By Sophie Panzer
Fans of Israeli actor Gal Gadot had something big to look forward to this Christmas when Warner Bros. Entertainment released “Wonder Woman 1984,” the long-awaited sequel to director Patty Jenkins’ wildly successful “Wonder Woman,” for streaming on HBO Max.
The film picks up some 70 years after the end of “Wonder Woman,” with our undercover Amazon protagonist working a day job as archaeologist Diana Prince and thwarting criminals anonymously in her spare time. Despite her success, she is still mourning the death of her pilot boyfriend, Steve Trevor, after he sacrificed himself to protect humanity from a deadly weapon during their escapades in World War I.
While working at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Diana meets new colleague Barbara Minerva, a social outsider played to awkward perfection by Kristen Wiig. When the museum is asked to identify a mysterious artifact, Barbara and Diana are drawn into a greedy businessman’s plot to grant everyone in the world their deepest desires.
The first half of the film is full of everything that made the first movie delightful and groundbreaking. The opening scenes on the Amazonian island of Themyscira, where Lilly Aspell’s young Diana is participating in an epic test of strength and skill, are perfect in every way. Jenkins’ use of slow-motion once again avoids the cliché that plagues action movies because it highlights the strength and agility of the Amazons without overly sexualizing them, which is rare for women’s bodies on screen. Gadot’s battle scenes throughout the film are also beautifully choreographed.
Jenkins is to be commended for her attention to detail and her commitment to continuity between the two Wonder Woman films. She takes the fish-out-of-water comedy that served as the source of the first movie’s charm and reapplies it to Steve’s miraculous — and kind of creepy — arrival in the ’80s. Diana’s confusion at restrictive Victorian women’s fashion in the London department store provided plenty of laughs, and Chris Pine imbues Steve with pure, hilarious joy at things like escalators, fanny packs and the latest in aviation technology.
Fans of the first film may notice the visual parallels Jenkins creates; in the original, Diana’s shiny armor is a literal bright spot in the muted grays and browns of Europe’s smog-smothered cities, besieged towns, muddy trenches and pallid soldiers. The striking color contrast represents her perseverance and hope, even when all seems lost.
In 1984, which Jenkins interprets as an age of glorified greed, Diana’s timeless, minimalist outfits in white and navy are meant to be a tasteful alternative to the neon pink leg warmers and aqua workout suits that the masses have embraced. This time, her visual presence advocates for moderation in the face of excess.
The plot starts to get shaky as the film develops its two villains: Wiig’s Barbara, who later becomes the bloodthirsty Cheetah, and Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord, the con man desperate for success as his pyramid scheme collapses. Their insecurities drive them to embrace the power of an ancient, powerful stone that grants wishes while exacting a terrible price.
Wiig channels her comedic chops to make the motivations of insecure Barbara ring true to anyone who has ever been jealous of a more beautiful, popular friend who appears to have it all. Pascal’s Max is also compelling, as his motivations stem from a deep emotional vulnerability that has to do with his young son, Lucian Perez’s Alistair.
The two villains together, however, are just chaotic, and their competing backstories and character arcs are the main reason the film runs a whopping 2 hours and 32 minutes.
Despite the length, many key plot points feel glossed-over.
Audiences get a hint of this problem when Diana enters her flat for the first time. Jenkins seems to have anticipated a burning question raised by the time gap between World War I and 1984: What was this superhero doing to stop the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust? She answers with a long zoom-in of an old photograph of Diana alongside men in striped prison uniforms, suggesting she played some role in liberating concentration camps, but we never get more information than that.
This vagueness continues when Steve magically returns. The mechanism of his reanimation is given a short but far from satisfactory explanation, and the audience is expected to run with it despite the multiple troubling questions it raises. The origin of the wishing stone is equally vague, and the consequences of wishes gone amok happen so quickly it’s hard to process the world’s descent into chaos. The movie is ultimately worth a watch for the breathtaking visuals and action sequences alone, but fans of the first film will feel some storytelling magic is missing.