Maybe coming across a blockbuster superhero movie after nearly a year of the species’ disappearance from the wild can only result in letdown. Maybe watching one of those big-tent action-fantasy spectaculars on the small screen is just asking for trouble.
Or maybe “Wonder Woman 1984” is the muddled disappointment it appears to be.
I write this with a heavy heart because the 2017 “Wonder Woman,” the one that let Gal Gadot replace Lynda Carter as the face of the venerable DC Comics character in the popular imagination, was a tonic. If it wasn’t the best superhero movie of all time, it was the best one from DC in a while, and watching the strikingly confident Israeli actress step into Diana Prince’s sandals carried nearly the same charge as when Christopher Reeve put on Superman’s cape back in 1978. Plus, it was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and featured enough steely, sisterly Amazons to give little moviegoing girls fresh ideas.
The sequel isn’t a disaster, but it’s a dud. Jenkins is back in the director’s chair and, with Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan, had a hand in the screenplay, which is the prime offender in the new “Wonder Woman.” The nice thing about having an immortal main character is that you can set the films whenever you want, and “1984” bumps the action up seven decades from the first film’s World War I time period while getting off an appreciable number of jokes about ’80s styles and tastes. Diana is now a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian, where a rare crystal has arrived from an archeological dig. It looks like a chunk of tourist-shop quartzite but it’s actually the Dreamstone, with the power to grant the wish of anyone within earshot.
This is good news for fans of actor Chris Pine, whose World War I aviator sigh-guy, Steve Trevor, gets to return from the dead early on after Diana idly wishes to have him back. It’s bad news for Wonder Woman when Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a mousy antiquities expert, wishes she had the power and confidence of her new co-worker Diana. Minerva’s the most interesting character in “Wonder Woman 1984” — a no-self-esteem academic whose admiration for the heroine is spiked with envy and resentment — but Wiig sadly doesn’t have the dramatic chops to make the character’s pain cut as deeply as it might. Anyway, the movie’s busy elsewhere.
Every superhero film has to have a super-villain, but Maxwell Lord, an egotistical entrepreneur with the gift of gab and no money in the bank, cuts a surprisingly underwhelming figure as played by Chilean actor Pedro Pascal. (You may remember him as “Game of Thrones”’s Oberyn Martell, whose fight with the Mountain didn’t end so well.) Seeing in the insecure Minerva an exploitable resource, Lord plies her with romance so as to get to the Dreamstone, whereupon “Wonder Woman 1984” essentially takes leave of its senses. The film’s back half is a globally expanding tidal wave of chaos that asks the intriguing question “What if everyone on the planet could have their wish granted at the same time?” but never stops to ask the more obvious question “Why doesn’t someone just wish for the bad guy to be dead?”
The climactic action scenes feature the appearance of the Cheetah, Wonder Woman’s cat-lady nemesis as far back as the 1940s comic books, but by then “Wonder Woman 1984” has devolved past the point of no return. Gadot strides through the nonsense, the stoic charisma of the first installment intact, and her scenes with Pine’s Steve are the best excuse to watch the film. His playfulness loosens her up and her solemnity gives him gravitas; they’re the Astaire and Rogers of superhero movies, only with the genders reversed.
Is the cluttered thrift-shop feel of “Wonder Woman 1984” enhanced or even caused by serving as Warner Brothers’ first release in its pandemic-era strategy, where blockbusters are scheduled to appear simultaneously in theaters and, for the first month of release, on streaming platform HBO Max? (Both Warners and HBO are owned by AT&T.) You can see the film at a theater if you’re willing to take the risk; I watched it on my home TV and am of the opinion that a movie this overthought and underwritten on the small screen will only seem more so on the big. The larger problem is that the filmmakers put in everything they could find without locating the one quality they need. No wonder this “Wonder Woman” falls flat — there’s no wonder.
WONDER WOMAN 1984
Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callahan. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal. At Kendall Square and suburbs and on HBO Max. 151 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of action and violence).