Review: Wonder Woman 1984 : Pop Culture Happy Hour Wonder Woman 1984 arrives as one of the biggest films yet to stream at home at the same time it hits theaters. Like its successful predecessor, 2017's Wonder Woman, it's directed by Patty Jenkins and stars Gal Gadot as our heroine. Chris Pine is back as Steve Trevor, and new cast members include Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal.
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'Wonder Woman 1984': Waiting For Gadot

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'Wonder Woman 1984': Waiting For Gadot

'Wonder Woman 1984': Waiting For Gadot

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Hi, I'm Linda Holmes. I'm here with our newest addition to the POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR team, Aisha Harris.

Hi, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: So I have to tell you something that we haven't talked about yet too much. As you may have realized, we here at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR feel it's very important to be able to have a pet that you can show during our daily meetings. So I ask you the important question. Do you have a pet who will be available to visit with us during our daily meetings?

HARRIS: All the time. I have two, in fact - Liz Lemon and Lucille II (laughter).

HOLMES: Liz Lemon and Lucille II. You have two television-themed dogs.

HARRIS: I do. I do. They are lovely, and they are getting along splendidly.

HOLMES: I knew that we made the right choice in adding you to the team. I've been delighted to have you with us. This is the first time you've participated in this part of the year, when we ask folks to support our work and the rest of NPR and the public radio system by going to their local station and donating there. You can do that at the link donate.npr.org/happy.

Aisha, I'm sure you will have noticed that our producers are able to set us up with all kinds of wonderful things that make it possible for us to record at home.

HARRIS: Yes. Now that we're recording at home, we have to basically create our own little studio setup. And it's been really great to be able to do that. And one of the ways we've been able to do that is because of the donations that everyone sends us. So everyone should donate and make us happy.

HOLMES: That's right. Make us happy this week.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Go and find us at donate.npr.org/happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: "Wonder Woman 1984" arrives as one of the biggest films yet to stream at home at the same time it hits theaters. Like its successful predecessor "Wonder Woman" in 2017, it's directed by Patty Jenkins and stars Gal Gadot as our heroine.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Chris Pine is back as Steve Trevor. And new cast members include Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about "Wonder Woman 1984" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Stephen from his home in Virginia is Glen Weldon of NPR's Arts Desk.

Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: And also with us from her home in Maryland is NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Hey, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

HOLMES: I'm so glad you can be here with us to talk about "Wonder Woman 1984." Now, to set up the plot of this movie as best I understood it, "Wonder Woman 1984" revolves around a magic rock that grants wishes. Pedro Pascal plays Maxwell Lord, a huckster who wants, of course, ultimate power over the universe. Kristen Wiig plays a nerdy anthropologist who will later transform, sort of "She's All That"-style, into the frightening nemesis Cheetah. And if you're wondering how Chris Pine is in this movie considering how "Wonder Woman" ended, just do not worry about it because it will all become somewhat clear.

Glen, we were all, I think, fans of the 2017 "Wonder Woman." What did you think of this?

WELDON: Well, I think this is - it's bright. It's entertaining. It was frequently funny, which I enjoyed. It can't help but lack the kind of simple story power, narrative power of that 2017 film because that was our first real glimpse of the character. It was an origin story. And the villain was so unambiguously evil. It was the Kaiser, chemical weapons, the god of war. What I like about this film is that the tone in the first half seems like a direct homage to the 1978 Richard Donner "Superman," as some people have pointed out. And I'm all for that. But this had its own story to tell.

It does lose its way about halfway for me because that's when some pretty dark and muddy CGI takes over, which I couldn't really get over because this film has been sitting on the shelf for a while. It's had lots and lots of time. And the fact that the CGI still looks so weightless in this kind of surprised me.

And look. The superhero film has been around for - what? - half a century now. And we still haven't learned its most important lesson, which is that more is less. One villain's enough, people. If you know what you're doing, pick one and stick with it. I mean, these characters work when they're coming from a place of moral clarity and they're standing against someone of equal and opposite, you know, immoral or amoral clarity.

Now, you can say the two-villain thing worked in "Batman Returns" because those two villains, if you recall, were the Penguin and Catwoman. They already had, you know, a cultural footprint. They were firmly planted in the wider culture. You just can't say the same thing about the Cheetah and Maxwell Lord. They just don't have that kind of - I hate this word - but stickiness, essential stickiness.

I do have a theory why this movie was so light on big action set pieces. I think that has to do with the central makeup of the character. I'll get to that later. But look. All you got to know is I grew up with the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and the Super Friends, and something happened at the one-hour-and-10-minute mark in this film that made me stand up off my damn couch and cheer.

