If you're going to make a movie about wish fulfillment, 1980s America is about as good as you can do for a setting outside the Arabian Desert.
"Wonder Woman 1984," Patty Jenkins' time-traveling sequel to 2017's record-setting "Wonder Woman," shuttles Gal Gadot's warrior to the era of Regan economics, parachute pants and "Rio." All have their cameos in "Wonder Woman 1984," a superhero parable of greed and fanny packs with pointed references to today.
Two movies in, it's clear that Jenkins and DC Comics have a thankfully different concept for Wonder Woman as a film franchise. Like its predecessor, "Wonder Woman 1984" is spirited, purposeful and blessedly lacking in grandiosity. And both films place Wonder Woman not under the burdensome heft of world building or even universe saving — or at least Gadot comes across as too resplendently regal to ever seem weighed down. She's more a moral and muscular counterweight to ego-driven male misdirections, steering history through the repeating pitfalls of megalomaniacs intoxicated by power.
Last time, it was German and British military leaders under the sway of Ares, the god of war. This time, it's a struggling entrepreneur/TV personality who, in stealing an ancient gem — the "dream stone" — from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (where Gadot's Diana now works), gains the power to grant wishes. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) goes from deadbeat dad to despot, turning into a conman of mythical dimensions. He's a diabolical genie without a bottle, or to paraphrase Robin William's Aladdin, he's got phenomenal cosmic powers sans the itty, bitty living space.
A snake oil salesman who placates cravings while stealing everything else is, you might say, a touch timely. "Wonder Woman 1984" plays up its Trump critique about as much as it does its '80s style. In one scene, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), summoned from the grave by Diana's own wish while holding the gem, giddily tries on all the period-appropriate clothing like Ken's fashion show in "Toy Story 3." Best in the first "Wonder Woman" were the screwball fish-out-of-water scenes of Diana experiencing London with Trevor; this time the roles are reversed, and the charm a little less.
What does Max's rise have to do with Wonder Woman? A huckster is a kind of perfect foil to Diana, conceived from the start as a force for truth. (Her lasso of truth was modeled after the polygraph, an invention of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston.) Jenkins opens the film with an Amazonian flashback to an obstacle course race on the island of Themyscira where a young Diana learns the value of truth. "No true hero is born from lies," says Antiope (Robin Wright).
The dream stone transforms another, too: Barbara Minerva, a meek archeologist played by Kristen Wiig. Awkward in heels and most everything else, she mutters that she'd like to be more like Diana when holding the stone, setting off a metamorphosis that playfully remakes Wiig's typical screen presence, and creates another foe for Wonder Woman.
As its characters awaken to their powers, turning from recognizable people to monsters, the film keeps changing shape, enlarging as it goes. Jenkins' pop cinema craft is limber and lucid. Pascal's performance, more sweet than sinister, is scintillatingly over the top.
"Wonder Woman 1984" is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence. Running time: 151 minutes. Three stars out of four.