Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Kristoffer Polaha, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde
Running Time: 151 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a great sequence of a young Diana Prince (Lilly Aspell) competing in a triathalon-style athletic event on Themyscira. It's probably one of the more exciting and thematically relevant openings to a superhero entry in a long time, setting the bar extremely high for whatever follows. Racing against older, more experienced gladiators than herself, she takes a shortcut, attempting to cheat to secure a win. This doesn't go well for the future warrior, but perfectly sets the table for rest of the story, which eventually introduces a 1984 that can really only be seen through the prism of present-day. And in an an effort to depict the toxic selfishness and individualism running rampant in both decades, director and co-writer Patty Jenkins delivers a sequel that's actually about something.
While that ambition doesn't always translate into creative greatness in a conventional sense, this is an effort that's ridiculously eager to please and entertaining in all the ways a new Wonder Woman entry should be. 2017's reboot of the franchise proved that Jenkins had a strong handle on what exactly this character should be, and now freed from handling the responsibility of an origin story, she lets loose. While the action's set in the '80's, it also carries with it many of the qualities that would accompany a big budget comic book movie that came out during that era, throwing a lot of elements against the wall with a cheeky tone. Most of it sticks, in no small part due to a plot that's silly beyond belief, but executed with enough flare and confidence that you can't help but respect her for going all the way with it.
It's 1984 and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., while also moonlighting as Wonder Woman when necessary. After encountering the shy, awkward new museum crypto-zoologist, Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig), the two bond over antiquities and become fast friends, with the socially invisible Barbara envious of Diana's intelligence, beauty and confidence. But when both come upon a mysterious rock from a burglary they're able to eventually identify as a "Dreamstone," its Latin inscription reveals it to be capable of granting the holder a single wish. For Diana, that wish would be for her deceased love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to be alive, while the ignored, insecure Barbara wants only to be just like Diana.
It turns out both wishes carry more baggage than expected, along with some dangerous trade-offs. Enter sleazy, failing oil businessman and TV personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) who, posing as a museum donor, looks to get his hands on the stone, planning to make a wish that could cause disastrous worldwide repercussions if it's successfully granted. With Max using Barbara as a pawn in his evil plan, Wonder Woman is faced with a debilitating decision, forced to choose between two unthinkable options in order to protect society from destroying itself.
The biggest difference between this and the fairly praised first film is most obviously its setting, taking place nearly three quarters of a century later, Jenkins takes full advantage of the era to deliver a fish-out-of-water story of Diana attempting to find her barings without Steve in new, unfamilar territory. This opens the door for a lot of visual gags and jokes centered around the mid 80's, to the point you'd think this was a lost long-form episode of Stranger Things, even featuring a mall fight to start things off. While it's more of a corny, cartoonish version of the decade than that series, it still works really well since the actual plot is an ideal fit for the era during which it takes place, with Max's insatiable greed and Barbara's desperation in providing its driving engine.
The Dreamstone's introduction doesn't initially inspire confidence the plotline can sustain enough narrative momentum, especially in regards to Steve's sudden resurrection. In some ways his body swapping return feels like the ultimate deus ex machina until we get an explanation of how it fits into the bigger picture. But it's still fair to say that the character feels more like Diana's appendage or sidekick this time around, reappearing with far less agency than he did in the first film. Due to these circumstances, the reunion itself doesn't emotionally land as solidly as it should, as Pine's sort of hung out to dry for extended stretches. If Steve's arc is the weak link, the idea itself eventually turns into an intriguing one for Diana when she has to face the true ramifications of her wish.
Whatever may be sacrificed with Diana and Steve is made up ten-fold with a surprisingly involving pair of top-notch villains. Kristen Wiig, whose big screen mileage can vary depending on the role, is pitch perfect as this mousy museum employee who finally has a chance to be noticed and respected in a trajectory that's very similar to Selina Kyle/Catwoman's in Batman Returns. Her slow-burning transformation into Cheetah is built with just the right dose of empathy, moving at an ideal pace and peaking exactly when it needs to. Claiming she's the best thing in this movie wouldn't be inaccurate, but The Mandalorian's Pedro Pascal sure gives her a run for it as Max Lord, a crooked oil magnate obviously patterned as a hybrid of Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump, with heavier emphasis on the latter.
Pascal really goes for the jugular with a maniacal, over-the-top performance that contains some quieter, subtler acting choices, investing what was probably intended as a broad parody with surprising depth. He makes this guy so deliriously full of himself that it's kind of a joy to watch, completely washing away whatever preconceived expectations fans may have had about his casting. One of the more impactful sub-plots involves Max's relationship with his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez), adding another interesting layer to this diabolical, larger-than-life scam artist turned deranged cult leader.
If the third act is where most superhero endings falter, this one actually gains quite a bit of steam when the enormity of Max's plan comes to fruition, along with Wonder Woman's eventual showdown with Cheetah. The most resonant aspect of its concluding forty minutes is how the Dreamstone's powers, or more accurately Max's abuse of them, leads to the emergence of another villain: Us. With him preying upon and manipulating everyone into indulging in their basest instincts, the script takes a timely turn that's sure make more than a few viewers do a double take, if not outright squirm in their seats at what's unfolding.
Featuring two wildly entertaining supervillains that
compliment each other surprisingly well, this doesn't
feel overstuffed or self-indulgent, despite its extended length. Gal Gadot serves as its effortlessly
steady anchor, impressing again in the role she was born to play, after Hollywood spent decades trying and failing to
find the ideal actress for it. Of all the tentpole comic book franchise
leads, whether it be DC or Marvel, she feels the least replaceable,
lending even more credibility to a series that truly "gets" its character. Without discounting its minor issues, I'd
still probably take WW84 over its predecessor
simply because it's more fun, utilizing its setting and
time period to deliver the rare superhero sequel that feels less like a
cash grab than a smart, purposeful continuation.