Princess Diana of Themyscira lassoes lightning, among other dazzling feats, in Wonder Woman 1984 (★★★☆☆), the amazing Amazon’s vaunted return to the solo superhero center ring. Director Patty Jenkins’ colorful, lightly comic sequel to her 2017 blockbuster finds Wonder Woman alive and well in Washington, D.C., circa 1984. Once again imbued with brazen confidence and an empathetic mien by Gal Gadot, the character is still learning the hero lessons she began in childhood back on her island paradise.
Jenkins returns us to Themyscira, and Diana’s tutelage under doting mom Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and warrior auntie Antiope (Robin Wright), for a rousing opening sequence at what appears to be the Amazon Olympics.
A brilliant display of young Diana’s determination, the contest, well-acted by Lilly Aspell (reprising the role of the young princess), swiftly sets up the moral of our story. “No true hero is born from lies,” Diana is told, and she’ll be challenged to uphold an even higher standard of character and self-sacrifice as she faces off against deadly new foes.
Diana’s godly physical prowess notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest superpower endowed to her is a noble heart, the incorruptible goodness that distinguishes Wonder Woman from even the version of Superman that stalks the DC film universe. So it feels natural to spin a dilemma around seeing her pure heart tested by selfish desire.
And what might Diana desire so dearly that she’d risk her sworn duty to protect the innocent? Why, the return of her one true love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), of course. The late Captain Trevor, last seen going up in flames over a WWI battlefield, does manage somehow to join his beloved in 1984 — but happily ever after won’t come easily for them.
The pair’s romance collides with the underdog origin story of Wonder Woman’s ferocious nemesis the Cheetah, whom we first meet as mild-mannered gemologist Barbara Minerva. “It’s Doctor, actually,” as she corrects one condescending male. Portrayed by Kristen Wiig, Dr. Minerva is a bundle of frump and tics, and if the words “a Kristen Wiig character” strike any fear in you, be warned that Minerva’s transition towards super-villainy chews up a significant amount of screen time.
But Barbara and Diana are intriguing opposites, and Wiig and Gadot invest the museum co-workers’ blossoming rapport with touching notes of friendship and longing. The personal stakes for Diana matter beyond just her romance with Steve, as both she and Barbara learn you can’t always get what you want.
The film’s greatest testament to that adage, though, and the secret weapon that helps transform WW84 from simple fantasy to startling satire, is Diana’s other antagonist this go-round. Maxwell Lord is a lying, TV-spawned con man who wants to rule the world. He looks and dresses like 1984, but he couldn’t be more current in his craven, twisted pursuit of riches and power.
The Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal goes big in his flamboyant characterization of sociopathic greed and vindictiveness, yet never crosses a line into cartoonishness. In fact, Lord’s wickedness, especially as he maneuvers his way to power in Washington, will strike some as all too realistic.
His cursed quid pro quos lead to a world in chaos, which Jenkins depicts in frightening terms that should resonate in this topsy-turvy year. Countering the darkness, the movie depicts its heroine’s gifts in the most inspiring light. Diana whips plenty of nifty new abilities out of her demi-goddess back of tricks, including finally showing off that invisible jet she’s been hiding. Although the plot leans into a Diana-led detective story, moderating the big-budget spectacle, the fight scenes and stuntwork are consistently exciting.
And despite Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah’s deadly campaign, Diana, Steve, and the movie have fun living it up ’80s-style all over D.C., with Duran Duran and Frankie Goes to Hollywood on the soundtrack, and trips to the arcade and the mall. While this story doesn’t fill in the blanks of what Diana was up to between the eighties and her re-emergence in the 21st-century Metropolis of Batman v Superman, it elegantly, in a few photos, reveals where she spent many of the years between 1918 and 1984, nursing her broken heart. Putting it back together is the journey she takes for herself. Reclaiming truth as the most powerful weapon against corruption is the mission she takes on for the world.
Wonder Woman 1984 is available for streaming Christmas Day, December 25 on HBO Max. Visit www.hbomax.com.
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