Patty Jenkins’ 2017 hit Wonder Woman, like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther the following year, was a superhero movie for people fed up with superhero movies, or at least starting to wonder who and what they were for. In addition to being huge steps forward for representation in the comic book movie universe—the first stand-alone installments in the DC and Marvel franchises to be centered on and directed by women or people of color—these films were huge steps forward in pacing, writing, and direction. They were simply excellent movies, with characters—including, sometimes, villains—audiences could invest in enough to miss them when they were gone. Comic book bad guys are forever falling off guardrail-free bridges into vast abysses or blowing away in columns of ash, but how often is their death the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, as it was when Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger gave up the ghost in the arms of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther? When the swooningly romantic yet utterly believable relationship between Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and WWI flying ace Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) ended—three years later spoiler alert!—with his death in a plane explosion, it was easy to understand why she would spend the next 5½ decades in mourning—which is exactly where we find her at the beginning of Wonder Woman 1984, Jenkins’ slightly less assured but more than welcome follow-up to her groundbreaking blockbuster.
After a pre-credits flashback to the all-female island of Themiscyra, where a preteen Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes with a lineup of buff adult women for an athletic prize in an extended and effects-heavy action sequence, we join Diana in D.C., where she’s become an archaeologist at the Smithsonian.* The year is 1984, as indicated by both the title and the ubiquitous presence of extras decked out in terry cloth sweatbands and regrettable shades of fuchsia and teal. But Diana remains a figure from another time and place: She doesn’t own a TV, dresses in austere if wildly flattering garments of navy and dark gray, and returns home alone to an apartment full of mementos of her long-departed love. Her only apparent after-work activity is to moonlight in crimefighting as her golden-lasso-wielding alter ego. In an early action scene that’s more kinetically thrilling than some of the big climactic battles, she stops a robbery in progress at that quintessentially ’80s location, the shopping mall, rescuing an imperiled child along the way. Diana’s sweet-natured idealism and instinctual aversion to violence have survived the historical horrors of the 20th century intact; as she disarms one of the would-be jewel thieves, she coolly informs him, “I hate guns.”
Without even knowing about Diana’s secret super-ness, her socially clumsy colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) develops a serious friend crush on her effortlessly cool workmate, who can read seemingly every ancient language and identify obscure archaeological artifacts on sight—except, that is, for one enigmatic item, a citrine stone that, according to the Latin inscription on its base, will grant the wish of anyone who touches it. Barbara and Diana at first dismiss it as a worthless modern forgery, but like most precious gems that appear in superhero movies, this tchotchke isn’t fooling around. After work hours are over, the nerdy Barbara whispers to the stone that she wishes to be “strong, sexy, and cool” like Diana—and lo and behold, the next day finds her losing her permed hair and baggy work get-ups for a tighter-fitting wardrobe with matching swagger. Diana half-jokingly makes her own wish on the stone—she’s silent as she does so, but we all know what it is—and a few scenes later, though Jenkins spins out the suspense till the movie is close to 40 minutes in, that wish appears in the person of one Christopher Whitelaw Pine.
What one factor can account for the appeal of Chris Pine? He’s ridiculously good-looking, sure, but so is just about every actor and actress who makes it from the folder of headshots on the casting director’s desk to the higher echelons of blockbuster stardom. Pine’s near-universal appeal lies in something else. There’s a guileless quality to him, an “oh, wow” openness to new experiences that made him believable as an intrepid starship captain in the Star Trek reboot or, in A Wrinkle in Time, as a scientist whose curiosity accidentally propels him into a different dimension. In Wonder Woman this quality registers primarily in the form of Steve Trevor’s unshakeable fascination with and respect for the ever-expanding powers of his world-saving girlfriend. The chemistry between Pine and Gadot is the secret sauce of the Wonder Woman franchise. It’s not just sexual chemistry; though they’re clearly attracted to each other (which, can you blame them?), Diana and Steve are also convincing as soulmates. Their trans-historical passion never feels like a screenwriter’s contrivance—in part due to the sparks the actors generate and in part to the emotionally intelligent script by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and David Callaham.
