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‘Wonder Woman 1984’ on HBO Max Is Saved by Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s Sizzling Chemistry

Wonder Woman 1984, director Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her groundbreaking first DC Comics blockbuster, begins with a straightforward lesson: Winning does not equal greatness, Diana of Themyscira learns as a child while competing in an Amazon contest of skill; leaping, sprinting, riding, and swimming to the front of the pack until she suddenly loses her way.

Still dead-set on proving herself and winning first place, she shimmies down a shortcut—then cries foul when she’s plucked by the collar and reprimanded for cheating. “No true hero is born from lies,” her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright) warns. Anyone can cut corners to the finish line, but greatness is earned through diligence and truth. A moral simple enough for a child, right?

But like that Themysciran race course, life is long and hard and lonely. And Wonder Woman 1984 is fascinated by the shortcuts we begin to crave, those easy paths that promise to finally deliver what we feel we deserve. A quick buck, the return of a lost loved one, the power to ensure no one hurts us again—desires that stem, the movie posits, from vulnerabilities even a bulletproof Amazon shares.

For the first time in a long time in a superhero movie, it isn’t some building-slugging titan or irredeemable mortal scapegoat threatening to destroy the world. It’s something realer and more recognizable: our own selfishness and insecurities. And it’s up to us, not Wonder Woman, to save us from ourselves.

Though it never quite matches the heights its predecessor hit, WW1984 is a fun and often emotional experience, if a narratively and thematically confused one (especially in its latter half). It links our private fears to our desires to the seductive consumerist ethos of “Why not more?” then takes a head-scratching turn into garbled geopolitics.

The further it slides toward the latter, the slower its 151 minutes start to tick by. It has other problems, too, including action sequences too reliant on rubbery CGI—there’s nothing close to the stunning physicality of the attack on Themyscira in the first Wonder Woman here. And it’s got not one but two villains whose arcs are forced to progress in lockstep, meaning that one stalls out early while the other one feels rushed.

The movie is graced, however, with a charismatic cast that can’t help but generate warmth in every frame they share. As mousy scientist turned feline supervillain Cheetah, Kristen Wiig nearly steals the whole thing, creating a character you hold at arm’s length even while you can’t take your eyes off her. And as the sleazy Max Lord, Pedro Pascal manages to charm and repulse and wring sympathy, even after his character has little left to do but begin repeating himself (very loudly).

Led by returning stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, the movie’s brightest points indulge in wonder and candy-colored possibility driven, like its heroine, by joy and compassion. Jenkins is one of few directors in the superhero game who seems to recognize that a hero’s earnest, cornball happiness—and not just their triumphs—ensures we feel their heartbreaks, too. WW1984 finds room for both, subjecting its invulnerable heroine to the loneliness of being human and hoping we follow her lead in finding beauty in it.

It’s been 66 years since Steve Trevor (Pine) piloted a poison gas-loaded bomber plane and detonated it above London, saving the city but sacrificing himself. The rest of Diana’s World War I comrades have since passed; portraits of them (and of the ebullient Etta Candy) now sit framed in her sleek Washington, D.C. apartment.

Diana neither ages nor dates nor owns a TV, but spends her free time flitting around the city performing everyday acts of heroism. She saves a jogger’s life, rescues a falling bride, and foils an antiques heist with the breezy comic ease of Christopher Reeve’s Superman; it’s near impossible not to grin throughout.

The year is 1984 and Jenkins revels in it like it’s a jewel-toned playground. She veers from streets paved with spandex and popped collars to buzzing three-tiered shopping malls and arcades, each rippling with a low-level lawlessness. It’s the era of excess and greed, personified by Pedro Pascal’s wannabe oil tycoon Max Lord.

“Life is good, but it can be better,” he booms in some cheesy TV commercial littered with models, yachts, and eyesore suits. “You don’t need a pile of money or some fancy degree to get started. You don’t even have to work hard for it.” A Trump-Reagan facsimile and mouthpiece for our national insatiability, he enables our most selfish impulses on a mass scale, eventually destabilizing the entire globe.

