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Remember when Captain Marvel was set in the 1990’s for some inexplicable reason? I say inexplicable, it at least gave the filmmakers lots of chances to make so-so jokes about video rental shops and dial-up internet. Now, it’s the turn of DC extended universe’s flagship, female-led superhero franchise to dive into the pop culture of another decade often mined for nostalgia — a currency as good as gold these days.
To be fair to Wonder Woman 1984, or WW84 as it’s stylised, it takes a slightly different approach in recreating the feel of the period in which it’s set. Sure, there are the odd groaners about parachute pants and Porsche-adoring yuppies (actually the Porsche line is quite funny) but those kinds of low-hanging quips are in short supply here. WW84 instead looks to mimic the style and tone of a sentimental blockbuster of the late 70s and early 1980’s. Captain Marvel attempted something similar with the 90’s conspiracy thriller but was too beholden to the MCU machinery to do it convincingly.
Director Patty Jenkins, returning after helming the financially successful predecessor, has made a superhero film of the swashbuckling, Richard Donner variety. In a shocking move, we actually see our hero save the lives of ordinary folk! The word “truth” is uttered enough times to make you wonder if this could technically be considered cinéma vérité. There’s the kind of impassioned learning-to-fly scene that most comic book adaptations no longer bother with.
It’s a welcome change of pace from the banter-fueled smirk of the MCU or the metatextual irony of the Deadpool films. While some may find it painfully earnest at times, WW84 is still the strongest effort to date among the current series of films within the so-called DCEU. That may not be the most illustrious list of motion pictures to be compared to but this is at least proof that one of their lineup is capable of a consistently solid franchise.
Gal Gadot once again is Diana Prince, Amazonian superwoman living as an antiquities expert in Washington DC and keeping her powers a secret in the process. Pedro Pascal plays the malevolent Maxwell Lord, a cartoon Reaganite in a suit who uses his ability to grant wishes to garner influence on a global scale. Lord can do what he does after he imbues himself with a Magical MacGuffin AKA some artefact created by a god.
Anyone who has seen the trailer will know Chris Pine returns as Prince’s love interest following his apparent demise in the World War I-set outing. Kristen Wiig is knocking about here too, doing her take on Michelle Pfeiffer’s depressed Catwoman. Like that Selina Kyle, we know she’s a kooky loser with niche interests thanks to her frizzy hair, thick glasses and the fact that none of the cute boys assist her in picking up the important papers she drops all over the floor. This of course means she’s well on her way to being our secondary villain, Cheetah, after expressing a couple of desires to the magical MacGuffin.
Readers will have picked upon the sheer amount of story already. The plot, which also includes cold war tensions, deadbeat dads and Egyptian land disputes, isn’t exactly playing second fiddle to the action here. For once we can just about forgive the 150 minute runtime. WW84’s brisk two and a half hours still feels 30 minutes shorter than Joss Wheadon’s truly laborious, and half-an-hour quicker, Justice League. For the most part, the emotional beats work as intended. Gadot and Pine’s chemistry is palpable once more. Their intimate narrative is an affecting meditation on grief and the poignant climax to that story might be the best scene yet in all of the DCEU.
It’s Pascal who might be the star player. His self-declared “schmacting” invigorates almost every scene he’s in. Who knew a maniacal used car salesman with blood seeping out his eyes could be so watchable? As a talkative snake-oil peddler armed with a dodgy blonde quiff and empty promises, the Trump allusions will be too easy to make. There aren’t really any political points to be scored here however. The film’s central thematic exploration doesn’t go far beyond ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘cheaters never prosper’. This monkey’s paw morality tale is in keeping with the more straightforward, heart-on sleeve storytelling of a George Lucas or James Cameron. This movie is the anti-chicken soup for the soul and that can only ever be a good thing.
Considering the length of the thing, it’s a little bit surprising that action scenes are something of premium. Aside from the climactic battle, I counted just four set pieces with the Cairo sequence being the standout. The tense, Raiders-referencing scene is a high-speed vehicle chase in the desert with questionable physics but also indisputable amounts of overturning trucks getting demolished. A beat-em-up in the White House is another solid and suitably destructive escapade. Jenkins doesn’t get away with everything. We might be veering a little too much into Supergirl territory during a goofy, early shopping mall round-up of goons. Supergirl is a film, incidentally, actually released in 1984.
Wonder Woman 1984’s third act also falters somewhat. A much anticipated tête-à-tête between Wonder Woman and a fully transformed Cheetah is over before it can really get started. Our supervillain is, thankfully, no CGI abomination (something viewers of other computerised incarnations in recent DC films cannot always attest to). The standoff with Lord is little more than a big room with a wind machine. We are also not really sure if the message endorsing the value of TRUTH peddled via flower oratory is backed up by the rest of the film. Still, maybe big budget cinema telling us The Secret is nonsense earns some mawkish indulgences.
Forget all that though, WW84 is still the best blockbuster of the year with almost none. Given it’s such a rare sighting, we should at least be glad this was what we got before this dreadful 365 days is out. We don’t need pandemic thrillers like Michael Bay’s Songbird that drag us back to reality kicking and screaming. We need the escape of the supremely enjoyable and ever-so slightly saccharine and Jenkins has delivered that cinematic getaway.