A floppy-haired con artist, known for his TV presence in which he pretends to be a successful businessman, gets his hands on the ultimate power, and then when he proves incapable of wielding it, he’d rather destroy the world than acknowledge his own petty inadequacies. It’s a wild fantasy scenario, to be certain, but it provides the satirical underpinnings for “Wonder Woman 1984” to mock the rapacious greed of the Reagan era and its ongoing reverberations into the 21st century.
The film’s wickedly pungent social satire must occasionally step aside for superheroics, of course. And while the reteaming of Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins provides the expected thrills and excitement, this sequel shares the significant flaw of its predecessor: Both films graft an unwieldy and effects-heavy finale onto a movie that had managed to create relatable characters and situations, even when both are larger than life. Jenkins’ two “Wonder Woman” movies are two of the best superhero sagas of the current wave, but they both give way to the verge-of-destruction light show that is so often the go-to third act for films like this.
It’s 1984, and so of course we begin in a mall, where Wonder Woman (Gadot) foils a robbery of a jewelry store that’s actually a front for antiquities smugglers. (She does so while disabling the security cameras because, per “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the Amazon princess has been operating under the radar and off the grid following her WWI adventures in the previous film.)
One of the recovered items makes its way to the Smithsonian, where Wonder Woman’s alter ego Diana Prince is employed. Diana befriends nerdy gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who discovers that, according to legend, the gemstone has the power to grant wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong and confident, like Diana, and Diana wishes for the return of her beloved Steve (Chris Pine), whose death seven decades ago she is still mourning.
The stone is also of great interest to the Smithsonian’s newest donor, the flashy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who peddles oil shares to the masses via his TV commercials even though his entire enterprise is a pyramid scheme. The stone does indeed grant wishes, turning Barbara into a sexy powerhouse, transforming Lord into a financial titan, and bringing Steve back to life in someone else’s body. (Hallmark Channel veteran Kristoffer Polaha plays the vessel for Steve’s reincarnation.)
There’s always a catch, though — when a wish is granted, something else gets taken away, which means Barbara loses her sense of humor and becomes obsessed with keeping her new strength and charisma, while Diana must weigh the diminishment of her powers versus the pain of losing Steve all over again. As for Lord, he’s convinced President Reagan (Stuart Milligan, “Red Joan”) to give him control of a global satellite array that will allow him to solicit wishes from everyone on the planet, even as those wishes sow chaos and push humanity to the brink of extinction.
“Wonder Woman 1984” certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ideas or incidents or ingenuity; Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham have fun with 1980s accessories (fanny packs, legwarmers, and parachute pants, to name a few) before digging into the decade’s dark side, the all-encompassing greed (for more oil, more nukes, more sovereignty over women) that paved the way to the current catastrophes of capitalism and wealth inequality. The film’s themes never get in the way of the characters, as we get to understand Diana’s mourning (70 years seems like a long time to carry a torch, but when you’re a near-immortal, it’s a relative blip of time), Barbara’s yearning for human connection, and even Max’s ambition to make something of himself.
That empathy springs as much from the performances as from the writing, of course; we know that Gadot can be heartfelt and heroic, and Pine can be dashing and disarming, and Pascal can play nefarious, but Wiig gets to dig into her screen presence in new and exciting ways here. Clumsy, ignored Barbara is right in the comedian’s wheelhouse of dorky characters, but her transformation, first into a powerful woman and then into the villainous Cheetah, is no joke. She gives us one of the most fleshed-out transformations from vulnerable to deadly since Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns.”
And even though the film is set well after Diana leaves Themyscira, we still get a stirring flashback in which young Diana (Lilly Aspell, reprising her role from the first film) learns a valuable lesson from Antiope (Robin Wright) and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) after competing against women twice her age in a challenging competition of strength and skill.
The spirit of the 1980s suffuses the film throughout, from Lindy Hemming’s aforementioned costumes (which nail so many of the decade’s looks, whether it’s workout wear or power suits) to Hans Zimmer’s score, which occasionally veers off its grandly heroic terrain to do some fun synth noodling. Gen Xers will certainly feel pangs of retail nostalgia (whether it’s for Washington, D.C.’s New Wave fashion emporium Commander Salamander or just the idea of a mall that could support both a Waldenbooks and a B. Dalton), and comics fans of that era will enjoy the film’s shout-outs to characters like Max Lord and Simon Stagg (Oliver Cotton), as well as the oil-rich nation of Bialya.
Even if the notion of wishes — making them, and then takesies-backsies — isn’t quite a cinematic enough concept to support Wonder Woman’s final face-off with Lord, “Wonder Woman 1984” still brings a freshness and a wit that’s often lacking in these gargantuan costumed-hero sagas. Can’t wait to see what she does in the ’90s.
“Wonder Woman 1984” opens December 25 in theaters and on HBO Max.