'Wonder Woman 1984' Review: A Startlingly Kind, Delightfully Cheesy Balm for the Horrors of 2020

With Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins went to war for the right to be a little cheesy. The 2017 superhero movie was decadent with sincerity, with an unabashed hope for humanity that made it a lone bright spot in the increasingly dour comic book movie landscape.

With Wonder Woman 1984, the highly anticipated follow-up to Jenkins’ mega-hit, the filmmaker digs her heels even further into that promise of cheesy superhero goodness, to the point of it being a potential health hazard. But the cartoonishly optimistic charms of Wonder Woman 1984 feel like a direct rebuke of the current political and cultural landscape in a way that is unquestionably ham-fisted, but is — as trite as it sounds to repeat this far-too repeated phrase —a much-needed balm for 2020.

The film opens not in the ’80s, but in Themyscira during Diana’s childhood, as she trains to be an Amazonian warrior. The diminutive Diana (an ever-buoyant Lilly Aspell) is the only child competing in the Amazon Olympics, but she more than holds her own in a lush, lengthy sequence full of the crispness and color that made Themyscira such a hit in the first film. It reflects Diana’s nostalgia for the “magical world of my childhood,” and feels perhaps a little too much like Jenkins and company miss Themyscira as much as Diana does.

There’s a lesson to be learned, though. At the end of Diana’s obstacle course filled with graceful equestrian leaps, loop-de-loops, awesome stunts, and — gasp — attempted shortcuts, it’s made clear: there is no “short path” in life. It’s a bit of a clunky way for the movie to begin, by spelling out its lesson through a striking, but ultimately unnecessary, return to Themyscira. But once this sojourn is out of the way, the rest of Wonder Woman 1984‘s whopping two-and-a-half hour runtime flies by.

More than 60 years after the events of Wonder Woman, Diana (Gal Gadot, as dignified and noble-browed as ever, though struggling with some of the nuance that the role demands) has fully assimilated to the world of men, but hasn’t really been able to truly fit in beyond saving various children from runaway cars or stopping jewelry store robberies at the mall. Instead, she goes about her days in a kind of lonely haze, dutifully continuing to protect mankind, but nothing more. But this all changes with the aforementioned jewelry store robbery at the mall — a wonderfully corny, achingly ’80s sequence that escalates into Looney Tunes-style escapades — which reveals the shop to be a front for a black market trade in valuable antiques.

One antique stone sculpture goes to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum where Diana works, and lands in the lap of her dowdy coworker Barbara Minerva (a fabulous Kristen Wiig). Barbara doesn’t make much of the rock, which she at first categorizes as a fake, but Diana’s curiosity is piqued by some strange Latin writing on its base that promises the holder any wish they want. Later that night, Barbara, while examining the stone late at the office, unwittingly wishes to be just like Diana, after becoming immediately enamored with her glamorous and kindly coworker, who — unlike everyone else at the museum — actually sees her.

Barbara’s slow transformation to a more confident and unexpectedly powerful woman will get compared to Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns — and certainly Wiig’s endearingly insecure performance owes itself to that performance — but it’s actually closer to a traditional superhero transformation sequence, akin to something out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Wonder Woman 1984 plays Barbara’s arc straight, and treats her as a kind of deuteragonist, complete with Barbara eagerly exploring her newfound super strength in very ’80s aerobics gear. That is, until she gets eclipsed by Pedro Pascal‘s fraudulent businessman, Maxwell Lord. Lord was the one who bought the rock off the black market, and cozies up to Barbara to attempt to use it to boost his failing oil business. He manages to take the wish-granting stone back, though not before Diana also unwittingly wishes for the return of her lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, finally getting to show off his comedy chops).

Diana and Steve’s romance served as the backbone of Wonder Woman and yet again it becomes the emotional crux of Wonder Woman 1984, as Diana is shocked out of her apathy by the return of Steve, who, in a Heaven Can Wait-style twist, is revived in the body of another man. Pine is having an absolute blast at playing up the comedy of his fish-out-of-water role, and Wonder Woman 1984 delights in doing a reversal of Diana and Steve’s dynamic from the first film. Diana attempts to dress Steve as a scarf-wearing European, Steve turns out to have awful fashion sense, and the pair of them flit about D.C., looking as gorgeous as the cityscape. In a standout scene that recalls the windswept sincerity of Richard Donner’s Superman, Diana and Steve share a lovely moment in a jet plane underneath a fireworks display that could take your breath away.

But it’s more than an excuse to see the two beautiful stars together again. Steve’s return serves as a test for Diana, who realizes that the wishing stone is more of a monkey’s paw, and that her reunion with Steve is causing her to lose her powers. this becomes a major problem when Maxwell Lord’s control over the wishing stone starts to unseat world powers and bring about civilization-ending cataclysms.

If there ever was a role that played perfectly to Pascal’s natural charisma, it’s Maxwell Lord. The role requires a lot from Pascal — hamming it up in an over-the-top performance befitting the best ’80s villains — who has to play someone simultaneously detestable, charming enough to get people to spill out their deepest wishes to him, and disarmingly sympathetic. While his Maxwell Lord is clearly created as a Trump analog, Wonder Woman 1984 does something much more interesting with his character, who is revealed to be an immigrant-turned-bankrupt businessman attempting to amass wealth in a distorted quest for the American Dream. It argues that even he is deserving of grace. Maybe we’re all deserving of grace and forgiveness, even as we give into the worst excesses of capitalism and our own greed.

It’s a startlingly kind message that drives Wonder Woman 1984, somewhat buried beneath its world-ending stakes and ambitious narrative, but it’s one that feels like a fitting counterpoint to the ideas that the first film put forward. Humanity is still worth saving despite its flaws and moral bankruptcy — that if we just ask, we can be forgiven. And no one would be happier to forgive us than Wonder Woman.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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