After “Man of Steel” birthed an insipidly dour version of Superman and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” introduced the Justice League via flash drive, the self-contained narrative and rosy tone of 2017’s “Wonder Woman” injected the floundering DC Extended Universe with some crucial buoyancy. Director Patty Jenkins’ first “Wonder Woman” film is a straight-down-the-middle hero’s journey, with an old-fashioned aesthetic that perfectly encapsulates Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) innate sincerity.
But “Wonder Woman 1984,” long delayed by the pandemic and controversially plopped onto HBO Max, is a scattershot follow-up that quickly cheapens this initial take. Swapping coherent themes for a garbled grab-bag of facile aphorisms, the film uses the premise of a 22-minute children’s cartoon as the skeleton for its 2 1/2-hour runtime.
The MacGuffin in question is the Dreamstone, a mystical rock that grants its holders’ wishes in return for a steep, personalized price. Lonely Diana, transplanted to an appropriately garished facsimile of the 1980s after the WWI-era events of “Wonder Woman,” wishes for the return of her endlessly charismatic sidekick and lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Glasses-clad and dorky Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) dreams of being pretty and powerful like her coworker Diana, and wannabe oil magnate Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) fills in as primary adversary with his vague, monomaniacal goals.
The issue with this plot device isn’t really its inherent silliness (where would the Marvel Cinematic Universe be if audiences couldn’t buy the concept of superpowered stones?) but rather its stubbornly bromidic execution. The connection between 1980s-era maximalist ideology and an object that transforms such desires into external threats is potentially rich, but “Wonder Woman 1984” never deliberately elevates this thinking beyond weightless subtext. The setting is instead reduced to candy-colored window dressing, as the film’s script (penned by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham) sticks to an annoyingly simplistic conception of world politics and sweeping, treacly rhetoric worthy of edutainment (“Remember, kids, be careful what you wish for!”).
At least this particular MacGuffin allows for the return of Pine, whose chemistry with Gadot continues to please; a tragically short montage where he riffs on ‘80s clothing displays an easy charm that’s absent for much of the film. But Steve’s “resurrection” comes with a morally dubious caveat that adds a discomfiting mental calculus to otherwise romantic scenes.
Such needless wrinkles define the rest of the plot, which suffers the same overstuffed strain of sequel-itis as “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Multiple diversions into exposition seem to exist only to deaden the pace of the film’s already hefty middle act. Clunky moments of fan service, such as when Diana dons shiny new armor that’s quickly demolished, read as blatant ploys for movie trailer moments and action figure sales.
To his credit, Pascal is the only cast member that truly matches this film’s manic energy with a sweaty, corny and unapologetically committed performance. Wiig shines in the familiar territory of her comedic introductory material, but her portrayal understandably dwindles as Barbara is shunted to the film’s periphery. Though existing comic book storylines explore Barbara’s queerness and position her as a fierce antagonist, here she’s a dispensable B-plot, plodding along a copy-pasted version of Electro’s arc from “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” before being transformed into a rejected “Cats” extra, thanks to reprehensible CGI.
Wiig’s fursona is thankfully relegated to a sole fight sequence — a climactic, muddily staged nighttime scuffle. Most have come to expect shoddy photography from the superhero genre’s boss battles, but “Wonder Woman 1984” proves to be grossly egregious in this regard, relying solely on Hans Zimmer’s dutifully pulsating score to energize its generic sequences. Slo-mo, which added grace to Diana’s movements in “Wonder Woman,” becomes an obfuscating crutch throughout, while several green screen shots are embarrassingly pronounced. There’s nothing resembling the affecting iconography of the first film’s “No Man’s Land”; the film’s best offering, action-wise, is an early sequence where Diana thwarts a mall heist — a cheery, retro intro that at least executes a focused tonal choice.
Diana’s back to her usual tricks in these fights, ensuring a foe that the brakes on their now-destroyed car still work and preaching to the masses with lasso in hand by the film’s end, but these hollow gestures towards characterization can’t overcome threadbare storytelling. That’s perhaps the most frustrating thing about the disorganized and clumsy “Wonder Woman 1984”: it renders everything that made Diana an appealing hero in her solo film — her unapologetic femininity, her compassion, her strength — depressingly inert.