The lessons of Wonder Woman 1984 are a bit like the movie itself: familiar, direct, and winningly sincere. “No true hero is born from lies.” “Greatness is not what you think.” “Beware what you wish for.”
These cautionary statements might have elicited an eye-roll in less-assured hands. But here, as in the enormously successful Wonder Woman (2017), the director Patty Jenkins and her star, Gal Gadot, have mastered the art of cornball conviction.
If what you wish for this season is high spirits, earnest emotions, and the unironically delightful sight of Chris Pine in a fanny pack, well, consider it granted. This extravagant, genially overstuffed sequel may be a product of 2020, but its spirit feels gratifyingly in sync with 1984.
It’s one of the few superhero pictures of any note this year, and the temporary suspension of our collective blockbuster fatigue may account in part for why this picture makes such welcome company. But it also has something to do with Gadot’s Old Hollywood glamour, Pine’s second-banana appeal, and the serio-comic elasticity of Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal in key supporting roles.
They’re all distinctive parts in a smooth-running narrative engine that channels the buoyancy and big-hearted spectacle of the Richard Donner Superman movies, with a few period-appropriate nods to body-swap comedies for good measure.
It begins with a flashback to the distant Paradise Island childhood of Diana Prince (the terrific Lilly Aspell). She is the youngest participant in a mind-boggling Amazonian Gladiators-style arena tournament to which acrophobes, aquaphobes, and men need not apply.
The spectacle that follows is a dazzler, presided over by the regal Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, and set to the breathless surge of Hans Zimmer’s score.
It will also have important implications years later for 1984 Diana (Gadot), now a curator at the Smithsonian. Diana’s expertise is in antiquities, by which I mean old artworks and ancient languages, not fanny packs — one of several ’80s-beloved accoutrements that bear out the accuracy of the movie’s title.
Wonder Woman 1984 is a predictable riot of pastel hues and preppy polo shirts, ankle warmers, and rolled-up blazer sleeves. Some of these are modeled by Diana’s soul mate, Capt. Steve Trevor (Pine), a World War I pilot who charmingly transforms himself into a human Ken doll in one of the movie’s more lightly subversive sequences.
Diana, with whom he is joyously reunited, is entirely at ease with her ’80s moment, if also immune to its worst trends, preferring to rock an elegant chiffon gown — and, of course, her signature Wonder Woman garb, which comes in handy whenever a mall robbery needs foiling.
But the most closely scrutinized accessory on this movie’s fashion-packed runway is not the Lasso of Truth; it’s the high-heeled shoe. That brings us to Dr. Barbara Minerva (Wiig), a nerdy, soft-spoken Smithsonian gemologist who befriends Diana and envies her superhuman radiance. Barbara, by contrast, trips, and totters about the office in a pair of heels that become a kind of comic shorthand for bumbling loserdom.
But as she and Diana wryly note, those shoes are also a symbol of the everyday pressures brought to bear on all women, for whom it’s never enough to be merely competent and smart (but not too smart). They must also be physically deft, stylishly attired, and, of course, sexually available and receptive to men at all times.
Again and again, Diana and Barbara have to endure and deflect unwanted male attention. You may lose count of all the run-of-the-mill boors and slobbering predators they have to fend off, and you’re meant to. One of the movie’s most unexpectedly resonant moments arrives when Barbara quietly corrects a man by pointing out that she has a doctorate.
He’s Maxwell Lord (The Mandalorian’s Pascal), a sleazy oil tycoon who’s about to take his grift to another level. Laying hands on an ancient “Dream Stone,” he somehow absorbs and maximizes its mystical properties, granting wishes to anyone he comes across and robbing them of their own precious gifts and treasures in return.
His powers thus become the currency in an ever-escalating Ponzi scheme, transforming Wonder Woman 1984 into, among other things, a sharp and slippery critique of its materially obsessed me-first decade.
Max is not the movie’s only villain, or its only character to succumb to the giddy rush of fulfilling your wildest dreams. I won’t say too much about what happens to Barbara (though DC Comics scholars will be well ahead of me), except to note that she allows Wiig to lean into the prickly aggression that has always undergirded her funniest characters and sketches.
Both Wiig and Pascal are allowed to go exuberantly over-the-top in a movie that, at two and a half hours and with extended jaunts between Egypt and Washington, D.C., can seem as excessive and unwieldy as the decade it’s satirizing.
But aesthetically and conceptually, Wonder Woman 1984 holds together. The ’80s decor is by turns cheeky and earnest, celebratory and satirical. The greed-is-bad moralizing feels both era-specific and pointedly contemporary.
Gadot and Pine give great pillow talk, and their easy screwball rhythms provide not just levity but ballast: They ground a movie in which time, for all its malleability, always feels like it’s slipping away.
As in the first film, Gadot does her most striking work off the battlefield. Her Diana needs only the twinge of an eyebrow to register doubt or self-reproach, only a knowing smile and a muttered “We won’t be doing that today” to bring a gun-toting robber to his knees.
She’s magnetic and self-effacing, earnest and knowing, an icon without an ego. She’s an antidote to these blockbuster-free times — and also, I suspect, to some of the blockbusters to come.
Wonder Woman 1984 *** (out of 4)
Directed by: Patty Jenkins, with Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristin Wiig
How to see it: Playing on HBO Max, the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard (Dec. 25-27 & 31), and at area theaters, where open.
Run time: 2 hours, 35 min.