For the sequel to Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins finds a hook that she didn’t have for the previous film. The director makes Wonder Woman 1984 as much like a 1980s film as possible. In an early scene at a shopping mall, she goes beyond the leg warmers and the big hair and the retail brands that no longer exist. Jenkins stages the action with as many practical effects as possible while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) disarms the would-be robbers of a jewelry store and saves the civilians from harm in comedic ways that would have appealed to directors from that decade if they’d made a movie about the comic-book heroine. That’s one of the distinctive touches in this uneven film that nevertheless improves considerably on the previous DC comic book movies.
The Me Decade finds Diana Prince keeping a low profile as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian and still grieving over the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). That foiled jewel heist uncovers a mysterious stone that grants people their wishes. Diana wishes Steve back with her and — hey, presto! — he’s back and marveling at the technological wonders of the 1980s. This comes at the cost of her superpowers being greatly diminished. Others are willing to pay their own price to use the magic thingy, such as failing oil magnate Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and Diana’s new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).
Wiig’s presence here helps the film surpass the original at incorporating comic relief into the proceedings. Gadot also looks more comfortable here than at any previous point in the DC Comics movies, especially with the comedy as she talks Steve through this world that’s new to him. Maxwell is a con man with a thatch of fake hair whose business is a pyramid scheme and who uses his wish and his native charms to wreak havoc on world geopolitics and inspire cult-like devotion among his followers. Sound familiar? The parallels with our soon-to-be-former president are well-managed enough not to wear out their welcome, but, unexpectedly, the more compelling villain is Wiig as a mousy, preyed-upon woman who has a taste of Wonder Woman’s power and goes insane with lust for more. Tying it together is the director’s devotion to re-creating the decade cinematically, which includes an extended car chase through the Egyptian desert that’s straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This goes down as a more successful retro exercise than Ready Player One or the recent musical remake of Valley Girl.
Having said all this, I can’t ignore the last half hour of the movie being a near-total disaster. The climactic fight between Wonder Woman and Barbara, whom the stone has turned into the Cheetah, is drowned in CGI, and you don’t have to look any further than their initial fight in the halls of the White House to see a combat scene with much cleaner execution. (That’s a more complex sequence, too, with Steve and the two women all needing to fight off armed Secret Service agents.) Jenkins loses the handle on the global chaos that results when Maxwell grants wishes to everyone in the world, and Wonder Woman’s reversal of it all is just so much soggy melodrama. There’s simply too much fat in this 151-minute film and not enough action sequences.
Even so, there’s a neat theme running through this about mendacity, set off by a prologue taking place on Themyscira, where little Diana (Lilly Aspell) is prevented from winning an athletic contest because she cheats. Who better to battle a pathological liar — to say nothing of another villain called the Cheetah — than someone whose golden lasso carries the power of truth that’s on her side? Diana isn’t immune to the seductive lie that she can have Steve back with her, but she knows she has to leave that behind if she’s going to save the world. Future film scholars will look back on Wonder Woman 1984 and see it correctly as the product of our benighted last four years. Right now, this piece of popcorn balances out its flaws with inspired touches like the cameo appearance in the middle of the closing credits. To use some decade-appropriate language, that’s, like, totally tubular.
Wonder Woman 1984
Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham. Rated PG-13.