Review: Wonder Woman 1984 Pledges Allegiance to Hope and Familiar Tropes

The film shows a preference for forgiveness over vengeance, which feels like an okay way to end this particular year.

Wonder Woman 1984
Photo: Warner Bros.

Calling Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984 a perfectly acceptable comic-book adventure might sound more negative than intended. But in a time when the genre is more typically given to the kind of world-building that seems primarily committed to spinning off corporate cinematic widgets (Avengers: Endgame, extended Snyder cuts, and the upcoming onslaught of new-universe-spawning Marvel flicks), a standalone story more engaged with its characters than series continuity is almost refreshing.

Set almost 70 years after the first Wonder Woman, the sequel finds the ageless Diana (Gal Gadot) working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. When not burying herself in work, she pines for her lost love, Steve (Chris Pine), in her stylish apartment at the Watergate. She also engages in classic superhero activities, such as swooping in to foil crimes like the jewelry store heist that sets the film’s plot in motion. That set piece leans heavily on ’80s signifiers, but its ricocheting sense of movement, with Diana whipping would-be robbers all over a shopping mall’s food court with her glowing Lasso of Truth while little girls beam at her in wonder, effectively establishes the film’s bright tonality—and also helps to erase the memory of a mostly pointless opening segment showing Diana competing in some American Ninja Warrior-type games on the Amazons’ secret island.

Later, back at the Smithsonian, Diana and her nerdy pal and co-worker, Barbara (Kristen Wiig), try to figure out what the crooks wanted with the artifacts they were trying steal. As is common practice for the genre, the MacGuffin chivvying the story along is an ancient something-or-other being pursued by a megalomaniac hungry for its world-changing powers. In Wonder Woman 1984, the Dream Stone is essentially a genie in a bottle, granting incredible wishes inevitably entangled with unintentional consequences. Said megalomaniac is Max (Pedro Pascal), a TV huckster whose Ponzi scheme involving oil shares is on the brink of collapse. Once he gets ahold of the stone, Max starts accumulating massive power through the simple process of holding someone by the arm and asking them what they wish for.

Somewhat more interestingly, the story gives Diana an additional and different kind of foil to contend with. Initially playing Barbara as essentially a mash-up of her various different Saturday Night Live personas, all anxious tics and under-her-breath comments, Wiig turns her character into an archetypal villain-in-waiting. Barbara’s fly-on-the-wall insecurities about being overlooked are ultimately unleashed once she gets the opportunity to harness the Dream Stone’s wish-giving powers, which for Diana’s klutzy friend involves not only strength and being noticed but also, amusingly, the ability to wear high heels.

Going for an overall lighter and even comedic tone than the first film, Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t quite succeed in reliably delivering laughs—despite Wiig’s strenuous efforts to do so, as well as the inclusion of things like the echt-’80s wardrobe montage in which a certain once-dead boyfriend discovers the joys of period-specific items like fanny packs and Members Only jackets. However, while Jenkins doesn’t attempt to match the fast-paced ensemble humor of the better Marvel films, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, she steers clear of the usual DC Universe glowering and excess with action segments that rely more on nimble maneuvering and speed than great clashing showdowns. Scenes like the one in which Diana lassoes lightning bolts to fling herself through the sky exudes the unadulterated joy rarely seen in a superhero flick since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man way back in 2002.

Those high spirits would be more able to lift Wonder Woman 1984 if the story were less entangled. Clocking in at least 40 minutes longer than it needs to be, the film manages to encumber itself with side excursions without making the plot really any more complicated than blocking Max’s drive for world domination. His evil plotting is mostly boilerplate, but the screenplay does invest in its villains’ humanity, refraining from the genre’s tendency for previously mild-mannered characters to almost instantaneously break bad. That big-heartedness is particularly present in the conclusion, which, despite a simplistic Etch-a-Sketch approach to resolving the damages wrought by the Dream Stone, shows a preference for forgiveness over vengeance that feels like not a bad way to end the year.

 Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Oliver Cotton, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Lucian Perez  Director: Patty Jenkins  Screenwriter: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 151 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2020  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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