Movie review: ‘Wonder Woman’ sequel starts strong, but sticks around too long

Ed Symkus
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Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) practices some ropin' in a White House corridor.

For fans of 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” there’s something familiar and comforting about the opening scenes of “Wonder Woman 1984.” We’re back on the island of Themyscira, circa 1900, populated only by women, all of whom are as athletic as they are stunningly beautiful, and by little Princess Diana. But this time, Diana’s taking part in the rigorous training and competition with the older Amazons, and the spectacular first few minutes give us bigger, wilder, stunts and effects, along with a couple of messages: Never cheat and always tell the truth.

Then, after a couple of hours of screen-time go by, the sequel again has a familiarity to it. But it’s not comforting. Like the previous film, it takes an out-of-control dive into stereotypical superhero sensory overload, and gets lost amid acting histrionics and visual special effects.

But the middle section merges a lot of fun with a bit of romance, some action set pieces, a couple of very good acting turns (along with an overwrought one), as well as a few moments that will cause viewers to roll their eyes, and a scene or two that should have been flung to the editing room floor.

The first film, mostly set in a 1918 flashback story, had bookends of contemporary scenes in Paris. This one, except for the opening, happens in Washington D.C., in the year of its title, a time noted for an abundance of greed. A TV ad features smiling Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) excitedly telling viewers willing to buy into his company, “You can have anything you ever wanted!” But he doesn’t exactly exude honesty.

Meanwhile, the adult Diana AKA Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), in her colorful costume, is out saving people from veering cars. Or she’s foiling robberies of jewelry stores. Or, in civilian dress, she’s working at the Smithsonian, a specialist in cultural anthropology and archeology. That’s where she meets klutzy and drably dressed Barbara (Kristen Wiig), a specialist in geology and gemology. The mismatched women get to chatting over dinner, discussing their love lives. Diana was in love long ago, “but he died.” Barbara is always in love, but no one reciprocates.

Then a large gem shows up at the Smithsonian. Its pedigree suggests that it has the power to grant wishes. So, when Diana longingly wishes she was still with her long-ago lover Steve ... and when Barbara wishes she could be strong and sexy, like Diana ... and Maxwell Lord enters the fray, wishing for something beyond insatiability ... we’re on our way to a multifaceted story.

Foremost among the many barriers here, though, is the fact that Steve (Chris Pine) didn’t make it to the end of the first film. But there’s Chris Pine, now, conjured up in some other guy’s body, I think. Did Diana realize she was making a wish? I’m not sure. But meek Barbara and opportunistic Max knew what they were wishing for, with results that neither of them was expecting. H involves headaches, sweating, coughing and bad hair. Hers involves a better wardrobe and a long tail.

So, in trying to keep score here, Diana becomes happy, as does Steve, who likes being alive again; Barbara becomes popular, incredibly strong, and develops a bad attitude; and Max, already malicious, becomes downright evil.

Gadot puts on a good emotional rollercoaster ride of a performance. Wiig shows great skill in building a believable, if kind of silly, character arc. Pine once again displays his ability to show off his comedy chops. Pascal shamelessly overacts, accompanied by swelling music and gaudy visual effects.

Referring back to Max’s TV ad near the beginning, he’s now letting everyone in the world have anything they ever wanted - at a cost. In due time, there’s a clunky, too-long, slow-motion-marred car and truck chase; the “appearance” of Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane (cutting room floor material); chaos in the streets all over the world; and a repetitive one-on-one fight, similar to the conclusion of the first film.

In the end, a plot turn that was obviously meant to be a big emotional release feels sappy. Along with that, the film is too excessive, in story and in running time (just over two and a half hours). It stops being fun long before the credits roll.

“Wonder Woman 1984” opens in theaters and premiers on HBO Max on Dec. 25.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Wonder Woman 1984”

Written by Patty Jenkins, Geoff John, and Dave Callaham; directed by Patty Jenkins

With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal

Rated PG-13