There are a few established Australian Boxing Day traditions. (For the unfamiliar, Boxing Day is the day immediately following Christmas Day.) An MCG test match. (For the unfamiliar…oh, you know what, nevermind.) Sales. Hangovers. Christmas leftovers. And, if you’re feeling especially motivated, perhaps you’ll brave the multiplex to see one of the half-dozen new releases unleashed upon eager audiences.
While things have largely returned to normal in Australia this year – multiplex-wise, at least – in the age of COVID-19 the ability to attend the cinema has become a possibility uniquely relegated to a handful of countries. Which has necessitated the release of long-delayed blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 to streaming and – with it – a new Boxing Day tradition: watching one’s social media feed fill up with grumpy livetweeting.
If my Twitter feed is to be believed, WW84 has not been well-received by the general populace. Which, to be honest, I found somewhat surprising. When I watched the film at a media screening a week or so before Christmas, I was largely entertained. Sure, the film’s imperfections are manifold (and, don’t worry, I’ll get to those) but I found it a solid execution of the updated DC model of Saturday morning cartoons realised with attractive actors and overstuffed special effects budgets.
Gone are the days of Zack Snyder’s Nolan-aping, grimdark interpretation of the DC universe; since Patty Jenkins’ first, hugely successful take on Wonder Woman, the films have skewed closer to children’s entertainment, whether it’s drumming octopi in Aquaman or superheroic pre-teens fighting offcuts from Gargoyles in Shazam! The franchise has abandoned any feints at seriousness and, for the most part, any interest in establishing a wide-ranging cinematic universe in favour of frothy, popcorn fare.
Popcorn is, perhaps, the operative word there. Watching Wonder Woman 1984 in a crowded theatre, I was reminded of the base pleasures of blockbusters. Sure, back in the day – when blockbusters came out once a month at the least – it seemed reasonable to demand these films stretch the boundaries. Try something different. After so long relegated to streaming options on one’s home television, I can’t say I had the same critical standards. Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a beautiful face, huge?
I’d be disingenuous to imply that the WW84 backlash is entirely driven by people watching it on laptop screens. Though I will argue that these films’ blemishes tend to be emphasised in a context where people are encouraged to snarkily livetweet through him (ugh). It’s not that there isn’t plenty to snark about in WW84. Much like in her first film, Jenkins opts for a Donner-inspired approach, full of grand gestures and big moments that doesn’t really hang together at all – thematically, narratively, anything-ly – upon reflection.
Still, I was on board for the first hour, maybe hour-and-a-half of the thing. (Of course, the damn thing runs for about two-and-a-half hours; maybe shorter superhero films could be something to take into this promised “new normal”?) Gal Gadot remains an enigma, in that she has all the screen presence of a movie star but somehow lacks the charisma that would suggest, not to mention acting ability. She’s successful enough at bouncing off other actors though, whether sharing a wine with Kristen Wiig or a bed with Chris Pine, and Jenkins is smart enough not to require her to shoulder much of the film’s load solo.
The plot here is incredibly convoluted but can basically be summed up by: there’s a magical rock! Yes, the Saturday morning cartoon thing is in full swing here. And, honestly, that’s a large part of why I was on board. Rather than some galactic entity set on global destruction, the storyline here feels fresh and silly, and much of the joy of the film’s first hour is trying to figure out just what Pedro Pascal’s character – Maxwell Lord, an incarnation of coked-up eighties ambition – is up to with said magical, wish-granting rock. As you’ve probably heard, Pascal is the best thing about the film, bringing that rare combination of pathos and humour, but really the whole supporting cast is firing. Wiig is stuck with a comic book cliché but manages to make it work through comedic timing and leaning heavily on the Sapphic spark between her and Diana. Pine is fun as ever, even if his inclusion – having died in the prior film – is a stretch and a half.
All that said, it’s hard to deny the film begins to fall apart somewhere around the middle, before culminating in an utterly ludicrous and overbearingly corny climax. I appreciate that the film eschewed the obligatory third act action setpiece (the fight between Diana and Wiig’s cheetah-woman – don’t ask – is mercifully brief) but what they opt for instead is unquestionably the film’s nadir. Not only is the film’s conclusion unintentionally ridiculous, it also highlights WW84’s paper thin moral grounding: basically, everyone is nefariously self-motivated but also everyone is benevolent and forgiving. Which could’ve been an interesting contradiction in a better script; alas, that’s not what we have here.
Still, watch Wonder Woman 1984 in the right context – if you’re blessed enough to be in a part of the world where multiplex excursions are still possible – and it’s hard to care all that much. There are pretty people, big explosions, and a handful of genuinely-funny jokes. After a rough year, maybe that’s enough.