Once upon a time, before anyone had ever uttered the words cinematic universe, superhero movies existed as effortless summer entertainment. Even though comic-book films have always had inflated budgets, big action set pieces, and broad target audiences, they used to be more self-contained. Following in this mold, Wonder Woman 1984, Patty Jenkins’s long-awaited, pandemic-delayed sequel to 2017’s terrific origin-story film, isn’t concerned with setting up spin-offs. Nor does it tag in related DC Comics characters from other franchises or preview a new super-team. It’s a refreshingly silly and airy adventure focused on the emotions of one character, Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot), and a charming end to a tiring year of cinema.
Originally due out at the end of 2019, Wonder Woman 1984 was bumped to 2020 and then pushed down the schedule over and over again because of theater closures; it’s finally reaching audiences on Friday, both in cinemas and on HBO Max. I watched it at home, but as with so many of this year’s releases, I longed for a cheering crowd and a floor-to-ceiling movie screen; several sequences were designed for IMAX viewing and felt a little lackluster in my living room. Still, I found some solace in the fact that millions of people will fire up the same film on Christmas Day and, hopefully, have themselves a breezy, fun time.
The first Wonder Woman was a prequel, spin-off, and franchise table-setter all in one, bringing in elements of the sprawling modern DC Comics universe but also explaining the origins of Diana (Gadot), an Amazonian goddess who becomes entangled in World War I and falls for the dashing pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) before losing him in battle. Rather than jumping to yet another weighty moment in the past (say, World War II) or to the present day, the sequel is set in 1984, gleefully dressing every background character in Day-Glo leggings and varsity jackets, and conjuring an era of more, more, more.
The time leap is a sly way to deal with questions prompted by the first Wonder Woman taking place in 1918—namely, why didn’t the superhuman Diana do more to avert historical catastrophes if she entered our world more than a century ago? The simplest answer, of course, is that one person (even one blessed with immortality and invulnerability) can do only so much. And in setting Wonder Woman 1984 in a decade defined by greed, Jenkins makes the point that evil can often arise from collective apathy and selfishness rather than one costumed supervillain. Faced with present-day calamities such as wealth inequality and climate change, Jenkins is swinging the camera back to an era she sees as the root of many of these problems.
Not that the movie doesn’t have individual bad guys. We have the preening businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), an absurdly coiffed, high-energy nincompoop who preaches a gospel of wealth on television. We also get the mousy Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), an impressionable archaeologist who’s eventually transformed into the furry adversary Cheetah. But Jenkins, who wrote the film with Geoff Johns and David Callaham, takes pains to highlight that these antagonists are victims too, of their own insecurities and doubts. The film’s MacGuffin is a magical ancient artifact that grants wishes and, in the wrong hands, wreaks total chaos—yet Jenkins argues that our own desires are often the most destructive forces.
To me, that’s a much more intriguing narrative than the ones that define a lot of superhero movies, which focus on external triumphs, physical battles, and the obliteration of all-encompassing evils. Diana’s own desire, after all, is for some kind of normalcy, the comforting opposite of her life as an Amazonian demigoddess responsible for feats of derring-do. Though Steve died some 70 years prior, she’s still nursing her grief; I imagine time moves far more slowly for an immortal. Jenkins turns that lingering sadness into a strong secondary plotline, in which Steve is mystically returned to Diana—but at a price.
This thread is a curious use of Pine. Steve’s chemistry with Diana was scintillating in the first Wonder Woman, but he also bade her farewell with a fitting, memorably moving death scene. In 1984, he’s back largely to supply fish-out-of-water comedy (he can’t believe everyone’s new fondness for parachute pants) and chip in as an action sidekick. On the surface, this role seems unworthy of Pine’s talents. But Jenkins uses the couple’s supernatural reunion to underline the tension between Diana’s life as a hero and her wish for mundanity. When Steve died, she lost not only their personal connection, but also the way he connected her to humanity.
Wonder Woman 1984 has plenty of goofiness—the aforementioned magic wishing stone, an action sequence at the mall with the aesthetics of a cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and, in Cheetah, a villain who has seemingly leaped from the set of Tom Hooper’s Cats. But that levity complements the movie’s heart-on-sleeve storytelling, in which Diana can win a major battle by simply making an intense emotional appeal, and the best way for humanity to save itself is to embrace selflessness. That tone fits the film’s hero as snugly as her shiny golden armor does.