The first Wonder Woman film was a gust of fresh air for the underdog DC extended universe of connected movies. As a female-led superhero movie that wasn't grimly joyless like the DC films that had recently preceded it, Wonder Woman earned praise from critics and fans alike. The DCEU is in a very different place today, more fractured and varied than before. But Wonder Woman 1984 arrives very much in the tradition of the first film: earnestly celebratory, a blast to watch, and sorely needed.
WW84 picks up almost 70 years after its predecessor and finds Diana (Gal Gadot) living a reclusive life in Washington, DC. She works at the Smithsonian, goes out to eat alone, and dons her iconic armor to essentially rescue cats from trees and stop the occasional incompetent jewelry thieves. And she's sure to destroy cameras anywhere she goes in costume to preserve the bit of continuity passed down by Diana's entrance in the DCEU back in Batman v Superman--Wonder Woman is more urban legend than well known superhero.
Enter Barbara (Kristen Wiig), a new hire at the museum, and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a skeezy TV personality running a Ponzi scheme that involves getting everyday people to invest in an oil-drilling operation that's never actually found any oil. The setup is simple: When Diana foils a mall heist, the Smithsonian confiscates several black market artifacts, including a mysterious stone that attracts Lord's interest, entangling all three characters together and setting off the rest of the film's events.
Of course, one of the most widely speculated-on aspects during the long wait for this film's release has been the return of Chris Pine's character Steve Trevor, who died heroically in the first movie. In 1984, Diana still holds a candle for Steve, in the same way your grandma does for your grandfather who died 40 or 50 years ago--she keeps his picture around and thinks of him wistfully from time to time. It makes perfect sense for a character who's spent the intervening years focusing on her work and not allowing herself to open up to friends or have a social life, and Diana seems content enough in her secretive but altruistic existence.
That is, until Steve returns--seemingly back from the dead, though with a few caveats that make things much more complicated than Diana would have preferred. Even so, Pine's presence provides an emotional core to the movie, as well as a fair bit of levity--watching the actor try to make sense of 1980s men's fashion while Diana catches him up on concepts like parachute pants and fanny packs is one of the film's highlights, and Steve's innocent wonder at a world very different from the one he remembers is infectious (not to mention a poetic role reversal on their dynamic from the first film). You can't help but imagine what he'd think of 2020's America, and you might find yourself feeling thankful that this movie is set in 1984 instead of now.
As far as the new characters, Wiig and Pascal both bring their A-game. Barbara's transformation into the villainous Cheetah takes place gradually throughout the film, and walks a fine line between menace and pure cheese. But the character's humanity always shines through--she and Diana quickly develop an easy friendship, but clumsy, shy Barbara has a hard time understanding why a woman so beautiful, intelligent, and capable would choose to live such a quiet life, and it's easy to see things from Barbara's perspective and understand why she does what she does.
Max, meanwhile, could have been a typical power-crazed supervillain, but Pedro injects him with vulnerable relatability. Max Lord wants to prove to the world--and his young son--that he's as deserving of admiration and success as anyone else, even though it leads him down a regrettable path. Pascal delivers every line with conviction and increasingly desperate urgency, fully selling that it's a path he as a character would travel, while stopping him short of being a cartoonish bad guy.
Finally, what can be said about Wonder Woman herself that isn't already known? Gadot has come to embody this character as completely as any actor has for any superhero in history; for all intents and purposes, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman, and she continues to be perfection in the role. Gadot possesses the necessary combination of presence, physicality, and humanity, and Patty Jenkins' multi-faceted directing once again captures these many sides of her. WW84 weaves in new elements from Wonder Woman lore, and even returns to Themyscira for a fun opening scene in which a young Diana (played again by Lilly Aspell) sneaks her way into an Olympics-like Amazonian athletic competition. And when Wonder Woman fights, she battles with a god-like grace and power appropriate to the character, often seeming to glide across the ground as her glowing lasso lashes out to find its next target.
The '80s have come to represent an era of greedy materialism in pop culture history, and WW84 doesn't shy away from that portrayal. But it was a time of glamour as well--and, most prominently, of American optimism. In the most rose-tinted version of the '80s, anything was possible, a side of the era that this movie captures equally well. It serves to remind us that reality is always more complex than the mythologization that takes place afterward, and Wonder Woman does a better job exploring the good and bad of this setting than much of the '80s-set nostalgia bait in recent years. At the same time, the crowds of happy people at the mall or the museum or a fancy gala can't help but look like an improvement over our current reality.
Wonder Woman 1984 features some cheesy-looking CGI effects and some even cheesier messages. But it's also an improvement on the original in some key ways--where the first movie concluded with Wonder Woman literally punching the anthropomorphized concept of War in the face, WW84's climactic showdown is much more nuanced. The message--that every individual person on the planet has a shared responsibility for the common good--gets slightly muddled in the end, but it's also the exact one we need right now. And Wonder Woman 1984 is the exact film you'll want to sit down and watch with family, friends, and loved ones this holiday--even if you're doing so over Zoom.