Here is an enjoyable Amazonian incursion into Reagan’s America – but the real wonder is Kristen Wiig, playing the warrior queen’s resentful and emotionally wounded antagonist, Barbara Minerva.
It is 1984, that pre-Covid utopian era of big hair, rolled-up jacket sleeves and imminent nuclear war, and Diana of Themyscira is getting her second superheroic adventure in a world dominated by over-promoted mortal males. When we saw this mythical warrior queen in 2017’s Wonder Woman – played as here by Gal Gadot, and with outrageously gorgeous outfits – she had just surreally shown up in the middle of the first world war. Now Diana Prince (she is never called Wonder Woman, even obliquely) is living discreetly as a civilian in the Washington of Ronald Reagan – or as discreetly as someone so resplendent can.
Prince works as a demure archaeologist at the Smithsonian museum, and it is here that Diana examines an ancient stone that has the magical power to grant any person one wish. Poor, lonely Diana silently wishes to be reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) the dashing airman with whom she was once very much in love. But her nerdy colleague, maladroit gemologist Minerva, who has a beta-stalkerish fascination with the impossibly gorgeous Diana, wishes to be every bit as strong as her. And there is a third wisher: megalomaniac oil entrepreneur and museum donor Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who wants more than one wish, so he sneakily wishes to be turned into the stone, to become a human wishing stone, so that he can persuade any individual he meets to wish for something beneficial to his interests. Could it be that Maxwell Lord is a version of Norman Vincent Peale, the positive-thinking guru who was such an influence on presidents Nixon and Trump?
Wonder Woman 1984 kicks off with two colossal and very entertaining set pieces. On the legendary island of Themyscira itself, Diana is shown as a little girl (played as in the first film by Lilly Aspell) competing precociously in the annual games: a daunting competition of physical fitness, endurance, archery and riding – and all alongside fully grown adults. Very exhilarating it is, too, culminating a moral lesson that grownup Diana is to make use of at the big finish. (Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright are incidentally shown here as older, wiser Amazons, but Diana seems to have remained in her beauteous prime for the past 60-odd years.) Then we see an attempted jewellery robbery at a very 1980s shopping mall, which is to disclose the magic jewel, and also lets Diana let rip with some A1 baddie-thwarting. None of the succeeding action scenes has the pure sense of fun that this one does.
So the chaotic, and CGI-internationally located action continues with some very ripe and eyebrow-raising depictions of Egypt. Chris Pine’s revived Steve has to occupy the body of an existing human in Washington, like a ghost, and the idea is that Diana is so in love that she (and we) see only Steve’s lovely chops. As for Diana herself, she sashays about the place with imperious confidence, and the white gown she wears for the museum party scene, slashed daringly up the leg, is a joy.
Yet the scene-stealer is Wiig: she plays the klutzy loser, stumbling around the place because unlike Diana, she cannot handle heels, which are a very important signifier of female strength in this film.
She is saved by Diana from being harassed by a drunk guy, which is the origin of her unwholesome envy-fascination. Her own transformation results in her being miraculously super-sexy, like Olivia Newton-John at the end of Grease – but then, bizarrely, she yearns in the mature flowering of her villainy to turn into a cheetah, as an alpha predator. (I think she looked better as a human rather than a lost cast member of Cats.)
As so often, I wish that Wiig could have been given more properly funny lines but undermining the star’s seriousness is apparently not on – even though jokes are allowed in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. This is an epically long and epically brash film from director and co-writer Patty Jenkins, but Gadot has a queenly self-possession and she imposes her authority on it.
• Wonder Woman 1984 is in cinemas from 16 December.