The Truth is Beautiful: A Wonder Woman 1984 Review
Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe of films has, for a long time, struggled. I don’t think I need to go into details here; we all know how hit and miss their films have been.
As a fan of superhero movies, it sucks. Yeah, I love Marvel movies. But Batman and Superman are two of my favorite superheroes of all time, so it irks the hell out of me when they are pulled through shoddy storytelling (ahem, Justice League).
There have been, of course, some shining lights in the DC darkness. The upcoming Snyder Cut looks promising (or at least, better), and though it bombed horribly in the box office, Birds of Prey was actually one of their best efforts. But the brightest light was always Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
The 2017 movie was a breath of fresh air, and with it, it finally seemed like DC might be on the right track. Since then, however, they’ve continued to release movies that are uneven in quality (say what you will, I still don’t like Aquaman).
And this sequel- possibly the most anticipated in all of DC’s line-up- really speaks to that unevenness.
Maybe some of my disappointment in WW84 is from anticipation; I expected to see this in a packed theater in June, but instead, I watched it on Christmas day on my dad’s TV. Spending those extra months waiting for this- or any- movie to come out undoubtedly raised my expectations of the film. So when I finally got to watch it, I found myself let down.
In short, WW84 is not as good as it’s predecessor; maybe that would have been impossible, though, as it is hard to bottle lightning twice (unless you’re Marvel, apparently). And as with most DC movies, I gave it a second watch before writing my review, and my opinion of it definitely improved. But it still didn’t reach the high bar that Wonder Woman set for it.
For every single thing I loved in this movie- like the interactions between Steve and Diana- there was something that was just odd- like the decision to have Steve come back in someone else’s body (and therefore the questionable decision on Diana’s part to be intimate with him in someone else’s meat suit).
Most of these mind-boggling moments came from the Dreamstone, which was an intriguing enough plot device, but one that was very vague on the rules. For example, why could this dream rock bring Steve back but it couldn’t bring back his body? We also witnessed the rock build a wall and nukes out of thin air, so are we saying that it is limited at recreating a human body? Who even was the guy that Steve inhabited? Was he a distant relation? Was there something that made him special, something that made him more accessible to Steve’s soul when it came back? And if not (the movie never gives any inclination that this guy is anything more than some random guy), why didn’t Steve immediately pop into the guy who was standing nearest to Diana when she made the wish? Everyone else’s wish seemed to come true instantly, so why didn’t hers?
I could go on, but I won’t. But that’s the problem with having an object of vague powers in a story. Sure, it is a fantasy, but you still need to set your own rules and make them clear. For example, in Harry Potter, magic can do damn near anything, but you need a wand- and a spell- do to it. And wands themselves have limits; you can’t use magic without your wand (the movies do fudge this one a bit), and though the wand chooses the wizard, if you lose it in combat, it will change allegiance. In contrast, take the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. It is a device that can do literally anything the plot demands of it (aside from working on wood), and more than a few episodes have relied on it too much, resulting in weak storytelling.
My point is, the Dreamstone- and Max Lord’s power with it- is never fully explained and we don’t know what its rules or limits are. We know that with every wish Max grants, the stone is slowly killing him, but we don’t know why. We know that with every wish, the stone also takes, but we don’t really get a handle on what those trade-offs will be (aside from the main characters) or why the stone chose those specific trade-offs (like Diana losing her powers to have Steve back), or why Max can seemingly choose to take whatever he wants in exchange for a wish. It just makes the story more convoluted.
With that said, however, I am a huge fan of Maxwell Lord as a villain. Pedro Pascal seemed to be enjoying the hell out of this role and brought a lot of cheese and corniness to the dastardly swindler. I still don’t think he was entirely necessary (as Mark Bernardin pointed out on “Fatman Beyond”, the movie could have been rewritten to exclude Max and we still could have gotten a lot of the same plot points, and more of a focus on Diana and Barbera), and I do think the movie focused a little too much on him at times, but he was still great in the role. He felt very much like a villain that the Richard Donner Superman would have faced. Likewise, I really enjoyed Kristen Wiig as Cheetah; her motivations to help Max felt genuine, and her loss of her humanity for her wish seemed to make the most sense out of any of the wish trade-offs.
But therein lies another problem. So far, we’ve seen Diana go up against gods; she fought Aries, Doomsday, Steppenwolf, and soon she’ll fight Darkseid himself. By comparison, Maxwell Lord and Barbara Minerva feel like small potatoes. Sure, they almost ended the world, but that wasn’t their endgame. That was pretty much an accident. Max Lord would fit in very well facing off against Christopher Reeves, and the tone of this movie really fits in with those classic films, but it doesn’t really fit in with the previous movie or any of the other films we’ve seen Diana in.
That in and of itself may not have been a problem, but it left me wanting more. Really, it left me wishing that this was the third movie in the series (an ongoing wish for a lot of the DC sequels) and that we’d been given a movie in between to let us know what Diana has been up to for 70 years. Heck, they could have at least replaced the Themyscira sequence, which was largely unimportant, with a montage of Diana through the years (think the opening of X-Men Origins: Wolverine without the shitty movie that followed it; also, the important part of the Themyscira sequence- Robin Wright’s Antiope teaching Diana a lesson about being honest- could have easily been a flashback later on in the movie). Really, this movie just seemed to veer left in a few places where I felt it should have gone right.
