Were “Wonder Woman 1984’s” Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) a real person who possessed the ability to grant wishes, I would wish for people to stop whining about spoilers in essays they choose to read. But since we have no such luck, consider this your caution: This column discusses plot points from “WW84.”
“Wonder Woman 1984’s” critical reception has whipped from early praise to precipitous decline as fast as Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) can snap her lasso of truth. But while it’s a pretty bad DC Comics movie — spoken as someone who, in general, really likes DC Comics movies — it is something rarer: a pretty solid Washington, D.C. movie. Given Hollywood’s tendency to treat our nation’s capital as geographically and culturally indistinct and weirdly underpopulated, it’s nice to see “WW84” break with that trend and show the world just how beautiful and eccentric the District and its residents can be.
The bad first: “WW84” is scattershot and nonsensical, seemingly designed solely around a desire to get pilot Steve Trevor, who died in the first film, back for a second go-round, even if that means negating his heroic sacrifice.
To that end, writers Patty Jenkins (who also directed) and Geoff Johns introduce Maxwell Lord, who absorbs the power of a rock that grants wishes, but exacts a price — at least, sometimes. Where previous entries in the DC expanded universe pondered weightier ideas about what it would mean for mortal men to realize gods walk among them — and “Wonder Woman,” in turn, asked how gods would react to the realization that men have free will — this film’s message is a more mundane “You can’t always get what you want" or “Be careful what you wish for.”
All of this would be fine if the action sequences were any good; sadly, they are not. Perhaps it’s just a function of watching this at home via HBO Max, as most people will, but everything on screen felt cheap and bland. There’s nothing as exciting as the German assault on Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira or her march through a World War I No Man’s Land in the first film; everything is weightless and silly.
Still, it’s not all bad, and “Wonder Woman 1984” is at its best when most rooted in its location. Unlike many Hollywood productions, the movie uses actual D.C. locations for both interior and exterior shots. Watching Wonder Woman stride through the iconic Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s entry and take a resurrected Steve on a tour of D.C.’s Metro system gave the picture a genuine Washington flair so often absent from movies like this. Big setpieces that take place on actual Washington streets in sight of the Capitol — and overhead during the city’s annual fireworks extravaganza — as well as the use of more intimate locations such as the Watergate’s apartment complexes, help make the movie’s use of places such as the Reflecting Pool feel natural, rather than hastily added to remind audiences where they are.
This fealty to D.C. geography allows natives to give the occasional gaffe, like the suggestion of a Silver Line (or a Green Line!) in 1984, a pass. And it makes clear how obvious and often other productions try to get Toronto or some other bland locale to stand in for D.C.: “WW84” joins “Breach” as one of the rare movies to get the geography — the look and the feel and the traffic — of D.C. just right, and as such, to present the city as a distinct place, rather than an unimportant one.
More than that, though, “WW84” nails the mood of a certain sort of D.C. resident who believes that “earning” an internship in the White House would be enough to give a gangly young dork the gumption to ask a literal Amazon goddess out on a date.
Indeed, in its treatment of folks around town — from the mousy-but-competent workers such as Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) who get lost in the bureaucracy that employs them to the full-of-themselves donors and interns who operate the shadow economy that keeps D.C.’s institutions running — “WW84” has a lot in common with “Shattered Glass,” Billy Ray’s movie about the fabulist Stephen Glass, who almost took down the New Republic. That movie captured the sociology of D.C., with its weird mélange of poor pay, idealism and naked ambition in the service of jockeying for social position, in a way that few others have managed. Like that movie, “WW84” shows how Washington’s institutions and mores leave it at risk of being corrupted.
And while the film’s sense of policy is rather iffy — Ronald Reagan, the architect of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, would have been unlikely to use Maxwell Lord’s powers to wish for more nukes, as his fictional doppelgänger does in the film — it gets enough about the world right to work. I will admit to being deeply entertained by the sight of Israel Defense Forces vet Gadot taking apart the Egyptian “King of Crude’s” security force after the tycoon wishes for the “colonizers” to be pushed into the sea.
“Wonder Woman 1984” won’t top my Washington DC Area Film Critics Association nominations for best picture. But I’d be shocked if it didn’t win the group’s Joe Barber Award for Best Portrayal of Washington, D.C. More movies that purport to care about the capital and what happens here should take note.