With just a single dedicated feature under her belt — the Patty Jenkins-directed 2017 smash hit “Wonder Woman” — star Gal Gadot’s iteration of the beloved DC heroine has already managed to span the earliest years of the DCEU, thanks to appearances in the team-up features “Justice League” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But as the timeline of this particular blockbuster franchise only continues to tangle itself, from the addition of the upcoming “Snyder cut” to a new take on “The Suicide Squad,” its most human superhero is tasked with a very modern problem indeed: where can she possibly go next?
It’s the sort of issue that will, unfortunately, continue to knot the ever-expanding world of franchise filmmaking, the kind of creativity rooted in timelines and making them work (or, as is still sometimes the case, not making them work and then blaming the whole thing on some wacky villain or wild contraption). Franchise filmmaking has narrowed plenty of good ideas (and characters!), boxing them into not just time and place, but backstory and personality. With such constraints, how can anyone make something truly their own, about a hero who is, well, truly her own?
Leave it to Jenkins to find a suitable and satisfying workaround in the form of “Wonder Woman 1984,” the rare superhero sequel that, for better (and sometimes, but rarely) worse, carves its own path and finds something joyous, wacky, and deeply enjoyable as a result. All that neon and all those parachute pants? Just a bonus, as Jenkins and Gadot take their heartfelt heroine back to 1984, finding bombastic new territory for Diana Prince to explore, blessedly outside the confines of her contemporary compatriots.
Opening with an adrenaline-fueled flashback to Diana’s early years on the mythical island of Themyscira — even bigger and more bad-ass than it appeared in Jenkins’ 2017 feature — “Wonder Woman 1984” hastens from its start to deliver the messages that guide Diana’s own journey, as she continues to evolve as both a person and a superhero. Those messages will carry throughout the entire film, as young Diana (again played by the gutsy Lilly Aspell) is reminded by her beloved aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) that “no true hero is born from lies,” setting up the overall theme of the film which is, yes, of all things, the value of truth and the courage to face it. What makes Diana human is also what makes her strong — such is the case with “Wonder Woman 1984,” which is at its most thrilling when it’s at its most personal.
While Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman film set Diana up as a wide-eyed fish out of water, a pure-hearted warrior plopped into the dirty world of man (and deciding it was still worth fighting for), “Wonder Woman 1984” finds Diana some decades on, broken-hearted but not wholly broken. “Wonder Woman” ended with the death of her beloved Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and while Diana hasn’t spent the interim years totally alone — quick shots at some dated photographs reveal the people she stayed close with, even as time took them too — she has spent it without another great love.
But Diana is the last person to let personal pain get in the way of her duty as a protector of humanity, and the film’s opening sequence swiftly moves into Diana’s ’80s existence, marked by a continued dedication to saving people, even if on an amusingly small-scale level. A zippy sequence that appears to take some cues from the off-kilter opening of “Superman III” (that’s the one with the flaming toys and an in-car near-drowning) finds things in Washington, D.C. to be going weird in very strange ways, only to be fixed by someone who can’t quite be seen. This Diana might not be ready to announce herself publicly as Wonder Woman, but she also can’t stop herself from righting all sorts of wrongs.
As with any ’80s-set film, “Wonder Woman 1984” can’t escape a mall sequence, all the better to remind audiences of the kind of excess and capitalism that dominated the era (and will soon inform the slightly convoluted storyline at the heart of the film). At least Jenkins’ spin on it exemplifies what makes both Wonder Woman and “Wonder Woman” great — eye-popping visuals, a kicky sense of humor, and some literal winks to its audience — as Diana gets ever-closer to becoming the hero most people know her as today.
Such is the tension with the film’s primary antagonist, the delightfully outsized Max Lord (played by Pedro Pascal, clearly having the best time ever), who is also introduced during the mall sequence, a crowing presence on one of the many, many television sets that appear in the film (again, the ’80s!). “You don’t even have to work hard for it,” Max winks during one of his very popular television commercials. For Max, you just have to want it, and man, does Max Lord want stuff. He is, however, willing to work for it, even if he doesn’t expect the same from his so-called investors.
