Action Adventure Superheroes

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Walking out after 2017’s Wonder Woman, I thought about how they (“they” being whichever filmmakers) would top that movie – where they would go from here. A tall order, coming off one of the best comic book movies of the 2010s, a movie that enveloped itself within the mythos of superheroes and the idea of human gods among everybody else, and also one that clearly relished being the first de-facto Wonder Woman movie, treating the character with all the stateliness and iconography such an honour entails. Wonder Woman 1984’s decided to go from Wonder Woman by well and truly going from it. As in distancing itself from it – as in being a very different movie altogether. A choice, for better and worse.

Returning director Patty Jenkins and team are not subtle about this pivot, to be fair. Hans Zimmer’s brassy, “gee-whiz” score should immediately tell you this won’t be encroaching upon such escapades as Wonder Woman’s WWI trench warfare, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen reaches for every colour that can feasibly be reached – starkly different from the dour greys and blues permeating the 2017 film. It’s the bright pop song to Wonder Woman’s stirring ballad, and your feelings about that ought to indicate how much your mileage will vary.

As for the particulars, Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) lives her life as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, “secretly” fighting crime as her obvious alter ego. I say “secretly” but that’s just a formality – WW84 gives no shits about secret identities or anything like that. Just as well, given one scene where Wonder Woman returns to her apartment from a mall fight via confidently strutting across her terrace in costume, my favourite part of the movie. Diana meets cripplingly awkward gemologist Barbara (Kristen Wiig) and they discover a supposed wishing stone in the museum’s collection, a stone of great interest to scuzzy businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Diana uses the wishing stone to resurrect old love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – more on this later – and Barbara wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and beauty. If Barbara had been on Diana’s neighbouring terrace at the right time she would’ve witnessed what that strength means, but I digress. Max Lord, in a move I enjoy, wishes to possess the stone’s power. Bad things ensue. To defeat Max is to negate wishes, and both Diana and Barbara, who are enjoying love and increasing power, respectively, struggle to part with their wishes. That’s the meat of it, really.

The story’s neither deep nor very insightful, but Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham (all of whom did not participate in writing the 2017 film, and the absence of writer Allan Heinberg shows) try to weave a general point of “truth is good” and that one’s wishes probably shouldn’t take precedence over reality, and it’s… fine. This isn’t a movie where you’re meant to dwell on threads. In fact, it’s best if you don’t, as WW84 falls apart surprisingly quickly if you start thinking about what’s happening. Prime example – Steve Trevor’s resurrected by possessing a random guy (Kristoffer Polaha, credited as “Handsome Man”), who Diana promptly sleeps with and takes on dangerous adventures, paying no mind to the fact some guy’s life has been effectively roofied for however long Steve can commandeer his body. Well okay, you might think, trying to rationalize that you’re witnessing, that’s just the nature of WW84‘s wishing stone. But then others make various wishes, like the U.S. president wishing for more nuclear missiles, and most spawn out of nothing. WW84 would rather you not marinate on such things, but it’s kind of difficult when the movie basically ends with Diana eye-fucking Handsome Man after Steve’s gone. Anyway.

The third act tries very hard to ratchet the stakes up to Society level, but the rest of WW84‘s more content to keep the story contained to Diana, Barbara, Max, and their own strife and desires. Almost refreshingly, honestly. Where the 2017 movie amounted to Wonder Woman versus the God of War and the German army, WW84 amounts to Wonder Woman versus an 80s capitalist parody and Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat. The movie embraces comic book absurdities like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and using her lasso on lightning bolts to maneuver the skies, all of which would feel severely out of place in Wonder Woman ’17. There’s a scene where Wonder Woman learns how to fly (just ignore that she never uses this ability in this movie’s technical sequels, Batman v Superman and Justice League), shot like a scene from the 70s Wonder Woman show – bloom cranked up to hell and quite lovely. It’s an easy-going movie, more content to hang out with its characters than throw them into action setpieces, not something you typically get out of a $200 million blockbuster. The action we do get rivets reasonably well, even if none of it’s that memorable and relies too much on slow-mo that gives nothing and takes much in return. The Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah fight’s the worst of the handful, too brief to be meaningful and also the murkiest setpiece (likely to obscure Cheetah’s CGI, which I think is about as good as it could be despite the flak it’s getting – not a ringing endorsement by any means, as mounting evidence suggests CGI human-cats are a terrible idea, but that’s where we’re at).

