WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR: Soul, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman 1984
There is a story from Star Trek lore that has transcended the fandom into popular awareness, the Kobayashi Maru, also known as the unwinnable test. In the Star Trek universe, it is a test given to Academy cadets to prepare them for the inevitable no-win scenario of commanding a starship. In the Star Trek canon, Kirk rigged the test so he could win. In the original series, he was given a commendation for “original thinking,” and became the youngest captain ever in Starfleet. Kirk never learned there are consequences for such “original thinking” until much later when, in a battle with old nemesis Khan, Kirk’s original thinking does save the crew, but costs him his dearest friend.
Essentially, he cheated.
Two studios gave us gifts for Christmas Day: Disney, with SOUL, and Warner Bros, with WONDER WOMAN 1984 (aka WW84).
SOUL opens with the traditional notes of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” this time being played – less than expertly – by a middle school music class. Their teacher, Joe Gardner, is trying to keep the kids on track while also maintaining his sanity when one student shows a flash of musical genius. That same day, he gets tenure at the school and a big break to join a jazz quartet. While walking home to get ready, he falls into a manhole, and finds himself heading towards a giant light. Joe, it would seem, has died, and is ready for the Great Beyond. He panics, and breaks through to the other side, which is where new souls are prepared for life. He pretends to be a mentor, and is assigned the most difficult case ever, 22. New souls are not named, they are numbered, and the current class includes souls numbered in the billions, which should emphasize how long 22 has been around.
22 has no interest in going to earth, Joe – or at least his essence – desperately wants to go back so he doesn’t miss his shot with the quartet. He and 22 then conspire to get 22 “earth-ready,” at which point 22 will give Joe their earth pass. Nothing works, so the administrators come to send Joe back to the Great Beyond. Joe and 22 ask for 5 more minutes, run off, and enlist the help of a wandering soul (Moonwind, wonderfully voiced by Graham Norton) to get Joe back to earth. His magic works, and Joe is back on earth – with 22.
The soul count is suddenly off, and one of the administrators notices. The administrator goes to earth and finds Joe, and retrieves his soul, telling him very plainly, “you cheated.”
Wonder Woman is immortal, and thus doesn’t have the same concerns as those of Joe or 22. Diana is a superhero that has the luxury of being able to fit into any era. Shifting her origin to World War One allowed writers to consider several historical points to frame adventures for Diana: World War Two? The Korean War? The Cuban Missile Crisis? The Iran Hostage Crisis? The Falklands? Okay, maybe not the Falklands, but there was a vast playground available to Patty Jenkins and the writers at Warner Bros to craft Diana’s next adventure. And the first film’s writer, Allan Heinberg, had established a story structure in which lessons could be imparted within the flashback narrative without their being forced or corny.
With the first film’s theme being Love, Jenkins and primary writer Geoff Johns focused on “Truth” to be the core theme for the sequel and set it in a nostalgic atmosphere for themselves, the 1980s.
WW84 also introduces two characters to the DCEU very familiar to comic fans, Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord. Lord is portrayed here as a petty charlatan, a con man who simply wants to be a big deal. Minerva is from the same cookie-cutter that produced Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, or Jim Carrey’s Riddler: a pathetic wallflower of a character before transforms into a strong, confident villain. Lord’s arc can be seen as a mashup of Tom Hanks’ BIG and Michael Douglas’ WALL STREET, whereas Minerva is just like her progenitors: confident, strong, and opposite of her previous persona (including a paint-by-numbers pair of moments before and after transformation in which she interacts with the same homeless person).
Lord manipulates Minerva to obtain a special stone that grants wishes and then becomes the wish grantor, which creates global trouble as it pushes Lord closer and closer to absolute power. All the while he lies to himself about how all of this will end, as his body is decaying from within with each wish. Minerva wishes to be just like Diana, strong, popular, attractive, and with that, she slowly loses herself in her animalistic tendencies as she literally becomes a cheetah. Diana wishes for Steve, pure and simple. Steve is that which she has wanted – and pined for (no pun intended) for 65 years.
But before all of this happens, we are treated to a flashback of young Diana taking part in Amazonian games. Diana is roughly 12, whereas she faces against adult Amazons, and she holds her own. She is proficient in all of the tests of accuracy and shows ingenuity and craftiness. However, halfway through the contest, Diana falls from her horse, and she uses a tunnel to reclaim her ride – skipping part of the challenge. Diana is in front and headed for victory until Antiope grans her and stops her from winning. Diana immediately yells about fairness.
Antiope simply explains that she was not ready to win, and that no true hero is born from lies. Diana protests again, and Antiope responds that she took the short path.
Joe and 22 are brought back to the soul preparation area. Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, 22 has earned her pass to earth. She can now go and be a person! Joe has done the impossible. Given a chance to say goodbye before they leave, Joe is left with 22’s pass, and before he can return it, she disappears.
Joe takes the pass, jumps, and lands in his body just in time to make it to the club for his show with the quartet – which he aces. They make him part of the band, and Joe realizes he doesn’t feel like he thought he would. His whole life had been leading up this moment and it finally hits him that it was the journey, not the destination.
And he has cheated 22 of that chance.
Diana tries several times to get Minerva to understand what she is doing to herself, and how it isn’t worth the cost: the wishing stone takes more than it gives. Minerva doesn’t care, she likes what she is becoming. Lord is after more and more power, convinced that at some point everything will come together and make it all work out, and he likes his chances. For Diana, having Steve back is slowly robbing her of her immortality, strength, and powers.
