But Wonder Woman was, aside from that, very much a conventional superhero origins movie, with little truly original about it. Perhaps memories of it as being more revolutionary than it in fact was, lie behind the more hesitant critical reaction to Wonder Woman 1984, in many ways a more entertaining and smarter film.
In 1984, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) works at the Smithsonian, and fights for justice in her spare time as Wonder Woman (it’s not clear how she this striking woman manages to keep her identity secret bar smashing a few CCTV cameras). However, she leads a private and lonely life, still mourning the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) during the First World War. Her confidence is admired by her ditzy and nervous (and clearly smitten!) colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who longs to be like her. An exhibit arrives at the Smithsonian – a mysterious stone that legend has it will grant any wish that the person holding it asks. Diana, in a whimsical moment, wishes for the return of Steve – and is shocked when a man claiming to be Steve appears in her life. Dr Minerva meanwhile wishes to be like Diana in every way – little knowing her secret powers. But the stone has other people interested in it: it could be just the tool that ambitious, but failed, entrepreneur Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) needs to turn his life around. But is there a cost for all this gift giving? What will the stone take in return – and can humanity survive a world where the slightest wish could come true?
Wonder Woman 1984 has a clear theme: taking the easy path might help you to get what you want, but an unearned victory is never a true one. It’s a concept introduced from the start, in an opening flashback section where a child Diana takes a shortcut in an Olympics race, and is denied victory by her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright in a welcome cameo). Antiope, in the way of all mentors, reminds her we learn lessons from loss and defeat, and short-cutting around failure never pays off in the end. It’s a clear message that being granted your wishes without working for them is empty.
And of course there is a cost! The stone takes from you the thing you value most, in exchange for what you want the most. In Diana’s case – having made her wish unknowingly, in a single moment of whimsy – what she loses is her strength, the thing that makes possible the thing she values most: her ability to change the world for the better. In turn, when Barbara wishes to be like Diana, the stone takes from her the very humanity that made her such an endearing and sweet person.
These sort of exchanges are not new to anyone who has ever read a fairy tale. But they are told here with refreshing honesty, not to mention a certain level of charm. Above all, this simple morality tale works because we are invested in the characters. Even without the memory of their relationship from the first film, Gadot and Pine are so likeable and charming in this film (Pine in particular is a delight, his eyes filling with wonder at the modern era – from a childish glee at escalators to tear-filled awe at the space programme) that, even though you know from the start what they are doing is “wrong” (after all Steve is inhabiting another man’s body, and every audience eventually the hero needs to do the right thing and give that body back), you still feel their joy at being together and Diana’s anguish at the thought of giving up the only (selfish) thing she’s ever wanted.
The same is true for the other two characters affected by the stone. Although nominally villains, both Wiig and Pascal play characters who, if anything, are deeply-flawed anti-heroes. Wiig is absolutely endearing as the gentle and shy Barbara, so much so it’s heartbreaking to see her freeze up as the film progresses. Pascal is hilariously overblown as a wannabe Gordon Gekko, but his relationship with his son is nicely drawn and his character is tinged with an underlying insecurity. Wonder Woman 1984 is refreshing in that it doesn’t present heroes and villains, but ordinary people needing to find the courage to reject their dreams for reality. Some do, others don’t.
It’s not a perfect film by a long stretch. As with the previous film, a final act fight scene lacks humanity and is dull. The film is probably fifteen minutes overlong. The various action scenes are well staged, but lack freshness. Some of the humour doesn’t always land. It’s hard not to snigger at a late act revelation of a new power for Wonder Woman. And while the film thankfully avoids the crassness of the first and its trenches setting, a photo of Wonder Woman helping to liberate concentration camps feels horrendously out of place (it’s meant to show her goodness, but I just wondered why on earth did she wait so long to do anything about the Holocaust?).
But the bad is outweighed by the good in a genuinely entertaining and charming movie whose freshness and lightness exceeds the original. Gal Gadot is still wonderful in the lead role – determined but sweet – Chris Pine does some of his best work and Wiig and Pascal are very good. I’d confidently say this is a better film than the first, a richer character study inspired by fairy tales, that really gets to the emotional heart of its lead character. I may be alone in that, but that’s what I think.