Filmmaker Patty Jenkins had a profound cinematic experience as a young girl watching Richard Donner’s “Superman,” which inspired in her a kind of wonder and hope that she wanted to share with others through the magic of the movies. That sense of hope is a keystone of her work in “Wonder Woman” and its sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” films that embrace a sentiment that’s often missing in the superhero genre: sincerity. They’re not dark, gritty takes or sardonic quip-fests, but good old-fashioned bright, shiny spectacle, wherein good defeats evil. If the messages are a bit simple, they remain profound, with an inspiring hero who never wavers while advocating for truth, justice and the Themysciran way.
We open on a flashback of young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing in a challenging race of Amazonian warrior skill. It’s an audience-serving prologue, a reminder of who Diana is and where she’s from, but also a chance to indulge in the gloriously acrobatic physical prowess of the Amazons, plus a Robin Wright cameo (the film has a malleable relationship to death, so that fan-favorite characters can return).
But the Diana of 1984 is no longer the wide-eyed innocent we met in the first film. She’s more mature but also sad, and lonely, having experienced war and lost her love, Steve (Chris Pine). In this world of ‘80s excess, she saves kids from burglars at the mall and works at the Smithsonian as a cultural anthropologist. But her greater purpose is lacking, until she encounters a powerful ancient crystal, a wishing stone of sorts, being investigated by a new nerdy co-worker, Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).
The women make their furtive wishes on the stone before huckster TV salesman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) swoops in, convinced it will bail him out of his business woes. Known for purring affirmations of greed over the TV airwaves like, “life is good, but it can be better,” Max’s power of positive thinking isn’t enough to manifest what he wants (which is everything). He needs the ancient Mayan energy imbued in the stone, and is willing to make any and every deal with the old Gods and new to accrue as much ill-begotten power as he can.
The crystal becomes a monkey’s paw, a transactional wish-granting machine that takes and takes in return as Lord manipulates wishes out of everyone in his sight, and the world descends into chaos. Barbara, who wishes to be as sexy and strong as Diana, is intoxicated with her newfound power, losing her humanity and becoming Lord’s enabler (watching Wiig play in this kind of role is a treat).
Despite this MacGuffin-oriented plot, Jenkins keeps the emotional truth front and center, relying on our familiarity with Diana and her strong moral center for filling in the blanks on her motivation. Why does she want to save the world? Because she believes in humanity, and that’s just what she does.
“1984” doesn’t have the same jaw-dropping impact of “Wonder Woman” (how could it?), but Jenkins maintains a steady hand on the character and her story, giving us more of what we loved about the first film, like the cheery pleasures of Steve and Diana capering about in period clothing. Now, Diana gets to show off the modern world of 1984 to the naïf Steve (who comes back from the dead, thanks to her wish), dazzled by fanny packs, Pop-Tarts and jets. Their charm, charisma and chemistry is infectious, but Gadot also has to deliver a far more complex performance too, expressing a new level of anguish for the usually optimistic Diana.
Jenkins (who co-wrote the script with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham) once again uses a period setting as a way to couch its cultural commentary, but there’s no mistaking the immediate significance of a villain who is a TV personality, failed businessman and con artist who, as soon as he becomes the most powerful man in the world, runs it right into the ground, while repeating faithless affirmations. The skewering resonates. But the truth about Wonder Woman is that her real superpower isn’t her effortless leaps through the sky, her lasso, or her super-strength. It’s her empathy, her ability and willingness to see the wounded child inside a supervillain. Jenkins never lets us forget that the real wonder on display is that empathy, as well as the power of these displays of hope in movie magic.‘WONDER WOMAN 1984’
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Lilly Aspell
Director: Patty Jenkins
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.
In theaters and on HBO Max Friday.