HOLMES: Oh, well, that's good. I'm glad to hear that. All right, Ayesha, what did you think?

RASCOE: You know, I actually like the movie a lot. And I actually liked it better than the first movie, which I guess is weird. But I actually felt like the plot in the first "Wonder Woman" was too kooky for me (laughter). Like, I love the characters in the first movie. But there were just things that I was just like, this doesn't - I mean, obviously, with any superhero movie, you have to set aside certain things. But I felt like that one was, like, a bridge too far. But I love the characters.

And in this one, I really liked that you saw some vulnerability in Wonder Woman because, I mean, Gal Gadot - I mean, when you look at her, I mean, she is Wonder Woman. Like, she can be hard to relate to. I mean, I kind of felt like Kristen Wiig. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: You know, like, you look at her. And it's like, do you actually have superpowers? - because she's just amazingly beautiful, and she looks perfect and everything. But in this movie, I think you got to see some vulnerability. You got to see some weakness. And to me, that made it a little bit more relatable and I think just the whole idea of, you know, dealing with what people desire and how what you desire can also be your weakness, right? Like, I feel like there was a deeply human thing in this. And, no, it wasn't a lot of - there was action, but it wasn't a lot of action. But I like the human story that was told. And they're just fun. Like, I really like the dynamic between Diana and Steve. I love that. Like, I feel like that's when it really took on life for me - is that dynamic between them.

HOLMES: Yeah. All right, Stephen. What'd you think?

THOMPSON: It's interesting. Glen made a really interesting point kind of late in what he was saying, where he was talking about how there's something that comes up, you know, an hour and 10 minutes into this film that as a fan, you know, kind of lit his heart ablaze.

And I think watching this film was kind of maybe the first time I've watched a movie that was supposed to come out in theaters but instead drops on streaming and thought, man, this is really, really missing out on audiences. This is a movie that you would ordinarily see surrounded by a bunch of like-minded dorks in the theater who are, like, murmuring and cheering every time there's some piece of canon that gets referenced or addressed or - like, there are several big payoffs for Wonder Woman fans in this movie that if you're watching in an empty room, you don't necessarily feel the energy of them. And I think that drains some of the light out of this movie.

You know, Ayesha mentioned the lightness of some of the banter between Diana and Steve earlier in the film. I agree that when it has a little bit of lightness to it, it works. It feels minor, but it's still a pleasure.

Once it gets absorbed into - we're going to call it the plot - this movie becomes an absolutely inscrutable hash of paradoxes and BS, and it loses me entirely. There is a point late in this film where two characters are facing off. And I just - I said out loud to the screen, oh, my God, they look so dumb. And I think that for me, as this movie went along, it just became less and less enjoyable as it becomes more and more of a muddle of, as Glen said, bad CGI. But really, like, story and plotwise, this thing flies all the way off the rails for me.

And maybe I'm just being one of those pedants who's sitting here like, that makes no sense, which is such a stupid thing to say when you're watching a superhero movie. But there are elements of this movie that really genuinely make no sense at all in terms of motivations, in terms of, as I said, paradoxes heaped upon paradoxes heaped upon paradoxes, where I just kind of eventually threw up my hands and just thought, man, I just wish I were watching this movie in a room full of people who are really excited about this movie 'cause my excitement for this movie really waned as it went along. And I say that as somebody who really loved the first one.

HOLMES: Yeah. Woof. I did not like this at all.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: I am the big downer. I had two major problems with it, one of which sort of has two parts.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: So 1A...

WELDON: Oh, God.

HOLMES: ...Is really, really did not like this story. There's a long stretch where Pedro Pascal is seeing a series of people having a particular kind of conversation with them. It did not make sense to me what exactly he was doing and how he had the ability to do what he was doing. I'll just say that.

1B is, you know, we know Pedro Pascal to be a charismatic actor, and I think this is a very uncharismatic performance. I think he's a very dull villain. And I think at the end, when they suddenly decide to try to give him motivation, it is the clunkiest and the most forced kind of motivation that you can do in a movie like this and just didn't feel earned to me at all.

And then two is, I think, a combination of sort of what you're talking about. The action scenes to me were very boring, and I didn't think they were exciting at all. I thought the CGI looked really weird. And this is another thing where - look. My entire feelings about this movie - I give an asterisk to for exactly the reasons we've already talked about, which are, you know, in a big theater full of people who are excited, it probably feels different. In a big thing where you've got the loud theater sound and all that, maybe it feels different. As a home viewing experience, I thought the CGI did not look good. And I thought that from the opening sort of an intro sequence. And I just thought that all looked very silly and, as Glen said, weightless. It doesn't feel like there's any gravity. It doesn't feel like there's any truth to it, physically.

