How formidable is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman?
You can put this in your MTV pipe and smoke it: Not even the garishly lit shopping malls and teased hairdos and questionable fashions and break dancers and red Trans-Ams of the 1980s can stop her from saving the world.
Now THAT’S a superhero.
Three years after the visionary director Patty Jenkins and the perfect-for-the-part Gal Gadot teamed up for the beautifully rendered, surprisingly deep mega-hit “Wonder Woman,” the oft-delayed sequel will be released in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on Dec. 25 — and it’s a Christmas gift equal parts thrilling, comedic, romantic and action-packed, with a tone reminiscent of the Richard Donner “Superman” movies and the 2000s “Spider-Man” films. To be sure, we get a classic comic book movie storyline about a megalomaniacal madman intent on taking over the world, but there’s often a relatively light tone to the proceedings. This is a throwback piece of pure pop entertainment.
“Wonder Woman 1984” kicks off in exhilarating fashion with a prologue set on the lush island nation of Themyscira, with Lilly Aspell reprising her role as the childhood Diana, who is competing with adult Amazons in a grueling and spectacular challenge that makes Quidditch look like Jenga. Not only does this give Jenkins and the special effects crew the opportunity to stage a pulse-pounding action sequence, it’s a welcome excuse for Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright to return as Hippolyta and Antiope, respectively, and for young Diana to learn a valuable lesson after she literally takes the short path in an effort to win: if you take the easy way, if you cheat, there will be consequences.
Flash forward to, you guessed it, 1984, with Diana Prince working at the Smithsonian as an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist. (Four decades later on the “WW” timeline, Diana would be employed in a similar capacity in the Antiquities Dept. at the Louvre. One imagines she hops from position to position through the years, the better to avoid colleagues noticing she never ages.) In Diana’s free time, she dons the Wonder Woman costume and uses the Lasso of Truth to rein in relatively small-time crooks, a la early crime-fighting “Spider-Man.” She still carries a torch for her beloved Steve Trevor, as evidenced by the framed photos and Steve’s watch on display in her home, but it appears as if Diana/Wonder Woman is living a fairly quiet existence and has not been involved in any big-picture, save-the-world adventures in quite some time.
That’s about to change.
Meet one Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal from “The Mandalorian”), a transparently greedy and almost comically egomaniacal entrepreneur/huckster reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from “Superman.” Maxwell is a ubiquitous presence on television as he trolls for investors in his Black Gold Cooperative oil company — but despite the blustery talk and a corporate headquarters that looks positively Trumpian from the outside looking it, Maxwell is basically running a Ponzi scheme. “I am not a con man!” he protests as the harsh truth is unveiled. “I’m a television personality and a respected businessman!”
Not that Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, a bumbling wallflower geologist at the Smithsonian, knows any of this about Maxwell when he charms her stockings off at a fancy fundraiser and seduces her into letting him take possession of a recently discovered artifact that seems to hold little historical or monetary value but is in fact the Dream Stone, which has been infused by the Old Gods with the power to grant any wish that is made in its presence (albeit with consequences that include the collapse of several dynasties and societies through the ages.)
Whether by accident or design, several key players in “WW84” see their wishes granted by the Dreamstone. Barbara’s desire to become just like Diana leads to her radical transformation into a sexy, confident, brilliant and superhero-strong version of herself that will eventually morph into the villainous Cheetah. Diana’s wish to bring back Steve (Chris Pine) results in just that: Steve comes back to life in the body of another man, explaining, “I remember taking the plane up and then nothing … but I know I’ve been someplace good, then I woke up here.”
As for Maxwell Lord, he succeeds in becoming the Dream Stone itself, which gives him the ability to grant anyone’s wish — in exchange for whatever assets and powers they possess. Next thing you know, Maxwell is at the White House and in Saudi Arabia, soaking up political clout and accumulating the vast majority of the world’s oil assets. This results in a disastrous ripple effect, plunging the world into chaos as the human race turns against itself. Trust me, it’s a whole thing.
Heavy stuff, to be sure, and “Wonder Woman 1984” builds to an emotionally impactful climax — but before we get there, the tone is often self-aware and humorous, e.g., when Diana and Steve are in bed after doing a lot of um, catching up, and Diana says, “I should probably go and figure out how a stone brought my boyfriend back in someone else’s body,” and Steve replies, “That’s a fair point, let’s go,” or when Steve is amazed by escalators and fanny packs and modern air travel and says of parachute pants, “Does everyone parachute?”
Not everything in “WW84” works perfectly. Kristen Wiig is as terrific as you’d expect as Barbara/Cheetah, but in the latter incarnation her getup is a little too close to “CATS” for comfort. And while Pedro Pascal makes for an entertaining foil, he’s about as menacing as a second-tier Bond villain and clearly no match for Diana Prince, let alone Wonder Woman. Still, it’s absolutely thrilling to see the great Amazon warrior taking flight once again and making the world a much better and safer place. Wonder Woman is a hero for the ’80s and a hero for the ages.