Unlike other superhero fare, this adventure is devoid of cynicism or irony

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

MOST OF THE superhero blockbusters released in the past decade have ranged in tone from miserable to apocalyptic. Several of them showed cities being demolished; others preferred to destroy whole planets. “Avengers: Infinity War” wiped out half of the sentient beings in the universe. Among the smaller-scale examples, “Logan” focused on a character being fatally poisoned by his own metal-infused skeleton, and the Oscar-nominated “Joker” was a riff on the depression and alienation in “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”. Even “Wonder Woman”, which starred Gal Gadot and was directed by Patty Jenkins, had its share of doom and gloom. Much was made at the time of what an inspirational feminist role model the title character was, but no film in which the inhabitants of a Belgian village are gassed to death during the first world war can be classed as feelgood viewing.

Another harrowing Wonder Woman instalment would be hard to sit through after the grinding horrors of 2020, so it’s lucky that “Wonder Woman 1984” is an upbeat, knockabout, primary-coloured joy. Once again directed by Ms Jenkins and starring Ms Gadot, “WW84”, as it is styled on screen, has a sense of humour, hope, and—yes—wonder. (Cinemas were hoping that the film’s release would deliver a jolt of optimism to an industry ravaged by covid-19, too, but Warner Brothers decided to distribute it in American theatres and on HBO Max simultaneously.)

The film’s cheerfulness is so unusual these days that, for a story which is set 36 years ago, and which revolves around an 80-year-old character, it feels bracingly fresh. Yes, there is social unrest and the threat of nuclear annihilation in the film’s hectic last half-hour, but it never seems too serious. By setting their tale in a bright and shiny version of the mid-1980s, Ms Jenkins and her co-writers, Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan, have separated it from today’s anxieties, and restored some magic to the superhero concept itself. In most recent films based on Marvel’s and DC’s comics, you couldn’t move without bumping into a costumed crime-fighter or two. “Avengers: Endgame” was so crowded with vigilantes in skin-tight spandex that ordinary human citizens seemed like rare creatures.

But in “WW84”, as in the Batman and Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s, the populace hasn’t heard of superheroes. When Wonder Woman foils a robbery in a Washington mall in an opening scene, the shoppers are astonished by the Amazon warrior in their midst. Why wouldn’t they be? She is a statuesque goddess in a bodice and a miniskirt who swings from her glowing golden lariat, throws armed robbers across the room and uses her diadem as a boomerang. “WW84” reminds viewers that seeing such a person would be astounding, and being such a person would be quite something, too.

The film is mercifully short of cynicism and irony, even in its treatment of the 1980s. There are people listening to Sony Walkmans and doing aerobics in dayglo lycra, but the movie hardly ever tips into satire or parody. As regrettable as the fashions might have been, the people in “WW84” actually look good. The central theme, though, is that people will always want life to be better.

In the guise of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman works as a curator at the Smithsonian museum alongside the clumsy, socially awkward Barbara (Kristen Wiig). Both are baffled by a mystical gemstone which is brought to the museum, and by the time they discover that it grants wishes, the damage has been done. Barbara has wished that she was more like Diana, and she ends up as a feline supervillain named the Cheetah. A television Ponzi-schemer called Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) has wished that he was an oil tycoon, and he ends up causing geopolitical chaos. And Diana has wished for the return of her love interest from the first film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a pilot who sacrificed himself to save the day in 1918.

Diana and the reincarnated Steve are soon racing around the world to stop Lord and retrieve the gem. But in between the action sequences, which are reminiscent of those in an Indiana Jones film, “WW84” takes the time to show how miraculous the America of 1984 appears to someone who has, after all, been dead for 70 years. Steve is stunned by the clothes, the art, the music and the technology, and his wide-eyed awe and delight are infectious. The climax of this section comes when Steve and Diana fly a plane above a Fourth of July firework display, and gaze down on the clouds as they bloom with different colours. It’s a dreamy interlude which echoes the sublime aerial tour of Metropolis on which Superman takes Lois Lane in “Superman” (1978). It may not be crucial to the plot, but this romantic, reverent idyll will be a balm to viewers in 2020.

The same sequence bears one more mark of Ms Jenkins’s heartening achievement. Comics fans have often ridiculed the invisible jet which Wonder Woman used in her early adventures. It says a lot for “WW84” that it not only incorporates the jet, but somehow makes it seem special.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is screening in American cinemas and on HBO Max and in some British cinemas (depending on local restrictions)

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