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.
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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.
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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.