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Wonder Woman 1984 review – a soaring epic that celebrates love above all else

Patty Jenkins stakes her claim as the most ambitious and earnest of blockbuster filmmakers with this hopeful, retro-inclined sequel

The Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love – as established in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, anyway – are the driving forces of Patty Jenkins’ soaring, uncynical blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984. You’d think that setting her long-awaited sequel in the heat of the Cold War would suggest there’s a chip on this filmmaker’s shoulder – but this couldn’t be a more open-hearted movie, a green shoot of hope in a fiasco of a year.

Set some 70 years after her last outing, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, luminous as ever) is now keeping the greater DC area safe with the grace of a ballerina and the force of, well, a superhero. Reliant on the power of truth and a deep-seated belief in love, Wonder Woman selflessly soldiers on to make the world a better place.

This period of relative calm doesn't last long – though Wonder Woman 1984 thrives on its sly plot twists, so the film's catalytic events are best discovered without any prior knowledge. Still, the basics: when a curious citrine stone is delivered to the anthropology department of the Smithsonian, where Diana and her new friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig) work, the mythology of the gods and the power-hungry wishes of contemporary society align to drive the film’s main conflict. Theft, greed, deceit, vanity, pride and the dangers of a fragile ego threaten to dismantle everything Diana believes in, at a time when the world is also grappling with historic uncertainty.

2017’s Wonder Woman hardly needed a sequel, itself bookended by a flashback device that contained Diana’s first feature-length narrative. But Jenkins’ idea for a second film was brewing long before the first was finished – which now feels like a testament to the endless episodic adventures this hero could – and will – have. It’s more aligned with the chaptered and often changing nature of comic book narratives than the irrational need to spin out one specific timeline into oblivion with rehashes, post-credits scenes, and connectors – the sort that tend to plague franchises made on this scale.

But Wonder Woman 1984 plays by its own rules and has so much more fun for it. Jenkins relishes the aesthetic and political potential of the 1980s, both in the playful, flamboyant design (without over-egging the playlist, allowing Hans Zimmer to do the heavy lifting with his score) and an impassioned response to the giddy and chaotic hunger that made 1984 such a turbulent year.

Pedro Pascal is one of two antagonists, simultaneously complying with generic villainous shorthand (egotistical man wants all the power in the world) while actually exploring more poignant realms. His Maxwell Lord is a divorcé struggling to make his seven-year-old son proud, while also battling his health with a reliance on food supplements. The film also capitalises on the advent of television as a means to find validation and self-fulfilment – which, as we've learned in 2020 with screens filling in for actual human connection – can never last too long.

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Kristen Wiig also proves her dramatic chops as Barbara Ann Minerva – it’s curious just how sincere Wonder Woman 1984 is, to the point where Wiig’s obvious comedic brilliance is rarely showcased – and expands on the idea of loneliness, frustration and vulnerability that inevitably results in a build-up of anger. These are villains who suffer, who were weak and neglected before anything else, who sincerely crave love as much as they do power.

Love is, as in Wonder Woman, the mission and the message here. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, unquestionably our era’s greatest leading man) miraculously returns after his demise in the first film – the how-to of this should not be spoiled – and his supernova connection with Diana glows with affection that transcends everything. Their relationship doesn’t merely flip antiquated ideals of heterosexual gender roles, where one leads while the other cowers. No, Steve and Diana erode tropes of strength and weakness, they are a team: they fight together, they lift each other up and care and protect one another from the very same playing field. Their love is real and strong, which is why the strain they face and the decisions they make are some of the most heartbreaking such superheroes have ever seen.

Wonder Woman 1984 moves at 100mph across 152 minutes, in breathtaking set-pieces that fly high (a poetic fireworks display and a valentine to Superman are impossibly beautiful) and political allegories that don’t even try and shy away from pacifist ideals and a condemnation of our militant, power-hungry world leaders. It’s a dizzying, sometimes overwhelming epic – testament to Patty Jenkins’ breathless ambition and true mastery of ostentatious action movies. But then its heart remains tender, a reminder that your moral compass and the people you hold closest are, ultimately, the only things that can truly save you.

Solitude can be a strength, sacrifice is sometimes the only road to survival. The thoughtful reminder that power is only valuable if it is earned, that loyalty and strength matters more than reputation, cuts through the Hollywood gloss to give this movie great weight and merit. At this point in 2020 it feels trite to label anything as “what we need right now”- but spending just shy of three hours in the company of such buoyant, heartening storytellers gave me some of the most uncompromising feelings of joy I’ve felt all year.

Wonder Woman 1984 is in cinemas nationwide from 16 December.

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