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'Wonder Woman 1984' review: Lighter, sillier sequel

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in a scene from "Wonder Woman 1984."  Credit: AP/Clay Enos

PLOT A greedy businessman obtains supernatural powers that threaten humanity.

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

RATED PG-13 (some intense action)

LENGTH 2:31

WHERE In theaters and on HBO Max, Dec. 25

BOTTOM LINE A serviceable sequel, elevated by its radiant leading lady and an over-the-top villain.

When Gal Godot played Wonder Woman in her own DC-Warner Bros. blockbuster, riding on her shoulders was the future of women in Hollywood. Three years later, what's riding on the sequel, "Wonder Woman 1984," is the future of Hollywood itself.

With cinemas nationwide shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of movies have tried to come to the rescue. They either whiffed (Christopher Nolan’s only semi-acclaimed "Tenet") or gave up ("No Time to Die," the James Bond film that finally moved to next year). Bowing to reality, Warner Bros. announced it will simultaneously release all of next year’s films in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max. The first soldier to enter the fray: Wonder Woman.

This is not what "Wonder Woman 1984" was built for. Though once again featuring Gal Gadot in the title role and Patty Jenkins as director, "Wonder Woman 1984" is a slighter, lighter, sillier film than the original. Intended perhaps as an antidote to ugly politics and a nasty national mood, it might still be just the ticket for pandemic-weary audiences. Recalling the grandeur and majesty of the first film, however, it’s hard not to feel let down by this fluffy and overstuffed concoction.

Why the "1984" in the title? The movie is set in the go-go 1980s, as revealed in an early montage of collar-popping preppies and Jazzercising women. It’s a bit "Hot Tub Time Machine" in tone, but Gadot, as the ageless Amazon Diana Prince, makes for a striking contrast. With her classical beauty and regal poise, Gadot really does look like a Hellenic figure striding through a world of food courts.

This graceful and noble heroine will meet her polar opposites. One is a new co-worker at the Smithsonian, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), an insecure and envious nerd. The other is Max Lord, a self-aggrandizing oil mogul whose empire is secretly crumbling. It’s Max who most firmly places this film in the ‘80s with shades of Gordon Gekko and – surely intentionally – a certain New York real-estate mogul. When Max obtains supernatural powers from an ancient source, his health diminishes (veins pop, eyes bleed) and his psyche unravels. He’s played by Pedro Pascal ("The Mandalorian") in a rather startling performance that mixes camp villainy with psychological horror. In this otherwise kiddie-friendly film, Pascal strikes several notes of adult intensity.

What gives rise to the feral villain known as the Cheetah? And how does Diana’s lover, Steve Trevor (a somewhat wooden Chris Pine), return from the dead? The answers will not be spoiled here. It’s enough to say that the script, by Jenkins and two others, repeatedly cites "The Monkey’s Paw," the classic W.W. Jacobs story about wishes and consequences.

"Wonder Woman 1984" is a cut above DC’s usual fanboy-oriented fare but falls short of the first film’s high standards. Was it too much to ask this heroine to strike a blow for women, keep the movies alive and save us all from the pandemic? Talk about great responsibility.

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