Max and Barbara make fine villains, though neither are really “evil” per se, more so misguided souls who make some especially shitty decisions. Pascal plays into the campy businessman archetype extremely well, feeding Max necessary flamboyance and presence. I went into this wanting Kristen Wiig being Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat and that’s exactly what we get – she chews stupid lines such as “I want to be an apex predator” like somebody quite aware of how stupid those lines are.

Gadot and Pine are more interesting to unpack, mainly in that the excellent chemistry they had in Wonder Woman ’17 has dropped off the planet. They play swapped roles here – Steve as the naive person in a new world, Diana as the guide – and since Steve’s not our protagonist and this doesn’t encompass any character development for Diana at all (aside from an apparently warped sense of morality since, again, she’s with a random guy), it’s just fluff. Gadot, per usual, does a swell job striking poses and modeling costume designer Lindy Hemming’s work (there’s a flowy white dress that – if I may have a gay moment – is divine and gave me great satisfaction), though I guess this comes at the expense of acting on every other level as Gadot looks bored much of the time and speaks accordingly, including a line reading during the movie’s centerpiece desert action scene that’s hilariously Tommy Wiseau levels of bad. Pine’s more enthusiastic, thankfully, even if that doesn’t fix the problem that these two characters are padding familiar territory but with less charm and less purpose.

The movie’s insane 152 minute runtime doesn’t help anything. WW84‘s story is perfectly sufficient for 100 minutes or so and only 100 minutes or so – the movie’s a lark, there’s simply not enough happening to warrant going any further. There’s an opening scene in Diana’s homeland Themyscira, where a child Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in an Olympic-esque competition, and it’s just way too goddamn long. It couldn’t even convince Connie Nielsen (playing Queen Hippolyta) and Robin Wright (playing Antiope, struggling very much to nail down an acceptable accent after all these years) to give a shit, as they flatly deliver platitudes about the virtues of truth. I’m fairly certain that the 2017 movie established Diana didn’t begin training until she was a teenager, so this sequence is both long and at odds with its own franchise. The 80s setting serves as set dressing: a shot of an arcade here, a shot of a perm there, but it’s largely arbitrary, seemingly existing to justify the film’s campier vibes and give Steve something to act dazzled by (I’m sorry to those who saw the title Wonder Woman 1984, drew obvious parallels to it and a select novel, only to see that this is not about Wonder Woman facing off against an authoritarian surveillance state. That would be an exciting movie, though).

It really comes down to Wonder Woman 1984 lacking the good sense to trim fat and tighten its relatively basic story and themes – it’s something much more suited for a sleek adventure than slogging for 2.5 hours, akin to DC’s fellow bubblegum-essence superhero movie, Shazam!. 2018’s Aquaman -operating within a similar mode of “let’s embrace all the delightful superhero bullshit in comics” – ran 143 minutes, but that movie knew to just relentlessly plow your brain with delightful superhero bullshit and you know what? That’s the way to do it. I buy into DC’s swerve from grim, philosophical fare (though I didn’t hate that) to more Silver Age, inherently ridiculous adventures, so that’s something at least and, in fairness, WW84 doesn’t veer from the new status quo. I was left feeling entertained despite all the obvious trappings, and I’m interested in the inevitable Wonder Woman 3 (mainly because it seems to promise that we’re finally moving on from Diana’s dependence on Steve). But after witnessing the power and grace Jenkins, her team, and Gadot crafted with the character in Wonder Woman ’17, it’s disappointing watching WW84 fail to match any of it, even if that isn’t its gambit anyway.

Action Adventure Superheroes

The Old Guard (2020)

The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.

The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.

Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.

This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.

Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.

Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.

Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, but it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”

So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.

All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.