For the past nine months, since a real-world viral pandemic swept the planet and forced the shutdown of civilization as we know it, we’ve been reading about how this or that motion picture is “the movie we need right now.” Movies don’t solve global health crises, but they can distract and inspire us. They can bring us together when we’re apart and heal the divisions that define our times.
I suppose “Wonder Woman 1984” can achieve some of those things, but mostly it reminds us how badly we could use a superhero right now — a fantasy turn-back-time and fix-the-situation savior — and in that sense, it’s at once a fizzy pop-art distraction and a major downer. Put another way, if a nuclear bomb detonates in downtown Manhattan, you don’t run out to watch a Bond movie to feel better. (In this case, most people won’t be running out at all, but tuning in via HBO Max, where Warner Bros. will be streaming the film the same day it opens in theaters.)
For nearly two hours of its 151-minute runtime, “Wonder Woman 1984” accomplishes what we look to Hollywood tentpoles to do: It whisks us away from our worries, erasing them with pure escapism. For those old enough to remember the ’80s, it’s like going home for Christmas and discovering a box full of childhood toys in your parents’ attic. This is what it felt like to watch Richard Donner’s “Superman” for the first time, or to marvel at the strong female role models of such vintage TV shows as “Wonder Woman” and “The Bionic Woman.” Even if the ’80s seem as distant to you as the World War I setting of Patty Jenkins’ history-making “Wonder Woman” feature three years ago, the sequel offers an amusing tour through that tackiest of decades, when shoulder pads and permed hair were all the rage.
In Jenkins’ 2017 origin story, Gal Gadot plays the fish out of water, as Amazon princess/goddess Diana Prince finds herself thrust into war-torn Europe — in 1918, a good 10 years before the invention of sliced bread — doing her best to adapt to the conventions of a less enlightened patriarchy, with the help of stud pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). This time, it’s Steve’s turn to feel out of sync with society, as Diana makes a wish that resurrects her lost love, bringing him back to the year the Apple Macintosh was unveiled. In between, Zack Snyder made a noisy, present-day “Justice League” movie (due for a director’s cut next year), but Jenkins has a much better handle on what audiences want from the divine Miss Diana, and “Wonder Woman 1984” delivers, for a time.
Embracing both her iconic Washington, D.C., setting and the slightly corny comic book style of the period, Jenkins serves up scenes in which Wonder Woman intervenes in everyday crises, saving a Walkman-wearing jogger from being run down by a Pontiac Firebird or rescuing two girls endangered during a shopping-mall jewelry heist. That robbery results in the recovery of the Dreamstone, an ancient citrine artifact with magic powers. The gem can grant the wish of anyone who touches it. But it also comes with a catch: It takes as much as it gives. (The characters hastily reference “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic W.W. Jacobs short story in which wishes have consequences, but that’s hardly enough to explain the totem’s complicated rules.)
After touching the stone, Diana gets her boyfriend back, but she’s gonna be in trouble. Unless she renounces it, the wish will eventually cost Wonder Woman her powers. Her clumsy co-worker at the Smithsonian Museum, superficially Selina Kyle-like Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), asks to be as strong, sexy, cool and special as Diana, but loses … her endearingly uncouth, undesirable, unfashionable and unremarkable qualities (a better trade-off than the one Diana gets). Later, Barbara will get a second wish — to become “an apex predator” — which transforms Wiig into the Cheetah, a creature who’s less Catwoman than lame “Cats”-level miscalculation.
In the comics, Cheetah is nearly always drawn as a gratuitously busty nude woman with strategically placed spots, a fanboy fetish object. Wiig owns the before-and-after versions of Barbara, but not this final iteration of the character. With her virtual fur and decidedly more feline physique, this Cheetah is neither ferocious nor any kind of match for Wonder Woman. Then again, by the point these two frenemies face off, the movie has long since stopped being fun.
Like Jenkins’ original “Wonder Woman,” this sequel spins out of control once the villains gain their full power, shifting from engaging character-based comedy to eye-crossing, CGI-bloated super-battle. (Cue Hans Zimmer’s typically overzealous thunder score.)
