We all expected to see Wonder Woman 1984 months ago. Like so many things this year, however, that did not go according to plan, as the film went from a splashy summer blockbuster (itself already a postponement) to glamorous fall event-movie. Then that also proved too optimistic for the cruel hellscape that has been 2020, which can perhaps best be summed up as the year we were denied Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince in favor of Gal Gadot’s “Imagine.” For those of you unfamiliar: That’s a downgrade.

But now the mega-hyped superhero(ine) sequel, helmed again by 2017’s Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, is here at last, landing in select theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously on Christmas Day. And how appropriate! Who better to swoop in and remind us of the thrill and possibility of movies, to offer us hope right here on the precipice of a much newer New Year than most, than Wonder Woman herself? That may sound like an unfair demand of a film that was finished before 2020 began, intended for a traditional release in a traditional year. But if any movie is up for the task of taking on more, this would be the one.

WW84 is enormous. It’s huge from the start, opening with a flashback to a sort of Amazonian Olympics on Themyscira, where child Diana competes with women twice her age in an obstacle course that feels like a workout just to watch — but that’s only the prologue. From there, the film travels to a place that’s even bigger, even louder, even more, more, more than a fictional magical far-off land filled with gorgeous, superhuman warrior women. That’s right! It’s the U.S. of A. in the year 1984!

Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) is living in Washington, D.C., where she works at the Smithsonian and spends her immortal life in quiet loneliness. She does make one friend early in the film — her colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, brilliantly cast), a sweet but awkward gemologist who admires Diana’s glamour and poise, so often does she herself trip over her low heels and go unnoticed by everyone around her.

Wonder Woman 1984
Credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

The Smithsonian is home to many treasures, one of which brings oil entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a boxy-suited Ponzi-schemer slicker than the product he peddles, into Diana and Barbara’s orbit. Known for his cheesy infomercials, in which he promises potential investors “everything you’ve always wanted,” he turns on that TV-salesman charm to win over Barbara — another person desperate for so much more than she has.

As long as we’re talking romantic pairings, there is, of course, one other: I won’t betray how Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, who died in Wonder Woman, returns decades later in 1984 — but thank God he does. His and Diana’s relationship is the beating heart of WW84, not at all tacked on but completely essential, and Pine remains perfect in the part, his confidence and humor making him a match even for his super-girlfriend. The pair’s roles from the first film are switched, with Diana now showing Steve around a world unlike anything he’s ever seen, and in another clever reversal, WW84’s makeover montage (what’s an ‘80s movie without a little fashion show?) is in fact for him, rather hilariously trying on the horrific styles of the day.

Jenkins goes all-in on the ‘80s, a decade that was very all-in on itself. The bright, shiny production is deeply attentive to that sense of time and place, which is especially satisfying in a genre that can often feel vague in that regard (Jenkins’ previous film being a notable exception). That’s not only in the detail of the scene but in the tone of the film itself; the period proves a strangely apt lens through which to view Diana, whose unflappable earnestness can never fully avoid registering as slightly cheesy, but it goes down easier coming from an ‘80s flick (or a fake one, anyway). The film does well, too, playing with the conflict between contemporary values and the philosophies of our virtuous heroine, who represents truth in a superficial world and knows she must choose selflessness even when the culture preaches greed. It’s an inspired setting — it does all the work.

It takes some time to get to the major action set pieces (other than the prologue, which is gorgeous), but it’s too much of a pleasure to live in this well-realized place, populated by a quartet of capable and charismatic stars, to really care. Once the action does ramp up, though, the cracks begin to show under the weight of the massive movie. At a certain point, the film goes from saying something true about human nature and American life to devolving into a largely empty spectacle. The great cosmic drama grows so narratively unwieldy that the excellent work that came before, grounding this superpowered story in something like reality, comes a little undone. (An outlandish appearance from a nameless POTUS is particularly jarring, considering we all know who the president was in 1984 and how strongly he's associated with the capitalist ethos that this movie questions.)

Not unlike its predecessor, this film’s finale is overwrought, its stakes overdrawn — even though, maddeningly, they really don’t need to be when the essential conflict is so clear and compelling. Perhaps inevitably, Jenkins herself did not prove immune to the excess that she spent her ambitious 150-minute-long movie denouncing; that runtime alone is more than a little self-indulgent. But hey, if this year has taught us anything, it’s to give each other a break — and to allow ourselves our indulgences. Maybe Wonder Woman will be the one to save us, after all. Grade: B

Trailer courtesy of Warner Bros.

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