For those who follow the film industry at large here in North America, what’s abundantly clear right now is that things are a long ways from what they were in pre-pandemic times. Not that things weren’t heading in this direction before the pandemic hit, but Covid has certainly fast tracked the industry’s evolution exponentionally, creating at the very least an allusion, if not the reality of an industry currently in chaos.
This is doubly true in Canada where, as we attempt to function as our own independent entity, we are still entirely dependant on our neighbors to the south. Changes in the American industry has meant that the changes in release schedules, release patterns, streaming services and theatrical runs translate to at best confusing, at worst an inconsitent mess north of the border. The recent release of Wonder Woman 1984 is an example of this confusion and inconsistency. When the announcement was made south of the border of the day and day release in theaters and on HBO Max, the streaming service connected to WB thus making it free to already subscribers, the immediate question was, where and when will we be able to see it in Canada. We don’t have HBO Max here, and so any deals made with Crave, which have the rights to HBO product, are made external to the HBO Max and WB relationship. WB has no investment in Crave, so any agreement for WW 1984 will come from expectation of its release reaping some form of financial return.
And so, the decision finally came down to WW1984 releasing in still closed Canadian theaters and on early access VOD in December (which is the reigning term for the present state of new releases bypassing theaters or going for day and day release on both big screen and digital platforms at the same time). But for a $30 VOD price tag. But hey, at least we still have access.
As is the case with the present state of things in Canada, even trying to roll the dice on when and how and where the film will eventually become available for a regular rental price or on a streaming service is an impossible endeavor. Consider the recent release of Happiest Season, a release that was made available through early access for that $30 rental price tag before suddenly being made available out of nowhere for the regular $5.99 rental price tag, before mere weeks after that being bought up by Amazon Priime where it was made available for free on that streaming platform. Now try and make a decision on renting the much anticipated Sound of Metal for $7 when south of the border Amazon Prime has the rights to put it on their service for free right now, even though its not available on Prime here in Canada. Confused yet? Count me in that anxiety inducing camp.
I say all this to suggest that while I, like many, have been craving a good, old fashioned blockbuster in what has been a long, long year of their absence in the midst of lock down and reduced social gatherings, I had made up my mind to wait until who knows when to see Wonder Woman 1984. $30 for one person was just not a price I was willing to pay to watch the film at home. When a gifted Cineplex card and a family looking for a way to celebrate New Years “at home” pandemic style presented itself, the decision to take advantage of its early access at the price tag finally seemed a reasonable investment. And so for it’s lengthy 2 and a half hour run time I was able to throw off the mess and inconsistencies of the pandemic year and just escape in the way film is meant to do.
And it turned out to be the perfect antitidote to the crazy. The tonic for a year best left behind. The ability to lose myelf in an old fashioned story about the relationship between the gods and humankind, and perhaps an opportunity to find again on the other side some fresh perspective of the mess.
The first 10 minutes of the film thrusts us straight into life in Themyscira, featuring a thrilling race sequence that brought me back to what I loved about the first film. It’s big and bombasitc in the way that one hopes a blockbuster can be.
And then we hit a complete tonal shift where we are suddenly in oh so colorful 1984 era America where we encounter life as normal in a world where superhero’s and supervillains exist in the form of the gods that govern us and the gods that save us. The place where Themyscira and earth meet. This is a world where Wonder Woman lives among us as a god and where our central antagonist exists to challenge her embodiment of true virtue by wanting to become like god. It’s here in this everyday world that we come to anticipate that somehow and in someway these two forces, at once human and at once divine, are going to clash in an epic showdown of comsic proportions.
Another tonal shift has it bringing us back down to earth, dialing things down into a slow and steady character study as we get introduced to Kristin Wig’s character (who is fantastic in her role as the earthly, human embodiment of this unfolding war of the heavens), and I’m loving Patty Jenkin’s allegiance to some good old fashioned storytelling to compliment the bombast of the thrilling beginning? An intimate portrait of humanity being drawn out with a cosmic viewpoint.
At this point in the film I’ve already decided I’m all in for the ride. I had intentionally tried to avoid spoilers and later trailers, so I actually had no idea what the premise was and where the film was headed. Which was great, because I still didn’t really know how this was all going to unfold even an hour in. The way Jenkins builds the anticipation and the stakes, from this earthbound perspective looking outwards before drawing our attention back towards earth with the implications of this cosmic battle in tow is really astute and really well imagined. It affords her the time she needs to really discover and nurture the necessary context and make this relationship between heaven and earth come alive with purpose and perspective. In truth, I am a sucker for strong themes in film, and Wonder Woman 1984 is chalked full of timely thematic interest, especially given the nature of 2020.
The film is similar in many ways to the first film in that it utilizes some CGI that is intentionally campy while also finding ways to take itself seriously and draw out some intimate and smaller earth bound moments. I appreciate this about both films, because it feels different from other super hero films. I know when I’m in a WW film simply by the look and the feel of the world the film is imagining. The film is also structured similarly, in that we have that famliar three act structure that culminates in a big finish, featuring a showdown of cosmic proportions. It’s worth being said though, particularly because not everyone was a fan of the third act in the first Wonder Woman, the extra added run time is given to balancing that third act with an effort to capture its essence and importance and reapply that to a clearly drawn and emotionally rendered earth bound context. She takes the cosmic battle and draws it back into the character study in a way that really worked for me personally.
