Messy Wonder Woman sequel lassos hope

December 25, 2020 | Sara Michelle Fetters
Messy Wonder Woman sequel lassos hope

Whether one cared for the film or not, you can't diminish the cultural impact director Patty Jenkins' 2017 smash Wonder Woman had upon the moviegoing populace. In the time since its original release, the picture has only grown in popularity, some even singling out its signature "No Man's Land" action sequence as one of the greatest they've ever seen. Needless to say, a sequel was inevitable, the only question being where Jenkins and her team would take creator William Moulton Marston's iconic DC heroine next and what era they'd plop her down in to explore.

The answer is right there in the title, Wonder Woman 1984 attempting to both dissect the Reagan-era while also not-so-subtly paralleling similarities to what is happening in today's world right this second. It is an ambitious adventure, one that exuberantly gallivants between Themyscira, Washington, DC, the Middle East and an isolated top-secret military satellite station with breakneck enthusiasm.

While Jenkins has her heart in the right place, the director's script, co-written with Geoff Johns (Aquaman) and Dave Callaham (Godzilla), is something of a sprawling, unfocused mess. Even at a robust 150-plus minutes, keeping track of all that's happening or why certain characters are behaving the way they are takes some work. There's precious little development of any of the central themes other than those involving the heroine herself, and it's never entirely clear exactly what the point of all of this is other than to study a blandly rudimentary take on the age-old axiom, "Be careful what you wish for."

And yet, I still find I cannot dismiss this sequel out of hand. The sense of hope. The feeling of optimism. How the film explores what is best about humanity. Jenkins imbues this tale with a cathartic gracefulness that I couldn't resist. There are moments that filled me with empathetic happiness on an almost unheard of scale, making comparisons to Richard Donner's 1978 classic Superman difficult to avoid. This is as forward-looking and as comfortingly humanistic a superhero adventure as we've seen in ages, no small thing as far as I'm concerned.

It has been over seven decades since Diana Prince's (Gal Gadot) WWI adventure concluded. It is 1984, and the secretive superhero works as an antiquities specialist at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. She has never gotten over the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), living alone and having few friends. But after bumping into charmingly klutzy gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) Diana lets her guard down, the two women discovering they have more in common than initially meets the eye.

The McGuffin that kicks off all the action and chaos is an ancient stone that promises to grant any who hold it a single wish. While at first Diana and Barbara openly laugh about the silliness of such a thing, after a suddenly resurrected Steve walks into a Smithsonian fundraising gala it becomes clear the stone's power isn't a joke. Not as immediately noticeable, utilizing it also comes with an unforeseen cost, each person making a wish paying a personal price that can sap them of their superheroic strength, change kindness to hate or even lead to untimely illness and almost certain death.

Pedro Pascall is the key player instigating the majority of the mayhem. He plays Maxwell Lord, an infomercial kingpin and wannabe oil magnate who promises those who go into business with him that all their desires will come to pass as long as they want it bad enough. Lord is after the stone, and in his pursuit of wealth and power he activates a doomsday clock that could inadvertently trigger WWIII. Pascall is wildly, almost gleefully over the top in the role, but he's having so much fun all his sweaty hyperbolic gusto is oddly charming, and I found his performance grew on me as the film went on.

But of the two actors portraying supervillains, it is Wiig who impressed me the most. Minerva's transformation from mousy scientist to vicious anthropomorphic feline adversary Cheetah is outstanding. Wiig does an excellent job hitting all these seemingly unimportant emotional beats, Minerva's ungainly joy at discovering her new powers after wishing on the stone slowly ebbing away as new, far more primal predatory instincts emerge. She makes a good foe for Diana, their initial impromptu showdown inside the White House nothing short of spectacular.

If only Jenkins had done more with her. There are long stretches where Minerva/Cheetah becomes something of an afterthought, and when she finally chooses to embrace the inherent evil fueling her transformation this decision does not register in the way I am certain it was designed to. Worse, the final face-off between a fully-empowered Cheetah and freshly-armored Diana is a mess of cartoony digital effects and incoherent editing that zaps all the thrills and chills right out of their climactic confrontation.

The quieter, more personal moments are where the sequel soars. Gadot and Pine once again have luminous chemistry that leaps off the screen, and I still love it that Steve Trevor is basically the same sort of sidekick/love interest women have been forced to portray in adventures like these going back to the silent era. That the actor does it with such aplomb remains glorious, and an entire gender-flipped sequence mirroring Diana's dressing room montage from the first film is goofily sublime.

Most of all, even with all its faults, Wonder Woman 1984 is worthwhile mainly because its sense of hopeful uplift is genuine. Jenkins truly does appear to believe in humanity, embracing the better angels within us all we like to imagine exist yet so rarely seem to see on a day-to-day basis, especially right now. This allows her sequel to ride a lightning bolt of pure escapist propitiousness it never would have been able to lasso otherwise, provoking a sensation of wondrous awe I'm thankful I was able to experience.