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Somewhere in the last 30 years, anti-heroes became the #1 trending hero archetype. If a hero wasn’t edgy or cracking jokes every scene, they weren’t cool enough. If a hero didn’t have a tortured soul, they were called flat and boring. If they didn’t have a mean streak in reserve, they were called soft. Anti-heroes can certainly be interesting with those shadings, but true-blue heroes are rare and special. Forcing exemplars such as those to become something different takes away from the integrity that makes them fitting paragons.
Three years ago, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman joined Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Chris Evans’ Captain America as cinematic champions of that highest tier of purity and sanctitude. The braintrust of writers Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and director Patty Jenkins molded Wonder Woman as an unequivocal idol of decency and courage. The best part was her triumphs combined with her prudence actually made her as cool and appealing as those brooding trendsetters around her. Wonder Woman 1984 advances those feats and multiplies those virtues for the main character.
Too much of this sequel’s accomplishments stop at that last prepositional phrase of “for the main character.” Everything crafted for Gal Gadot’s heroics works wonderfully to strengthen her and the character’s prominence. Good graces and affections are rightfully earned. Maybe it is enough of a victory that Wonder Woman is not the problem of a Wonder Woman movie. That said, the material and surroundings she is given do her very little favors.
Wonder Woman 1984 adds mystique quickly with a stellar opening sequence of an Amazonian tournament where a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) learns the priority of honesty from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). This “no hero is born from lies” trait has sustained the adult heroine and lonely soul centuries later and 66 years after the events of the first film. This sense of truth imbued in her heart by her culture is a repeated tenet for the entirety of this movie.
While working for the Smithsonian Museum in 1984, Diana Prince and her newly-hired lab co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) encounter an ancient citrine gemstone that was confiscated from a black market front at a shopping mall heist thwarted by Wonder Woman. The sketchy archaeological details define it to be a wishing stone akin to the “The Monkey’s Paw” myth where dreams are granted at the cost of your best qualities. With an odd blowing draft of air and a twinkle of Hans Zimmer’s score, the clumsy and nebbish Barbara wishes to be more like Diana while she longs for lost love.
The result of that magical happenstance has the bubbly Barbara turning ever so slightly feral and developing superhuman abilities on par with who her friend Diana really is. At the same time, the consciousness of a long-dead Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, given very little to do) returns to Diana in the body of a handsome local man (Kristoffer Polaha) only to diminish the powers that made her great. The person who was trying to illegally acquire the stone in the first place was sham TV millionaire Maxwell Lord (The Mandalorian himself Pedro Pascal) who is trying to scheme public investors into buying into his untested oil business.
Seizing and absorbing the stone’s power into himself, Lord’s demented luck changes and he begins wreaking international havoc by manipulating the circumstances of influential people to bend control with his genie-like hands. Cliche as it is, the “be careful what you wish for” lesson matches the unpredictable effects of wants and desires that have no business becoming reality. The only “cure” becomes renouncing your wish.
The twisted Aladdin act Wonder Woman 1984 unleashes gets awfully fantastical, even by comic book movie standards, especially by the time Lord is broadcasting his remote touch of maniacal providence around the world. To say it simpler, this escalating game of chaos is downright weird and silly. At a bloated 151 minutes, it gets exhausting too. There are gaping holes of rushed transition and easily a half-hour or more of loose pillow stuffing that missed the digital shears of regular Warner Bros. editor Richard Pearson (Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters).
A rechristened musical score from superstar Hans Zimmer sounds surprisingly weaker than Rupert Gregson-Williams’ original cues. The enigmatic master’s work is missing the main ingredient, namely the jamming electric cello riffs of Tina Guo, that made the heroine’s signature theme really pop. This is the fourth-and-a-half franchise Zimmer has big-timered and poached from previous composers, taking over after Klaus Badelt’s start on Pirates of the Caribbean, going solo apart from James Newton Howard after Batman Begins, and following X-Men franchise steward John Ottman to do Dark Phoenix. Only two of those grew greater under Zimmer and this isn’t one of them.
Furthermore, the novelty of the chosen time period wears off fast after the first half of Wonder Woman 1984. The pop culture nostalgia is little more than a shallow springboard for cheap costume and technology gags aimed at Pine’s time-displaced love interest. The 1980s setting is also pinned as a semi-convenient source of Cold War-era politics to exploit as a means to make the peril seem more global. There’s a commitment to the bit from a style standpoint, with a Ronald Reagan POTUS (Stuart Mulligan) and all, but not consistency.
Comic purists will hold their noses and also the writers accountable for a messy adaptation where Maxwell Lord and Barbara Minerva are barely a glimmer of their canonical selves. Lord’s con artist is over-tuned and pulls a hammy performance out of Pascal. Too much of Wiig’s bumbling-and-mumbling act practically Xeroxes Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman origin from Batman Returns, removing the tribal warrior bite that her archenemy should be. That’s a damning blame of sloppiness to lay before heavily in-demand screenwriter David Callaham (the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Mortal Kombat reboot, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sequel) and former DC Comics president Geoff Johns, picking up his pen.
Luckily, director Patty Jenkins and her dedication will Wonder Woman 1984 into entertaining success. Given more control, she breaks free from the murky fingerprints of Zack Snyder to make a gleamingly brighter movie in every open lens and coat of paint. With all this new daylight, some set pieces, especially that opener, have some big screen dazzle. Visual effects supervisor John Moffat (the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) shows off Wonder Woman’s amplified powers and animates more innovative Lasso of Truth moves than a PBR calf-roping tournament. The gaze of hero light is strong as top-tier stunt coordinator Rob Inch (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) always has her looking awesome and moving phenomenally.
Thank the Themysciran goddesses that Gal Gadot is as appealing as she is! She continues to build a worthy legacy as this character that many can admire. Once again, her hero’s leading morality and bravery gain our eager affinity. Nuggets of wisdom in Wonder Woman 1984 want to convey that the “truth is bigger than all of us.” Maybe or maybe not actually, but Wonder Woman herself sure is. She’s worth the price of admission. This displaced blockbuster arrives in limited theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service on Christmas Day.