They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, and maybe that’s also true for superhero movies. The 2017 “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Amazon warrior Diana Prince, arrived on screens like a welcome lightning bolt: dazzling and funny and surprisingly soulful. Its action sequences were balletic and thrilling; its love interest (Chris Pine as fighter pilot Steve Trevor) charming; its heroine a rich combination of strength and vulnerability, whose steady gaze seemed to exude love. And it was just, you know, fun.
And, well, to the list of disappointments brought by 2020, add Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984,” arriving just before year’s end. (After postponing its release from summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, Warner Bros. is now releasing it in theaters — where they are open — and on HBO Max.) Maybe this is the kind of movie that needs a massive screen, but on mine at home the sequel felt overstuffed, overlong and a little flat. It’s not terrible, and there’s a cameo at the end (don’t turn it off when the credits start) that’s so delightful it almost redeems the whole thing, but you watch thinking of the original three years ago, and wishing this one were better.
As the title indicates, we’re now in 1984, and Diana is working as a curator of artifacts for the Smithsonian Institute. (Kudos, and a bouquet of cashmere leg warmers, to costume designer Lindy Hemming, who wittily re-creates the ’80s in all their shoulder-padded, blazers-with-rolled-up-sleeves glory.) She befriends nerdy scientist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), apparently not knowing that nerdy people in superhero movies often nurture dangerous alter egos. She is reunited, for reasons it would be exhausting to explain, with Steve; never mind that at the end of the last film he was, in the non-superhero sense, dead. And she faces off against a vicious foe who would destroy the world: megalomaniac businessman/pitchman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal).
Some of this is good fun. Pine, blue eyes and chiseled jaw in fine form, cheerfully provides the film’s comic relief: Steve, new to the ’80s, is fascinated by futons, Pop-Tarts and parachute pants. (“Does everybody parachute?” he wonders.) Wiig, who has a wonderful way of always seeming to be muttering to herself, brings a funny, wistful nervousness to Barbara. The character dreams of being more like sleek Diana; her transformation is gradual — watch the blondness evolving — and clever. Gadot, again, is immensely appealing; somehow managing not to look ridiculous in her new-and-improved Wonder Woman bustier (pity the female superhero, whose exposed skin makes her far more vulnerable to injury than her safely catsuited male counterparts). You believe, or at least want to believe, that this gentle-voiced woman warrior could save the world.
But too often, “Wonder Woman 1984” feels a bit perfunctory; just another massive superhero movie, with little fresh brought to the mix. It’s only 14 minutes longer than the original, but it seems much, much more padded. It should soar, like Diana, but it only occasionally feels airborne. Maybe it needed a giant screen and a big bag of popcorn. Maybe it needed its audience not to be overwhelmed by the weight of an exhausting year. Or maybe, as has been known to happen way too often, it’s a franchise that’s stumbled a little. Here’s hoping it can right itself; Diana Prince deserves better.