Jenkins is an enormously talented filmmaker on whom the studio took a chance — one that’s seldom questioned when conferred upon men — and she proves her worth by never letting the spectacle drown out the performances. Unlike so many of DC’s impossibly chiseled leading men, the undeniably gorgeous Gadot makes Wonder Woman’s qualities seem relatable — and therefore worthy of aspiring to. Much as Wakanda stands for a land free from the strictures of white supremacy in “Black Panther,” Diana Prince represents what any woman might achieve, if elevated outside the patriarchy.
Fittingly enough, the movie opens on the island of Themyscira, where young Diana competes alongside grown (wonder) women in a thrilling triathlon — a best-seen-on-the-big-screen cross between the Hunger Games and a Quidditch match in which the precocious Diana manages to take the lead. The message here isn’t simply that women are equal to or better than their male counterparts, but that society underestimates children as well. From this empowering prologue, “Wonder Woman 1984” wants girls to know that the sky’s the limit to their abilities — with one key caveat: “No true hero is born from lies,” explains auntie Antiope (Robin Wright).
That insight isn’t aimed at kids so much as contemporary audiences, who’ve endured four years of flagrant falsehoods from a sore loser, and while this critic’s politics probably don’t belong in a “Wonder Woman” review, rest assured that the movie has strong opinions about hucksters and p—- grabbers. Its Gordon Gekko-like greed monger, Max Lord (played by Chilean “Game of Thrones” breakout Pedro Pascal with big hair and a small Ponzi syndrome), insists, “I’m not a con man but a respected television personality.” Uh-huh. Not since “Joker” recast billionaire businessman (and Batman dad) Thomas Wayne as a tacky attention hound has a DC project made such unsubtle reference to Donald Trump.
Let’s not forget that the real villain here — the movie’s unseen supervillain — is the “God of Lies,” whose dangerous Dreamstone “grants wishes with a trick.” Max Lord is but an instrument of the devious deity’s civilization-destroying schemes, which he becomes by assuming all of the Dreamstone’s power to grant wishes (and, presumably, to take whatever he wants in return, although the movie is wildly inconsistent and unclear on how that works). Jenkins, who shares screenplay credit with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, probably should have stayed well away from a device that can fulfill everyone’s deepest desires.
“Wonder Woman 1984” works better when it’s focused on just a handful of characters. The film offers a distinctly female perspective on how 20th-century gender dynamics shift when women assume a little extra confidence and strength, since disrespectful men are constantly hitting on and harassing Barbara and Diana. The key exception is Chris Pine’s gallant pilot character, Steve, who’s there to follow Diana’s lead — and also to marvel at such ’80s innovations as futon couches, Easy Cheese and the space shuttle.
The movie’s most satisfying moments have little to do with the central conflict, arising instead from the discovery (and vicarious implementation) of Diana’s powers. Fans of the comics have long asked themselves, “If Wonder Woman can fly, why does she need an invisible jet?” Jenkins puts this debate to rest in her own way, taking a page from Donner’s “Superman” as Steve and Wonder Woman share a romantic joyride from a fireworks-lit sky. An hour later, the director literally gives her hero wings — a gold-plated change of armor that looks better in the ad campaign than it does on-screen.
A lot of the effects are hokey. Some are downright embarrassing (as when Wonder Woman interrupts a well-choreographed desert chase to rescue two kids in harm’s way). And the big finale is a bust, as the villain hijacks a Reagan-esque president’s global broadcasting technology to grant everybody’s wishes and Jenkins tries to squeeze that idea into a few hurried minutes of screen time.
The superhero genre has always been about wish fulfillment, but when the climax comes and the entire human population gets the chance to realize its fantasies, nothing seems special anymore. As the wishes stack up and the world falls into chaos, “Wonder Woman 1984” loses its way, and while the ending’s not bad enough to renounce the satisfaction of what came before, it’s enough to shift our focus back to our own real-world predicament. What we need right now this movie can’t provide, but just maybe, it will inspire someone who can.