in the 80s, when pop culture was bone-headed?
Wonder Woman is a symbol of female agency, and in the first film Gadot owned both her action scenes and her romantic ones. Here she’s dulled by a loss that happened 70 years ago, weakened – literally and figuratively – by the need for a man. Seriously. Patty? And as for Jenkins’ prowess with action scenes, we wait one hour and 20 minutes – when most movies are rolling credits – to get our first big action set piece, the climax of which is a truck flipping (wow…) and WW saving kids who, despite a Sahara’s worth of flat space around them, are playing soccer in the middle of a highway.
The first film also had a little fun with the inescapable bisexual subtext to Amazonian culture. This sequel introduces female villain Cheetah, WW’s most long-standing and formidable nemesis (she’s to WW what Joker is to Batman) who even in the earliest days of the comic, like the 1930s, had a Sapphic fixation on our heroine. Somebody other than the angelic, self-sacrificing male lead needed to tell Diana that she was letting a man hold her back, and Cheetah, a woman obsessed with domination, would have been the more interesting way to do that. But no, all we get here is a (terribly-shot) catfight because Cheetah hates that Wonder Woman “has it all”. Look, no one’s demanding deep social commentary or girl-on-girl action, but for the high-paid talent involved here, we need motivations a little more thought-out than what you’d find on Dynasty.
Ms. Jenkins, fans are way past the belief that to be taken seriously in this genre female directors have to show they can write and shoot a film in the exact way a man would. You should be past that belief as well. We saw you in the first Wonder Woman, but Zach Snyder is all over this one.
If I had the wishing stone, I’d wish for Patty Jenkins to tell the boys’ club to f*ck off when she makes her Star Wars movie.