At one point in WONDER WOMAN 1984, it’s as if we are is dared to think of the phrase “cat fight” as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) tangles with one of the two villains of the piece, played by Kristen Wiig. I don’t quite know what to make of that in this troubled film that is replete with the very best of intentions, but falters in building to a climax that would take its message home. While there is much to admire here as an action flick, the fun of its predecessor is far less in evidence as Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, negotiates the big hair, spandex, and greed-is-good ethos of 1984 Washington D.C.
Unchanged since losing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the dashing World War I flying ace, she lives alone with her memories in a posh apartment and works as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian. There she befriends the hapless Barbara Minerva (Wiig), a nervous soul who has lived her life longing to sit at the cool kids’ table. Their acquaintanceship is struck when no one else would help Barbara gather up the mountain of paper she dropped on her first day of work as a gemologist at that venerable institution, It’s a good thing that Diana is, as they say, as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside and takes pity on Barbara. The first thing the latter is asked to do at work is identify a football-size clump of citrine crystals recovered from a heist. Naturally, it turns out that this is no ordinary clump of crystals, and that the Latin phrase carved into the base promising to grant one wish to the holder, further naturally turns out not only to be true, but also too good to be true. As in, there’s a catch, which will be revealed in the fullness of this film’s taxing 154-minute running time.
Diana wishes for her lost love, just as a lark. Barbara wishes she were like Diana, and gets a big surprise. And the guy who tried to steal the clump in the first place, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), wishes that his plan to get rich in the oil business hadn’t turned into a Ponzi scheme.
While Diana is rapturous when Steve re-appears in her life, Barbara, who is suddenly as strong at Wonder Woman as well as her charismatic equal, and Maxwell, whose oil wells have finally come in, don’t handle power well. Incrementally, their basic insecurities drive them go over to the dark side when they discover that too much in never enough, and that Armageddon is at hand. It’s all a wonderful excuse for Diane and Steve to travel the globe in pursuit of the clump as Diana learns that even she has a price to pay for making a wish on it.
The actions sequences are marvelous, from the flashback on the Amazon’s island Themyscira where the young Diana learns a valuable life lesson about looking back and about honesty, to a giddy romp through a mall where the grown-up Diana saves a child (a recurring theme) and mystifies the authorities. Director and co-writer Patty Jenkins has a gift for pacing, while Gadot has a gift for projecting strength of both a physical and psychological nature. These hearken back to all that was right with the original, as do the sequences where Diana introduces Steve to the retro-futurism of 1984, including a crash course of contemporary fashion. That Steve is most impressed by a toaster pastry and sorely disappointed by futons just feels right. The chemistry between Gadot and Pine feels right, too. The spark is still there and just as hot even a the banter is still as light.
Where it all goes wrong is how very seriously this outing takes itself. Rather than a confection of fun and effortless female empowerment, it become didactic, more concerned about messaging than about a tightly written story. Instead, there is an episodic quality, with jumps that jar, interludes that drag rather than inspire, and speechifying that, while delivered with conviction by Gadot, falls flat. She, as is only right, is a big part of the reason the film succeeds as much as it does. As is Wiig. While Pascal is essentially one-note throughout, sweating failure or sweatily, ahem, lording it over the world when his fortunes turn, Wiig, despite the way her character morphs into caricature, is impressive. With her gift for comic timing and genius for finding the pathos in comedy, she hones in on the festering bitterness engendered by Barbara’s disappointments over the decades, never overplaying it, but planting the seeds from the start and then following through in a thoughtful character arc. If the character becomes a parody, Wiig herself does not. She has found the truth of the role, even as the film around her extols the virtue of truth without ever quite finding a way to show us what that means.
WONDER WOMAN 1984 is a mixed bag with rewards outweighing its flaws and overwrought finale. Adjust your expectations and go with it.