Despite the multitude of shortcomings and plot contrivances that this movie held, there was still some real beauty in it. Any scene featuring Diana and Steve was pure magic, my favorite being the plane sequence. Though they might have shown us the best lines in the trailer, these two have such a chemistry that they can uplift an otherwise struggling film.
And the climax of the film was damn near perfect. The plot may have been convoluted getting us there, but from the moment that Diana had to renounce her wish (which was heartbreaking) to her confrontation with Max Lord, the movie could do no wrong (and no, I don’t have a problem with Catra… I mean… Cheetah’s look).
Perhaps the best part- and the most important given our current real-world circumstances- was Diana’s speech to Max and to the world. In fact, I’m going to quote it here, verbatim (verbatim, according to IMDb, at least). When Max offers Diana the return of Steve Trevor again, he tells her all she needs to do is wish it to be so. And she replies:
I’ve never wanted anything more. But he’s gone, and that’s the truth. And everything has a price. One I’m not willing to pay. Not any more. This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful. So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save this world.
Max scoffs at this, telling her that he won’t renounce his wish because he can’t be stopped. He questions why she would even try to change his mind.
I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to everyone else. Because you’re not the only one who has suffered. Who wants more. Who wants them back. Who doesn’t want to be afraid anymore. Or alone. Or frightened. Or powerless. ’Cause you’re not the only one who imagined a world where everything was different. Better. Finally. A world where they were loved and seen and appreciated. Finally. But what is it costing you? Do you see the truth?
I think this would have been a powerful message at any time. It was particularly powerful in December 2020 as the political landscape in the US dived into turmoil, with people as high as the President himself spreading conspiracy theories and falsehoods about a “stolen” election. We needed to hear right now that the truth is enough, that the truth is beautiful.
For that message alone, I find myself softening on many of my worst criticisms of this film. So what that the Dreamstone doesn’t make a lot of sense? So what if Steve Trevor’s return was very contrived? So what if it didn’t have an emotionally resonating moment like No Man’s Land? So what if this movie isn’t as good as Wonder Woman? It is good enough to still be considered a good movie. Maybe not a great one, but definitely a good one. And it stuck the landing.
Despite my complaints about WW84, I’m grateful that we got this movie. It wasn’t everything I hoped and dreamed to get from a sequel to Wonder Woman, but it was enough. And at the end of the dismal year that has been 2020, it really is a shining light to guide us towards better days.
It was the Wonder Woman we needed right now. At least in the end.
Ok, time for a little theory of mine. One of the things I enjoyed in the movie was the music. I would have liked for Rupert Gregson-Williams to return, but Hans Zimmer did a good job and I’m glad he got to expand more on his Wonder Woman theme from Batman V Superman.
You might have noticed, however, that he borrowed another theme from BvS, specifically the track that played at the beginning of the film, when Bruce Wayne watches the murder of his parents and then subsequently is seen running away from their funeral (and falling into a well full of bats). This song- fittingly called “A Beautiful Lie”- was played when Diana was giving that speech about the truth being beautiful.
And it got me thinking.
Since this theme wasn’t one related to Diana, at first it seemed an odd choice to put into her second solo movie. I mean, it is a beautiful theme, but it has no relation to hers.
This sequence was intermixed with shots of people all over the world renouncing their wishes. And though we didn’t see it, I’m certain that out there, far away in Gotham City, there was a young Bruce Wayne who was renouncing his wish for his parents to come back to life. This song seems like a perfect callback to the moment he lost his parents in Batman V Superman- a moment that takes place in 1981, three years before the events of this movie, and at a period in Bruce’s life where he probably would have wished for his parents to come back if given the opportunity (and I also wonder, what would he have given up to get them back?).
I’m actually at a loss for why this movie was set in 1984; it didn’t seem to pull from any major events in that time period (except maybe the cold war, I suppose), unlike the first movie that was set in 1918, in the heart of the First World War. But wouldn’t it be cool if it was set in ’84 because it was three years after Bruce lost his parents and this little Easter egg could play into his story?
I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that the movie didn’t actually include this moment, as everything about this scene- and this song- screamed this to me. Given the connection that Diana will have with Bruce later on (and one that played into the first Wonder Woman), it seems like a glaring omission not to reference him here, even in just a quick shot included with the shots of all the other people around the world. I wonder if this was a scene that was shot, or even if it was one that was considered. Maybe this song is the only remaining link to what happened with Bruce Wayne during these events. Maybe it is just a coincidence. But I can’t stop thinking about it.
If nothing else, “A Beautiful Lie” was a nice compliment to Diana’s speech about a beautiful truth.
My current ranking of DC’s attempts at making a good movie (DCEU films only… sorry, Joker):
- Wonder Woman
- Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Cut)
- Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Wonder Woman 1984
- Man of Steel
- Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Theatrical Edition)
- Justice League
- Suicide Squad