Turns out, the head of the consumer-owned oil company Black-Gold Cooperative just might have something to do with the burglary that sets Diana in motion, which involves a magical stone (really) with its own awkward history. When the FBI picks up the stone (thanks to the mystery hero who is, in fact, Diana), it swiftly comes back into her orbit, deposited at the Smithsonian, where Diana works, and placed in the eager paws of new employee and charmingly geek striver Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who is all too happy to find out its mysteries. If that all sounds like a lot, it is, and “Wonder Woman 1984” is well past its one-hour mark before its various characters and plot points coalesce into a single story, though it’s all so fun and frisky that such issues don’t entirely grate.
What (eventually) unspools is relatively simple, though: the power-hungry Max Lord wants a stone that can grant “one great wish,” and along the way, that same stone falls into many other hands. That includes the soft-hearted Barbara, who wants nothing more than to be like Diana — who wouldn’t want to be like Diana? — and whose wish as such has, of course, some unforeseen consequences. So does Max’s wish. So do the wishes of the many people Max involves in his scheme. And so does Diana’s wish, which (without giving too much away, despite the obviousness of what Diana would ask for and the long-teased return of the very dead Steve Trevor) comes to exemplify her very human nature, and why it will always be both her greatest strength and her deepest weakness.
While the stakes of “Wonder Woman 1984” will prove familiar to anyone who has watched a big budget superhero movie in the last decade — nothing less than the fate of the entire world — Jenkins and Gadot still manage to ground it in deeply human feelings. The entire world may hang in the balance, but “Wonder Woman 1984” proves to be about the battle for one person’s soul. Both a morality tale and the sort of nutty adventure that could only unspool on the big screen (or in the pages of a comic book), “Wonder Woman 1984” is a story that only works because it’s about Diana and her distinct evolution, a superhero movie about, of all wild ideas, being a good person.
Though Wiig’s turn as Cheetah is rooted in its own real-world concerns, including a simmering rage against toxic masculinity that takes on some shocking shapes, it’s really Pascal’s bonkers Max Lord who proves to be the film’s primary antagonist and a fitting opponent for Diana. It only helps that the actor has a hell of a time with the role, hamming it up in ways both amusing and appropriate to a character who is obsessed with the appearance of things and shedding a past he doesn’t think is good enough. “I am not a con man! I am a television personality… and a respected businessman!,” he screams at one point, a moment both very funny and perhaps too close to real-world worries.
And while it might have been fun to spend more time in the zippy, neon-colored world the film inhabits, Jenkins has a lot of story — perhaps too much — to push through in order to deliver that very worthwhile tale. The film’s many action sequences run the gamut, from the impressive mall showdown to the tumbling tumult of an Egypt-set road sequence to a late act scuffle with Cheetah that’s often impossible to follow. There’s a handful of sequences that would have played like gangbusters on the big screen (and still can for some), from that fantastical, multi-pronged opener to a colorful montage that sees Diana and Steve (quite literally) winging their way through Fourth of July fireworks.
There are also some thorny questions that will, presumably, be addressed a bit more fully in the inevitable followup feature. “Wonder Woman 1984” is all about playing with magic and wishes and desires, only to see them lead to horrible ramifications, instant gratification, and the revelation that lying is never without consequence. Those are some big swings, and not every single one lands, but the ones that do are both joyous and genuinely worth pondering. And yet it’s also brimming with the same wonder and joy as the first film, the rare movie — of any stripe — that doesn’t just want to believe in the goodness of people, but is willing to make them truly work for it. That’s superheroic.
Warner Bros. will release “Wonder Woman 1984” in select theaters and via streaming on HBO Max on Friday, December 25.
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