It’s rare for a comic book movie to be polarizing. Granted, there are some film-lovers who loathe the genre entirely and reject any and all movies based on DC and Marvel properties, but I’m not thinking of such people. I’m thinking of comic book movie watchers, not only the hardcore devotees but the casual film-watcher who recognizes the genre as the new Western, an escapist form of entertainment that has taken Hollywood by storm and will continue to be a staple of the movie-going experience for decades (until the genre peters out as Westerns did, which will certainly happen one day). Amongst comic book movie fans, films are usually agreed-upon things. There are movies everyone agrees are fun and exciting and great to watch and rewatch, and there are the clunkers, the stinkers, the absolute misfires. There are very very few exceptions to this rule, where a movie makes huge bucks but is largely regarded as a misfire (Age of Ultron), or a movie that is beloved but no one goes to see (Shazam). The popularity and quality of a comic book movie are almost always in sync.
So, a movie like Wonder Woman 1984 is quite the anomaly. Though it debuted today, and not enough time has passed for a genuine consensus to form, I’m going to make a prediction that this will be a movie that keeps comic book fans divided for a long time. The reason boils down, I believe, to a deliberate choice made in the development of the picture:
WW84 is a throwback comic book movie.
It was made with the kind of carefree, wink and nod, light-hearted feel of movies that predate the MCU, and certainly which are lightyears away from the cold, somberly theatrical melodramas of the Snyder films. It’s a movie that someone of my generation, who grew up on the 80s and 90s comic book adaptations can find a lot to remember, both good and bad.
If you’re not as old as I am—if you’re someone who has only known the MCU-era of comic book movies—then much of WW84 will feel terribly off-putting. The MCU established a certain style of comic book movie: People often mistake the movies as “light-hearted” but they rarely ever are. Instead what some might call “light,” I would call “quippy” or just “sarcastic.” There’s a lot to laugh over during an MCU movie, but rarely ever do you feel like you’re watching a cartoon come to life. Those movies always manage to stay solidly on the other side of that line. On the other hand, DC’s post-Nolan output of films largely struggled with finding an identity and a tone as recognizable as the MCU’s. The Snyder film ran too far in the other direction, with dour and dark films. The non-Snyder movies felt like a studio trying a little of everything to see what worked: Shazam was the closest to the MCU style. Aquaman was Snyder-but-lighter, and the first Wonder Woman was a little of both, at times evoking the first Captain America film, while at others allowing itself to be as melodramatic as Batman v Superman.
So it was a surprise to the point of being shocking to experience the first set-piece of WW84 (the first scene after the prologue on Themiscyra): Wonder Woman saving the day around town, including a mall. It was colorful, silly, very hammy, and all set to a bombastic score by Hans Zimmer (easily the most over the top “comic book” score he’s ever done). It reminded me of Superman III, and I mean that in the best of ways, while also recognizing that some will think of Superman III in all the worst ways.
The antagonist of the picture continues with the retro-comic book feel, in that it offers a duo of villains (the trope of classic comic book movies like the three OG Batman sequels), one of whom shares little with his comic book counterpart other than his name: He’s an instrument in service to an original story. The plot revolves around the Dreamstone (though it’s never called that in the film), and no one involved in the making of the movie gave half a care that there’s no comic continuity that features Maxwell Lord and the Dreamstone interacting. In the MCU, the movie would have featured someone like Dr. Destiny; it would have been purist, a slave to the source material. WW84 eschews that, picking and choosing what is needed to tell the story it wants to tell; again, it’s a throwback in that way, but younger fans may balk at it.
Usage of the Dreamstone works in the movie like a shockwave, affecting a small number of people at first until, in the end, the whole world is on the verge of blowing itself up. In the middle of all this is Diana’s wish for Trevor (Chris Pine) to return to her. He does, though the specifics of how are oddly hazy. There seem to have been rules applied to it (something about Pine embodying the…well, body, of a rando guy), but there’s not enough detail to make perfect sense of it, and Diana seems oddly okay with her boyfriend possessing an innocent victim’s body. I think I would have preferred they brought him back purely by way of magic, instead of trying to devise some pseudo-scientific method. The same goes for the rest of the wishes granted in the movie, some of which seem like providential blessings and others purely appear and disappear out of thin air. There’s no rhyme or reason to it and it ordinarily would bother me, if I was watching a movie made in the current, MCU, style. This being a throwback, I never felt the need to take anything too seriously.
This is good because the best part of the movie is Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord. He goes all-in with the role, hamming it up loudly, chewing the scene every chance he can. By the end of it, he’s practically cackling. Less effective is Kristen Wiig as Cheetah, who plays her part in a more subdued way, though everything about her seemed designed to evoke Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Again, another throwback. Overall, Cheetah was less of a factor in the movie than I expected, compared to Lord, but she was a better “final boss” than Ares was in the first film.
WW84 serves as the first test of Warner Bros.’ ambitious and risky strategy for 2021: All movies will release on HBO Max for a month, before continuing in theaters. Since many theaters are still either locked-down or severely limited in terms of seating, most will experience this movie at home. Dropping it on Christmas Day is a smart move, as it maximized the number of people home to enjoy it.
Beyond that, the film simply couldn’t be delayed anymore before it was considered a dead property: The film was originally slated for December 20th, 2019. Then it was bumped up to November 8th, 2019 in order to avoid competing against The Rise of Skywalker (I would have liked to have seen that head-to-head, actually). After No Time to Die settled (for a time) on November 15th, WB moved the film again, this time to November 1st, 2019. It was moved again to the June 5, 2020, when the studio decided it was strong enough to work as a summer tentpole. Then the pandemic happened, and it was bumped up to March 24, 2020, in the hopes of getting it out and seen before everything shut down. That failed to happen, so it was delayed again to August 14, 2020, hoping the pandemic would be over by then. After Tenet struggled, they delayed it again to October 2, 2020, and then bumped up to September 2020 for no discernable reason, before finally, WB settled on Christmas Day, 2020.
Now that it’s out, was the wait worth it?
I think so, though I temper that with the understanding that I watched it as someone who grew up enjoying the less serious, less “important” comic book movies of the 80s and 90s, back when films like this were made purely to sell toys, and not to prop up multi-billion dollar industries.
8/10 – As a fun little escapist movie, it does the job. Just don’t ask for anything more.