Love them or hate them, the early DCEU films had some kind of personality about them. They weren’t completely driven by the overarching desire to build a constellation of stories working towards a big team-up event film, but rather by a common visual aesthetic. It is an open secret that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were partially propelled by the vestigial momentum left behind Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy too. In fact, it is a matter of public record that at the very outset of this project the leading voices driving its evolution were openly trying to distance themselves from the immensely successful MCU by opting for a gritty and dark tone as well as a hyper-stylized visual toolbox brought to the table by Zack Snyder.
As a result, Man of Steel, BvS, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad – warts and all – felt connected at the hip not by elements of plot or easter eggs left behind by their writers (though they weren’t devoid of them either), but by a distinctly elevated aesthetic that imbued them all with a tone of dark fantasy. They felt grand, bombastic and – crucially – cinematic, as opposed to the vast majority of MCU productions that settled for something more televisual. But this plan didn’t exactly pan out, did it? Sure, there are many reasons why the DC productions could not even come close to matching the success of Marvel productions, but the bottom line in Hollywood is that money speaks, so by hook and by crook, the direction of what is known as DCEU got eventually adjusted to mimic more closely what Marvel were doing, hoping fans would finally get on board, en masse.
This course correction commenced more or less at the time when Joss Whedon was hired to replace Zack Snyder at the helm of Justice League and now that Wonder Woman 1984 has hit cinemas (where it could, owing to COVID) it is abundantly clear that the DCEU productions have irreversibly ceded their main differentiating factor and became fully functional clones of Marvel films. The Patty Jenkins-directed sequel to her 2017 outing carries little to no DNA of the original Wonder Woman, which was a preposterously stylized hybrid of dark fantasy with a war thriller held together by an intelligently woven thematic net of female empowerment. In fact, Wonder Woman 1984 has as much in common with its predecessor as Gremlins 2 had with Gremlins or Batman Forever with Tim Burton’s seminal Batman. It’s bloated, sloppily written, overwhelmingly exaggerated, and – most importantly – excruciatingly boring.
Interestingly however, the film opens up with some promise as it settles the viewer in its new period setting, the 1980s (as the title suggests). This isn’t exactly novel either and seems at least partially inspired by some recent Marvel productions, such as Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, the decision to set this story in the decade of glam, parachute pants and disco might have been motivated by something much more pedestrian than a nostalgic connection to the era. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the screenwriters who do not have to bother to explain why Batman or Superman cannot help poor old Diana (Gal Gadot) as she scrambles from A to B and juggles a multitude of simultaneously-evolving crises. It’s hard to pretend this realization doesn’t cheapen the experience.
Nevertheless, following a short introductory set piece where we see young Diana compete against fully grown Amazons and learn a valuable lesson about honesty and doing the right thing at the right time (which, as logic dictates, will be eventually called back upon), Wonder Woman 1984 looks as though it tried to pay due homage to its temporal setting and leverage its characteristics. However, it is quickly revealed that the filmmakers’ interest in doing so are almost completely superficial and do not venture far beyond using it for exclusively comedic applications. Suffice it to say that jokes about fanny packs, kitschy art or breakdancing, which accompany a fish-out-of-water element of the story I am not at liberty to discuss, quickly lose their lustre and end up almost completely undercutting the dramatic core of the narrative; which is what most Marvel movies do as well.
As a result, the entire film lacks gravity. None of what happens on the screen, really matters. The characters gallivant around the world chasing a McGuffin, overcome any and all problems essentially with magic, all the while trying to stop a stark-raving mad businessman Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, whose character functions as a hybrid between Jim Carrey’s characters from Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar and Batman Forever) who is in cahoots with Kristen Wiig, whose own character pedigree traces squarely to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle. Again, this isn’t exactly news that a comic book movie drowns itself in plot or hides its dramatic soul under a metric tonne of cheap puns because this is pretty much par for the course for anything with Avengers in the title, though I can’t help but despair at the fact DCEU movies used to have a completely different flavour. A flavour that’s now well and truly extinct.
All in all, Wonder Woman 1984 is nothing more than a hot mess overflowing with plot and reliant on visual clichés as its primary storytelling language, all of which successfully remove any vestige of personality the original Wonder Woman had in spades. In short, this is at best an ersatz Marvel film that completely forgoes the elevated aesthetic of its predecessor in favour of solutions lifted from their competition. Had it not been for the fact the raging pandemic effectively annihilated the blockbuster season, Wonder Woman 1984 would have likely not received such unfiltered praise it is now getting from all corners of the world. Granted, a good portion of it is likely dictated by the fact audiences continually resonate well with Marvel movies, of which this film is a competent imitation, but the dearth of movies cannot be easily discounted.
I suppose congratulations are in order because Warner Brothers have succeeded in coming close enough in stylistic terms to what MCU films are going for that they get to bask in the windfall of fan acclaim as well. They have finally designed a copycat recipe to Marvel’s equivalent of the Coca-Cola recipe and became Pepsi of the comic book movie world.
But nobody ever asks for Pepsi at a restaurant. They ask for Coke. I preferred these movies when they weren’t trying to be Coke, but were happy being Dr Pepper. And I hold Joss Whedon responsible for this.