Wonder Woman 1984 is bloated at 151 minutes, but the chemistry of its leads and throwback hokey vibes are enough to recommend its particular superhero pleasures.
In case you couldn’t guess from the title, we catch up with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), last seen just after World War I, in 1984, where she works at the Smithsonian in between beating up bad guys at the local mall. We’re also introduced to Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a mousy gemologist unknowingly about to pull a Batman Returns-era Selina Kyle and transition into vengeful antiheroine, and TV-famous huckster oilman Max Lord (Pedro Pascal). They’re all united by the retrieval of a mysterious stone with the power to grant wishes, making this whole thing a big fat monkey’s paw story (and in case you didn’t catch that, the characters use the phrase over and over).
The stone also allows Diana to be reunited with long lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The circumstances of his resurrection make too little sense to bear explanation, but, as in the first film, the interplay between Pine and Gadot is this movie’s greatest asset (so just accepting this narrative contrivance is best). Diana explaining a Whole New World to a newly naïve Steve is a nice flip on their dynamic, and their romantic moments are brimming with sincere melodrama. For all the goofiness surrounding the film, and indeed the entire genre as a whole, WW84 has one of the most relatively affecting (if not particularly complicated) adult romances in multiplexes. Far from Diana pining away for a boyfriend, what’s made clear here is that she truly found other suitors inadequate next to the man that made her care for and have faith in humankind. It’s a sweet note.
The villains are also perfectly cast. Wiig at first does a broad shy-girl act before transforming into an even more broad vamp type as she slowly gains confidence and accumulates anger alongside burgeoning superpowers. Pascal, meanwhile, gets to go suitably bonkers as a con man who literally becomes consumed by his own greed, bouncing off every other performer in any given scene like a tuning fork. Jenkins serves them all, heroes and baddies, nicely, letting scenes play out rather than roughly chopping them together, and the action has a simple economy (although the CGI is often a little rough). The best sequences are splashy grace notes, like Diana learning to fly or the introduction of Wonder Woman’s famous invisible jet, coursing through a pretty fireworks display.
It’s not all smiles and sunshine though. WW84 is, at 151 minutes, entirely too long. Most viewers might not mind such ballooning when situated on their couches, but in a theater, they’ll feel the length (this film is the ostensible inauguration of the Warner Brothers-HBO Max blockbuster 2021 deal, with all properties opening simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming platform). The middle act sags with a detour to the Middle East — the less said about a miscalculated bit that Gadot, an Israeli actress, does about reclaimed Arab territory, the better — which features a bland car chase and a climactic fight with Wiig that is the worst sort of weightless computer-generated whiff. That said, things could be worse; the film’s representational goals seem broader, simpler, less affected than what’s become standard issue in superhero movies, especially in contrast to something like Captain Marvel‘s clunky tokenism. Also unlike that movie, this doesn’t lean nearly as hard on vintage needle drops and fashion nostalgia.
It might be that Wonder Woman 1984 just feels refreshing after 18 months away from the last superhero tentpole. Like its predecessor, the film largely coasts on the charm and chemistry of its lead performances and its guileless sense of humor, but it also succumbs to a similar case of bloat. Still, despite some obvious flaws, there’s a welcome earnestness here, a hokey simplicity of sentiment reminiscent of the original Richard Donner/Richard Lester Superman films. It’s the kind of movie where the most important thing a hero needs to save the world is to just be good.
You can stream Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max beginning on December 25.