As bold and exciting as Patty Jenkins’ 2017 superhero adventure “Wonder Woman” was, her sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984” (or simply “WW84”) is a drab disappointment.
Gal Gadot returns as the Amazonian warrior turned all-American hero, disguised by day as Diana Prince, working a day job in Washington, D.C., as a researcher of antiquities at the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. Diana also thwarts the occasional crime, like the shopping mall heist in which Gadot’s Wonder Woman makes her first appearance here — which leads to the discovery of a trove of ancient artifacts.
Diana’s mousy Smithsonian co-worker, Barbara Minerva (played by Kristen Wiig) first discovers the power of one of these artifacts, something called the Dream Stone. Barbara learns it has the power to grant wishes, so she wishes to be like Diana, “sexy, smart, strong.” Soon enough, Barbara’s wish is coming true, making her a more confident, more aggressive person — but at a cosmic price.
Diana unwittingly makes a wish on the same stone. Her desire is more poignant: She wants to see the return of her love, Steve Trevor — who died heroically in World War I, as depicted in the first movie. The stone’s magic does its work, and lo and behold, Steve is back, once again in the appealing form of Chris Pine. It’s a delightful reunion, but soon Diana realizes it’s too good to last.
While the screenplay — Jenkins co-wrote with Geoff Johns, who’s built a career within the DC Comics universe, and Dave Callaham (“The Expendables”) — sets up Barbara as Wonder Woman’s classic nemesis, the Cheetah, it also puts far more weight on a less-interesting villain. That’s Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a TV infomercial huckster whose get-rich-quick pitch is a Ponzi scheme on the verge of collapse. Then he gets the Dream Stone away from Barbara, and starts using it in a way that could bring catastrophe on the planet.
Jenkins puts much of her attention into the kitschy 1980s setting, from the mall-centered fashion to its Cold War politics, but the stakes feel less important here than the World War I atmosphere of the first film. It doesn’t help that Pascal’s Lord is a petty villain who feels unworthy of Wonder Woman’s attention — even when the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
What works in “WW84” is the stuff outside the main conflict. Barbara’s transformation allows Wiig to display her comic gifts and a fierce dramatic side. There’s a rousing flashback sequence to start the movie, with young Diana (Lilly Aspell) back on Themyscira, which also allows Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright to reprise their Amazonian roles. And the chemistry between Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Steve is still strong, with Pine again charmingly filling the damsel role and giving Gadot the room to be the Wonder Woman the world needs her to be.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is a shocking step backward for Diana Prince and the DC movie universe, but not a fatal one. DC is sure to make a third installment as the label tries to emulate rival Marvel’s cinematic successes, and a mid-credits scene suggests where the next sequel may go (as well as giving old-school fans a nostalgia boost). The one thing harder to kill than an Amazon superheroine is a franchise onto which a studio has pinned its hopes.
‘Wonder Woman 1984’
The Amazon superheroine returns, this time in the Cold War 1980s, in a franchise filler that falls far short of what Diana deserves.
Where • Theaters where open, and streaming on HBO Max.
When • Starting Friday, Dec. 25.
Rated • PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.