Review: So-so 'Wonder Woman 1984' is not here to save the day

Diana Prince inches closer to the present in this convoluted follow-up that lacks of the magic of the 2017 original

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Be careful what you wish for. 

That's the lesson of and also the takeaway from "Wonder Woman 1984," the clumsy, cluttered sequel to 2017's beloved "Wonder Woman," easily the strongest entry in the beleaguered DC Comics Universe.

Gal Gadot in "Wonder Woman 1984."

"1984" advances the timeline but not necessarily the story of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who in many ways feels like the same character as before, wedged into a semi-modern present. Add in a simplistic sketch of a plot and the wonky return of a past character and the result is far from wondrous, a reminder of the limitations of the superhero genre and the ways its escapist trappings sacrifice key storytelling elements (narrative, characters, dialogue) for empty spectacle. 

It's 1984 and our Diana is in Washington, D.C., where, when she's not taking down bad guys in fabulous '80s fashions at the local galleria, she works as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. There, her socially awkward co-worker Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is exactly the type of introvert who, if given the chance, would wish upon a magical stone to be granted all the power, confidence, wisdom, beauty and strength of Diana.

Well wouldn't you know it, such a stone presents itself, a literal wishing rock that, when held, grants holders the keys to whatever wild desires they verbalize. Ah, but there are consequences to such requests, such is the way of the old "Monkey's Paw" storytelling device that's been a popular go-to for more than a century.

Not only does Barbara wish to be more like Diana, but Diana also wishes for a return of her old flame Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who died in the first film, and — in a plot development that makes things even further complicated — comes back in the body of someone else. But Diana sees him as Steve, so the audience mostly does, too. And since no one's really looking for airtight explanations here, the script eventually shrug emojis on the whole it's-not-really-Steve thing and Chris Pine is free to do his thing. 

Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig in "Wonder Woman 1984."

Meanwhile, also coming in contact with the all-powerful stone is Maxwell Lord ("The Mandalorian's" Pedro Pascal), an over-leveraged TV shill with daddy issues who longs for power he didn't earn and winds up hijacking the White House. (Oh and he also has bad hair, in case we needed a neon sign over his head as to whom he's supposed to be drawn from.) Maxwell grabs hold of the stone and wishes to become the Wishmaster himself, and his power grab leads to global chaos and, in turn, some pained reflection on who we are, the paths that got us there and the drawbacks to shortcutting inner happiness and outer success.   

"Wonder Woman" helmer Patty Jenkins is back in charge, this time both writing and directing (on the first film, she contributed to a script that was credited to Allan Heinberg from a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs and Zack Snyder). The most thrilling sequence here comes at the opening, with Diana-as-a-child (played by Lilly Aspell) competing in a sort-of "Ninja Warrior" obstacle course in her Amazon homeland, which ends with her learning an important lesson in honesty, a message that makes the moral bed of "Wonder Woman 1984." 

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But "1984's" logistical complications — not just from the Steve character but also from Maxwell's overblown quest for power and Barbara's transformation into supervillain Cheetah — bog down the fun of the film's early goings, as well as the leftover goodwill from the first film. "Wonder Woman 1984" is narratively messy and doesn't push the "Wonder Woman" story forward in any significant ways, other than having Di knock off some baddies and getting her closer to present day. And are we really to believe that some 60-plus years after the events of the first film, Diana is still lonely and pining away for her long lost love? Have we not moved past these kinds of tropes? (At least she gets to fly, both in and out of her invisible jet.)

Look, it's been a long year, a year where superhero movies for the most part sat on the sidelines waiting for better days to return. "Wonder Woman 1984" is an instant reminder that these stories, while hugely beneficial to Hollywood's bottom line, are often overblown and empty-headed, and not the mirrors to our modern world that they're often made out to be. At its best, "Wonder Woman 1984" is simple escapism, and perhaps it's silly to want much more from a superhero movie. But it's OK to wish for more. 

'Wonder Woman 1984'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for sequences of action and violence

Running time: 150 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama