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In retrospect, what was striking about 2017’s Wonder Woman was not just that it got Diana right, but that it got us right. The film saw humankind in all our failings and contradictions, and understood what Diana could mean in a world like that. For those among us who loved her best, she wasn’t merely a fantasy or a distraction, but a beacon of hope.
The same holds true in Wonder Woman 1984. Diana (Gal Gadot) may be blessed with super-strength and armed with magical artifacts, but her greatest gift as a hero remains her ability to love and inspire. Such is the power of her compassion that you might be moved to forgiveness while watching it — of yourself, of other people, of the movie’s own flaws. If WW84 can’t quite reach the heights of the first film, it still soars beautifully when it matters most.
WW84 marks a transitional phase in Diana’s journey, bridging the wide-eyed naïf of the first film and the self-assured badass of Batman v Superman and Justice League. Having lived among humans for nearly seven decades, Diana has carved out a routine working in the Smithsonian by day and eating dinner alone by night. In spare moments, she sill dons her Amazonian armor to save random folks around town. It’s a satisfactory existence, if not a very satisfying one, and it becomes less satisfying still whenever her mind turns to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the love she lost long ago.
But Diana’s not the only one feeling unfulfilled by her lot in life. Blaring from every television are advertisements promising that you can have it all — nay, that you deserve to have it all. No one is parroting that message louder than infomercial king Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, magnetically sleazy), and no one’s more eager to hear it than Diana’s coworker Barbara (Kristen Wiig, embracing her dark side). Will Max and Barbara’s schemes lead them down a supernatural path that threatens to destroy the entire world unless Diana can stop them? If you know the answer is yes, congratulations; you’ve seen a superhero movie before.
If WW84 can’t quite reach the heights of the first film, it still soars beautifully when it matters most.
Less clear is how exactly the supernatural elements hang together, and how the film’s larger themes are meant to tie into them. WW84 opens with a flashback to a much younger Diana competing in a sort of Themysciran Olympics, where she learns the tough lesson that true victory must be earned, not stolen. (Or, in less highfalutin language: Cheating is bad.) There’s an obvious echo of that message in Max’s empty promises at the height of the greed-is-good ’80s, which in turn are meant to resonate in our own era of dishonesty and selfishness. But both that idea and the narrative used to convey it look more and more muddled upon closer examination.
You’re better off not thinking about it too hard, so perhaps it’s a blessing the script, by Dave Callaham, Geoff Johns, and Patty Jenkins (the latter of whom also directed), doesn’t leave much time for that. The central conflict sends Diana on a jet-setting mission with shades of Indiana Jones, and on many dramatic action sequences that this reviewer can only assume must’ve looked much cooler on a big screen; on my TV at home, they ranged from fine to excellent.
There’s also a romantic subplot which contains a wacky fish-out-of-water journey for the mysteriously returned Steve (“I had three Pop-Tarts,” he marvels of those wonderful modern conveniences). And two separate villain origin stories, each with their own supporting characters. Plus backstories and often flashbacks for seemingly everything and everyone you see onscreen. It’s a villain who yells “The answer is always more,” but at times the film’s own approach to storytelling seems to agree.
Throughout it all, however, what’s never in doubt is that WW84, like its heroine, has its heart in the right place. The emotions work even when the calculations behind them don’t quite add up, and nowhere is this truer than in Diana and Steve’s rekindled relationship. Their romance has the proportions of a myth (she’s a goddess in love with a mortal), but it’s grounded in relatable pain (she’s a lonely woman who’s never gotten over her first love). Gadot and Pine smolder with an intensity that you believe could carry on for decades, and the very best of her performance shines through in the scenes when she’s rubbed completely raw.
But it’s Wonder Woman’s gift that not even heartache can stop her from extending grace to the most wretched among us. It was true in the first film, when she declared that “it’s not about deserve,” and it’s true still in this one. There’s a pivotal moment when the otherwise busy film slows down long enough for Diana to acknowledge how hard life on Earth can be, how scary and sad it can feel. Watching it in the midst of one of the toughest years in recent memory, it hits like a sigh of relief. Her words aren’t enough to fix everything, not in the movie and not in real life, but there’s power in the simple acknowledgment of it — in being seen for the miserable creatures we are, and in deciding to love and be loved anyway.
Wonder Woman 1984 hits theaters (where open) and HBO Max Dec. 25.
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