2017’s “Wonder Woman” was that rarest of things in the second decade of the genre—a genuinely earnest superhero movie starring a sincerely likable figure. In a marketplace of superhero content increasingly suffering from hardcore cynicism or obsessed with franchise-building, it was a breath of fresh air. For its part, “Wonder Woman 1984” arrives at a rather bleaker cultural moment, but mercifully, is no less upbeat. Like its predecessor, it trades vistas of cosmic destruction for a much smaller-scale story about human virtue and vice—a daring choice, but one that ultimately pays off.
We pick up with Diana Prince (the infinitely likable Gal Gadot) roughly seven decades after the original film, as she works as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian. An early jewelry heist gone wrong allows the Smithsonian to come into possession of a strange artifact—one capable of granting its holder a single wish, however extravagant. Such wishes, however, exact an unseen price. Diana wishes for the return of her long-lost lover, World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)—who promptly reappears in her life, but at the cost of the slow degradation of Diana’s powers. Diana’s colleague, the hapless Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), wishes to be strong and sexy like Diana—a choice that paves the way for her transformation into the inhuman supervillain Cheetah. And erstwhile industrial tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wishes to become a wish-granter himself, a choice that may have world-destroying consequences.
This isn’t the sort of superhero movie that one picks apart in search of plot holes, or tries to hammer down to fit into a seamless DC film chronology. Rather, like its forerunner, it’s best read as a sort of parable about the human condition (much like the Greek mythology that forms its thematic backdrop). Just as the 2017 flick used the figure of the god Ares to tell a story of war and vengeance, “WW84” uses Maxwell Lord and the wish-casting stone to undertake an exploration of disordered desire, of all-consuming avarice and the horrors that would follow if everyone received what they claim to long for.
Percolating beneath the surface here is a kind of Leibnizian theodicy: the world of truth, the reality we all actually inhabit, is in a way the best of all possible worlds. And in that spirit, “WW84” amounts to a repudiation of the comic book trope that, whether through maximum firepower or clever scheming, the hero can ultimately outwit fate and “have it all.” On this view, a measure of sacrifice—even crushingly painful sacrifice—is necessary to the rightly-ordered life, and characters can only grow to the extent they are willing to acknowledge that fact.
To my mind, this is a large part of what makes Diana a much more interesting lead than last year’s Captain Marvel. One can’t help thinking that Marvel’s screenwriters, in an effort to create a female lead who could be “just as tough as the guys,” wrote Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers to be little more than a snarky, emotionless force of destruction. But that’s not “empowering” in the important sense—it’s not an interesting way to write a character of either sex. Here, Diana doesn’t run from her emotions (she even cries at a pivotal moment), and that doesn’t make her any less of a heroic figure. Quite the contrary: it makes her a more interesting and relatable one.
Fortunately, viewers have plenty of time to get to know her: “WW84” is something of a slow burn (and probably could’ve shaved a half hour off its lengthy runtime), but for the most part this works to the film’s credit. Diana, Steve, and Barbara feel like genuinely realized characters, with motivations and life stories that make sense. And for his part, Lord does some excessive scenery-chewing early on, but once he becomes an avatar of sheer consumptive excess—something like a mixture of Elon Musk, a televangelist, and Norman Vincent Peale—his performance works. Nobody will win any Oscars, but the cast here has rather more gusto than the average Marvel contingent.
I don’t know how “WW84” would hold up on the small screen (I made the trek out to see it in IMAX, but it simultaneously debuted on HBO Max, where most readers of this review will probably be watching it), but in the end, I can’t help thinking that this is a movie that principally rewards viewers willing to be swept into its mood and momentum. Just like its star, “WW84” largely eschews irony in favor of sincerity and earnestness. And perhaps that’s naive in 2020, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s what we all need at this point.