Lord is a dissonant bundle of contradictions. Flashes of his backstory reveal he is a Latin American immigrant, or so the home-cooked, corn-husked tamale he’s seen eating as a child would indicate. (Jenkins meanwhile has referred to Lord as “Spanish,” which is… not the same thing, FYI.)

Bankrupt and desperate to be a “great man,” Lord lies and steals his way to a tool that helps him exploit people’s desires in a chaotic power-grab scheme. He is Trump’s bogeyman, an immigrant scamming America for money and power, while in fact aspiring to the same picture of “success” that scammers like Trump manufactured in the ’80s. It’s a compelling portrait on the surface. Having an immigrant step into a Trumpian role is also, conveniently, a foolproof way of negating the possibility of a real political stance.

There are layers to Lord’s delusion. He faithfully parrots the lies America sells about the opportunities it offers everyone, including immigrants, despite being living proof to the contrary. (“If you can dream it, you can be it!”) His self-hatred and eagerness to absorb the wrong lessons from American culture might have added up to a salient critique of the American dream. But that’s not what we get.

Having an immigrant step into a Trumpian role is also, conveniently, a foolproof way of negating the possibility of a real political stance.

Instead, we get a magic rock. The live-action superhero genre’s maddening addiction to MacGuffins rages on here with an ancient citrine crystal—the scammer of stones! (It’s the stuff fake gems are made from sometimes, Diana explains.) This one grants wishes but exacts a heavy hidden cost; it winds up in Lord’s greedy hands after he swipes it from Diana’s archaeology office, where she works alongside Barbara Minerva (Wiig).

Barb is awestruck by Diana’s confidence and effortless femininity. On a lark, she mutters a wish to be more like her. Wonder Woman herself meanwhile longs for the only thing her charmed life seems to be missing—not the ability to visit home and see her mother and warrior-sisters again. She wishes for more time with her dead boyfriend, Steve.

To be fair, 66 years to an Amazon goddess is probably not the lifetime it is to us, and Steve was indeed a rare gem among men. But the prolonged silence in which Diana sits, staring at the empty seat across from her at a table and wallowing in her single-ness—surrounded by straight couples at a restaurant, no less—is an uncomfortable fit for the character. There’s no wryness or self-awareness to the image, no “Damn, aren’t I Wonder Woman though?” The movie just plays the moment straight, less Nora Ephron than Hallmark Channel.

Still, the plot in which the reunited Diana and Steve kick back and enjoy their retro-futuristic wonderland together is the glowing heart of the movie. Pine dials up an infectious enthusiasm for novelties like Pop-Tarts, fanny packs, escalators, and sculpture art.

And the hushed wonder he summons for the roar of a faraway commercial airliner transforms the everyday sight into something moving and magical. It’s a heart-squeezing reversal of the couple’s dynamic in the first Wonder Woman, in which Diana played the fish out of water. Like she did then, Steve greets every object in his new world (including trash cans) with curiosity, open-mindedness, and humility.

The couple’s fireworks-lit ride aboard a jet captures what makes the Wonder Woman franchise’s idea of a leading man a minor miracle. Diana admires Steve’s intuitive piloting and notes that flight is the one ability that escapes her. “I don’t know how you do it,” she sighs.

Rather than flatter himself by explaining Bernoulli’s principle to her, Pine communicates only Steve’s deep awe. “It’s so easy, really,” he starts—not to condescend, but to marvel at the phenomenon of flight along with her. Steve Trevor never doubts Diana, never tries to outshine her or pretend he can protect her. She has a job to do and he gets that—when he can’t improve her situation, he moves out of the way. You can see why she’s still hung up on him.

That Steve and Diana’s romance works so well is a byproduct of having Jenkins behind the camera. (Ditto the lack of upskirt shots that male directors seem to lunge for whenever photographing Gadot’s Wonder Woman.) Barbara Minerva’s supervillain origin story is also rooted in a female experience, albeit a more difficult one. But stuffed between Lord’s plot for world domination and Steve and Diana’s fantastical romance, it doesn’t quite get the runway it needs for a successful launch.