And it isn’t until another ham-fisted Superman and Superman II call back that Steve is finally able to convince Diana that he needs to disappear for good – that she needs to finally let go – for her to be able to finally save the day. She finally does, and after saying goodbye she is not only restored to full strength, she uses earlier advice from Steve to figure out how to fly.
Meanwhile, Lord lands at a special broadcast facility for the president, where Lord establishes a global linkup to have everyone make a wish. As they do, Lord becomes more and more powerful. The final evolution of Minerva into Cheetah is revealed as she and Diana fight just outside the facility as the world’s populace selfishly feds Lord’s whims. Diana tries one last chance to get Minerva to renounce her wish, and apologizes when Minerva refuses.
Diana then enters the facility and the storm around Lord is so powerful even Diana and the Lasso cannot penetrate it. A beaten Diana lies in the corner trying to talk Lord into renouncing his wish as nuclear missiles – a wish of nearly every world leader – begin launching everywhere. Lord tells Diana she is wasting her time, and she replies that she is not talking to him.
Lord is trying to take over the world, but the world leaders are cheating him of that chance.
Joe finds a way back to the soul preparation area, and finds 22, who has transformed into a monster. He has to find a way to heal her, help her, and give her her chance. He has to admit his error, acknowledge what he did – and what he did to her – and help her.
Diana has managed to get the Lasso around Lord’s ankle, allowing her voice to be heard with his over the broadcast. She reaches people and wishes start being renounced. Bombs magically disappear. Things calm down. Lord is taken to find his son, Minerva is transformed back into Barbara, and Diana is left alone to help people again.
The final moments of the Wonder Woman sequel are a tacked-on scene at Christmas in which Diana runs into the man whose body Steve inhabited, and a fan-service cameo scene which I won’t spoil.
Soul ends with a somewhat typical heartstrings-pulling ending that is satisfying and – well – soulful. It’s honest and earnest.
We entered expecting a film that would carry us on a journey of the necessity of music to our lives, and instead we learned of the importance of living – simply living – and how music is but one of many wonderful companions on that journey.
Joe and 22 are honest, deep, and engaging characters whose experiences help create a full experience that takes the film far beyond what it was expected. Pixar had fallen into a rut of sequelitis (even if those sequels were good), and this is a fine return to form.
I watched SOUL after WONDER WOMAN 1984 and I am very glad I did.
WONDER WOMAN 1984 opened with two fun sequences – first with young Diana then with “modern” Diana in 1984 saving people from everyday dangers then a hostage situation in a mall. Those two scenes were like an entire Spider-Man film in microcosm: lesson and heroic response…with lots of web-swinging-like lasso work.
And then everything went off the rails. The film seemed to be of two pieces. Decent to solid performances led by capable and sometimes fantastic director Jenkins, layered atop a paint-by-numbers story assembled from a checklist of comic book – note, comic book and not comic book movie – tropes. Add in the aforementioned riffs on Donner’s Superman films and it comes across as if Geoff Johns was desperately trying to will this movie to be the best DC superhero movie ever.
Johns, the film’s primary writer, is – or was, or may still be depending on the day of the week the way AT&T/WB handles DC Comics – an executive in charge of character oversight at DC. He has also written several episodes of various DC TV series, and has written many runs of various DC comics, most notably JSA and Green Lantern. His career began as an intern and PA for Richard Donner. That influence is all over this story.
So much of the story in this film reminds me of something I remember Stan Lee once saying about Marvel Comics. He was once asked about the use of “big words” in his comics, and he said that audiences – young audiences especially – were smarter than anyone thought, so you should never talk or write down to them.
That may not have been the intention, but ultimately that was the effect of this story. It’s filled with so many tropes and comic book familiarities that it feels more like a reformatted comic book script than a comic book story adapted for the screen. For example, story beats take ten minutes when in comics they would take maybe three or four panels. Odd story elements that might pass muster in a comic – Steve knowing how to fly a 1980s fighter jet when he only knows how to fly a 1916 propeller bi-plane, for example – are hung out like dirty laundry.
And then there are the shortcuts. Those little moments that suggest that not only was Jenkins not fully in control of the ship, but that cuts were made while the captain had her back turned. The CGI fight in extreme darkness. Lord seeing his son in the chaos of the last moments despite Alastair being however many hundreds of miles away. Everything just returning to normal or disappearing when the wishes are renounced…but everyone’s memories remain. The Christmas tack on scene just so we know “Handsome Man” (seriously, that’s Steve’s host body’s name in the credits) is okay.
These are just some of the moments where the movie, well, cheated.
Moments that are unearned. Moments that are far too common. Moments that none of the unfortunately solid performances could save (not even with a goofy but welcome end credit scene).
I won’t spoil the result of SOUL, but suffice it to say, it worked, on nearly every level.
Joe cheated, and he paid the price, and he learned a valuable lesson.
Lord, Minerva, and Diana cheated. But did any of them pay a price? Or was it just the viewers?
WB and DC were faced with their own Kobayashi Maru of equaling their best DCEU film to date, and they failed. But they didn’t fail because they tried and simply missed the mark, and they didn’t fail because of a pandemic.
Simply put, Warner Bros cheated…and Disney won.