There is a certain liberation to not having any standards, cataclysmic failure freeing you from all expectations. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) had this freedom. Like a skyscraper built on sand, their whole experiment has collapsed, and while some can still find shelter amidst the ruins, it’s rather shabby housing compared to what Marvel has built. But rather than being another cog within a greater cinematic universe, the DCEU can now be a series of anthologies, shirking restrictive continuity and surpassing Marvel in originality. With the release of movies like “Birds of Prey” and “Joker,” it seems they are heading in that direction.
“Wonder Woman 84” (“WW84”) sets its niche in the popular realm of 1980s nostalgia, attempting to transmute the endearing camp of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” series into the modern cinematic arena. It’s all one liners, winks at the camera and hammy villains. The plot, which revolves around a magical wishing stone wielded by an eccentric oil tycoon, taps into peak 80s adventure weirdness and harkens back to the silver age of comics when magical nonsense happened constantly. However, while “WW84” tries to embody this 80s-style plot, it doesn’t commit to it. Under the impression that it needs to fulfil certain modern storytelling expectations, “WW84” carries itself with some measure of “seriousness” and “complexity.” In attempting to create a shlock-fest Christopher Reeve Superman plot populated by Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman characters, this film tries to serve two masters and so betrays both.
If Reeve’s “Superman” were released today, people would still enjoy it. Audiences would laugh about Superman’s mind-erasing kiss, or how you can rewind time by reversing the earth’s rotation, but people in the 80s laughed at those same things and still bought tickets. The simplistic nature of it all actually adds to the film’s value because Reeve’s Superman series is already thoroughly simple. It doesn’t attempt to illustrate a theme or provide deeper characters or try to be anything other than entertaining. Its campy and colorful style is manifested throughout its every aspect and so it works as a film, even now.
“WW84” fails for the same reason Goldfinger would fail with Daniel Craig’s Bond. It’s attempting to satisfy some modern superhero movie quota without accommodating the goofiness of its plot. And so we have a movie that acts like it has things to say and characters to take seriously all while giving me a candy-floss silly plot full of 80s cheese.
Take Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who tries to use the wishing stone to become a… god or something, it’s not important. Pascal is obviously having the time of his life playing this scenery-chewing villain. Unfortunately, the film gives him a kid and a sad backstory to make him “sympathetic” and pushes a “success doesn’t make you a great man” theme on him. This attempt at complexity only waters down Lord as a villain, making me care less about him than if he were just a cartoonish, cornball bad guy. In the 80s Superman, Lex Luthor wanted to nuke California into the ocean so he could sell beachfront property in the desert. You can’t make that kind of movie and give that type of villain a sob story and a redemptive lesson. You tell us to let Maxwell into our hearts, so we try, and then we spit him out because the motives behind his designs are lackluster. Trying to make us empathize with him makes us like him less. If “WW84” hadn’t tried to be anything more than easy-going Christopher Reeve fun, it would have worked. But it wanted layered characters and disectable themes and so forces the audience to peel back those layers and take a scalpel to those themes. Ironically, if they hadn’t tried at all, then we would never have noticed how little they tried.
“WW84” tells us it has emotional, serious characters but it doesn’t deliver. The best part of the movie is when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) apprehends thieves at a mall, throwing them around on laughably unconvincing wirework, using her tiara as a boomerang, getting a child out of danger by throwing her into a giant teddy bear. But after that she mopes around because of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a guy she had a fling with 70 years prior. I find myself asking why Wonder Woman, of all characters, let her entire life get defined by a man. And when she wishes him back to life, I find this “love story for the ages” to be utterly flavorless and Wonder Woman’s stapled-on plight of choosing between happiness and her duty to the world to be a wheel-spinning waste of energy.
I wonder why this film is even set in 1984. Of course there is the practical element of a setting before Batman and Superman so you don’t have to explain why their actors, who ditched the DCEU, won’t be showing up to save the world again. Aside from the Christopher Reeve-esque plot that there is no 80s color scheme, minimal 80s references and confoundingly, no 80s inspired soundtrack. There is no beating heart of nostalgia present in this movie, rather a cynical lust to be the remora to the Stranger Things’ shark.
With other DCEU films, as bad as they could be, I could at least muster up some emotion around them. But this? Nothing. I feel nothing for the dumb plot, the lazy writing, the uninspired performances or the “tragic” love story of Steve and Diana which the film is under the illusion we in anyway care about. And now that WandaVision and Loki are coming out to act as Marvel’s little laboratory of originality, even “WW84’s” fleeting uniqueness in the superhero cinematic space has been quickly eclipsed. I suppose DCEU has surpassed Marvel in one category, banality.