When we meet Barb, she is all but invisible; even the person who hired her (a criminally underused Natasha Rothwell) can’t remember who she is. Wiig plays up her own gangliness, jittering out dialogue in unpredictable bursts that careen between charming self-effacement and off-putting honesty.

Even in the days after the magic rock (OK fine, the “Dreamstone”) grants her Wonder Woman’s strength and grace, Barb moves like a person so stuck in her own head that it’s difficult to feel comfortable in her body. Still, she can now out-lift every musclehead at the gym, is the sparkling life of every room, and can even pull off four-inch platform heels: she is powerful, beautiful, and popular. But it’s not enough; nothing ever is.

But stuffed between Lord’s plot for world domination and Steve and Diana’s fantastical romance, it doesn’t quite get the runway it needs for a successful launch.

Barb, as she admits, falls in love “so many times, all the time, often.” But until the Dreamstone, she rarely attracted attention in return. Except the unwelcome kind, from male street harassers who stalk her way home at night, barking out come-ons and lewd taunts. She breaks bad after running into the same drunk who tried assaulting her before she had powers—and kicks the living pulp out of him, far past the point of teaching a lesson or simple revenge. Suddenly, she is relishing cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

There may not be a woman alive who hasn’t daydreamed about getting even with the asswipes who demean her for daring to exist in public. But it’s never quite clear why the price of Barb’s newfound power is her sense of decency—she’s neither selfish nor unkind before making her wish. (Doing so is supposed to come at the price of sacrificing what’s most precious about you, we learn.) The accelerated leap leaves a strange hole in her arc. She goes from wallflower to turning heads to being A-OK with enabling mass murder, all in what seems like days.

It doesn’t help that Barb’s story ends on a dud note with an underwhelming debut as the spotted ultra-predator Cheetah. We first see her as Cheetah from afar, in the dark, in weight- and dimension-less CGI in a strangely underwritten fight scene. She delivers not a single memorable line as the new villain. Contrast that with Michelle Pfeiffer’s sensual and menacing first moments as Catwoman, another mouse-turns-cat supervillain, in Batman Returns: “I feel so much yummier.”

Cheetah is the first female arch-villain to battle a marquee superheroine in her own film in who knows how long. Yet Diana and Barb’s relationship, which comes with decades of comics history, has barely begun in the movie when Barb betrays her, so the turn doesn’t carry half the dramatic heft it should. They just never spend enough time together, as friends or anything else. (Barb and Diana’s tragic love story could have gone deeper. The chemistry between them ignites sparks almost instantly; Barb seems practically smitten with Diana. But the movie remains stubbornly blind to that.)

Barb’s story is one casualty of a globe-engulfing plot that at one point ropes in oil speculation, the stock market, and ah yes, actual nuclear war. (Ironically for a cautionary tale about letting our ambitions get the better of us, Wonder Woman 1984’s plot runs absolutely hog-wild.) It finds room for creaky stereotypes about the Middle East (all they do over there is warmonger and talk about oil, right?) but can’t scrape out meaningful screen time for a single woman of color. And the more the plot swells and stretches, the further it strays from the small-scale human relationships at its core.

There are stirring moments of real emotion through all the jumble, though. Lord’s son, Alistair (Lucian Perez), isn’t much of a character—but his tenderness toward his father at the peak of Max’s inhumanity reveals something simple and true anyway. The movie’s final act of salvation, too, errs on the hokey side. Yet there is something powerful in the images of strangers, one by one, choosing sacrifice and selflessness to save others. Maybe especially in light of the year we’ve had.

The movie’s real merit, above all, is its goofball sense of fun. Gadot’s greatest strength as this version of Diana Prince is her warmth and playfulness. Her and Jenkins’ Diana isn’t too cool to boomerang her tiara around a room; to wink at a little girl while lassoing the bad guys; to fight with non-lethal force and run to save her enemies’ enemies, too.

It’s a delight, if hardly surprising, when she finds not one but two ways to fly. The love of her life is crazy about fanny packs. Both her arch-enemies are flirts. There’s more than enough here to enjoy without the Cold War theatrics. Wonder Woman 1984 is at its best when it slows down and lets us relish these characters’ company. At its worst, it unlearns its own lesson: more is not always better.

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