Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t quite the knockout we’d wished for

Wonder Woman returns, and somehow her lost love does as well, in this 80s-set sequel to the 2017 DC superhero hit. While there’s ample action and some enjoyable performances, it isn’t quite the end of 2020 knockout we might have wished for, writes Steve Newall. Some spoilers follow.

Well, I did not expect the first blockbuster film in over half a year to end in a manner suggesting a critique of late-stage capitalism (by attacking the notion that infinite growth is possible without any consequences). Nor would I have guessed that the narrative of a 151-minute long film would hinge on a magical wish-granting Dreamstone, but hey, here we are.

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The big-screen return of Diana Prince has been keenly anticipated since Gal Gadot took centre stage in the WW1-set Wonder Woman, and director Patty Jenkins wastes little time returning to the excitement this character can generate, with a cracking opening sequence. Pitting a childhood Diana against adult Amazons in a complex athletic competition, this sets out the sequel’s stall with some practical stuntwork and appealing big screen beats and goes on to establish a key moral tenet for the film’s hero—that cheating is a shortcut by which we can never prosper.

That’s a notion that the film’s screenplay may have benefited from when it comes to the Dreamstone. Once the initial surprise that the movie is going to be about wishes wears off, and one accepts that characters will talk about this stone and its powers with deadly seriousness, you’d perhaps yearn for other superhero movie mechanics (until remembering how many Marvel movies also turned out to be about magic stones).

Before you know it, Diana and her magically returned boyfriend Steve are solemnly intoning the words “monkey’s paw”, presumably in the hope that all members of the audience will recognise the literary reference that’s previously found its way to the screen in everything from The Simpsons to Rick and Morty, The X-Files, and even… The Monkees. What this phrase refers to is the unintended effect of a wish, ranging from ironic to staggeringly literal punishments. WW1984’s Dreamstone will exact a price for its seemingly unlimited wish-granting powers, a devilish transaction that Diana herself can’t escape.

Somehow, WW1984 manages to make this seemingly simple wish-based narrative confusing long before its somewhat head-scratching ending, by which time the convoluted rules of the Dreamstone have become difficult to follow. Fortunately, one aspect of the film which admirably succeeds is in conjuring a couple of new villains who prove extremely watchable.

Turned up to 11 throughout, Pedro Pascal makes the most of every facial expression he conserved being hidden behind a helmet in The Mandalorian. Dripping in TV commercial huckster charisma as businessman Maxwell Lord, Pascal may start the film hawking petroleum to unsuspecting rubes, but his snake oil-selling tendencies soon find themselves put to better use. To his benefit, and our entertainment, Lord attaches his ego to the Dreamstone’s power, and the ambition and sliminess seen early on devolve into a display of infinite greed and megalomania made to dominate multiplex screens.

Kristen Wiig, meanwhile, avoids some of the caricatures embraced in Pascal’s entertainingly large performance. As Diana’s workmate Barbara Minerva, Wiig enters WW1984 in somewhat familiar fashion as a lightly comical klutz, but isn’t her to predominantly provide comic relief. That falls to Chris Pine as much as anyone, and instead, Wiig proves valuable to the film by drawing on her dramatic chops. Using the Dreamstone to attain the respect she’s been denied, Wiig strikes the right balance between embittered and powerful as Minerva comes into her own, and shares some good moments with Gadot (at least until her lust for transformation manifests itself as a somewhat generic chimera).

Gal Gadot holds her own onscreen against these two, once again a noble embodiment of heroism and virtue. But, in shades of Batman Returns, Wonder Woman finds herself somewhat diminished by her opponents, outnumbered by foes whose stories are perhaps more interesting than her own.

Ample action is in place to entertain those of us who’ve been hankering for a blockbuster experience (highlights include a duel inside the White House, Wonder Woman’s assault on an Egyptian military convoy, and her thwarting of a wonderfully 80s mall heist that had me looking up Commando locations). There’s enjoyment to be found in both the titular 80s setting and the film’s improbable romantic reunion, too, but it just doesn’t quite add up to the end of 2020 knockout we might have wished for. But should we be surprised? After all… “monkey’s paw”.