But it’s also quite different from the first one in other ways too. Not having to be an origins story and being able to take much of Diana Prince’s backstory for granted allows this film to stretch it’s legs and explore new territory, using a narrowed and brief moment from her childhood as the foundation for the story it wants to tell. Watching Diana in this opening race before she becomes Wonder Woman imbues us with a targeted message about learning the necessary lessons that come from loss, challenging us to consider what it means to grow in our perspective of what matters and what true virtue is. This theme plays into both the return of Chris Pine’s character (Steve Trevor) and the larger contest between her and Maxwell Lord and Cheetah (Wiggs eventual evolution) that follows, both pawns for the unseen Duke of Deception whom preys on humanity’s penchant for self destructive behavior. In the lore, The Duke of Deception can be literally rendered as the father of lies, with the rock in the film operating as the forbidden fruit, the allure of self interest, power and knowledge. There is a scene in the film in which the ancient book (scriptures if you will) sheds light on this origins story, positioning the father of lies in service to the god of war, someone who plants seeds in the form of these image bearing entities (be it animal or person) who spread messages of misinformation and self deceit all by means of a false god who goes by different names. This becomes the powerful backdrop for the cosmic battle that unfolds, playing out equally into the central premise of the stone’s all consuming power, which is all about exposing the true desires and intentions of the heart. In its ability to grant one their very desire, it confuses and corrupts the true nature of their desire, replacing that which holds true virtue, the love and value of others, with a self serving and self destructive narrative. This self destruction feeds back out into the world at large in apocalyptic proportions, being recognized as the perpetuating “cycle” of humanity through all of history.
And honestly, while I know this was made before 2020, the message couldn’t be more timely. I loved the way the film draws out these ideas of learning from loss and gaining perspective within this working relationship between Diana and Kristin Wiggs character. Here we have humanity looking upon a god and wishing to be “like” them, mirroring the words of the garden in which they gaze on the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And yet to become like god by way of this knowledge, this wish, distorts her true identity, who she is as the image or god or virtue. What a powerful picture of this eternally set struggle. What she gains in her pursuit of her wish comes at a tremendous cost, something that comes to a head in the film’s climatic moments.
The whole climatic sequence operates out of the richness of this idea, blending a thrilling showdown with some really unexpected emotional moments that capture not only its cosmic concern, but our present current crisis. What we find in Wonder Woman’s own choice to wish for that which she had lost in her abiding on earth with humanity becomes contrasted with her later self sacrifice. It’s a compelling picture to consider that in her love for humanity, for Steve, she loses or gives up her power as a god. She gives up something of herself. Even on this level though this sacrifice comes at the cost of someone elses life. This is the end result of self serving desire. Her decision then to sacrifice her wish for the good of all humanity becomes the means by which the cosmic forcees are defeated, something she calls humanity to then imitate, to follow in as the way to heal the self destruction on earth.
There is something profound about the way Jenkins plays out our antagonist not as a villain but rather as a matter of shifting perspective, to use her words. A matter of two kinds of wisdom, to reach back into the great tradition of the ancients. These aren’t so much villains as much as they are pictures of a much needed transformation. These competing or contrasting pictures of god, or being like god, or even our understanding of the character of god, feeds back into the image of humanity’s worth in a beautiful, declarative, and powerful way, conjuring up ideas of being made in the image of our maker in order to bear witness to this virtue that Wonder Woman embodies for them. We find this in this picture of the incarnate god choosing to dwell in humanity’s midst, bearing the weight of this self sacrifice for humanity’s sake. An act of love and grace that bears the weight of that self serving desire in its darkest and self consuming reality. It is in this way that the cosmic battle is won before turning our gaze earthward once again as a way to declare its true worth, its true value and the hope and promise of its restoration. On earth as it is in heaven.
This mess and confusion of a film industry in the midst of a pandemic is only a small and superficial picture of the weight of a difficult and dark 2020 that we experienced all over the world. I can only imagine while watching this film God looking down on earth and seeing the mess of its racial strife, the sruggle of a ruthless virus and the seeming unending uncertainty of violence and economic turmoil. As God is looking down on us, I imagine us looking upwards in wonderment, asking how it is that we got to where we are. Asking where God is and desiring to make ourselves god in the seeming absence and silence. How it is that we make sense of this world as it is in light of God’s existence. It seems to me to be an astute and natural question and obersvation, which is which character of god, of a god at all, emerges from this mess, this confusion? Is it the one played in sevice to the father of lies, or the one played in service to the sacrficial nature of the incarnate savior. Is it the one that seeks to become like god in our own strength and according to our own desire, or is it the one that seeks to dwell amongst humanity as its very image and its very emodiment of a given virtue. Is it the one determined to give humanity over to its own doing and self destructive behavior, or the one that seeks to turn our gaze towards this great image and hope of a humanity healed and restored and flourishing, the one who extends grace and love into a world full of hate and violence. What seems to be at stake in the god we imagine is the god we also image. One gives us something, and one demands something of us. This is the truth that prevades Wonder Woman 1984’s story.
I’ll end with this quote from the film as a way of seeking an answer to the god we seek, the god we imagine.
“All we have is the truth. And the truth is the enough. The truth is beautiful.
What is it costing you? Can you see the truth?”
– Wonder Woman