I’ll keep mum on the mumbo-jumbo that enables Steve Trevor’s return from the beyond, but it involves a confusing mistaken-identity conceit that doesn’t seem necessary to the plot. Around the time of his reappearance, trouble comes in sight in the form of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a TV personality and would-be oil magnate who’s been running a pyramid scheme that’s about to collapse. That’s a lot of red flags, but the lovestruck Barbara, newly rendered irresistible by the stone, nonetheless invites the very Trumpian Max into her office at the Smithsonian. Inevitably, he steals the wishing stone and puts it to nefarious purpose.
The movie’s back half gets overinflated, as superhero epics will, with scenes of grand-scale chaos, including a few where we see Ronald Reagan overseeing societal collapse mid-’80s style, with “No Nukes” banners lying abandoned on the ground while Russian generals hover over the missile-launch button. Max gets a backstory that, if not that original, nonetheless gives his character some motivation beyond pure evil, and the charismatic Pascal has a mustache-twirling good time while also conveying the desperate weakness behind Lord’s unquenchable greed. The character of Barbara, hilarious in the first hour thanks to a great performance by Wiig, disappears almost entirely into a CGI creation, an “apex predator” called Cheetah. This digital disguise was no doubt an attempt to avoid the Cats-like embarrassment of putting an actor in an evident furry suit, but without Wiig’s presence—she is a physical comedian, after all—it was impossible to buy that the sexy cat-thing was really Barbara, and thus to get invested in the moral meaning of the transformation.
I don’t think I need even a good superhero movie to be 2½ hours long, but it’s worth noting that what makes for this movie’s long running time is not collapsing buildings or exploding spaceships but conversations between people. When Diana and Barbara go to dinner early in the film and get to know each other, there’s a 10-minute scene that’s essentially just them sharing their relationship woes over a glass of wine—not an amenity that generally comes with comic book blockbusters. And some fish-out-of-water comedy moments involving the struggles of a WWI-era pilot to comprehend mid-’80s culture and fashion could have been stretched out longer as far as I’m concerned. As a late-entering character, Steve Trevor doesn’t get quite enough time on-screen, at least for the Pine-piners among us, but that’s better than overstaying his welcome, I guess.
As for Gal Gadot, she is as well cast as Wonder Woman as Christopher Reeve was in Richard Donner’s Superman, and I say that as someone who was introduced to the world of romantic longing in part by the presence of that actor in that movie.* (I was 12 the year it opened, and I used to pretend he had been weakened by Kryptonite so I could nurse him back to health.) Wonder Woman, like Superman, is a character so squeaky-clean she can easily become a dull goody-two-shoes. But Gadot, with her fawnlike physique and air of quiet self-possession, makes her seem both virtuous and vibrantly alive. There’s a scene where she tests a new power, one that finding Steve again has enabled her to understand she might have the ability to do. Without revealing further details I can say that this is the moment I found myself shedding tears, as I did in Wonder Woman when Diana first ran into battle in full armor. Jenkins and Gadot have gone and done it: They’ve gotten me invested in the emotional well-being of a franchise superhero. One of the refreshing attributes of WW84, though, is that it doesn’t feel like part of a franchise. There are no flashbacks to action from the previous film and, though a post-credits stinger appears to tease one of Diana’s further adventures, no momentum-stopping crossovers of characters from other movies. I would be fine with the Wonder Woman series ending with this pleasure-filled if not flawless installment, but I also think it still has life left in it provided this director and actor continue to collaborate.
The release of Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day 2020 could be seen as a gift or as a curse, just as the magic rock in this movie has the “Monkey’s Paw”–like power to bring on both good and bad at once. This tentpole blockbuster, the kind of movie that makes the movie year possible, was intended to have come out this summer, and has been held all year as we waited to see what would happen with theaters—would they reopen? Would people come back? Its simultaneous release in theaters and on the new HBO Max streaming service is too big of an entertainment-business story not to be mentioned, even at the end of a basically glowing review. I liked this movie, even loved it in parts. It reminded me of what fun it would be to sit in a big IMAX theater with a beverage the size of a beach bucket, watching horses run and digitally augmented crowds surge and 20-foot-tall people ride around in invisible jets. But I’m not sure how to feel about a massive and rapidly expanding media corporation giving millions of people the opportunity to have exactly that experience at the cost of public health. When it’s safe to go into theaters, by all means, go see Wonder Woman 1984 on the biggest screen you can find. For now, I can only advise you to watch it on the biggest one in your house.
Correction, Dec. 24, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Lilly Aspell’s last name and Christopher Reeve’s last name.