And also, you know, when you've seen the number of really inventive action sequences that we've seen over the last 10 or 15 years - you know, fights in stairwells, fights in elevators, fights in - you know, up against a car, fights on roller skates, whatever - to me, these were very pedestrian fight scenes. They're very into the lasso now. The lasso is kind of the main element of all the fighting, whereas in the first one, I felt like we talked about the fact that it had these kind of ballet, gymnastics-type of elements. I saw much less of that in this.

I agree absolutely with Ayesha that the dynamic between her and Steve Trevor is definitely the best thing about the film. Steve Trevor in 1984 is a good bit. They make a lot of hay out of it. I enjoyed that. I smiled appreciatively at those sections. They just don't make up enough of the movie for me.

WELDON: This is a tough character, Wonder Woman, to get right. As we've talked about before, there's just this essential contradiction in who she is. In her whole DNA - and it's been there from the jump - she is a warrior for peace. She fights, so the people stop fighting. That's tough. This is her. She is about having this enormous physical power, this extensive military training and then choosing to solve problems using compassion and empathy and capital T truth.

Now, people have said over the years that that's pretty sexist. Why can't the girl be a violent badass? But the fact is, in these films, she can be. My favorite parts of these movies are when Wonder Woman gets to let loose because Gadot is so great at the physical aspects of this role. And I think maybe I'm giving the - those filmmakers too much credit here. But I think the nature of Wonder Woman's character might explain - not excuse but explain why the script keeps slowing down to give these moments to Wiig and to Pascal, these little emotional beats, these - trying to, you know, force some psychological motivations into them, all these little grace notes that a studio that's making superhero films would say - can't we just push those to deleted scenes? But I think they're needed here, even though they're clunky, because you have to establish those motivations so that Diana can come along and reach them through compassion and restraint.

Now, again, it makes sense given who Wonder Woman is. But in an action movie, they just tend to muddy the waters and crowd out action. And I wanted more action. And that - I think that's kind of what lends this film the feeling of being overstuffed.

RASCOE: I mean, I know that I'm kind of alone in liking this movie (laughter). But I think that for me, even though I do think that it was clunky - and, like, they definitely kind of go, this is the theme of the movie. Like, here it is.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: They sure do.

RASCOE: And when a movie has to do that - but I was OK with that. I think, you know, what I liked is that it seemed like they brought it all together by saying, like you said, she's not winning through the action. That's not how she actually wins. It's through the compassion and the big T truth. So to me, I got that. And so that worked for me in a sense. But I like the fighting scenes. I like some of the costumes. I like some of the - there was a little bit in it, you know?

HOLMES: Yeah. What'd you think of Kristen Wiig, Ayesha?

RASCOE: So Kristen Wiig - now, I do think - when I was watching that character, I thought she was great. But, well, one thing I thought - I wanted her in more '80s, like, costumes. Like, I felt like her clothes weren't very '80s, which bothered me. And also, like, her playing the kind of dumpy person who she was supposed to be in the beginning, I mean, that's always a problem with this - right? - when you do the makeover thing. And it's like, well, she didn't really need that much of a makeover (laughter). She wasn't that - you know? And then the kind of transformation into Cheetah was like, well, how did she get there? And I do agree that - like, I was sitting there like, well, how - I don't think that they really developed that. Like, it did kind of get a little bit of, like, just woman on woman. We want a girl fight, unfortunately. That's what it felt like to me a bit.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I'm not trying to be the person who's like, you know, why can E.T. fly? That makes no sense.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Like, I'm not trying to be that person. It's the internal logic of this wishing rock thing that I had trouble with. Stephen, what do you think?

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's the thing. I don't think this movie necessarily holds to its own internal logic. And I think that's where I step out of the plot. And I'm sitting there thinking like, well, that wouldn't work at all. Like I said, just a ridiculous thing to think. But because there isn't that consistency there, there's not consistency of motivation across the characters. I mean, when you think about everything that this movie is trying to do in two hours and 35 minutes, it is trying to do an enormous number of things. It is the fish-out-of-water comedy. It is developing these villains. It is this whole Byzantine wishing rock thing that has all these repercussions on top of repercussions. It's trying to shoehorn so, so much into the movie that it winds up having to kind of hand wave character development. And that's a really tough thing to hand wave away.

HOLMES: Well, let us know what you think about "Wonder Woman 1984." Starting Christmas Day, it is available on HBO Max at no additional charge if you have HBO Max. It'll be available for a month. Tell us what you think. Find us at facebook.com/pchh or on Twitter at @pchh. When we come back, it's going to be time to talk about what's making us happy this week, so come right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What's Making Us Happy This Week. Glen Weldon, what's making you happy this week?

