“Wonder Woman 1984” is the closest thing we’ll get to a theatrical blockbuster this holiday season. After only one weekend, the film already has the fifth-highest domestic box office ($16.7 million) of any film released in the last nine months of 2020. I was initially shut out of getting a ticket for a Christmas Day screening before the one viable theater upped its number of showings for that day. Never mind the simultaneous HBO Max release, I want audiences (if able and comfortable, and of course following all safety protocols) to support theaters by seeing this movie on the big screen – even if the movie itself isn’t all that great.
Set 66 years after the WWI-era original, the new film finds the unaging Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trying to lead a quiet life. Diana spends most of her time working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian and occasionally foiling crimes as her alter ego. She doesn’t have much of a social circle since friends will probably ask too many questions about her history and no lover could ever replace Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), her boyfriend who was killed in the first movie. It’s like pulling teeth for Diana to have lunch with her frumpy colleague Barbara (Kristen Wiig), who envies Diana’s intelligence, beauty, and suspiciously highly-developed athletic abilities.
The Smithsonian comes into possession of an artifact – a Dreamstone that grants wishes. Diana jokingly wishes that she had Steve back and Barbara sincerely wishes she could be more like Diana. Fraudulent oil magnate Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) steals the Dreamstone and wishes to become imbued with its powers. Now he can grant any wish asked of him, and since the Dreamstone is essentially a monkey’s paw that always takes as much as it gives, he can take whatever he wants from wishers. There are a few rules, like any one person can only get one wish, but basically he has successfully wished for unlimited wishes in his obsessive quest for power.
Diana and Barbara’s wishes took place before Lord took over the Dreamstone, so he doesn’t have power over them, but their wishes still count. Diana is soon joined by a resurrected Steve, and the two rekindle their love. Barbara is soon popular and admired and curiously strong. The two realize that it’s dangerous for any one person to have control of the Dreamstone and Diana, as Wonder Woman, will have to stop Lord. This is easier said than done because the Dreamstone is gradually taking away her powers. She can still yank a padlock clean off a door, but it’s momentarily difficult. Barbara’s price for becoming more like Diana is that she loses her humanity, becoming an antagonist who doesn’t want Diana to take the Dreamstone from Lord. Since she unintentionally got some of Diana’s Wonder Woman powers in the deal, she’s now especially dangerous.
The good news about “Wonder Woman 1984” is that Lord is a pathetic, yet compelling villain. You’ll be wondering how he’ll abuse his power next as things spin further and further out of control. The bad news is that I can’t say the same for Diana and Barbara. Barbara is basically doing Michelle Pfeiffer’s schtick from “Batman Returns,” right down to eventually becoming a cat-themed villain. Diana is disappointingly flat. There will be stretches where you’ll forget that she’s supposed to be the main character, and there are only about five scenes where she’s even in Wonder Woman mode. There’s an arc about how she has to learn to reject lies, starting with an exciting athletic competition, but concluding with her taking way too long to make an obvious decision and then rousing the world with a speech that wouldn’t be very convincing if there weren’t already plentiful evidence that she’s right. This movie has the release date and the franchise appeal to justify a great box office performance, just not the story or dialogue or overall charisma.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence. Its running time is 151 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.