WELDON: I miss museums. Many of us do. And there are plenty of museums that are offering these kind of virtual visits. And they appeal. They have an appeal to the high-minded, to the cultural elite, to the frank and fanny (ph) fancy britches among us. But do they have a finger on the pulse of what draws so many of us to museums and keeps us there, peering at those treasured objects of impressive providence? No, they don't understand us regular folk, us Larry and Laura lunchboxes. You know who does? @museumbums does. @museumbums is a Twitter account - a British Twitter account, hence the bums - that lovingly chronicles one of the things that people like me miss most in museums, which is all the butts though, or, as they put it, Callipygian statues in museums.

Now, your Twitter feed needs some improving. I don't know your Twitter feed, but I know that for a fact photo after photo of well-shaped rumps from antiquity to the current day is just the thing to do it. That is @museumbums.

HOLMES: Wow.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Delighted to hear about museum bums. Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. Ayesha Rascoe, what is making you happy this week?

RASCOE: So what's making me happy this week is - well, it's really movies, like, big kind of action movies. I watched "Tenet" because that's out now - that you can watch at home and - if you buy it. And I loved seeing it. Obviously, I love John David Washington 'cause, like, as soon as he comes on the screen, it's like, wow, that's a star. Like, wow. And he's very handsome (laughter).

HOLMES: He is. It's true.

RASCOE: But I also love, like, that it was just a crazy plot. And it does make me miss being in the movies because it's - like, that would be so much fun. You know, I feel like I've missed that. Like, there haven't been those big action movies, just big, like, popcorn. What happened? Oh, my God. You know, there just hasn't been that this year, obviously, with - like, there's nothing else. And so it gave me - I miss that. But I was glad to see it. Like, even though I'm experiencing it at home, it made me happy. So I was happy to see it. So I'm happy to see movies like "Tenet."

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much, Ayesha Rascoe. Movies coming home to your living room. Stephen Thompson, what is making you happy this week?

THOMPSON: Well, back in 2018, I fell in love with a brand-new pop group called Pale Waves, whose sound kind of - you can almost see the shoulder pads in the sound. There's this '80s quality, this kind of fizziness that runs through their music. They put out this wonderful debut record called "My Mind Makes Noises" that I think I talked about in What's Making Me Happy on this show a few years ago when it came out. They've got a new record coming out on February 12 called "Who Am I?" And the singles have been rolling out, and they're pretty gorgeous. They're still that kind of sparkly quality but also these kind of Gothic undercurrents to the sound. Think lots of eyeliner. Think very tall hair.

But also, thematically, these songs are running a little bit deeper than the debut record ran. Singer Heather Baron-Gracie is singing about coming out, about her mental health in ways that are making these songs kind of feel a little bit richer at the same time that they just have these big, bright, effervescent hooks that you just latch onto immediately. So again, Pale Waves. Let's hear a little bit of the first single from this record. It's called "Change."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE")

PALE WAVES: (Singing) I keep wishing you would change, change. It's no surprise you're still the same, same. I wish I'd never seen your face. But, hey, you've hurt me a thousand times before. But I'm missing you right now, so do it once more.

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. Pale Waves. What is making me happy this week is a podcast episode that I found in the feed of Criminal, which is one of my favorite podcasts, hosted by Phoebe Judge. But it's actually - it comes from their spinoff podcast, which is called This Is Love. And it came out a few weeks ago, and it's called "The Clearwater Monster." It is about a time in 1948 when a set of what looked like monster, beasty footprints appeared on the beach in Clearwater, Fla. And she follows the story - Phoebe Judge follows the story through interviews with various people. If I even told you who the people were, it would spoil some of the story.

They do eventually provide some explanation for these footprints and then a great deal of detail about how they came to be on the beach in Clearwater, Fla. I enjoyed it a great deal. Again, you can find it in the feed for Criminal, which is one of my favorite kind of consistently good narrative podcasts. Or you can find it in the feed for their spinoff podcast This Is Love. And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for everything that we recommended, plus some more recommendations that are exclusive to our newsletter, subscribe to that at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes, you can find Stephen at @idislikestephen. You can find Glen at @ghweldon. And you can find Ayesha at @ayesharascoe. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy @jessica_reedy and our producer Candice Lim @thecandicelim. Our producer Will Jarvis is @willyfrederick. You can find our producer Mike Katzif @mikekatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, HELLO COME IN, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks to all of you for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the work we do at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR and NPR, donate to your local member station at donate.npr.org/happy. Again, that's donate.npr.org/happy. We will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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